Love’s Design: “Harold and Lillian” Celebrates the Couple Who Gave the Movies Their Look


A lively documentary devoted to the kinds of folks about whom documentaries are almost never made, Daniel Raim’s Harold and Lillian looks at the life of storyboard artist and art director Harold Michelson and his wife, researcher and archivist Lillian Michelson. Though they lived modest lives and have rarely been celebrated outside the industry itself, both became institutions of a sort in Hollywood during the latter half of the 20th century, mentoring generations of artists and designers and helping some of the greatest filmmakers realize their visions.

Harold did concept designs and storyboards for films such as West Side Story, The Ten Commandments, The Birds and The Graduate. He combined an artist’s touch with a mathematician’s mind, calculating which camera angles and lenses would work best without actually having to be on the set or have the camera present. (Lillian credits Harold’s uncanny ability to understand lenses and perspective to the bombsights he had to look through as he flew dozens of missions during World War II.)

Lillian, meanwhile, in her efforts to help her husband with his research, built up a massive library of books, magazines and other visual references that became a critical resource for art directors. The Lillian Michelson Research Library, as it came to be known, bounced among sites, including the AFI and Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios, before eventually finding a long-term home at Paramount (and, later, at Dreamworks).

The film intercuts scenes of Harold and Lillian themselves (Harold died in 2007, so his footage is obviously older) with talking heads such as Coppola, Mel Brooks, Danny DeVito and film scholar Bill Krohn, attesting to the couple’s accomplishments. Harold played a key role in many of the most enduring images in film history: Dustin Hoffman being seduced by Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate; Moses parting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments. He eventually graduated to being an art director, and was Oscar-nominated for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (a gig his Trekker wife implored him to take) and Terms of Endearment.

Throughout the film, however, there is a more emotional, personal story being told — much of it via storyboards created by animator Patrick Mate (himself among the talking heads). It involves the couple’s courtship and marriage. Lillian details how she, an impoverished orphan, was originally rejected by Harold’s status-conscious family. She eloped with him to L.A. without knowing much about him, simply because this young man was her ticket out of a dead-end life in Florida. But their love flourished in Hollywood, despite some serious hardships. They struggled with financial problems for much of their lives, and their first son, who had autism, was for many years badly mistreated by doctors.

In my profession, there is, understandably, a lot of value placed on films that push at the edges of form and style and that lead viewers on transformational experiences. We love to put our blazers on and sit on panels to talk about how this or that movie redefines Truth or dares to reveal something fundamental and troubling about the Way We Live Now. But Harold and Lillian is a movie that embodies the no-nonsense modesty of its subjects. It’s not going to redefine documentaries or transform our understanding of cinema. Nor will it shake us out of our tech-enabled half-life dream states and make us realize we’ve been living a lie. I might not even remember it a month from now. But for an hour and a half, this charming little movie, with its chatty talking heads and its sweet-natured subjects, offers a glimpse into the lives of two fascinating people whom I had never heard of, and who shared an unlikely life filled with achievements and setbacks, wonder and pain.

Also, it was Harold’s idea for the stormtroopers in Spaceballs to wear giant balls on their heads, and for that I will be eternally grateful.