Damien Chazelle‘s lavishly costumed, beautifully decorated 2022 movie Babylon is a behind-the-curtains and under-the-sheets tell-all-or-some-set-piece about Hollywood at the end of the silent film era. The viewer sees how silver screen images that feel like magic are really the product of hard work, broken dreams, and lots of luck. Reviews, from what I’ve read, have been mixed, but Florencia Martin won Best Production Design at the Critics’ Choice Awards this past Saturday. In addition, Babylon has been nominated for Best Period Film Production Design by both the Art Directors Guild and the Set Decorators Society.
Brian Tallerico’s review of the film, which stars Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt alongside what he describes as an “ace ensemble” cast, gives a more detailed plot description.
Rather than repeat Mr. Tallerico, here is an interview with the film’s veteran movie prop-graphic designer Eric Rosenberg. A movie and magazine lover, Rosenberg made me wistful when he said, “The best part of the project was having the first opportunity in decades to collaborate with illustrators on the various movie posters and magazine covers.” I want to do that! Here, Rosenberg guides us through the enviable process of making reality into make-believe that looks believable.
How much research was required to accurately do the prop graphics for Babylon?
Everything was thoroughly researched. The project had been going for quite some time before I arrived, including with another art department pre-pandemic. In addition to what they had collected, I turned to my large reference library and also did additional research. I had one Hollywood portrait photography book called The Imagemakers that I’ve owned since I was a teenager, which proved key for several props, including the “Is Jack Conrad Through?” Photoplay cover. There was a photo of Henry Fonda from Young Mr. Lincoln that I had offered up as one of six choices to model the illustration of Brad Pitt on. I felt certain it was the one, and happily director Damien Chazelle chose it. On the day of the photoshoot, while looking over all the reference images for his character, Pitt responded strongly to the Fonda photo and did a great job of channeling him, resulting in a great shot for the artist to model the illustration on.
Sometimes, as with Margot Robbie’s rather contemporary hairstyle, films contain certain anomalies. While you attempt to be precise to the period, a slight typeface or decorative mistake will be pointed out by the fanatical viewer. Has this happened in your time as a film graphic designer?
Yes it has. Many years ago a friend called to let me know that some of my work had been called out in Mark Simonson’s Typecasting blog. He had done a lengthy piece on the use (and misuse) of period typography in films over the years. The first of my designs he mentioned was from the Coen brothers’ 1993 film The Hudsucker Proxy, my very first staff project. It was the typographic Hudsucker Industries logo where I used Bodega Sans Black and added an inline. The font was released in 1990, but is clearly emulating typefaces of the Deco period, and I felt fine about using it. Some years later I found a photo of a local patio furniture shop in my L.A. neighborhood from the 1940s. The lettering on the awning looked just like Bodega Sans Black—belated vindication! Mark also commented on my 1973 Rolling Stone cover featuring the band Stillwater in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. He took issue with my using ITC Galliard Bold as the headline font, which wasn’t released until 1978. The thing is, most of Rolling Stone’s cover typography in that period was custom-designed by Dennis Ortiz-Lopez and is unavailable to the public. While I always strive to be as authentic as possible, sometimes I can only come so close, and close enough will have to do. I had a nice chat with Mark after I read his piece and helped put it all in context. That said, he did spotlight some horrific typographic mistakes in several prominent feature films which should never have happened.
Let’s save the anachronism police some time. Hastily trying to finish the work on deadline implies making at least one graphic faux pas inevitable. How do you avoid this?
Everything we do in this industry is under a deadline. The time we have to do our work has been greatly reduced over the years, as the studios continually cut down on the prep time productions are given. I used to routinely have five or six months of prep on a feature film; these days I’m lucky to have two or three months. For TV work it can be eight weeks, if I’m lucky, but is often just two to four weeks. That time is spent figuring out what graphics are needed for the whole show and creating an extensive breakdown, and my design time is only for what has been scheduled to shoot first. The rest of the work happens as we move along.
The poster for Sidney Palmer’s movie Loose Tunes in Babylon is a case where a period style illustration of Sidney was called for. However, there was no room left in the budget for that. This poster was inspired by one for Duke Ellington’s short film Black and Tan in which Ellington is portrayed in silhouette. However, for our film we had to be able to see that it was Sid Palmer’s face. I went with a B&W posterization of a photo as the solution. I knew it wasn’t fully authentic, but it worked within the overall style of the poster. The other issue was that due to my workload I didn’t have a chance to design the poster until just days before it filmed, and only finished revisions the day before the scene, just in time to get it to the Paramount Sign Shop for printing.
You began your career in magazine design and art direction. Did this project bring you back?
Yes it did. It’s always nice when I get to do magazine props. In Babylon there were several magazines and newspapers that were important to the storytelling and would be prominently featured. For the Photoplay issues I used scans from the Internet Archive’s collection to create facsimile forms for each issue of around 30 pages, which was repeated several times to get to the necessary thickness. Each form included the featured hero character articles on Jack Conrad and Nellie LaRoy.
How many props did you create? And how many were on camera (and for how long)?
During principal photography, for props I did three magazine covers, including two featured articles and four full newspaper covers. In addition there were several other articles and obituaries pages done during post-production. Most of the latter never made it into the film.
For set decoration I did eight movie posters, plus the four comp “works in progress” MGM movie posters featured in Irving Thalberg’s office. Sadly, the poster for the Jack Conrad feature The Captain didn’t make it into the film. The director cut the part of the scene where Conrad arrives at the theater showing the film, instead starting with him walking down an interior corridor to the auditorium where he finds the audience laughing at his performance. It’s a good example of a smart edit; we didn’t need to see him outside the theater, the previous scenes set it all up.
I also worked on three scripted hero photos; two are featured, and the other is in the frame, but the camera is 15 to 20 feet from the action.
As for time on screen, it ranges from about 15 seconds to barely a minute or so for most items. It wasn’t always that way, but contemporary editing just gets faster and faster. That’s showbiz!