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The Daily Bruin (26/Nov/2002) - Bumstead gives talk on art direction, Vertigo

(c) The Daily Bruin (26/Nov/2002)

Bumstead gives talk on art direction, ‘Vertigo’

Winning artist discusses creation of sets for film, past work with Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock’s spirit visited UCLA’s James Bridges Theater last Sunday night.

At least it felt that way with legendary art director Henry Bumstead in attendance to speak about his work on “Vertigo,” one of four films in which he collaborated with the so-called Master of Suspense.

The screening and subsequent question and answer session with Bumstead and production designer Tom Walsh capped off the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s “The Art of Hollywood” series, a retrospective of memorable achievements in Hollywood production design.

Bumstead was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on “Vertigo” and went on to win two Oscars for his later production design on “The Sting” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He began working in the industry as a contract designer at Paramount Studios in 1937. Bumstead has spent the past decade collaborating with Clint Eastwood and received his fourth Oscar nomination for his production design on “Unforgiven.”

“Vertigo,” which is considered by many to be one of Hitchcock’s most accomplished films, is notable for drawing elements from its Bay Area setting to conjure up the mood and tone of the film. As art director, Bumstead selected locations that would serve to represent both the metropolitan sophistication of modern San Francisco and the deteriorating legacy of its Spanish-styled past.

But appearances can be deceptive: although some exteriors for the film were shot in San Francisco, the bulk of shooting took place on soundstages at Universal Studios here in Los Angeles.

“The equipment was so big back then, if you ever see a room that appears real-sized, you can be almost sure it’s a set,” Walsh said. “They had to take the walls out in order to get the camera in.”

Hitchcock, who once claimed that he never needed to look into the camera because he already knew what he would see, was infamous for exerting unprecedented control as a director.

“You couldn’t get Hitch out on location,” Bumstead said. “He liked to work in the comfort of a stage. Practically everything he shot was a set.”

Though Hitchcock preferred to leave the location scouting up to his art director, he briefly visited Bumstead in San Francisco while exteriors for “Vertigo” were being chosen.

“He asked me how I expected him to get performances out of his actors in this cold,” Bumstead said. “You always left room on the set for his car to drive in. He’d get out and walk three steps to the director’s chair.”

However, there was one location that Hitchcock himself specified.

“He was very adamant that from Jimmy Stewart’s apartment you should be able to see Coit Tower,” Bumstead said. “When I asked why, he said, ‘It’s a phallic symbol.’”

Employing a method known as process shooting (similar to today’s blue screen technique) the exteriors shot on location were projected onto a screen arranged behind the actors on a set. In a famous shot, a 360-degree moving shot around the embracing lovers (James Stewart and Kim Novak) was created with multiple process shots in rear-projection behind the rotating stage the lovers stood on.

“This is all old-time stuff compared to what they can do now with computer graphics,” Bumstead said.

The production designer works closely with the cinematographer, set decorator and costume designer to create the look of a film. Bumstead, who suggested using brown tones to give “The Sting” its old-fashioned look, had less in mind when planning the color of “Vertigo.” Someone in the audience suggested the importance of green linked to the film’s title, whose root, he said, is “vert,” or green in French.

“I got letters from all over the world with theories about what each color was supposed to mean,” Bumstead said. “I guess I just hit it lucky. I had no theory; I just painted things the way I thought they should be.”

Bumstead also discussed the legendary “Vertigo” shot. The shot was created by constructing a model of the inside of the tower and simultaneously zooming in while tracking back. The resulting effect is the visual equivalent of the main character’s fear of heights.

The one filmmaking myth that Bumstead did not dispel was how much he loves his job.

“It’s sure been a wonderful life for me,” said Bumstead. “I envy all of you who are studying to be filmmakers. What a wonderful career it is.”