A stellar actor can elevate the worst tripe, while special effects tend to plasticize story, yet the right art direction will add to not only the world but the characters as well. Purely Production is a monthly post where I explore the different elements that affect a finished media, for good or ill. We’ll forget about writing for a moment and delve into all the bedazzling doodads that dress a story.
Purely Production #7: Reflecting themes of sex and love in the production design of Her’s sets, costuming, and props.
Science fiction or love story, whatever genre you want to pigeon-hole Spike Jonze newest movie, at heart Her’s draw is the totally modern take on the timeless themes of sex and love.
In today’s world society believes that relationships can end at any time, and in fact, holds that we are constantly moving away from each other. As a result we must concentrate on present happiness and not worry about what the future holds because more than likely it’ll be changing. There’s this romantic notion that despite the feelings of love and care we may hold for another person, it doesn’t mean we can or should stay with that person. No, as modern people we must always forge ahead because really, aren’t we as human beings wired to love everyone?
Yes, love is meant to be spread far and wide, we as loving and caring creatures must love as many other people as we can possibly fit in a lifetime. That means loving more than one person at a time. It means leaving behind someone you love for the next person you’re meant to love. By following Theodore Twombly as he deals with the end of a long relationship we explore these underlying ideas through his intimacy with a new advanced operating system, Samantha.
I was taken aback by the fascinating way these ideas were reflected not only in the rebound love story at the heart of Her, but also in the production design imprinted on every frame of the film.
Post Modernism Design
Post Modernism is the incorporation of design details from other periods of our history into a modern sensibility. Her incorporates post modernism details from many different nineteenth century decades. These details come together into a unique design sensibility that screams timeless and universal. By mixing current modern thinking with historical design elements the story influences the audience to view this world as our possible future. We are, after all, an amalgamation of our past and present. It gives the film this sense of reality, of truthfulness that sells the story and thus sells the themes.
The visual cues that post modernism runs throughout Her serves to tie the story together with its themes, reflecting the characters’ emotions into the physical environment.
Warm Color Palette
One of the strongest design details that you notice are the soft pinks, oranges and light reds permeating the world of Her. These colors are in the lights, the furniture, the technology and the costuming. We don’t see this future as cold and modern, we see that life is easier to live and thus there is more opportunity for love. The audience has a visceral reaction, becoming more open to the ideas being presented to them. This warmth contrasts starkly to the truths about modern love that Theodore experiences with Samantha. This contrast imbues the ideas being presented with a feeling of unrelenting reality.
If you also happen to agree with these ideals then the warm palette reconfirms that this way of life is the way to love.
The post modern design elements are used to emphasize the lonely yet cautious place that Theodore resides at the start of the film. The architecture is clean of cluttering details, the spaces are large and expansive, even the furniture is streamlined. The world is open like a window to Theodore and yet he gives you this sense of isolation from the other human beings in his life. The lack of cluttering cars and the distinctly city landscape backing all of Theodore’s movements through his world contribute to this sense of disconnect he has to his world. This heightens your feelings of satisfaction when he connects with Samantha.
It also serves to underscore the future place and time this movie is set. With this element you really start to see how interwoven the production design was with the story itself.
The costuming again is given to a streamlined look with few details. It’s referencing historical clothing trends, like Theodore’s high-waisted pants to give a sense of timelessness to the characters. While there was always this reminder with Theodore that in his heart he wanted to love with the reds and oranges, they are always combined with sand, browns and whites. These colors cause his form to meld with the world behind him. They speak to his reluctance to take the risk to pursue what he wants.
The most noticeable detail though was how the red-orange color was reflected onto the people in Theodore’s life he loved. In this way when he was at his most withdrawn those human beings still present reflected back to him his greatest desire: love.
The most fascinating of the production decisions was the idea to set all the scenes to do with Theodore’s past love life at odds to the design of the rest of the movie. The past frames tended to be in a subdued color palette, sometimes with no to little orange. They lacking any sort of reference to the city in the background or the setting as if they had happened in some bucolic time or place. In fact, there were few defining environmental details with even the furniture tending to old-fashioned instead of the post modern.
These moments really felt derived from the past due, specifically, to the very absence of those details that we had been shown as part of Theodore’s present.
OS Samantha = Love
At no time do we get to meet the love interest of our somber protagonist, Theodore. No, she is reflected in the flat red-orange operating screen of his computer monitor. She is embodied in the same flat red-orange case of his vintage looking device through which she views the world. And she comes alive through the voice of Scarlett Johansson. We immediately get that she is love. That she is free love with a desire to share that love with each and every soul on the planet.
That is the future…at least from the perspective of Spike Jonze.
When the themes at the heart of a story are reflected into the physical environment the audience relates to that connection. It feels at one with their own world around them. That is the beauty of Her, when production and story come together to create a better movie.