Behind the Design Process of Moulin Rouge! and Beautiful Scenic Designer Derek McLane

Photo Features   Behind the Design Process of Moulin Rouge! and Beautiful Scenic Designer Derek McLane
 
The New York Public Library offers a never-before-seen look at the inner workings of the Tony- and Emmy-winning designer’s step-by-step process.
Derek McLane
Derek McLane

The spectacle of the iconic elephant and spinning windmill tower over audiences as the step into the red-soaked den of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre for Broadway’s Moulin Rouge!. Designed by Derek McLane, the set is lush, audacious recreation of the show’s famous French night club.

As one of the most prolific artists working in the industry today, McLane tests his limits in a set that begins with a silk curtain and heart-stamped layered flats and slithers into the house, extending to the monogrammed MR sconces on the rouge walls of the Hirschfeld. The Billy Rose Theatre Division at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts acquired the first four decades of McLane’s papers and designs in 2015; the Library has now completed the archiving process and McLane’s catalog is available for free viewing by any visitor to the Library.

While most of The Library’s design collections are served to researchers in large boxes or tubes, much of McLane’s archive is entirely digital (though there are, of course, a few of these larger pieces). McLane has designed 42 Broadway productions, including the most recent revival of Noises Off and The Heiress, as well as original productions such as Gigi and Nice Work If You Can Get It. He has been nominated for four Tony Awards, winning for 2009’s 33 Variations. And that’s just on the Main Stem. He’s designed numerous Off-Broadway productions, earning 14 Drama Desk nominations and winning for his work on 2011’s Anything Goes. He is also a prolific designer for film and television and has won two Emmys, for Hairspray Live! and the 2014 Academy Awards broadcast.

Though it recently closed after nearly six years on Broadway, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical was a shining example of McLane’s work. His process is documented in over 700 digital files of various types. Here is an abridged version of that process:

2013 iPhone 5 Photograph of the Beautiful Set Model

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April 13, 2013 iPhone 5 photograph of set model Derek McLane courtesy of The New York Public Library

One of the earliest of these files is a photograph, taken on April 4, 2013, with an iPhone 5, of a scale model of the set. By 2013, McLane’s process was largely digital, but he continued to create physical models of his designs. However, these models were just the start of a process that would quickly transition to digital tools.

A Photograph of His Scenic Design Sketch

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Photograph of a scenic design sketches Derek McLane courtesy of The New York Public Library

Also in April 2013, McLane photographed nine drawings on pieces of notebook paper, including this quick sketch of Beautiful’s recording studio—evidence that he was still working on paper for quick ideas, and that he felt it important to quickly transfer these to his digital repository.

Two Photoshop Layers of the Same Design

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Photoshop rendering Derek McLane courtesy of The New York Public Library
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Photoshop rendering Derek McLane courtesy of The New York Public Library

McLane’s digital photographs of his set models were not only for documentation purposes. Soon after creating them, McLane began to edit his model photos with Adobe Photoshop. Photoshop allows users to layer images on top of each other, and then turn the layers on and off. On June 4, 2013, he created the file shown in the screenshots above with layers that could be toggled to simulate different lighting effects. Removing the top layer turns the back wall red. Photoshop allowed McLane to take a digital image of a physical model he had built, and turn it into a dynamic presentation for his collaborators.

McLane’s VectorWorks Drafting of the Set in the Curran Theatre

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VectorWorks draft of the set in the Curran Theatre Derek McLane courtesy of The New York Public Library

Soon after McLane photographed his model, his office would draft the architectural design in a computer program called VectorWorks. While a set model is used to give directors and other collaborators a sense of what the three-dimensional design might look like, VectorWorks is mostly used to create 2D architectural renderings of the set with detailed information for the shop that will ultimately construct it for the show. Like Photoshop, the software also allows designers to place different elements on separate “layers” which can be turned on and off. Here, McLane placed the ground-plan of the Curran Theatre (represented in red) over the initial plan for his set. McLane continued working on this file for around a week, and last modified it on April 11, 2013.

Model Pieces From McLane to the Scene Shop

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Model pieces from McLane to the scene shop Derek McLane courtesy of The New York Public Library

While VectorWorks is extremely common among New York area set and lighting designers, it is not as widely used in other industries. Perhaps for that reason, in folders labeled “For shop” and “From shop” there are a few files with the filetype extension DWG (a shortening of “drawing”) created with the more widely-used program AutoDesk.

PRG’s 3D Rendering of the “Turtle” Device

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PRG’s 3d rendering of the “turtle” device to move the set Derek McLane courtesy of The New York Public Library

These files include 2D designs such as the very simple “model pieces” in the first image below as well as full 3D models like the “turtle” designed by the scenic shop PRG to move and rotate the set pieces.

A Slide From McLane’s Presentation for a Production Meeting

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Set rendering Derek McLane courtesy of The New York Public Library


Finally, in August 2013, a month before Beautiful opened in San Francisco, McLane prepared a PowerPoint presentation of his work (presumably for a production meeting or a rehearsal). It consisted of eight Photoshopped versions of his set model photos.

Without question, digital archives present new challenges for those who collect and care for our cultural heritage. Files on disks and USB drives must be transferred to a safe repository while the equipment needed to access these media still exists. As software companies dissolve (or release updates that cannot open files created with earlier versions), archives must maintain methods of opening older work. However, digital collections also allow researchers unprecedented visibility into the creative process. Digital files include timestamps that record the precise dates and time of creation. A researcher can take apart a copy of a digital design to see how it was made without harming the original version. These collections, and McLane’s collection in particular, are a treasure trove for anyone interested in the process of scenic design in the 21st century.

Doug Reside is the Lewis and Dorothy Cullman Curator for the Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Flip through more designs of McLane’s and view the full collection at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center:

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