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Bumstead gives talk on art direction, “˜Vertigo’

By MariaSan Filippo

Nov. 25, 2002 9:00 p.m.

Alfred Hitchcock’s spirit visited UCLA’s James
Bridges Theater last Sunday night.

At least it felt that way with legendary art director Henry
Bumstead in attendance to speak about his work on
“Vertigo,” one of four films in which he collaborated
with the so-called Master of Suspense.

The screening and subsequent question and answer session with
Bumstead and production designer Tom Walsh capped off the UCLA Film
and Television Archive’s “The Art of Hollywood”
series, a retrospective of memorable achievements in Hollywood
production design.

Bumstead was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on
“Vertigo” and went on to win two Oscars for his later
production design on “The Sting” and “To Kill a
Mockingbird.” He began working in the industry as a contract
designer at Paramount Studios in 1937. Bumstead has spent the past
decade collaborating with Clint Eastwood and received his fourth
Oscar nomination for his production design on
“Unforgiven.”

“Vertigo,” which is considered by many to be one of
Hitchcock’s most accomplished films, is notable for drawing
elements from its Bay Area setting to conjure up the mood and tone
of the film. As art director, Bumstead selected locations that
would serve to represent both the metropolitan sophistication of
modern San Francisco and the deteriorating legacy of its
Spanish-styled past.

But appearances can be deceptive: although some exteriors for
the film were shot in San Francisco, the bulk of shooting took
place on soundstages at Universal Studios here in Los Angeles.

“The equipment was so big back then, if you ever see a
room that appears real-sized, you can be almost sure it’s a
set,” Walsh said. “They had to take the walls out in
order to get the camera in.”

Hitchcock, who once claimed that he never needed to look into
the camera because he already knew what he would see, was infamous
for exerting unprecedented control as a director.

“You couldn’t get Hitch out on location,”
Bumstead said. “He liked to work in the comfort of a stage.
Practically everything he shot was a set.”

Though Hitchcock preferred to leave the location scouting up to
his art director, he briefly visited Bumstead in San Francisco
while exteriors for “Vertigo” were being chosen.

“He asked me how I expected him to get performances out of
his actors in this cold,” Bumstead said. “You always
left room on the set for his car to drive in. He’d get out
and walk three steps to the director’s chair.”

However, there was one location that Hitchcock himself
specified.

“He was very adamant that from Jimmy Stewart’s
apartment you should be able to see Coit Tower,” Bumstead
said. “When I asked why, he said, “˜It’s a phallic
symbol.'”

Employing a method known as process shooting (similar to
today’s blue screen technique) the exteriors shot on location
were projected onto a screen arranged behind the actors on a set.
In a famous shot, a 360-degree moving shot around the embracing
lovers (James Stewart and Kim Novak) was created with multiple
process shots in rear-projection behind the rotating stage the
lovers stood on.

“This is all old-time stuff compared to what they can do
now with computer graphics,” Bumstead said.

The production designer works closely with the cinematographer,
set decorator and costume designer to create the look of a film.
Bumstead, who suggested using brown tones to give “The
Sting” its old-fashioned look, had less in mind when planning
the color of “Vertigo.” Someone in the audience
suggested the importance of green linked to the film’s title,
whose root, he said, is “vert,” or green in French.

“I got letters from all over the world with theories about
what each color was supposed to mean,” Bumstead said.
“I guess I just hit it lucky. I had no theory; I just painted
things the way I thought they should be.”

Bumstead also discussed the legendary “Vertigo”
shot. The shot was created by constructing a model of the inside of
the tower and simultaneously zooming in while tracking back. The
resulting effect is the visual equivalent of the main
character’s fear of heights.

The one filmmaking myth that Bumstead did not dispel was how
much he loves his job.

“It’s sure been a wonderful life for me,” said
Bumstead. “I envy all of you who are studying to be
filmmakers. What a wonderful career it is.”

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