Over three decades, Vera Hamburger, a graduate of the University of São Paulo School of Architecture and Urban Studies (FAU-USP), has built a respectable and dedicated career as art director, set designer and costume designer in films and theater and in organizing exhibits. Yet her restlessness and heightened sense of curiosity only intensified as she gained experience. Beginning in 2003, with three concomitant projects, Hamburger found herself steeped in reflective research on art direction, without neglecting professional creation. During this same period, she was either the scenographer or the art director for films such as Carandiru (2003) and O passado (The Past – 2007), both by Hector Babenco, Não por acaso (Not by Chance – 2006), by Philippe Barcinski, and Hoje (Today – 2010), by Tata Amaral.
“I realized that no one really understood art direction and in 2003 I began to teach for the purpose of thinking about the topic and discussing it with the students,” Hamburger says. That same year, she obtained a grant from the Vitae Foundation for research on art direction in the Brazilian cinema. “Since then I have combined the two aspects: research and artistic production.”
The basis of the book, Arte em cena – a direção de arte no cinema brasileiro (Scenery art – art direction in the Brazilian cinema), was theory and historical research work, and it was published last year by Editora Senac in conjunction with Edições Sesc. The book is a compendium on practices, tasks and procedures in art direction (including functions such as site selection, scenography, costumes, makeup and special effects). In addition, there is information on the career paths of four professionals in the field: Pierino Massenzi, Clóvis Bueno, Marcos Flaksman and Adrian Cooper, as well as descriptions of work they have done on specific films.
In the parallel development of teaching activity, “it turned out that hands-on experience was more worthwhile than lectures.” The outcome was the Permeable Borders Interdisciplinary Laboratory, established in 2013 at the USP School of Communications and Arts (ECA-USP). “For the first time, I had the opportunity to take advantage of research that was performed exclusively in the work space, without interference from a narrative,” Hamburger says. This original observation, which came from the “ownership of acceptance of the exercises by the students,” evolved into a third project: the master’s dissertation entitled O desenho do espaço cênico: da experiência vivencial à forma (Designing scenic space: from life experience to form), defended in late 2014.
The invitation to the course, offered as an elective in the ECA Audiovisual Department, was opened up to several fields. “In my opinion, it would be wonderful if the university adopted a multidisciplinary approach as opposed to investing only in specialization,” Hamburger says. Selected based on letters of intent, the students came from FAU and the Departments of Scenery Art, Visual Arts and Audiovisual Arts of the ECA. The starting point was to conduct intervention exercises in space, without any narrative script, based solely on the essential elements of conformity of the space, such as lines, points, light, materials, colors, textures and projected images, in direct constructive interventions.
“In teaching as well as in artistic practice, the narrative and conceptual question is the main objective, while the initial approximation, in reality, is from the body and sensations,” Hamburger says. From Josef Albers, the German-American visual artist, she borrowed the idea of developing theory through practice. The first module consisted of developing these perceptions in defined spaces. The second transported the experience to locations, in other words, uncontrolled environments. And the third reverted to theorization based on the process that was tested. “What I found was that each participant had a distinct relationship with the course directors,” Hamburger says.
One of the students gave the following account in his final report: “I have always concentrated on the so-called most important things. And all the collective work came into focus. I eventually observed what I should do and what I was actually able to do. (…) It was like a 180-degree turnaround in my method of being. (…) Suddenly the world of what is significant overcame the world of meanings.” The professor herself absorbed the experience in a similar manner and saw the connection between teaching experiences and the creation of new work dynamics in preparing scenographic projects or in practices used on a film set: ongoing exercises in creating the collective work. “Each one has a time and a contribution,” Hamburger says.
It was not until 1985 that the term art direction first appeared in the credits of a Brazilian film: O beijo da mulher aranha (The Kiss of the Spider Woman), by Babenco. That was when Hamburger began working in the field. Since then, she has noticed a change in the level of appreciation for art direction and a clearer understanding of what it is. The film director, the photography director and the art director together form the three-pronged unit that generates the visual conception of a film.
Given the complexity of each individual’s job, the nature of the process dictates that every individual brings with him or her a different concept of moviemaking. Art director Clóvis Bueno Como, who was one of the individuals interviewed in the book, says that he turns it into an exercise of conquest of one over another. “We experience suffering and pleasure at the same time, but it is always an incredible exercise,” says Hamburger, whose research has not yet been published in full. It deals with the history of scenography and art direction in fictional Brazilian cinema, from its inception at the turn of the 19th century to the 20th century.Republish