REPRESENTING   - JOHN DECUIR, JR.

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UNDER THE ARCH WITH CLEOPATRA

A SET DESIGN METAPHOR

 I was very anxious to see just how close my sphinx came to knocking over the Roman arch I had built, or the arch to knocking off the head of my sphinx or Elizabeth Taylor falling some 30 feet to her death and or all of  the above..   I was amazed to discover that the sphinx had cleared the underside of the arch as planned by some 18”. So much for 3 months of calculations and record keeping which resulted in the mathematical drawing board conclusion that there simply wasn't enough room for the sphinx to get through the arch, which if proven correct would have been the end of, what some said looked to be, a very promising career?"

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The story begins as I assumed my first “paying summer job”, which took place in Rome working on the film CLEOPATRA. Originally Studio heads…wanted an "economically made $2 million spectacle with `pre-sold names' such as contractees Joan Collins, Suzy Parker, or Joanne Woodward" (Matthew Bernstein, Walter Wanger: Hollywood Independent). However, the film's producer, Walter Wanger, saw a big-budget epic in the making….. He set out to sell (the studio) ….on the film he wanted by first demonstrating the visual possibilities for the epic. (E Lacy Rice – TCM)

 

Digressing for a moment it should be noted that we will tell another story about how  started when Walter Wanger asked my father to start developing design concepts for the film. John asked Walter for a copy of the script and Walter replied…or we don’t have a finished script yet John, but here is a book about CLEOPATRA. Just make your first design sketches from the highpoints in the book especially Cleopatra’s love garden! Well this was the beginning of developing a script for the film that was never complete until the last day of shooting and  327 pages of script later.

 

But getting back to our story Wanger hired John DeCuir, who had worked on such grandiose films as The King and I (1956), to be the film's art director. One afternoon in February of 1959, Wanger set DeCuir's sketches and set models on display for the studio heads to see. Wanger later explained, "They all flipped because it was the God-damndest thing they had ever seen" (Bernstein. (E Lacy Rice – TCM)  Cleopatra was in fact one of the most expensive picture sever made (adjusted for inflation it cost about 335 million dollars). While it received mixed reviews from critics, some critics and audiences alike generally praised Taylor and Burton's performances. Despite the pess that it was a huge box office failure this over the long hall was not true. In factt It was the highest grossing film in 1963 and eventually it earned $57.7 million total, so it squeaked out a small profit given its cost of $44 million. If you subtract the reported 9 million spent in London, al  the film there was scrapped which was clearly the studios doing and nothing t do with Joe Mankiewicz's version. (the films director). It turns out that the film made a profit of 21 million (159 million adjusted) and Rome production and worldwide distribution costs of 35 million (266 million adjusted). A respectable 60% ROI. The film later won four Academy Awards (including Art direction – design) was  nominated for five more, including Best Picture (ultimately losing to Tom Jones).

 

In summary the film in all took five years to complete. Sets for it were built in Hollywood (never photographed) London (photographed but never used) and Rome. Five years was about the time it took me to graduate from a USC five year architectural degree. Hollywood's nepotism was in full bloom and so I was able to take full advantage of my father’s role as Production Designer to secure 5 summer art department positions on the sets of CLEOPATRA both in London and Rome.  

On one of those summers I was placed in charge of the design and construction of the sphinx and the arch that it passed through, as Cleopatra entered Rome. The re-creation of Cleopatra’s  ceremonial entrance into Rome had more to do with my father’s creative imagination than with any historical account of events in 46 BC. (According to the film’s publicist, the replica Roman forum  constructed  was “bigger than the original forum and about a hundred times as expensive....presumably not inflated to 2013 dollars” However the cost for the forum set, if inflated into today’s dollars, would have been approximately 4,000,000 dollars. It was rumored that the construction of the set taxed to the breaking point the available building material supplies in and for miles around Rome.)

 

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PRODUCTION RENDERING - ROMAN FORUM (Possibly rendered by Ed Graves TBD)  

The design plan was for Cleopatra’s sphinx to enter the forum through a “cinematic arch” patterned after a position in the forum where both the Arch of Octavian once stood.  The position of the was based on the Arch of Augustus.  Dedicated in 29 BC, to commemorate the Battle of Actium (31 BC) against Mark Antony and Cleopatra. So in any event we had Cleopatra entering Rome through an arch which would not be constructed some years later and in fact commemorated her defeat. In any event the arch would eventually take up its position in a place cinematically correct for our purposes. Such does cinematic license smudge around with history a bit, from time to time. Also, in that there were no good records of what it looked like, except a rough sketch on the back of a coin, like we patterned the design or our arch after the Arch of Constantine which stands some distance to the east adjacent to the coliseum. 

