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From the Sublime to the Potentially Ridiculous: Location Set Design for "Half the History"

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

How does one convey on screen a 1932 dining room during the Chicago Renaissance? Or an 1894 parlor in a Boston Brahmin estate? Or a 1939 movie theater? These production design questions posed key challenges this spring for students in FMS 152: Producing for Film.


In addition to producing their own passion projects, students in the class join a professional production team to create a new film for the Half the History series of short films on the under-told stories of women in American history. This spring, students worked with Professor of the Practice Jennifer Burton, Five Sisters Productions, and other professional mentors to bring to life the stories of groundbreaking composers Florence Price (1887-1953) and Amy Beach (1867-1944).


Scenes in the script were set in different eras (1871 through 2009), different cities, and different cultural worlds. A break came early in the pre-production process with the securing of the Eustis Estate in Milton for the multiple scenes set in the adult home of Amy Beach. (Thank you Peter Gittleman!) The estate is preserved by Historic New England, the largest and oldest regional heritage organization in the U.S., which has education as a key part of their mission. Two factors made the estate an ideal location. First, without an extraordinarily budget, filmmakers would never be able to create the same type of stunning architecture and décor that perfectly captures upper crust life in 1890s Massachusetts. Second, the Eustis Estate is used for public events, so it does not have the many usage restrictions that come with filming in historic museums. Actors were allowed to “make themselves at home,” walking freely through the lavishly decorated rooms and sitting in the historically accurate chairs and settees. (Production did have to warn the gaffer and other crew not to straighten or try to hide lights behind any of the original oil paintings hung throughout the home, as that would have set off the alarms.)


 (Gabrielle Burton photographer)
Matt Stewart and Conor Chepenik on set at Eustis Estate (Photo: Gabrielle Burton)


With Beach’s home taken care of, Burton and the class were able to focus on the other locations, which broke down into two main categories: public spaces (including the 1932 Chicago World’s Fair) and the places Florence Price lived as a child and adult in Chicago. Given the 3-day shooting schedule and the large cast and crew, the class needed to minimize company moves. They decided to group the public space scenes on the Tufts campus, which offers a wealth of varied looks. Filming on campus comes with its own set of challenges for a period piece, particularly the historical incongruences and constrained availability in specific rooms.


The class location scout brought home how many spaces on campus have modern lighting fixtures or carpet that are too prominent to frame out of a shot. Luckily, further scouting produced the needed shooting sites. The side stairs in East Hall feature intricate metal grill work and two-story-high painted windows, with nary a fluorescent light in view, which became an aesthetically appealing substitute for teenage Price’s 1904 meeting with composer George Chadwick at the New England Conservatory (see photo). The raised section of the central stairs in Olin was hung with blacks to become the press podium for the Boston’s mayor announcement of Amy Beach Day in 2007 (see scouting photo). The Crane Room shot was the most difficult, because the only available time to book the room that Saturday was from 12-1 pm, wedged between a conference and a public lecture. At 12 on the dot, a team of 14 students and professional crew was in front of the Crane Room armed with a wooden desk, end tables, a rug, and a chair from the furniture stock, plus set dressing from the prop room, including books and a tea set. Spacing the set pieces to give a sense of depth in the tight shot, the crew created Chadwick’s 1898 study. In his production report that week, Senior Matt Stewart wrote about getting the shot:



Location scouting for mayor's announcement scene with Max Battle, Chris Duyos, and Ursula Burton (Photo: Gabrielle Burton)

Melissa Sapini as teenage Florence Price, on set in East Hall (Photo: Gabrielle Burton)


“On Saturday, my main concern was how we were going to make Tufts fit the period of the story. The filming in the Crane Room was probably the most interesting scene for me because, from my perspective, the setting looked completely bizarre. However, after looking at the feed from [the] camera, I was blown away by how different something can look with simple framing.”


Fueled by the adrenaline of necessity, the crew was wrapped and loading the set pieces back in the drama van by 1 pm sharp, just as the audience was coming in for the upcoming Crane Room lecture.


The choice to use Burton’s home in Brookline for most of the other scenes eliminated the location-driven time constraints experienced at Tufts, while bringing new location challenges, most notably a tremendous amount of furniture moving. After shooting the first scene with the living room as Price’s 1891 childhood home, the piano was moved across the room, and the furnishings completely changed to create Price’s student Margaret Bond’s home, where Price lived in the 1930s. (See photo.) The wooden-window-lined sunroom became Price’s 1943 study (after substituting old wooden furniture and period props for the modern desk, table, chairs, hard drives, electronics, and paperbacks). In contrast, it only took a matter of minutes to transform the basement into the vandalized home where Price’s unpublished scores were discovered in 2009—which tells you something about the state of the basement before...


Brookline set of Florence Price's home (Photo: Gabrielle Burton)

The biggest transformation of the day came last, with two sets of antique velvet theater seats sourced from TDPS furniture stock as the focal points for the 1939 movie theater scene, shot in the garage. With the flicker of the gaffer’s lights on the actors’ faces, they very well could have been watching a newsreel in the 1930s—rather than in a Brookline garage with a faded red oriental rug on the floor and c-stand-supported blacks for the walls.


A final location obstacle emerged once all the Duet script locations were finalized. As a coda to the Half the History film on Price and Beach, the class produced a “Filmed Fantasy Concert,” highlighting female composers through the ages. Made possible through the support of the Diversity Fund, the Music Department, FMS, TDPS, and WGSS, the concert was scheduled to take place in Balch Theatre. When the cost and logistics of moving two pianos to Balch proved prohibitive, the class didn’t end up having to go far for a new location. With gratitude to John McDonald, David Locke, Edith Auner, and Jeffrey Rawitsch, the coda was created in the strikingly beautiful, world-class Distler Hall, complete with two Steinway grand pianos—a true dream location to round out the semester’s production.


- Professor of the Practice, Jennifer Burton


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