Celluloid Skyline

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The landmark study of a mythic city of the imagination—movie New York—hailed by Jane Jacobs as a “marvelous—miraculous—book.”

The product of a twelve-year-long research and writing effort, Celluloid Skyline: New York the Movies was published by Alfred A. Knopf in the US in 2001 and Bloomsbury Press in the UK a year later. Since its publication, Celluloid Skyline has been recognized around the world as a landmark study of the relationship of the city and film—”a powerful, almost three-dimensional way of looking at moviemaking as somehow parallel to the art of city making,” in the words of the critic Phillip Lopate. The book has given rise to an award-winning website and a major exhibition at Grand Central Terminal.

Brilliantly acute...wonderfully informed and informative, Celluloid Skyline...is virtually without precedent...given its depth of research, the richly detailed elegance of its critical argument and, most important, its ability to expand and redirect the way we think....As [Sanders] observes, New York remains the single greatest locus…of American dreaming. Sanders is the Freud of that dream, its hugely informed and gracefully civilized interpreter.
Richard Schickel, Los Angeles Times
What a marvelous—miraculous—book!
Jane Jacobs
#Mythic Places
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Celluloid Skyline tells a story of two cities, both called “New York.” One is a real city, an urban agglomeration of millions. The other is a mythic city, so rich in memory and association and sense of place that to people everywhere it has come to seem real: the New York of 42nd Street, Rear Window, King Kong, Dead End, The Naked City, Ghostbusters, Annie Hall, Taxi Driver, Do the Right Thing—a magical city of the imagination that is as complex, dynamic and familiar as its namesake of stone and steel. The book’s 330 images include many rare and unusual production stills, such as the view above of Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly, and director Alfred Hitchcock on Paramount’s Greenwich Village courtyard set for Rear Window (1954).

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Despite its subtitle, Celluloid Skyline is not, in a sense, a book about movies. Instead it uses movies as a kind of instrument, or platform, from which to apprehend the shape and meaning of the modern city. In its pages, scenes and moments from hundreds of studio and location-shot films are assembled into an invented urban construct that can be explored as one would any city: by wandering through it, coming to know the character and mood and rhythm of its various spaces. That exploration, in turn, refracts back on the actual New York to deepen our appreciation and understanding of the existing city, and so help better envision its future. Created for Fox’s Just Imagine (1930), a remarkable vision of New York in 1980 (above, right) features interconnected skyscrapers, multi-level roadways, elevated bridges, and flying cars.


Though the pages of Celluloid Skyline span more than a century—from the decades before World War I, when film pioneers shot in the actual city, through the rise of an invented New York in the Hollywood studio era of the 1930s and ‘40s, to the postwar period, when the film industry returned to the streets—the book is thus not chronological but urbanistic in structure, taking readers on an extended “tour” of the streets, skyscrapers, rooftops, hotels, waterfronts, and apartment, tenement, rowhouse, and loft interiors of fictive city of “movie New York.” The opening chapter of that tour carries readers around the fantasy landscape of the dream city’s skyscrapers, in which fictive figures of unearthly scale and power bring to life the unique possibilities of modern skyline, from the Stay-Puft Man scaling Central Park West in 1984’s Ghostbusters (above, left) to the legendary ape mounting the top of the Empire State Building in 1933’s King Kong, seen here in an RKO art department sketch (above, right).

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To immerse himself fully in movie New York, Sanders needed to “cross the screen”—to understand firsthand, as an architect, how the filmic city was designed and constructed. He embarked on a ten-year research effort, visiting collections in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, and London, haunting Hollywood backlots, identifying locations in New York, studying art department sketches and construction drawings, plunging into studio archives for little-seen production stills, and conducting interviews with filmmakers, from such directors as Paul Mazursky, Martin Scorsese, and Susan Seidelman to veteran Hollywood art directors, who provided insights into the workings of the studio system, in which grips might install a scenic backing of midtown Manhattan behind Raymond Massey in 1949’s The Fountainhead (above, left), or a stretch of 19th century Madison Avenue would be constructed on the Warners’ backlot for 1948’s Life with Father (above, right).