 

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 Under the supervision of both my father and his lead art director Boris Juraga my job was a simple one. I was charged with the development of the arch and the sphinx and to make sure the sphinx slid through the arch, but not too comfortably. The issue of import here was that it be a “tight fit” so as to create the appropriate scale of Cleopatra’s power and majesty as she entered Rome.  

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The sphinx itself was about 35 feet tall, 45 feet if one took into account the supporting carriage, (about a four and a half story building). The sculpture was then placed on a large flatbed carriage which hosted the staircase Elizabeth Taylor was carried down. This stair extension protruded out some additional 20 feet. This made the entire ensemble about 90 feet in length, a little over 25 feet in width and, as stated, 45 feet in height. This massive lump of fiberglass, plaster, steel and wood had to be designed to “just” squeeze through the arch . The critical part being that we wanted the top of the sphinx’s head to barely “miss’ scraping the underside of the arch.

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We decided that about an 18” clearance between the top of the sphinx’s head and the underside of the arch was to be the goal. Having just completed a course on tolerances in my architectural studies, I was keen on applying what I had learned to be sure the sphinx and arch (both built from scratch) met this "closure" challenge. The objective was to maintain separation at about 3% of the total height of the sculpture. This seemed daring enough, considering all the things that could go wrong. Of course they did go wrong. The following is a list of just a few of the mishaps we encountered along the way and how they slowly but surely reduced the available free space between the sphinx's head and the underside of the arch. These "unexpected occurrences" may help demonstrate how not attending to tolerances can ruin your day.

 

Reduction in Clearance Between Arch & Sphinx

Inches

Errors in scaling up the full size casts from the small clay model (maquette)

4

Opportunistically using available carriage axels

2

Wheel Construction increase in size

3

Error in inside arch measurement

4

Settling of the Arch due to poor soil conditions

5

18

 It seemed that my first significant assignment in film design was about to prove to be my last. At the end of a summer's work my calculations all pointed to the fact that the clearing between the top of the sphinx’s head  and the underside of the arch was ‘zero”.  Needless to say I didn’t sleep well the night before the scheduled shoot. I reported the issue to Boris, my boss, who seemed to shrug it off. This I thought was rather too cavalier considering one of the world’s highest paid film actresses was riding on my creation. If the sphinx hit the arch and sent it topping over, well it was an unbearable thought. 

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The day of the shoot a "one take only" was scheduled. this was reenactment of the famous Cecile B De mille story, “Any time your ready CB” (that being such a  well trodden movie story we will only present it for our new students.) Somehow I managed not to head for the airport. Bravely, I forced myself to show up for the shoot.

It was not a matter of small import in the design of the film. (Not to mention  that my father and I spent several beautiful days on a beach near Encinitas, Mexico story boarding the sequence in full color – but that is yet another story). Point in fact no expense was spared in the filming of this scene, which is replete with racing chariots, archers, magicians, dancing girls, African dancers, and exotic animals, each performance more lavish than the last. Three hundred slaves rhythmically pull the massive sphinx as crowds of senators, senators’ wives, and Roman citizens watch in awe. Cleopatra, along with her son, Caesarian, make their entrance perched grandly atop this float, clad in garments woven with gold. Cinematically, most of scene is shot straight on with the arch in full view. As Cleopatra’s float draws through the arch, the camera angle gets lower and the Pharaoh’s head almost overtakes the arch in the frame. This moment foreshadows Cleopatra’s intention to overtake the world by seducing Rome’s greatest leaders. (1)

With the dancing girls and Nubian warriors in full action the sphinx approached the arch. I closed my eyes. When I opened them the sphinx had cleared the arch with no untoward incidents. This was followed by another triumph as Elizabeth was successfully carried down from her position atop the sphinx to the feet of Caesar. Riding on that gimbaled contraption scarred her to death, descending from what amounted to a two story building. But Liz was a trooper and the day was a great “one take” multi camera success. There were no shouts of …“Any Time your ready Mr. Mankiewitz”.

In conclusion, I was very anxious to see the dailies to see just how close my sphinx came to knocking over the arch.  While it was close I was amazed that the sphinx had cleared the underside of the arch as planned by some 18”. I remember thinking, so much for all my mathematical calculations and record keeping. I remember leaving the screening room and Boris patting me on the back and congratulating me on a job well done. It was only several nights later, at a rather ribald party and after several liters of wine had been passed around, that the truth came out. It seemed that my Italian counterparts were about to take no chances. So, late one night, they re-measured and removed the paving stones under the arch, graded the road bed down some 18 inches and replaced the paving stones. This in effect lowered the roadbed so that the sphinx and its carriage cleared the arch by the originally intended amount. 

