My favorite image from the current Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibition, "Dante Ferretti: Design and Construction for the Cinema," wasn't on a gallery wall. It was an archival photo emailed to me by Ron Magliozzi, associate curator in the museum's film department. It shows Ferretti, the Italian film production designer, leading MoMA's curators through the back lot of Rome’s fabled Cinecittà studio, past a massive set that he designed for Martin Scorsese's 2002 film, Gangs of New York. It's one of Ferretti's only surviving built projects, captured in the photo as a crumbling block of four-story buildings representing New York City's notorious Five Points neighborhood.
Like all film sets, the buildings are mostly just façades. Adjacent to this faux city block is a mysterious white rectangle that's the size and shape of a major dam. It's the backdrop for a technique known as "green screen," in which actors perform in front of a blank wall and the scenery is digitally inserted later. In this case, the white rectangle stands in for New York Harbor.
The premise of the exhibition, as MoMA's description makes clear, is that Ferretti, who was born in 1943 and at age 17 began working as a production assistant on films by the director and writer Pier Paolo Pasolini, represents the end of a "100-year-long tradition of full-scale, studio-built environments for films." More and more movie magic is created using computer-generated imagery, commonly known as CGI. But while the productions he designed for Pasolini, Scorsese, Federico Fellini, and many others did involve elaborate, built sets (with his wife—and frequent collaborator—Francesca Lo Schiavo often acting as set decorator), Ferretti, as the photo reveals, is also part of the transition.
You will not easily figure this out by looking at the moody concept sketches that dominate the exhibition. The only indication can be found on the detailed plans that Ferretti drew up for the historic Gare Montparnasse train station, the setting for Scorsese’s captivating Hugo (2011). "The train station for Hugo, they built two or three stories of it, but the ceiling parts are CGI," MoMA's Magliozzi told me. If you look carefully at the construction drawings on display at the exhibit, you'll see marks where the real set ends and the virtual set begins. As Ferretti told an audience at the press preview, the transition to CGI doesn't really impact how he works: "Nothing changed for me. I design a look, then decide how much to build and how much [is] CGI."
The main portion of the exhibition, in the basement gallery outside the Roy and Niuta Titus Theater 1, is a collection of Ferretti's concept drawings, mostly done in charcoal, all sepia and gray. Here are the catacombs he designed for Neil Jordan's Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994)—a gloriously complex Piranesian lair—and there is the distinctively Tibetan opera house he sketched for Scorsese's Kundun (1997).
The drawings that ultimately interest me most are the ones that somehow depart from the prevailing aesthetic of ancient places and perpetual twilight. An interior, for example, of the Los Angeles Police Department for Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia (2006) applies Ferretti's dense layers of gloom to a 1940s detective's bullpen. Oddly, the rendering that really caught my eye was not for a movie at all, and probably wouldn't be considered an example of Ferretti's best work. It’s a digital print of a roller coaster he dreamed up for Cinecittà World, an amusement park that's scheduled to open next year outside of Rome, next to the celebrated movie studio. It is designed to look as if a very large spaceship landed in the middle of the ride, and it is so utterly preposterous that it made me want to pay a visit.
The most powerful experience I had at the press opening, however, was not looking at the work, but listening to the man. The stories he told made his life sound like something straight out of one of Fellini's sweeter movies. Ferretti attracted the attention of the great director when he resolved a dispute between him and Feretti's boss, the production designer, over the color of a set. He held up a swatch in just the right shade of tan, prompting Fellini to ask, "'Who are you?'" To which Ferretti replied, " 'I am the assistant.' " From that point on, Fellini called him "Dantino" and made him a sort of mascot.
Ferretti recalls that Fellini asked him repeatedly about his dreams. Each time, Ferretti told the truth, that he hadn't had any. Finally, he realized that Fellini wasn't satisfied with that answer: "The fourth time: Oh yes, I invented a dream." He borrowed a scene from one of Fellini's own movies, I Vitelloni (1953). "He knows I am a liar," Ferretti recalls. Which, if anything, cemented the relationship. Ultimately, Dantino grew up to be the production designer for six of Fellini's final films, beginning with Orchestra Rehearsal (1978).
I was grateful that in the middle of the exhibition gallery there is a "labyrinth" of 12 small movie screens showing scenes from Ferretti's various films. This is crucial, given that the designer's work can't truly be appreciated by looking at sketches or models, or even his built sets. Nevertheless, the chaos of the movie maze—too many people, too many images—makes it difficult to concentrate on any one film, never mind focus on what could be seen of the backdrops.
What I took away from the exhibition, aside from an affection for the intrepid young Dantino, was a powerful urge to see some of his movies that I'd missed, such as Scorsese's Shutter Island (2010) or Fellini's late work, Ginger and Fred (1986). And I think that's exactly the point. The exhibition is a Ferretti teaser. In coming months, 22 of his movies will be screened at MoMA's Titus theaters exactly as he intended them to be seen, on a big screen and—speaking of 100-year traditions—projected from the actual 35mm film.