Nothing takes you out of a film faster than poor set design. Unfortunately for many films that take place outside in the 19th and 20th centuries, the world has to be altered significantly to convince the audience that we’ve traveled back in time.

Transforming city streets for a period piece is where set designers like Oscar-nominated set decorator Rena DeAngelo shine the brightest. Rena DeAngelo has worked on period pieces like The French DispatchWest Side Story, The Post, and Mad Men, transforming the streets through props that replicate the culture of the time. 

DeAngelo took Insider on a tour through Eclectic Encore Props in NYC to show us how she turns modern-day city streets into a 20th century time capsule. Check out the full tour in the video below.

When scouting a location, the set decorator finds ways to hide the things that don’t belong in the era of the film. This normally starts with taking down security cameras and swapping all modern cars for vintage ones with period license plates. 

One of the most important details to swap is any and all signage. This is a task that requires the set decorator to know their history. For example, many benches from the 1920s to the 1950s had advertisements painted on to the wood. 

It is also important to know the history of the neighborhoods that were historically defined by their communities. Cultural signifiers such as the communities' dominant language painted on a wooden sign or specific food advertisements showcased the traditions and moods of the culture at the time. Hand-painted signs are important when looking for period-accurate set-pieces because they weren’t mass-produced at the time. 

Small details can make all the difference. Raised text on street signs is an indicator of the 50s or 60s while flat text means a newer sign, since most cities stopped embossing road signs in the 70s and 80s.

The sign's font is also a giveaway. Certain typefaces have been around longer than others, and have a significant moment of popularity in certain cultures. 

West_side_story_street_designThe street decor in 2021's 'West Side Story'Credit: 20th Century Fox

The main thing set decorators to look at when deciding what fits into the era is the material. Knowing what signs were made from in previous decades adds a layer of authenticity. You won’t see much plastic in the 20th century. The 20s and 30s were big on the industrial look, meaning most signs and props would be made of cast iron or other various metals. 

Some contemporary giveaways are posts bolted in the ground, so set decorators have to find a creative solution to block out all those Citi Bikes and modern street lamps. 

DeAngelo uses hollow crates, old telephone booths, payphones, kiosks, and shoe repair stands as classic ways to add historical context to the streets while disguising the modern-day features. To hide lamp posts, set decorators use a fake wrap to easily send the post back in time. The effect isn’t finished with the wrap. The LED light bulbs are also switched out to provide an accurate light as set designers did with Joker. 1981 Gotham would have had sodium vapor street lamps that gave off a sickly orange glow. 

It is those fine distinctions that can make a period piece feel authentic to those who lived in that time or are fond of the era’s history. While the street dressing can take days or weeks for a few minutes of screen time, the effect is meaningful. It's all about the fine details when it comes to set design. 

What period film has the best street decorating? Let us know in the comments below!

Source: Insider