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Design Elements in Film “American Beauty” Essay

Names of artists and personnel in the film

Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen produced the film American Beauty, 1999. Sam Mendes directed the movie while Alan Ball wrote it. Naomi Shohan was the production designer and Conrad Hall the art director.

Sam Mendes’ role as the director was profound in the development and making of the film. In filming, Mendes’ strong visual ideas were evident throughout the film. He wanted to create a crisp and surreal experience, and this explains why he had a preference for distant shots. Furthermore, he used hand-held cameras to capture the intensity of the fight between Ricky and his father. Mendes did the paper bag scene towards the end of the film carefully in order to incorporate grace. Mendes achieved this by placing the paper bag against a wall. He used creative improvisations to make certain scenes work. The director used computer-generated steam in the bathroom fantasy scene because the entrance of the camera in the bathroom let the steam escape. He improvised by using wires to hold roses in that scene, and then removed them digitally (Tornianen, 2000).

The production designer, Naomi Shohan, was responsible for the selection and renovation of the key locations in the film. She wanted to create an archetype of a place where the two households in the film, Lester’s home and his next door neighbors’, would be located. They needed to represent an upper middle-class home. She selected two locations, such that the main characters home would be graceless but immaculate while their next door neighbor’s home would be symmetrical but dark. She was also responsible for recreating the garage in Lester’s home and Ricky’s room in a way that they had a direct line of sight; this was imperative for the last scene. She also chose the colors in the rooms in order to keep red to a minimum, as the color had great symbolic value in the film.

Conrad Hall was the art director and contributed to the visual elements of the film especially through lighting; he emphasized classicism. Hall would deduce the mood of the scene then select the right light proportions. In the garage scene between Lester and Ricky, Hall contrasted a soft light from behind his camera with a large light across the actors. He also played with the shadows so as to carry the story’s themes.


Some practical aspects of lighting are already in the above paragraph. However, the artists designed most of the scenes in the film to depict the mood of their characters. For instance, Lester’s wife, who is a real estate broker, loses a prospective buyer in one scene. She closes the blinds and cries alone in the kitchen. The darkness signifies her unhappiness. Furthermore, when Lester rediscovers his lost youth, the first scene, where he is jogging, is bright in order to convey this optimistic mood (Bordwell & Thompson, 2010). In Lester’s fantasy scene, the light comes from a window and illuminates Angela such that she appears angelic. When the Colonel spies on Ricky and Lester, he is also in a dark room whose only source of illumination is the window. The production team did this in order to place emphasis on the source of his amusement. Sometimes the lighting conveyed the theme of the film. In one scene, lights fall on the Colonel’s body in the form of bars. This may be likened to prison bars and the theme of imprisonment. The character feels trapped in his heterosexual lifestyle because he has homosexual inclinations.


The settings in the film varied depending on whether they were external or internal. Aerial shots at the end of the film were critical in making the film memorable. They captured these shots in California Sacramento. The production designer and the directors also selected some houses in Warner Bros. California for the setting of the two households. They chose South High School for the school scene; it is in California, as well. When depicting the two households in one scene, the production team would use these locations. However, when filming interiors, they selected very distant locations in real houses. For instance some scenes of Lester’s house were from a home in Brentwood, Homedale while the Colonel’s house was in Hancock Park. Mr. Smiley’s, a restaurant in one of the scenes, was in Canoga Park. American Beauty was a 1999 film; therefore, some of the expectations concerning typical households are evident in the design. Lester’s workplace has a design that captures these sentiments. Even their neighborhoods had that nineties feel.

Costuming, hair and makeup

Costuming was one of the strong points in this film. The movie even won an Academy Award for best cinematography because of this. Angela plays a seductive teenager in the film. Therefore, she must wear garments that seduce the main character (Bordwell & Thompson, 2010). In the High school scene, she was wearing a cheerleading outfit; it was short and flirtatious, which was an appropriate choice for her part. Lester wears a suit and shirt as a formally-employed man. However, when he starts working at Smileys, a fast food eatery, he wears a red cap, t-shirt and headset with which to communicate with his colleagues. Costumes are essential in showing the transition in Lester’s life. Lester’s wife, Carolyn, wears impressive clothes in order to put on a facade of success.

Makeup also does the same thing that costuming does. It conveys the actors’ characters and also reflects the theme in the movie. For instance, Angela is the typical American beauty; therefore, she wears red lipstick and well-fitting clothes. These are probably some of the reasons why a middle-aged man would be attracted to her. At the beginning of the film, the movie starts with Jane who has little makeup. The production team probably wanted to make her look more authentic. The plainness of her face was symptomatic of these (Tornianen, 2000).

Lester has short hair with a receding hairline to signify his mature age. His wife wears a bob, which is appropriate for real estate dealers who must make an impression on their buyers. Angela has long blonde hair, which suits her seductive persona. Conversely Jane’s hair is black and plain to signify her mysteriousness and uniqueness.

The Mise-en-scene

Overall, the Mise-en-scene comes together beautifully in this film. The camera angles signified power struggles between Lester and his boss. The lighting was quite suitable for most of the scenes as it conveyed melancholy, positivism, and imprisonment in different scenarios. Set design and composition created the background against which one could assess the themes in the film. Therefore, the vision of American Beauty is quite in tandem with its design elements.


Bordwell, D. & Thompson, K. (2010). Film Art: An introduction. NY: McGrawhill.

Tornianen, J. (2000). American Beauty. Film Score Monthly, 5(2), 36.

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