Designs on film: how the industry is represented on the big screen

Designers on the big screen are so few and far between that the film that best reflects our profession is a Pixar animation, says Daniel Benneworth-Gray

It’s Tuesday evening, therefore I have decided I am going to write a film. It’s good to have side projects and entertain the occasional long-term hair-brained scheme. I’ve been meaning to become the next Billy Wilder/William Goldman/Joe Eszterhas for a good couple of decades now, but I keep getting waylaid by life’s incessant demands and interesting things on the telly. But now it’s Tuesday evening; now it’s time to get this done.

I’m not going to just dive in and start typing like some kind of consciousness-streaming maniac. What do you take me for, a television writer? No, I’m going to do this right. Tonight my time will be spent on the necessary preparatory tasks. I’ll neatly stack 120 sheets of paper next to the printer, then redistribute said stack into sub-stacks reflecting exciting incidents within a traditional three-act structure. I’ll read about the most appropriate monospace typefaces or perhaps look for old typewriters on eBay. Finally, I’ll watch Jurassic Park. You know, for research.

Only once these preparations are out of the way can I really get on with my screenplay. As the truism dictates, I’ll write what I know: a timeless tale of a boyishly handsome young designer making his way in a world that may or may not be filled with dinosaurs. It’ll adhere to the traditional designer archetypes that we’re all familiar with from films such as….

Such as? Think about it: where are all the designers in films? They play an integral part in the film-making process, from pre-production through to marketing, but are designers actually represented on the other side of the camera?

The answer is a resounding “kind of but not really”. The profession barely exists on screen. When it does, it’s sidelined to a supporting role – a neat little creative job to make wives and girlfriends softer around the edges, something to keep them occupied while the men do Important Things.

In Heat, Amy Brenneman’s life as a designer seems to consist solely of sitting around in an untidy studio all day, waiting for the phone to ring. It’s actually quite accurate. In Scorsese’s Cape Fear, Jessica Lange’s Leigh Bowden gets a brief moment to explain the logo design process to her daughter, but her vocation is immediately (and menacingly) dismissed by Robert De Niro’s Max Cady as nothing more than drawing “pesky little sketches”. Still, you know what they say: there’s no such thing as bad feedback, even if it’s from someone who’s probably just killed your dog.

Both of these were back in the magical days of the 1990s, at a time when design was at least visually interesting for the observer. There were drawing boards and clippings and tools; characters could be coloured by their accoutrements and work habitats. As any visiting client or hovering art director will tell you, the day-to-day work of the designer today is an unutterably dull activity to watch. There’s only so much tension you can get out of somebody staring glassy-eyed at a Mac for several hours.

There is one film that puts a designer front and centre, but unfortunately that film is Catwoman. Plonking her in front of Photoshop for a few seconds may be a step up from the character’s more prostitutional origins in the comics, but she’s not exactly an icon for us designers to be proud of or aspire to. Archeologists, you have it SO easy.

This dearth of designers in films is good for me, surely? I could swoop into this void and write the ultimate design film by the end of the week! But no, despite cinema’s ongoing antipathy to my career, there is one film that truly does it justice. It’s just that it’s a film that doesn’t actually feature any designers – in fact the hero isn’t even human. It’s about a rat in a kitchen. It’s about commerce versus creativity.

It’s about nurturing and employing instinct; hierarchical dynamics and collaboration within a creative environment; technique and specialism; the value of mentors and protégés and interns and awards and critics. Brad Bird’s Pixar classic Ratatouille is about nothing less than the act and profession of design. That the whole thing is one great visual metaphor seems rather appropriate.

Of course, now I’ve thought about this, I’m a bit daunted by the idea of working in this great film’s shadow. Perhaps I’ll put the writing on hold for now.

Never mind, I’m looking forward to tomorrow evening – Wednesdays are when I decide to become a long distance runner.

Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a designer based in York. See danielgray.com and @gray

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