"A Visit to Movieland" reprinted from The Forum magazine, January 1920. This is the 6th of 9 parts. Written by "The Forum's Correspondent."
How 'Sets' Are Built:We went into one of the great sheds, called studios, that had a floor space 100 x 220 feet upon which "sets" could be built. Here stood three walls of a ship's salon, the fourth (non-existent) being the opening through which the camera photographed the scene to be played therein. And just across the studio floor stood the massive oaken walls and staircase of a manor house, and, beyond that, one glimpsed the interior of a "church." At the far end of the studio, carpenters were building Napoleon's tomb in the Invalides--the circular visitors' gallery towering above it.
"First," they told us, "the director, after reading the story, decides what scenes will be required. Then he sends a memorandum to his Art Director. (In this studio, by the way, that person turned out to be a famous architect, graduate of the Beaux Arts, who is known for the Italian studio he built in the home of Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney.) The art director then makes rough sketches of his conception of the scenes. Once these are approved by the director they are done again as finished drawings. From these, blue prints are made and sent to the shop."The "shop" turned out to be a young furniture factory or place where portable houses are built--a large building, buzzing with machinery. Sawdust flew from electrically-driven saws only to be sucked in by great ventilators, depending from the ceiling like inverted bowls.
"The walls of the sets," our guide explained, "and all woodwork are built here--also, incidentally, any period of furniture that may be called for by the specifications of the pictures,"--he dipped a prodigious wink--"yes, we all have our bungalows furnished very nicely."
It was in another studio shed that we saw how the sets were prepared for the players. There they stood, four sets of wooden walls in various stages of completion. Here painters were staining the woodwork the color of mahogany; there, men were hanging wall paper; over there where a set was all papered and painted, interior decorators were draping it with curtains and hangings; while in a last set furniture was being arranged, pictures hung, and knick-knacks placed with cunning eye to make it look "lived in." And the business manager of one of the companies later showed me his cost sheet for a recent production. One was staggered to see that "props" alone, the dressing of the bare sets, had cost $6,333.57; and that the construction of the sets came to $21,271.93--a total of $27,605.50, so that your eye would be pleased by attractive backgrounds. And you, who have been told of the fabulous salaries of movie actors and actresses, consider that in this big specialpicture this total of $27,605.50 had been paid for scenery, so to speak, whereas the total expenditure for performers, including "supes," was but $19,470.71; and that one man, the director, got $15,375--or more than all his actors and actresses, excluding supes, put together. And while the business manager is good enough to let us glimpse at the secret figures of movie production, we pick up the fact that of the $100,000 spent upon this production, 6-1/2 per cent of it was for camera negative, developing and printing, that the hire of automobiles claimed 4-1/2 per cent, that the cameraman and his assistant got about 3 per cent. So it is obvious that the big movie, you may see, drew most heavily upon the producer's bankroll for sets, actors and director.
It seemed to us that the decorator who was superintending the dressing of one of the sets, was using outlandish tastes. A liberal use of yellows, reds and blues assailed the eye, and one ventured if the room was to convey a hasheesh-eater's paradise.
"Not at all," our guide smiled. "Red, you see, photographs black, and light blue, white. Yellow gives a soft gray."