04

April-
May

2018

Serhiy Yakutovych. Compositing. From the series Film is Shot. 1981, etching, aquatint.
From the Yakutovych family archive

Cinematograph

What Is Like to Be Art Director?

An art director in cinema is one of those professions that always remain “behind the scenes” and unnoticed. Even more so: they say that the less decorations catch the eye, the more they merge with the atmosphere and are absorbed into the film’s reality – the better an artist coped with the task. The art director’s visual production is not that easy to distinguish from the work of a director, cinematographer, editor, make-up artist or a costume designer.

However, without an art director it is almost impossible to make a complete film out of the numerous images. An art director is involved in many areas of the teamwork, and the fact how well they deal with them influences the success of a director, cinematographer, actors and other participants of the motion-picture process.

So what exactly an art director does?

01 Working
with Location
02 Studying Epoch or Country
where Plot Develops
04 Looking for Contractors and
Staying within Budget

Most directors and cinematographers need detailed storyboards from art directors that they can work with and accurately reproduce scenes from. Improvisation is also possible but it is more common in independent films with smaller audience.

Sometimes art directors work not only with the film’s visual concept but characters as well. First of all, an art director is closely connected with a costume designer and a make-up artist – sometimes their work cannot be distinguished from one another at all. Secondly, actors themselves need to grow accustomed to the film’s atmosphere created by art directors. Moreover, sometimes it is the film artists that help with plot deviations regarding the actor’s role. For instance, Serhiy Yakutovych had the following experience:

“There is a scene in the film where Taras Bulba kills his son. So Bohdan Stupka who was the lead actor refused to be a part of it. He told us to shoot behind the body-double’s back, he said he was not going to kill the son. I started thinking how we could show this episode. I proposed that Bohdan Stupka should knee by Andriy’s body after the sentenced had been executed. However, it was pretty hard to do this trick holding a 10 kg rifle. All the team members, all covered in grass and hay, took turns to groan on the loan trying to knee, when Bohdan Stupka came out of the tent. “What are you doing?”, he asked frowning. We told him about our variant of the scene. “We need to try”, he agreed and then he kneed in such a refined manner at the first attempt – he simply slipped down along the rifle. This scene would later become one of the strongest in the whole movie.”

Serhiy Yakutovych on the shooting of Taras Bulba
Source

«Illienko was telling me all the time: “What are you doing, this is not art, all of this will be destroyed and burned tomorrow.” I did not agree with many things in the script. But I told myself that I’m not interested in any of it. An art director is usually only mediator, preparation material. But I saw that Illienko needed my energy. I came to my studio at 8 A.M., Illienko was already waiting for me there and told me his ideas he came up with last night. And I told him mine. There were no raw drawings, we made a few sketches with a ball pen, he signed them. And the next day he asked me what to do with it. That happened very often. Only half the things made it into the film, and even less material was included in the final variant of the film which lasted three hours.”

Serhiy Yakutovych on the shooting of Prayer for Hetman Mazepa
Source

It was a common situation when a big part of work was done with the realization that it might never appear in the final result. However, sometimes art directors were engaged in editing where they had the opportunity to control the process. This, for instance, was the case with Heorhiy Yakutovych in the film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors – the archive preserved the editing scripts that were processed by the artist as well.

03 Creating Storyboards and
Thinking through Characters’ Images
05 Understanding that
Most Work Will Not Be
Included in Film

Before actors and cameramen arrived at the shooting location and started actually working on the film, other team members had done some finicky job. Many tasks were on an art director: visit the chosen locations, examine the best areas for shooting, make sketches and storyboards for a cinematographer and a director. They also often performed some managerial functions: making arrangements with residents or the local government, finding the necessary buildings or other architectural erections where film’s characters would “live.”

There is a list of tasks from the shooting of Taras Bulba that Serhiy Yakutovych received from the director. Here are some of its items:

  1. Together with the cinematographer determine the exact location and scheme of Taras’ farmstead in order to show the construction area to the master builder.
  2. Find a person to design a ferry – a serious engineering construction. It would better to find one in Zaporizhzhia to control the construction process. Draw a ferry sketch.
  3. Measure window openings in the Khotyn Fortress. If it is possible, order windows them in Ukraine.
  4. Draw the interior of Taras’ house (sabres, whips, bird nets, fishing nets, guns etc) – as it was hung.

