The Seuss Aesthetic Is Translated by Production Designer Michael Corenblith Into a Three-Dimensional World
Though Michael Corenblith had been production designer on Ron Howard's previous three movies, "it was not a given" that he would design Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas. He explains, "Because of the nature of the material and not really knowing what it wanted to be, I had to come in and audition for the part. It was completely understandable--ot every actor is right for every role."
The designer, who won an Oscar nomination for his work on Howard's 1995 film Apollo 13, says the pitch process helped him organize his thinking. Clearly, there were several giant shadows looming over the production: the well loved story; the perhaps even better known 1960s Chuck Jones cartoon; and most of all, Dr. Seuss himself. The look and rhyming text of Theodore Geisel's oeuvre is so emblazoned on the consciousness of millions that any live-action representation of it is sure to be held up to a microscope. Jim Carrey, encased in green and Grinchian Rick Baker prosthetics, may be the star of the film, which Universal Pictures is releasing November 17. But this is destined to be more of a Seuss vehicle than a Carrey vehicle.
Corenblith immediately turned to Seuss himself for inspiration. But looking at a copy of the book How the Grinch Stole Christmas, he didn't get much of a notion of the title character's world--specifically, the town of Whoville and nearby Mt. Crumpit, where the outcast and antisocial Grinch has his lair. "Seuss had explored the world of the Whos in an earlier book, Horton Hears a Who," says the designer. "In this book, he was more interested in this terrific character he had created. The Grinch has such a great face, and the story is such a great parable, but Whoville is represented by two or three little houses that look like haystacks more than anything."
Fortunately for Corenblith, Random House has kept the entire Seuss catalog in print, so the designer had a treasure trove of ideas at his disposal. "Since this was going to be perhaps the one and only time we were going to mount a large-scale depiction of the Seuss world in a motion picture, I wanted to celebrate his entire body of work," says the designer. "I wanted to give the audience a full meal, not just this particular course." Not that he proposed to slavishly copy any of the author's illustrations: "It was never my intention to take anything from his work other than the foundational ideas, the roots of it."
And some of the roots were not difficult to detect. "I discovered as I looked at these materials that, as with any artist, you see the same themes and ideas crop up repeatedly," Corenblith says. "But they change as the artist changes, gains experience. So, for instance, in Bartholomew and the Oobleck--an earlier, more realistic book--you see a whimsical set of forms that he began to develop. A shape that he had used on the back of a throne in one book shows up as the pediment of a building in another book, and as an archway in another. I began deconstructing, or reverse engineering, to find the elemental forms that Ted [Seuss' familiar name] was attracted to. The idea was, if I could get the right bricks, then any building I built from those bricks was going to be right."
This process included an examination of Seuss' "architectural antecedents," says Corenblith, who trained initially as an architect. "You could tell from his books that he loved Islamic and Moroccan architecture, with all the turrets and minarets and spires; he loved medieval architecture and castles; he was obviously familiar with the work of Gaudi." If the "particularly twisted and bent" eucalyptus trees lining the street to Geisel's house in La Jolla are any indication, the author was reacting to elements in his natural environment, as well. As part of the designer's so-called deconstruction, "I found things in my research that seemed to be evocative of the shapes he had used; whether he had actually used them as sources or not, is hard to say."
When Corenblith finally "auditioned" for the role of Grinch production designer, he brought "selected illustrations from the Seuss books, and photographs of some of my architectural research, and laid out at least a game plan to Ron for how to approach this." The bottom line: "I said we needed to find a way to bring it from a two-dimensional illustrator's work into a three-dimensional world."
It sounds obvious, but perhaps it isn't. Since Geisel's death in 1991, all things Seuss have become even more prevalent in the popular culture. The books, of course, have continued to fly off children's bookshelves, and La Jolla Playhouse has been producing a seasonal stage version of Grinch for several years now. Seuss Landing at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure theme park, with its centerpiece attraction The Cat in the Hat, opened in 1999 in Orlando, and the musical Seussical is set to open on Broadway this fall. Theoretically, there are a number of ways to approach Seuss material, and Corenblith believes most of the aforementioned projects have "made far more reference to the notion that these things were illustrations rather than concrete architecture. They've had a pen-and-ink quality to them, which is as viable approach as any."
But it wasn't his approach. "I made a strong pitch for a degree of--how can I say this?--reality," he says. "A very influential book in my designing is Architecture Without Architects, which is about how all architectural form can be traced back to some kind of organic roots. I said to Ron, `We need to provide a reason that the Who architecture, that the Seussian work, has these shapes.' Maybe if the trees grow a certain way, then the timbers cut from those trees look a certain way. If all the treetops in Whoville are curly or spiraling, it suggests that when the Whos were building, this is what the environment offered them. Shapes are a response to materials."