I would have been furious at the deceit but who can be too angry when rescued from the jaws of defeat by good friends. A little more wine flowed and we all went home to rest up for the next design challenge that faced us as we headed out for the Island of Malta and the reenactment of the Battle of Actium and Cleopatra’s barge.

 

DESIGN ISSUES

 

Pragmatically driven, left brain sets, are the bread and butter of most set designers. As such they need to assemble research books on the architecture of the period, put together appropriate color swatches and in general build a volume of evidence that their design choices are good ones. But, I am going to suggest that moving up from set design to Production Design you must be vigilant and on the lookout for narrative driven narrative set. These "right brain opportunities  will move your work to the dramatically unexpected. This discussion rests on the axiom that"  

” SET DESIGNERS DESIGN SETS, PRODUCTION DESIGNERS CREATE NARRATIVE DRIVEN ENVIRONMENTS.”  

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Buried in the story we have been discussing on the design and construction of the Roman Forum and Cleopatra’s Sphinx is a design lesson I would like to probe into a little further. This story is a good set to use as we examine film set functions in the area of what I refer to as left brain right brain set issues. In this respect there are two important design fundamentals in use in the design of this set.  

First is the issue of the designers role in creating back story that may not necessarily scripted.

While Cleopatra's entrance into Rome was always scripted the methodology and circumstances of that entrance were 100% a the designers invention. Presentation boards were created, the idea sold to the director and the changes were entered into the script. The importance of this is to emphasize that much of the “biosphere” that surrounds the narrative set is unwritten and can lead to design elements in the film that were purely created out of back story invented by the designer.  

Second is the issue of designing with metaphors.

Metaphors are an incredibly strong design tool. The metaphoric circumstances surrounding the sphinx, one of the greatest symbols of Egyptian power, penetrating the greatest symbol of Roman power, the arch is both symbolic and sexual. The reversal of roles making the female queen the penetrate-or is a serious challenge to Rome’s masculinity.  

These two areas are two significant design processes demonstrate the separation in roles between the work of the set designer-art director and that of the production designer. The later bringing both back story and metaphor to the design story telling process. This right brain, "production design" challenge shows how the more ontological pieces and parts of set building can be driven by creative intuition to make a discernable move from art direction into the realm of production design.  

In my internet class DESIGN4FILM we also establish three types of sets:

a. THE PLACE HOLDER SET

b. THE THEMATIC REINFORCEMENT SET

C. THE NARRATIVE METAPHOR SET.

Cleopatra’s entrance into Rome is a solid example of the second set type, THE THEMATIC REINFORCEMENT SET and a classic example of the third type of set or THE NARRATIVE METAPHOR SET. In class I spend time on what I refer to as RIGHT BRAIN SETS. These are sets that do a great deal more than create a passive background or act as a PLACE HOLDER for the dialogue to play out in. RatherRIGHT BRAIN SETS create a metaphoric narrative environment that drives the story forward.  In contrast a LEFT BRAIN SET (either THE PLACE HOLDER SET or THE THEMATIC REINFORCEMENT SET) are sets that does little more than supply the logical demands of what is called for in the script, be that a kitchen to play out a family scene or a gas station where a pit stop is required. On the other hand the RIGHT BRAIN SET contributes to the narrative by telling story using visual elements as a substitute to narrative description.  

Another good example are Hitchcock’s fight sequences in his films, Saboteur and North by Northwest. Here the protagonists are struggling over the great sculptures of the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore.  In Saboteur what better place to play out the finale of a spy story than atop the greatest symbol of American Liberty and freedom than the Statue of Liberty.  

(As side note my father was the matte artists for Saboteur and responsible for painting the statue of Liberty sequence as demonstrated in the images below.)

 

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MATTE SHOT RENDERINGS FOR HITCHCOCK'S SABOTEUR BY JOHN DECUIR SR.

In conclusion, moving from art direction and set design into the world of production design we need to look at the tasks of; creating unwritten back story, brining that back story to the screen through visual either thematic or metaphoric sets. I would assert the Roman Forum and Cleopatra’s entry into Rome merits RIGHT BRAIN SET status. It is a powerful symbol of Egypt’s intercourse with the Roman Empire, making a statement of Egyptian power, while penetrating the Roman Empire. Were there sexual overtones in this design? They seem hard to ignore. In any event the challenge was to make the sphinx as large as possible, challenging the size of the arch thereby reinforcing the majesty and imposing power of Cleopatra entering Rome.

 

(1) THE ARCH IN FILM  ( ronakarinrebecca )