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Set Design

Bringing MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA’s textured atmosphere to the screen was a major challenge, as well as a rare opportunity to take the audience into a vanishing world. After realizing the obstacles to filming in an actual hanamachi, or geisha district within a city, and after further scouting on several continents, the filmmakers decided to build their own hanamachi.

Production designer John Myhre devised a detailed floor plan for the village with director Rob Marshall. Next came a full set of technical drawings for some 40 buildings and the construction of a quarter-inch model of the hanamachi, complete with toy cars and rickshaws and the carved path of a serpentine river. The model provided a frame of reference for many production decisions. “We put a small ‘lipstick’ camera inside the model so we could view on a monitor what it was like to be in there,” said Myhre. “Rob and director of photography Dion Beebe played with it all the time and even used it to plan a complicated crane shot.”

"...a faded, aged aesthetic, an almost tobacco-stained world of layers and textures."

The hanamachi was built at Ventura Farms, an immense horse ranch about an hour outside Los Angeles with mountains in the distance and 360 degree green valley views. In 14 weeks, a grazing pasture was transformed into five meandering blocks of cobblestone streets, alleyways and a river -- 250 feet long, 22 feet across and eight feet deep -- with a re-circulating system that created the illusion of running water.

The set was built with cedar, bamboo and clear fir. Black bamboo and sheets of cedar bark, both unavailable in the U.S., were shipped from Japan, along with fences made of woven grass and bamboo. Huge quantities of window coverings, reeds and mats were purchased in Kyoto. To accommodate the shooting schedule’s seasonal shifts, four hand-made cherry trees were created for each time of year.

Another major seasonal consideration was light. Although the location had many charms, it did not offer the flat winter light of Kyoto -- another test of the filmmakers’ creative mettle. Altering light by filtering it through a “silk” is a common technique, but covering an enormous set with a retractable silent grid cloth or “silk” was a bold undertaking. The crew had to cover nearly two acres with the largest freestanding structure ever built over a set. The cloth could subdue light by day or keep out the dark at night, which allowed the filmmakers to shoot night for day.

Most buildings at the Ventura Farms set were only exteriors, but several had fully executed interiors on Sony soundstages. Many of the walls of these rooms were formed from paper-covered doors of the period -- shoji -- from Japan. The ranma, or intricately carved wooden grills above the shoji, were also Japanese antiques, along with most of the furnishings in the okiya, or geisha household. Myhre’s team even found and reproduced vintage Japanese newspapers from the period to plug holes in the okiya walls for scenes when the household has fallen on hard times.

Beebe enjoyed the opportunity to explore the story’s contrast between electricity and oil lamps on this set. “Rob loves a faded, aged aesthetic, an almost tobacco-stained world of layers and textures,” he said. “We lit a lot of things in the okiya from oil lamps and flame. Those warm, flickering light sources added mystery and depth.”