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CELIA BOBAK UP FOR OSCAR (article first published : 2005-02-3)

South African excitement on Oscar night on February 27 will centre on Darrell Roodt's Zulu-language film Yesterday, nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film award. But it is not the only nomination with a local interest.

When the envelope for the Art Direction Oscar is opened, among those waiting nervously will be Celia Bobak, the set decorator for The Phantom of the Opera. As Celia Rake, she attended St Anne's Diocesan College in Hilton, and then went on to study History of Art and French on the local university campus, graduating in 1973. She now lives in England.

Over the years, Bobak has worked on an impressive list of films, including Quills, Othello, In the Bleak Midwinter, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Much Ado About Nothing, The Crying Game and Henry V, working as the production and properties buyer as well as set decorator.

Following Phantom’s nomination, I asked Bobak to explain exactly what it is that the set decorator does in a film. She explained that her job is to complement the architecture and sets that the production designer has created. Furniture, curtains and props must convey the mood and style chosen for the film. For Phantom, this meant a mood of opulence for scenes in the theatre foyer, auditorium and Carlotta’s dressing room while backstage had to appear as a work environment. And the Phantom’s lair could be pure fantasy – "quirky and extraordinary like the Phantom himself".

Bobak found 886 theatre seats from the 1870s period – the time in which the film is set – and had them recovered in red velvet that she had dyed to a specific shade. The theatre curtains were specially embroidered in India by a firm that used to make uniforms for the British army during the days of the Raj.

While the film is obviously closely based on the stage production of Phantom, Bobak explains that in the film, the theatre assumes huge importance and as props will be seen in close up, they have to be as perfect as possible. And so Bobak’s research took her to Paris to see the Opera House and the Pere Lachaise cemetery. She says she was influenced by the French painters of the period – her choice of French painters of the 19th Century as a speciality when she was doing her Fine Art degree standing her in good stead.

"The monkey musical box was inspired by a monkey in a Watteau painting," she says, while the bird bed in the Phantom’s lair was based on a William de Morgan tile she found in a book on the Pre-Raphaelites.

So when the film opens in KZN on Friday, keep an eye open for the props and sets. And keep your fingers crossed on February 27 when The Phantom of the Opera will be competing for the Art Direction Oscar with The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and A Very Long Engagement. – Margaret von Klemperer




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