Working with the location was not, of course, limited to technical aspects only. The art director’s working conditions were usually determined by the team and the director’s principles. For instance, with the films Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and Prayer for Hetman Mazepa, the cameramen did not need that many storyboards from set designers, they acted more by their own instincts or director’s instructions. While in Taras Bulba almost all scenes were drawn by the artist before the cameraman even started shooting.

To create visual images, artists must become true explorers of the time and space where a narrative unwinds. Every small detail – that of the interior, architectural ensemble, character’s personal belongings, firearm or costume – was crucial in the general harmony of the historical and cultural atmosphere. Mise en scenes, especially those of combat formations, also required a thorough approach. So, to explain all these things to decorators, cameramen, make-up artists, costume designers and actors, one had to plunge into and study in depth the context in general.

Far from every detail was described in written and graphic documents, especially from the periods of the Middle Ages or somewhat marginalized (for a long time) Cossack formations. That is why an art director was forced to come up with a lot of entourage on their own. So that an idea did not appear an irrational fantasy, it was necessary to feel, analyze and understand the logic of an epoch – which is much harder than dealing with separate facts.

Heorhiy Yakutovych, when working on the film Zakhar Berkut in the 1970s, used the documents dating back to Kyivan Rus that he would later also use when designing books – The Tale of Past Years or The Tale of Igor’s Campaign. His close ones recollected that Heorhiy at that time could cite the chronicles for hours – he was that deep into it.

Sometimes directors themselves identified the problems for art directors to address. For example, here are several questions from Vladimir Bortko’s letter that Serhiy Yakutovych had to study for Taras Bulba:

  1. How did inns look like?
  2. What was in the Kosh otaman’s house?
  3. What heraldic coats of arms were on the war leader’s house?

All artists’ intentions had to be feasible within both a specific country and a budget. That is why money and labour recourses were constant limitations of creative ideas. In some regions, it was impossible to order a certain service (for example, construction of a highly technological mechanism or reconstruction of complicated entourage or fabrics), and techniques that had been common in the West for a long time were often not mastered by local specialists. So an art director had, first of all, answer the questions “Who can do it?” and “How much does it cost?”, and only then other plans could be approved.

An art director, of course, did not work alone all the time: there could be assistants, set decorators, second and third art directors. However, the number of “accessories” majorly depended on the scale of a film – sometimes you had to cope with everything yourself.

“But I had to do a lot on my own: I did not only paint decorations, I also helped with the shooting, created some costumes. Although I wasn’t officially in the staff. At the end, Illienko asked me what was my role. As we conceived this movie together, I told him I was the production designer of the project.”

Serhiy Yakutovych on the shooting of Prayer for Hetman Mazepa
Source

01 Working
with Location

Before actors and cameramen arrived at the shooting location and started actually working on the film, other team members had done some finicky job. Many tasks were on an art director: visit the chosen locations, examine the best areas for shooting, make sketches and storyboards for a cinematographer and a director. They also often performed some managerial functions: making arrangements with residents or the local government, finding the necessary buildings or other architectural erections where film’s characters would “live.”

There is a list of tasks from the shooting of Taras Bulba that Serhiy Yakutovych received from the director. Here are some of its items:

  1. Together with the cinematographer determine the exact location and scheme of Taras’ farmstead in order to show the construction area to the master builder.
  2. Find a person to design a ferry – a serious engineering construction. It would better to find one in Zaporizhzhia to control the construction process. Draw a ferry sketch.
  3. Measure window openings in the Khotyn Fortress. If it is possible, order windows them in Ukraine.
  4. Draw the interior of Taras’ house (sabres, whips, bird nets, fishing nets, guns etc) – as it was hung.

Working with the location was not, of course, limited to technical aspects only. The art director’s working conditions were usually determined by the team and the director’s principles. For instance, with the films Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and Prayer for Hetman Mazepa, the cameramen did not need that many storyboards from set designers, they acted more by their own instincts or director’s instructions. While in Taras Bulba almost all scenes were drawn by the artist before the cameraman even started shooting.

02 Studying Epoch or Country
where Plot Develops

To create visual images, artists must become true explorers of the time and space where a narrative unwinds. Every small detail – that of the interior, architectural ensemble, character’s personal belongings, firearm or costume – was crucial in the general harmony of the historical and cultural atmosphere. Mise en scenes, especially those of combat formations, also required a thorough approach. So, to explain all these things to decorators, cameramen, make-up artists, costume designers and actors, one had to plunge into and study in depth the context in general.

