In the studio era, "movie New York" was created mostly in Hollywood: an invented city given shape by studio art departments, where dozens of art directors — working closely with producers, directors, and cinematographers — conceived, designed and supervised the construction of hundreds of interior and exterior sets.

No studio was more celebrated for its New York settings than RKO on Gower Street, where gifted art directors such as Van Nest Polglase, Carroll Clark, Al Herman, Perry Ferguson and others created a mythic urban landscape that ranged from the "Big White Sets" of Astaire-Rogers films such as Swing Time (1937) and Shall We Dance (1938), to the dark urban environments of countless film noirs in the late 1940s.

During the process of designing a film, art directors often turned to in-house production illustrators to prepare sketches and renderings of their proposed settings. The resulting drawings, presented to unit producers and others involved in the production process, served to clarify design ideas, to study concerns and questions about staging, lighting, and budget, and, on occasion, to "sell" producers on an ambitious design concept. After the picture was completed, these drawings were added to the department’s archive, a permanent collection organized not by film title but by type of setting ("penthouse," "theater interior," "train



station," etc.), allowing art directors working on new sets to study the previous efforts of the department. This tradition tended to reinforce a certain continuity from one picture to another — one of the reasons "movie New York" seemed to enjoy an independent existence outside any particular film in which it appeared.

When RKO Studios closed down in 1958, its drawing archive might well have been discarded — as were those of several other studios. But the art director John Mansbridge, who had started his career at RKO as a young man in the 1930s, managed to save the drawings and donate them to UCLA’s Theater Arts Library, where they have been preserved as the Mansbridge Collection.

Seen today, these evocative black-and-white images — including views of skyscrapers, rooftops, ocean liners, apartment houses, train stations, penthouses, and the "New York Street" in Hollywood — embody all the heightened sense of romance, mystery, adventure, and intrigue that generations of audiences have found in the mythic city of movie New York

For further information about the art and craft of production design, visit the official site of the Art Directors Guild.