Ron Howard’s Eye for Detail Makes for Perfect Period Films

Sometimes, it’s the little things someone does that makes them truly amazing at their profession. No matter what the field, the great ones notice the things that others gloss over. They’re adamant about righting the smallest irregularities, and the most seemingly insignificant aspects can be worked over endlessly. While they’re appreciated for their successful projects as a whole, the little things they do can go unnoticed to most people.

No one perhaps is a better example of this than Ron Howard. The Oscar-winning director has an obsessive attention to detail and always expects historical accuracy, especially, it seems, when it comes to his films’ settings.


It’s admirable that he has such pride in his work, but it’s especially so because a movie’s setting is something that can be easily overlooked or faked. But Howard knows that once the audience becomes consciously aware of the scenery, not only does it make the bad setting painfully obvious, it makes the audience appreciate the good ones even more.

…poor special effects, bad acting, or that uses too much CGI…It becomes much harder to lose yourself in the world of the story.
A similar thing happens when you’re watching a movie with poor special effects, bad acting, or that uses too much CGI. It becomes much harder to lose yourself in the world of the story. When faced with something so obviously fake, you can’t suspend reality enough to really enjoy the film.

The setting is a part of what helps pull you into the storyline. If you’re shown a couple in front of what looks like a painted backdrop, it’s a lot harder to make yourself believe that their story is genuine as opposed to when you watch them walk through an open, grassy field.

It’s something that Howard has really taken to heart when filming, especially when the project is a period piece. While the use of CGI is occasionally unavoidable in a film, when he has the option Howard almost always prefers to use live, vintage filming locations over “creating” the look in a studio.

While filming A Beautiful Mind in 2001, a story set in the 1940s, Howard ordered that scenes taking place at Princeton University actually be filmed on the Princeton campus. Movie-Locations said that three different visits to the campus were necessary to get all the needed shots, many of them taking place within Holder Hall, a building that has stood on campus since far before the 1940s.

Ron Howard hodder hall

Holder Hall, Princeton [Source: Erik Dresser/IMBD]

It would have been much easier, and cheaper, for production to have just used generic shots of the buildings and had the actors perform scenes in a studio. However, it made all the difference when scenes required them to walk between buildings and attend classes. The critics noticed the details that went into the film thanks to Howard’s direction, too, and he was subsequently awarded the Oscar for “Best Picture” and “Best Director.”

He used the same approach in 2005 with the release of Cinderella Man. The film was based on professional boxer James J Braddockzo, who lived in the New Jersey area during the height of the Great Depression. After hurting his hand in a match, he was forced to retire and does manual labor as a longshoreman to support his family. Eventually he returns to the ring once again with the hope of becoming the next world champion.

The film featured scenes taking place in a variety of settings from the 1920s and 1930s, from Braddockzo’s impoverished neighborhood and dirty boxing rings, to the docks and warehouses where he works.

Knowing how important it was to capture the essence of Braddockzo’s work and the area where he made his living, Howard insisted on finding a similar area to shoot at instead of creating the scenery with CGI or a set. Torontoist reported that he chose the abandoned Symes Road Transfer Station for the scene, because the architecture and style of the building were a perfect fit for duplicating the fight that Braddockzo had in Mt. Vernon, NY. Built in 1916, the building had once served as an incinerator, but it had remained untouched for decades. The setting made the scene believable, as if what was happening on screen was really happening in the ’20s.

Ron Howard abandoned Symes Road Transfer Station

The abandoned Symes Road Transfer Station, Tornoto [Source: Westtoronto/IMBD]

However, sometimes, even though he’d like to, Howard is not allowed to shoot in all the locations that he wants.

When filming A Beautiful Mind, Howard used aerial shots of the Pentagon, but he couldn’t obtain permission to shoot inside the building itself. The scenes inside the Pentagon (in the movie) actually had to be shot at Keating Hall at Fordham University in the Bronx, a building that had a similar structure.

He ran into trouble again while directing the sequel to the The Di Vinci Code, 2009’s Angels and Demons. To meet his need for the film to be as realistic as possible, he wanted the majority of the scenes to be shot in the settings as they are written in the novels. However, the majority of Angels and Demons took place inside the Vatican, which quickly banned Howard from filming within its walls.

Of course, that didn’t stop Howard, and he found a way to get his shots of the historic buildings.

The Guardian reported that once again, instead of recreating the scene in a studio or using CGI, Howard opted to have hundreds of photographers pose as tourists, taking over 250,000 still photos and hours of video footage from all around the city and the areas where he wanted to shoot. The article stated that the production crew “used the surreptitiously-gathered material to digitally recreate many of the famous papal buildings, Tuscan colonnades, fountains and monuments within St Peter’s Square.”

Ron Howard angels and demons

St Peter’s Square in Angels & Demons, with CGI [Source: fxguide/IMDB]

Howard was recently praised in an article on Picturebox’s movie blog that broke down how the director has never been afraid to try something different. Writer James King praised Howard’s directing style, saying that for every epic feature Howard has churned out, the risks have been high. Yet, the brilliant director always seems to find a way to make it seem effortless. 

…his crew might find it bothersome constantly moving from place to place…[but]… for the history fans, it’s always worth it when you see the movie on the big screen.

“Here is a director not afraid to take a risk,” King wrote in his article. “The problem is, he rarely gets the credit for it….Yet that pursuit of great stories has led to some intriguing gambols. Really we should be doffing our hats to him. Or at least our baseball caps.”

While I’m sure, at times, his crew might find it bothersome constantly moving from place to place, they know it’s part of the reason why he’s one of the best directors around. And for the history fans, it’s always worth it when you see the movie on the big screen.

This post was kindly sponsored by Picturebox

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Ron Howard’s Eye for Detail Makes for Perfect Period Films

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