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Robert Boyle: Art Director

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By Michael Rizzo
On March 21, 2004, the Art Directors Film Society, in conjunction with Below the Line, presented a tribute to art director Robert Boyle, who had a story to tell that’s almost 100 years old. It included highlights of his lifespan of 94 years, of course, but also examined 60 years of filmmaking, practically the lifespan of Academy Awards ceremonies itself.
There was a brief time at the beginning of his art-directing career under the aegis of Hans Drier, supervising art director at Paramount in the 1930’s, when Boyle briefly left Hollywood and found himself in Mexico as an invited guest at the Kahlo and Rivera Sunday gatherings. But that, no doubt, is the subject of a biography soon to be written. Had the Mexican art community at large convinced this romantic, young painter to stay, Alfred Hitchcock would never have been inspired by Boyle’s early work in Wolfman [1941] and then, consequently forged a creative relationship with another of Universal’s fledgling designers. This is nothing more than pure conjecture, but it is at the center of Boyle’s life story.
The tribute was not only a salute to Boyle’s work with Hitchcock, but a celebration of his design mastery. The traditional oral history of the program, produced and hosted by Linda Berger, chairwoman of the Film Society, was book-ended by the viewing of Saboteur [1942], Hitchcock’s first American film, and Cape Fear [1962], starring Robert Mitchum.
Saboteur was an excellent choice from a design perspective. The film’s black and white format provided an apt visual vocabulary for the film noir explanation of both the objective and subjective environments Boyle refers to several times as the main function of his film design.
A constant in Boyle’s work—learned from Drier, relearned from Hitchock—is moving the storytelling process forward by supporting the characters. Boyle insisted that good storytelling demands that every scene should end in a viewpoint tailor-made for the audience.
Boyle’s filmography includes work as art director and production designer on over 95 film. From his short career as a bit player at RKO, to the fortuitous phone call to Drier securing his first job as a draftsman at Paramount, to the design of his first film, Wolfman, at Universal, to his first production meeting with Hitch on the morning of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Boyle made it clear to his audience at the tribute that his career was filled with a number of landmark mishaps.
He showed us how he made each accident in his design process or gracious acceptance of every stumble into each life-changing event, one of thankfulness and relief. “Our careers are made up of a series of wonderful accidents,” he said. This was made obvious at the end of the Q&A session when a young production design student asked his advice about what skill would be her greatest tool in becoming a master designer. After complimenting her on her enthusiasm and her willingness to learn how to “draw, draw, draw!” he wisely reflected, “If you’re at a certain place at a certain time, I think that’s your best bet.”
Better advice couldn’t be given, or received.

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