How period films turn back the clock on the streets of modern cities

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  • In this episode of “Movies Insider,” we find out how movies and TV shows disguise modern city streets to fit historical settings.
  • Oscar-nominated set designer Rena DeAngelo explains how she aged modern cities for Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” the new “West Side Story,” and a number of other period pieces.
  • She shows us how she would use window displays, faux storefronts and period-appropriate color schemes to make a contemporary New York building look straight out of 1957.

Here is a transcript of the video:

Narrator: Here is Dumbo, Brooklyn, in the opening scene of “Bridge of Spies”. And here’s what that same block looks like today. To make this scene look convincingly like 1957, every detail of this street had to be changed, right down to the font on the signs. It was all the work of Rena DeAngelo, an Oscar-nominated set designer who worked on period pieces like “The French Dispatch,” “West Side Story,” “The Post” and “Mad Men.”

Rene: Here’s a newsstand that’s in every movie. Every decorator in New York has probably used it about 10 times.

Narrator: Rena took us on a tour of Eclectic/Encore Props in New York to show us how she transformed a modern New York street into a 1950s time capsule.

When a location is scouted, the first thing to do is hide things that don’t belong at the time. It starts with taking down the security cameras and swapping all the cars on the streets for old ones with vintage license plates. One of the most important details to trade is any signage. And knowing which signs to put up means knowing its history.

Rene: They used to paint ads on benches in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s. These are great. I would put them in a smokehouse display case.

Narrator: This large tire panel used in “Bridge of Spies” helped give Dumbo an industrial look for the 1950s, as opposed to its current look of high-rise apartment buildings. Many neighborhoods have also been historically defined by their communities, so you would need cultural signifiers, like those Hebrew signs or specific food advertisements. Rena: I think I used Murphy & Ashcom Saltfish in “Bridge of Spies”. When painted by hand, it ages them, as they have not been printed. They are not mass produced.

Narrator: Small details can make all the difference. That embossed text means it’s probably from the 50s or 60s, while the flat text on these means they were produced a bit later, since most cities stopped embossing road signs in the 70s and 80s. The font is also a giveaway. This spit sign looks older than this barber shop sign because this typeface has been around since the 19th century, when this category of sans serifs was more popular in the 80s. Besides font and embossing, the main one thing decorators look at when deciding what fits their era is materials. This means knowing what signs were made from in previous decades.

Rene: Metal. Drink. Probably from the 20s or 30s, because it’s cast iron.

Narrator: Unlike the plastics used in recent decades, which make signs lighter. Signs, however, can’t do much. Some contemporary gifts are literally bolted into the ground. Thus, Rena will cover those who use hollow boxes and barrels. Old phone booths can visually block other modern features. This one would fit perfectly on a mid 50s to late 70s Manhattan street corner. Rena can tell these payphones are from the 50s based on the width and style of the dial. The plastic dial and push button came later, in the 70s and 80s. Strategically placed kiosks can also hide larger goodies, like modern traffic lights or streetlights. She made six of these more contemporary newsstands for the ’70s setting of “The Post.” For a 1950s film, she would take this kind of newsstand and fill it with magazines, newspapers, signs and merchandise all specific to the decade. Fortunately, Eclectic has a ton of them.

Rene: And it’s all real packaging, all of it.

Narrator: In addition to sourcing vintage goods from prop houses like this, decorators will scour the basements of local grocery stores, where shopkeepers often keep surplus goods from decades ago.

Rene: Stuff suitable for a hardware store, beauty salon.

Narrator: According to Rena, the key to making storefronts real is the quantity of products. She sometimes scans this wrapper, prints out copies, and uses it to wrap rows and rows of empty boxes. Decorators also do a lot of research on the consumer culture of the time, especially for a 1950s room, as consumer goods had a lot of influence on the imagery of the decade. They needed to know what people were buying and selling and what kinds of services were offered on each block.

Rene: There was always a shoe repair shop, because people didn’t just go buy new shoes when their shoes were worn out. They were going to have them repaired. So in every street there is always a shoemaker.

Narrator: New technologies like televisions were also often displayed in the windows.

Rene: This is perfect for an electronics store.

Narrator: For the 50s, you’d want that kind of TV, with the bunny ears, or any of those square-looking ones.

Rene: It’s definitely the 50s. It’s definitely the 50s. It’s the early 50s.

Narrator: She used radios like this for the 50s set of “French Dispatch”. Even clothing stores had specific designs for specific eras.

Rene: I would put them in a women’s clothing store.

Narrator: For the 50 mannequins that filled the storefront of Gimbels department store in “West Side Story”, Rena found vintage mannequin heads, which for the women were rounder and had less makeup compared to later decades.

Rene: See the difference in the faces? They just have a different structure and the hair is molded. I would use it in a 50s movie.

Narrator: Male models of the 1950s looked much leaner and less muscular than they do today, so she modeled male bodies on teenage models. Another element tailor-made for “West Side Story” was less glamorous.

Rene: It is therefore a more contemporary urban garbage can, which we must get rid of. These older tin cans are what was on the street in the 50s and 60s. This one isn’t that old, but we made it look a little old by spray painting it. On “West Side Story” I had about 400, because everywhere we went they wanted trash everywhere.

Narrator: But some details are more difficult to replace, such as streetlights. Productions could just digitally replace the streetlights in post, but if you want that look on set, you gotta have those wraps.

Rene: Do you see them here? It’s fake wraps so you can wrap a contemporary floor lamp to turn it into one of these without taking one out of those 70 million pounds.

Narrator: Designers can also swap the bulbs, as in “Joker”. Gotham in 1981 would have had sodium vapor streetlights, which gave off a sort of gloomy orange glow. So the team replaced all modern LED bulbs with the old sodium vapor bulbs just to get the right lighting.

It’s this kind of fine distinction that can make or break a period scene. And with all these details, it can take days or even weeks of street dressing to film just a few minutes of screen time. That’s what it takes to create a time warp in the middle of a busy modern city. Rena: We’ll make 200 newspapers, and we’ll give away 10 props so they have them for people to read. Or if there are 100 people reading, then the props will be 100. And on “The Post,” it was just stacks and stacks of newspapers.

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