Exhibition review: Setting the Scene

Analysing Space and Place: ACMI’s Setting the Scene: Film Design from Metropolis to Australia

Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

Setting the Scene: Film Design from Metropolis to Australia is an exhibition by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, running until 19 April 2009 in ACMI’s underground screen gallery at Federation Square, Melbourne. Setting the Scene is about the work of the production design teams who create the worlds that films occupy. This exhibition is a useful way to consolidate the students’ awareness that everything they see in a film (the mise-en-scene) has been carefully planned and put there for a specific reason. Setting is a key element of film mise-en-scene and identifying the ways in which setting reflects the themes and drama of a film is instrumental in film analysis.  

Production photograph from The Sacrifice (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1986)
Production photograph from The Sacrifice (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1986)

Setting the Scene hosts over 300 exhibition items from over eighty films, from the landmark German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene, 1920) to the forthcoming 2009 release The Road, by Australian director John Hillcoat. It is divided into seven sections representing different types of filmic space. The first five sections are based on the Moving Spaces: Production Design + Film exhibition, originally produced by the Deutsche Kinemathek. These sections are Spaces of Power, Private Spaces, Labyrinth Spaces, Transit Spaces and Stage Spaces. The final two sections – Virtual Spaces and Location Spaces – were curated especially by ACMI to showcase the talent of Australian production designers. 

Unfortunately the exhibition does fall short of expectations, although that shouldn’t immediately deter teachers from using elements of it as exercises for school groups. The majority of the set models on display are terrific but this is an exhibition that predominantly consists of looped film clips, photos and sketches. There is little information about many of the items and their relevance is not always apparent. Fortunately the free audio guide contains excellent material on both the exhibition and the background of many of the films featured, providing a context that is not always apparent from the exhibition itself.

Production Designer Catherine Martin on the set of Australia (Baz Luhrmann, 2008)
Production Designer Catherine Martin on the set of Australia (Baz Luhrmann, 2008)

For an exhibition about setting it is disappointing to discover that a recreation of the Faraway Downs living room from Australia (Baz Luhrmann, 2008) is the only full-scale set in the exhibition. The omission of other actual sets for visitors to walk through is bewildering, especially as it is an exhibition that so obviously lends itself to something far more interactive. There is also the continual problem, which the ACMI screen gallery has always had, of intruding sound bleeds from one part of the exhibition to another. Much of what is in the exhibition is of interest but it feels as if it was put together with a severe lack of resources.

Nevertheless, Setting the Scene contains many opportunities for class activities although the quality and usefulness of each of the seven sections varies considerably.

se53-coverThis is an excerpt from an article printed in issue 53 (Autumn 2009) of Screen Education. The full article contains a closer look at each of the 7 sections in the exhibition plus suggestions for class activities.

View contents of Screen Education issue 53. (pdf)

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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