Far from every detail was described in written and graphic documents, especially from the periods of the Middle Ages or somewhat marginalized (for a long time) Cossack formations. That is why an art director was forced to come up with a lot of entourage on their own. So that an idea did not appear an irrational fantasy, it was necessary to feel, analyze and understand the logic of an epoch – which is much harder than dealing with separate facts.

Heorhiy Yakutovych, when working on the film Zakhar Berkut in the 1970s, used the documents dating back to Kyivan Rus that he would later also use when designing books – The Tale of Past Years or The Tale of Igor’s Campaign. His close ones recollected that Heorhiy at that time could cite the chronicles for hours – he was that deep into it.

Sometimes directors themselves identified the problems for art directors to address. For example, here are several questions from Vladimir Bortko’s letter that Serhiy Yakutovych had to study for Taras Bulba:

  1. How did inns look like?
  2. What was in the Kosh otaman’s house?
  3. What heraldic coats of arms were on the war leader’s house?
03 Creating Storyboards and
Thinking through Characters’ Images

Most directors and cinematographers need detailed storyboards from art directors that they can work with and accurately reproduce scenes from. Improvisation is also possible but it is more common in independent films with smaller audience.

Sometimes art directors work not only with the film’s visual concept but characters as well. First of all, an art director is closely connected with a costume designer and a make-up artist – sometimes their work cannot be distinguished from one another at all. Secondly, actors themselves need to grow accustomed to the film’s atmosphere created by art directors. Moreover, sometimes it is the film artists that help with plot deviations regarding the actor’s role. For instance, Serhiy Yakutovych had the following experience:

“There is a scene in the film where Taras Bulba kills his son. So Bohdan Stupka who was the lead actor refused to be a part of it. He told us to shoot behind the body-double’s back, he said he was not going to kill the son. I started thinking how we could show this episode. I proposed that Bohdan Stupka should knee by Andriy’s body after the sentenced had been executed. However, it was pretty hard to do this trick holding a 10 kg rifle. All the team members, all covered in grass and hay, took turns to groan on the loan trying to knee, when Bohdan Stupka came out of the tent. “What are you doing?”, he asked frowning. We told him about our variant of the scene. “We need to try”, he agreed and then he kneed in such a refined manner at the first attempt – he simply slipped down along the rifle. This scene would later become one of the strongest in the whole movie.”

Serhiy Yakutovych on the shooting of Taras Bulba
Source

04 Looking for Contractors and
Staying within Budget

All artists’ intentions had to be feasible within both a specific country and a budget. That is why money and labour recourses were constant limitations of creative ideas. In some regions, it was impossible to order a certain service (for example, construction of a highly technological mechanism or reconstruction of complicated entourage or fabrics), and techniques that had been common in the West for a long time were often not mastered by local specialists. So an art director had, first of all, answer the questions “Who can do it?” and “How much does it cost?”, and only then other plans could be approved.

An art director, of course, did not work alone all the time: there could be assistants, set decorators, second and third art directors. However, the number of “accessories” majorly depended on the scale of a film – sometimes you had to cope with everything yourself.

“But I had to do a lot on my own: I did not only paint decorations, I also helped with the shooting, created some costumes. Although I wasn’t officially in the staff. At the end, Illienko asked me what was my role. As we conceived this movie together, I told him I was the production designer of the project.”

Serhiy Yakutovych on the shooting of Prayer for Hetman Mazepa
Source

05 Understanding that
Most Work Will Not Be
Included in Film

«Illienko was telling me all the time: “What are you doing, this is not art, all of this will be destroyed and burned tomorrow.” I did not agree with many things in the script. But I told myself that I’m not interested in any of it. An art director is usually only mediator, preparation material. But I saw that Illienko needed my energy. I came to my studio at 8 A.M., Illienko was already waiting for me there and told me his ideas he came up with last night. And I told him mine. There were no raw drawings, we made a few sketches with a ball pen, he signed them. And the next day he asked me what to do with it. That happened very often. Only half the things made it into the film, and even less material was included in the final variant of the film which lasted three hours.”

Serhiy Yakutovych on the shooting of Prayer for Hetman Mazepa
Source

It was a common situation when a big part of work was done with the realization that it might never appear in the final result. However, sometimes art directors were engaged in editing where they had the opportunity to control the process. This, for instance, was the case with Heorhiy Yakutovych in the film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors – the archive preserved the editing scripts that were processed by the artist as well.

