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Sets Appeal 

The art of art direction

The fact that virtually no sets were used in the making of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow -- the entire look of the film was created on a computer -- certainly doesn't diminish one's enjoyment of the eye-popping imagery blazing across the screen. Still, with more and more movies turning to CGI to fill in the backgrounds, let's pause for a moment to acknowledge these past notable achievements in set design, all created before computers took over Hollywood.

Frankenstein (1931). Charles D. Hall was as responsible for Universal's Golden Age of Horror as anybody else, thanks to the influential gothic style he brought to (among others) Dracula, The Old Dark House and Bride of Frankenstein. His moody sets for this Karloff classic were employed in subsequent Universal releases, and Mel Brooks even dug the intricate lab equipment out of storage for his 1974 spoof, Young Frankenstein.

Wuthering Heights (1939). Despite its decidedly "English" look, this lavish love story was actually filmed in Ventura County, California. Recreating the period sets (e.g., the gloomy mansion) was par for the time, but producer Samuel Goldwyn and crew went so far as to import kilos of heather from Great Britain in order to replicate the Yorkshire moors.

The Hustler (1961). It was only fair that, during much of the 40s through 60s, the Academy handed out separate Art Direction Oscars for color and black-and-white films. The color recipients tended to be splashy musicals or extravagant epics (The King and I, Doctor Zhivago), while the black-and-white champs skewed toward more realistic, minimalist fare (To Kill a Mockingbird, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). For this black-and-white victor, that translates into a sweaty, grungy atmosphere, as Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) spends his time in smoke-layered pool halls and dingy hotel rooms.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972). Art direction has always been an integral part of disaster flicks; after all, without sets, what would there be to destroy besides precarious careers? This boasts of an especially imaginative set concept (an ocean liner upended by a tidal wave), as the characters must grapple with a world that has literally been turned upside down.

Blade Runner (1982). This Ridley Scott production, a film noir-science fiction hybrid set in 2022 Los Angeles, was hardly a critical darling when it debuted (only later was it recognized as a masterpiece), yet even its detractors felt obliged to toss in a sentence about the piece's brilliant visual scheme. And small wonder: With its depiction of an angular, neon-lit LA, in which the characters' identities are as nebulous as the polluted air they breathe, the film has emerged as a modern milestone in the history of art direction.

Full Metal Jacket (1987). The first half of this Kubrick gem is set in a Marine training camp as cold and aloof as the young soldiers are expected to be; the second part takes place largely in a Vietnam we rarely ever see on screen: a bombed out town, as opposed to the thick jungle foliage we're used to witnessing. Kubrick filmed the entire project in England, with Anton Furst expertly recreating the American and Vietnamese terrains. Between Full Metal Jacket, the 1984 Freudian werewolf tale The Company of Wolves and 1989's Batman (for which he received an Academy Award), Furst had established himself as an exceptional set designer before committing suicide in 1991.

Dick Tracy (1990). The screenplay is about as shallow as a bird bath, but the Oscar-winning visual design more than makes up for it. Veteran Richard Sylbert managed to turn this into a live-action comic book, creating generic, two-dimensional sets and bringing them to life using only primary colors. The result is mesmerizing: When even stairs and lampposts are dazzling to behold, you know there's real movie magic at work.

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