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Impossible to Overlook: Set Design in 'The Shining'

Andrea is a film scholar who obtained his Masters in Research of Film (Mres) at Edge Hill University by analysing the music biopic genre.

Set design is important in setting atmosphere, especially in a genre like horror.

Set design is important in setting atmosphere, especially in a genre like horror.

The Shining: Overlook Hotel

In cinema, there is a rarity of constructed cinematic sets that overcome a mediocre level of establishing a set solely as narrative exposition. In other word's, if a more amateur filmmaker than Stanley Kubrick directed The Shining (1980), the narrative would essentially be a blasé concept of "a supernatural horror that is set in a haunted hotel," rather than the Overlook Hotel being the controlling omniscient force of the horror.

When iconic set designs are produced such as the Overlook Hotel, they are impossible to be overlooked as constructed diegetic realities for a narrative to enfold over. According to Charles and Mirella Affron (1995: 39-40), at the highest ‘level’ of production design the set can be considered as the film’s narrative. This article will be reflecting on this perspective by applying it to The Shining and analyzing how certain paradigmatic choices within the film’s production design produced a set that is not only impossible to overlook but also difficult to compare within the history of cinema.


First Things First . . .

Firstly, The Shining as a film has received its fair share of criticism. Most crucially being condemned by no other than the author of the book of which the film is adapted from, Stephen King. The film has even been disregarded as a horror film by acclaimed film critic Mark Kermode in a recent podcast. Outside of the film’s criticism, Kubrick provided some unarguable technical feats with the Shining, in particular, the construction of the films iconic set and decor. Excluding the establishing aerial shots of the Lloyd’s family car travelling to the hotel, the narrative of the film is exposed entirely in and around the grounds of the Overlook. At a base level, the Hotel resembles just an enormously empty hotel for a horror narrative to play over. However, referring back to Affron’s framework of set design, the Overlook is much more than a setting and is crucially ‘set as embellishment’ (1995:38-9) as it ‘does have a relationship with the real, but at the same time is striking and unfamiliar.’ Fundamentally the set at its base level is in-fact verisimilitude. However, in its design, there are countless surreal anomalies such as; televisions projecting images without power-cords, geographically impossible windows, and doors that essentially can lead to nowhere.


The Overlook Hotel Represents Inner Fears

The Overlook Hotel punctuates the narrative of the Shining. It hauntingly reflects the inner fears and desires of its inhabitants through surreal images such as blood transposing through elevator doors, en-suits baring beautiful women who instantly wither before your eyes, and bedrooms privatizing intercourse… with people in bear costumes? These wayward images are tantalizingly disturbing, but what is equally haunting is how the Overlook itself is presented as an omniscient being that entraps its protagonists.According to Kuter (1957: 5), ‘[t]he modern day art director must be very nearly a modern-day Leonardo Da Vinci in a wide range of his interests, capabilities, talents and knowledge.’ This statement can be true in regard to Roy Walker's position of art director, as it appears his set was designed to work perfectly in simpatico with Kubrick’s idiosyncratic; cinematography, high key lighting, and innovative camera movement with the inclusion of the newly invented Steadicam.

Throughout the film, one of the protagonists, Danny (Danny Torrence), is often depicted as the trapped victim within the Labyrinthine set design of the Overlook. There are several scenes that involve tracking shots that almost chase Danny as he rides around the corridors of the hotel on his tricycle. Elisa Pezzotta (2013:80) argues that ‘[t]he hotel [that] constitute[s] of huge, luminous rooms and corridors, becomes a maze when the Steadicam follows Danny at his height along the corridor and seems to lose him when he turns right or left into another corridor.’ These scenes not only foreshadow the climactic scene of the narrative but also physically ‘locate the viewer in isolated places’ (Affron,1995:39-40).

Predominantly, there is a visible fusion between Kubrick’s coherent use of tracking shots and Owen’s symmetrical, long and narrow corridors. In the lead up to the famous “twins” scene, one long-shot shows Danny positioned centre screen and physically confined within one of the symmetrical patterns of the corridor’s carpet. To exaggerate the sense of isolation further Danny is also trapped within the walls of the corridor that become narrower in distance of the long-shots. This claustrophobic sensation is enhanced further by the sets high white ceiling which contrasts the orange, grey and red patterned carpet within the mise-en-scène of the long-shot. This is a clear example of how the Overlook surpasses the basic levels of set design as it creates a sense of ‘mood’ and ‘atmosphere’ (Bergfelder, 2007:11), in particular, a sense of isolation.


Moreover, it appears that there was a clear significance for the role of the product designer, Roy Walker, to produce an enormous interior set that could bare the narrative weight of the film, and more importantly Stanley Kubrick’s scrupulous attention to detail. There are a number of complex narrative themes being exposed within minor details of the films décor. David Kirby (2011:2) argues that ‘For Kubrick, explorations of complex ideas did not emerge through simplification. Instead, they came about by exploring every detail of these complexities.’

This idea is exposed in Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237 (2012). Interestingly, no matter how outlandish each interpretation of The Shining is in this documentary, it appears that each interviewee extensively analyses specific aspects of the set design in aid to support their conspiracy theories. The arguably most convincing example being that of one interviewee who interprets a covert narrative of the “white man’s guilt” by identifying any semiotic within the décor that is linked to Native American culture. These spectators pay much more attention to certain paradigmatic choices made within the set design, rather than immersing themselves within the narrative to derive meaning. The interviews in Room 237 essentially show how a film, like The Shining, can go beyond the realms of basic set design, as a separate and larger discourse has been created through the use of detailed sub-text within the set’s design. Therefore set’s such as the Overlook Hotel have the ability to produce a separate narrative as opposed to being ‘one with the narrative’ (Affron, 1995: 39-40).


Works Cited

Affron, Charles and Affron, Mirella Jona. 1995. Sets in Motion: Art Direction and Film Narrative. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Bergfelder, Tim, and Harris, Sue. 2007. Film Architecture and the Transnational Imagination: Set Design in 1930s European Cinema. Amsterdam: University Press.

Kirby, David A. 2011. Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema. Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Kuter, Leo K, “Art Direction”, In, Barnwell, Jane. 2004. Production Design: Architects of the Screen. London: Wallflower Press.

Pezzotta, Elisa. 2013. Stanley Kubrick: Adapting the Sublime. Mississippi: University Press.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2019 Andrea Sciambarella