Howard obviously went for Corenblith's presentation. In December 1998, the designer moved full steam ahead into preproduction. He assembled a core department, including art directors Lauren E. Polizzi and Dan Webster, set decorator Merideth Boswell, illustrator Daren Dochterman, propmaster Emily Ferry, sculptor Grey Hill, and lead man Tommy Samona, and set to work trying to flesh out and realize his concepts. "Since my intention was three-dimensional, one of the first things we did as an exercise was to look at individual buildings in Seuss drawings, and think about what our three-dimensional interpretations of those would be. We started sculpting and modeling, rather than drawing. I sketched a little bit, but the people who were responsible for the buildings, instead of taking my drawings and making better drawings, they took my drawings and made maquettes--kind of the way Rick Baker works."
The sculptural forms helped Corenblith find solutions to the challenges he had posed to himself. One example was his desire to find a dramatic approximation of the Seuss books' graphic style. "Everyone appreciates what a great artist he was," says the designer, "but as we were looking more and more at his work, and at the book The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss, we discovered that he also was a great graphic designer.
It wasn't only about the illustration; it was about the story, about the words and the text blocks. He used the dynamics of illustrations to guide a young reader's eye. If you look at a lot of children's books, they're very static--illustration on top, text beneath. In Seuss, the text is all over the page, and the illustration serves as the engine which brings your eye from piece to piece. He used a lot of diagonals, and this gave his pages great dynamism."
From the Bartholomew Cubbins books on, Corenblith says, medieval-style stairways became important elements to bridge two-page spreads. This observation led to what the designer call his "Eureka!" moment on the movie. "We created our sets of Whoville models, first in 11/48", then in 11/44"," he recalls. "Then we laid out the town. From what seemed to be out of the blue, but was actually from the subconscious rattling around of this stuff, I took some illustration board and cut a form that turned out to be a big loopy stairway that spanned the road and went from one building to the next. Ultimately, these stairways were all over the town. They gave Ron and the cinematographer elements that energized the frame, in a way that suggested the dynamics we found in the illustrations. They also served as linking and bridging pieces between the disparate architectural parts."
Immersion in the Seuss canon revealed something else to Corenblith during preproduction: "The public's perception of the vividness of his palette is very exaggerated. Actually, he was a great colorist, but his colors were far more muted than people think. We prepared a palette of about 50 colors, each of which was drawn directly from the pages of his books. The more muted colors were for the building interiors and exteriors, and the brighter colors were for trims and accents. There was a set of colors for vehicles, and a set of colors for signage." One person who instantly recognized the Seuss palette in the art department's choices was Kathy Goldsmith, a Random House art director who had worked with the author. But Howard and the producers weren't so sure: Was the warmly embracing world of the Whos, whose Christmas spirit the Grinch fails to squelch, going to be colorful enough?
"I made a very strong pitch to keep those colors muted, to not allow the architecture to step too far forward," says the designer. "I felt that the strength of the forms would provide all the impact you could want. If the palette became too active, then the screen was just going to look like a big box of crayons had been dumped on it. And if the palette receded, the characters could step forward. You want to find where your eye is supposed to go, and in Ron's movies, your eye is supposed to go to the emotional states of the characters. This is about the Grinch, this is about Cindy Lou Who. Ron was interested in not only How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but Why."
After the Whoville design had been laid out, the next step was translating the maquettes into full-sized sets. The art department, headquartered at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, created working drawings from their models, and a 50,000-sq.-ft. prefabrication and sculpting facility was set up off the lot. The Who houses were basically steel superstructures clad in generous quantities of foam. "It was a light foam, primarily used in marine flotation and commercial refrigeration, and it had a certain structural integrity," says Corenblith. "It came to us in 4 x 4, 4 x 8, and 4 x 16 blocks, and there was enough used to stretch from New York to Los Angeles, or something like that. The multi-story sets were constructed somewhat like wedding cakes. We would build the steel armature and deck for the first floor, and clad it in the foam, which had been carved at another facility. As soon as the ground floor had been clad, the structure was erected above that, and then the foam came in. The floors basically stacked one on top of another."