For the Yakutovych, neither Heorhiy nor Serhiy, the activity of an art director was not the main one – while many people with this specialty chose it as their profession, studied and developed only in this area. Directors tended to prefer the Yakutovych for other reasons. Heorhiy and Serhiy had a strong art background and ability to immerse themselves in historical and cultural topics. While working with numerous historical novels, epos and poetry, book designers perfected their capability of singling out the main features, creating a powerful visual image of heroes and translating the text into the picture.
“He is not just an artist, he is a thinking artist. I could have probably found a more talented person but not as thoughtful. He showed us the Carpathians like a guide. He knew them. He saved us from idyllic presentation of peasantry, from falsity.”

Director Serhiy Parajanov on Heorhiy Yakutovych, 1972

Furthermore, the work with such topics as the Carpathians, Kyivan Rus, Cossacks and Hohol’s world made it possible for the Yakutovych to engage in making most films which addressed national problems – a demand for Ukrainian things had its own waves. Thus, in the 1960s-70s, directors, through local themes, strived to work in poetic cinema, and in the 2000s, the statehood of Ukraine developed its own visual and creative symbols. And these images, surely, never remained within the art field only – there was a continuing battle of political and ideological views of the participants of the shooting process.
“When I started explaining something to the director, he brushed me off: “Go away. You’re a good painter, and I’m not a bad director. When you become a not bad director – you will shoot your own film just the way you wish.”

Serhiy Yakutovych on director Vladimir Bortko. From the interview, August 05, 2016

It raises the question of choice: should I work in cinema or not? Diversity of films on Ukraine-related topics during 2000s-2010s was not impressive, while the artists wanted to create movies. The Yakutovych considered the new form of art to be some kind of purification from the previous patterns, clichés and academicism as a way to widen the spectrum of their possibilities.
“After we practice first in an art school, then on our own, we often lose the feeling of immediate perception and become helpless en plein air. By working in cinematography I hoped to cleanse myself of the gained skills and rediscover the ability to interpret nature in art so truthfully, that a line, a spot, and a form, without any hesitation, will become one to reveal the music of the world."

Heorhiy Yakutovych. Essay Graphics and Film, 1972

Moreover, it is hard to predict the result at the initial discussions of a conception with directors and producers. That is why, in order to find a new way of fulfilling their potential and looking at an interesting topic from a new perspective, the painters sought the opportunity to work on a film set. But they did not refused from their personal principles and outlook, which sometimes led to arguments with other film authors.
«My grievance against Bortko from a human standpoint is still there. We worked together in my studio for hours, there was so much understanding, utmost sincerity. Bohdan Sylvestrovych Stupka made everybody fall in love with him. There were no conflicts, brothers forever. And then – everything was turned on its head, instead of heartfelt reading of Hohol’s work we’ve received a piece of propaganda. So many scenes with my ideas and decorations were cut out… I had painted thousands of sketches, my wife sent them to Bortko. I did not know what was going on, and when I saw it, I was horrified: forty percent of our work was cut out. At the opening night, Bortko told me that everything that was left out would be included in the television version. It wasn’t. They threw away everything we put our soul into.”

Serhiy Yakutovych on the shooting of Taras Bulba
Source

So what are the main principles that the Yakutovych applied when working on films?

No Simplifying
Analyzing
Feeling
Experimenting

This is what the Yakutovych were always afraid of and evasive about – show a culture like something exotic or highlight only its minimum funny function. The tragedy and acute problems had to be always reproduced in visual images, because without them they would be presented unilaterally and inadequately.

Art director’s work required constant research. In addition, they had to think up certain details that could not be found in historical sources. For instance, Serhiy Yakutovych said that in the film Taras Bulba he insisted that Bohdan Stupka (the main actor) had to have his Cossack forelock facing backwards rather than sideways – because it would block his eyesight during the battle or horse riding. However, he was not listened to and the forelock was styled in a more common and popular manner.

When an artist was absorbed in a certain theme, he did not let his team make too many mistakes in highlighting the plot. It was true, for instance, for Heorhiy Yakutovych – his love for the Carpathians (not only knowledge of the mountains per se) became a significant factor for the directors, cinematographer and actors who had never been to Hustul country before.

Cinema was not the major field of activity for the Yakutovych, so they could fulfil new ideas without the burden of the academic approach and a long routine work. Owing to this fact, the Yakutovych also often went beyond the limits of exclusively their personal duties and helped the team in improvisation, script changes and other unexpected things.

The Yakutovych’s Main Filmography