The curved Seussian shapes of the buildings presented a problem on the interior sets. "For reasons that remain elusive to this day," says the designer, "we discovered that creating shapes that were basically convex proved to be far more successful than making major shapes that were concave. There were hardly any straight lines anywhere on this, and to take a curving wall in plan that is also curving in elevation made for some very complex shapes. These were just very difficult to execute in foam, and very difficult in terms of matching wild joints and other technical things. So we cut a number of curved ribs, as if we were framing a house, with all of the studs having more or less the same curve to them. We went through four or five major steps of construction techniques as it evolved."
During production, which started in September 1999, How the Grinch Stole Christmas filled up to 11 soundstages at Universal. Apart from a few night scenes shot on the backlot, the movie was an indoor affair. "We were on a stage for a variety of reasons," says Corenblith, "but a main one was that the makeup was complicated, and we couldn't be outdoors because of heat and other issues with the prosthetics." The major prosthetics, of course, were the ones Baker laid on top of Carrey, in a remarkable reproduction of Seuss' Grinch drawings. But Howard was determined to get to the heart of the character buried under the makeup.
"One of Ron's themes was that the Grinch wasn't just horrible, he wasn't this way by nature," Corenblith says. "He was isolated because he was hurt, he didn't fit in, and his grandiosity was an expression of that." In creating the Grinch's Mt. Crumpit cave, the designer was inspired by an image from Citizen Kane, of all things. "Kane is alone in Xanadu towards the end of the picture, and he's sitting in a chair in this giant room--he's dwarfed by what he's created. This was just one of the images I was working with, because again, in the book, there hadn't been much indication of what this cave was.
"So first, I wanted to have a very large, dominating space for him," Corenblith continues. "Also, knowing how kinetic and improvisational Jim Carrey was likely to be, I wanted to give him easy access to all portions of this big-volume space. The idea that I hit upon--again, back with the same vocabulary of forms--was a big spiraling ramp, bridging various levels of the cave. I discovered that I had basically designed the Guggenheim Museum, flipped over: Where in Wright's building, the spiral grows in diameter, this one diminishes as it goes up, more in keeping with the shape of a mountain." The other important forms in the cave design were natural. "I wanted this to be almost like a Gothic cathedral where the columns and buttresses are expressed as stalactites and stalagmites," says Corenblith. "So if there were a collision between the Guggenheim and Notre Dame, it would look something like this."
The cave was built on Universal's massive Stage 28, known as the Phantom of the Opera stage. Again, the forms were fabricated in foam on top of steel armature. In this space, the designer found that some of his more fanciful notions were difficult to get across. "Seuss played not only with scale, but with balance," he says. "I wanted to give the illusion of a giant deck supported by the tiniest, spindliest little stalagmite. This entailed creating a 70' cantilever and 30'-tall I-beam--massive steel members that ran through these things to create the illusion of a huge mezzanine being supported basically on someone's finger. It never quite worked for the picture, but it was a nice conceit."
On the Whoville town square set, structural engineering was a major challenge--some of the stairways and bridges soared to 50' above the stage floor and had spans of more than 70'. "We showed our plans to a structural engineer the studio had used frequently, and the solutions he came back with were very heavy and clunky," says Corenblith. "Then we went to an engineer who works for the jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, and who also engineers the Rose Parade floats--this is somebody who is used to unusual forms. It took him about two weeks, and we got exactly what we wanted."
But could anyone safely walk on the swooping staircases, which, by the way, had no handrails? "Because the Seuss stairs started as stairs in the interiors of turrets and bell towers, they never had handrails," Corenblith explains. "I think at some point he began to see how successful this was as a form for him, and he started using the stairs but no longer with even any implied forms around them." Howard's idea was that the Whos had a gift for balance, typically stacking packages with the littlest one on the bottom, for example. If that sounds like a Cirque du Soleil feat, then the filmmakers thought so, too - Cirque performers were engaged to be the background Whos, comfortably strolling the upper reaches of the stage without wires or handrails.
By the time Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas wrapped in March, it had employed more than 300 sculptors, painters, plasterers, carpenters, and other artists, and had drawn on an art budget in the "many millions" of dollars. It's a big movie, all right, but to really succeed it's going to need to retain the heart and particular whimsy of its source, and the filmmakers know it.
But it also has to stand on its own. "The first time that Audrey Geisel [Seuss' widow] came on the set, I was walking her around," Corenblith recalls. "She turned to me, as if in confidence, and said, `You know, I don't remember which book this building came from.' Before I had a chance to say anything, she looked around a little more and said, `I don't remember which books any of these buildings came from.' " She didn't express disapproval, however. She must have understood Corenblith's intention: to find the core of Seuss' work, apply his artistic principles, "and in the process, create something new."
Top two photos: Ron Batzdorff.
Third photo: Tim Street-Porter.
Bottom photo: Patrick House.