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“An American city seems to have stepped right out of the movies,” Jean Baudrillard has written. “To grasp its secret, you should not, then, begin with the city and move inward toward the screen; you should begin with the screen and move outward toward the city.” In the end, Celluloid Skyline is intended less as a work of criticism or history than as a search for useful lessons—or perhaps “secrets”—in how the real city works, and, no less importantly, how to make a better city to come.


Theatre Library Association, Merit Award, 2002

Video + Radio Interviews

The Charlie Rose Show,” television interview, 02/14/2002

Cities on the Big Screen,” interview with Andrew Tuck, “The Urbanist,” Monocle

Celluloid Skyline,” video segment on Monocle, 6/1/2007

City on Screen,” with Sara Fisko, Fisko Files, WNYC

Print—United States

Here the Motion Picture Began,” Kevin Lerner, Architectural Record, 6/06/2002

Above and Below,” Jenna Weissman Joselit, The New Republic, 05/27/2002

Movies and the Metropolis,” Phillip Lopate, Metropolis, April 2002: 118. 

“Celluloid Skyline,” Emily Barton, BookForum, Spring 2002: 41. 

Celluloid Skyline,” Michael Webb, L.A. Architect, April 2002: 14.

“Celluloid Skyline,” Leonard Quart, Cineaste, Spring 2002: 57.

In Films, Twin Towers Had No Star Power,” Sarah Boxer, New York Times, 2/4/2002, E1

On-Screen, A City of Towering Achievement,” Alona Wartofsky, Washington Post, 1/27/2002: G1

New York Images,” John Freeman, Chicago Tribune, 1/13/2002

The View from Hollybeca,” Julie Lasky, New York Times, 1/10/2002: F1.

Manhattan Transfer,” Michael Joseph Gross, Boston Globe, 1/16/2002: E3. 

“Manhattan on Film,” Dennis Drabelle, Washington Post, 1/6/2002: T5

The Reel Deal,” Francine Russo, Village Voice, 1/1/2002: 57

Celluloid Skyline,” The New Yorker, 12/31/2001

New York Architecture, in Reality and Cinema,” Christina Nunez, The Hartford Courant, 12/30/2002

Just Like I Pictured It: The Faces of the City, Filmed,” Tom Shone, New York Observer, 12/10/2001: 25

How Hollywood Helped Create New York,” Richard Schickel, Los Angeles Times Book Review, 12/6/2001: 2.

It’s a Wonderful Town,” Justine Elias, Daily News, 11/25/2001: 12

Celluloid Skyline,” Publishers Weekly, 11/19/2001: 59

Celluloid Skyline,” Kirkus Reviews, 11/1/2001


High Rise: Skyscrapers on Film,” Nicolas Barber, Yerepouni News (Armenia), 4/7/2015

Postopolis: James Sanders,” City of Sound (London), 6/12/2007

“Filmgalen arkitekt zoomar in mysternas New York,” by Nicolas Wenno, Dagens Nyheter (Stockholm), 4/30/ 2005: 10-12

Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies,” Alan Saunders, Sydney Morning Herald, 1/18/2003

Fast Lane,” Christopher Bray, Literary Review (London), December 2002: 60-61

New York in Kino Gesehen. Gefreut,” Die Welt (Frankfurt), 10/26/2002

The Ediface Complex,” Evan Williams, The Australian (Sydney), 10/19/2002: B08

Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies,” Paul Byrne, Sunday Business Post (Dublin), 10/13/2003

The Manhattan Projection,” Philip French, The Guardian (London), 10/1/2002 : 16. 

Star Material,” Edwin Heathcote, The Architect’s Journal (London), 9/26/2002: 48

The Big Apple Caught on the Silver Screen,” Nicholas Wapshott, The Times (London), 9/11/2002: 20. 

Once Seen, Never Forgotten,” Christopher Sylvester, Sunday Times (London), September 2002: 35. 

Reinventing Dream City” D.D. Guttenplan, The Guardian (London), 9/6/2002: 34-36

Expanded Horizons,” Kenneth Anderson, Times Literary Supplement (London), 9/6/2002: 4

Screen Double,” Douglas McCabe, The New Statesman (London), 8/19/2002: 38

Big Apple and Silver Screen,” Gerald Kaufman, The Sunday Telegraph (London), 8/18/2002: 14. 

Manhattan Transfer,” Geoff Dyer, The Independent (London), 8/31/ 2002: 15

Stars Werben fur New York,” Helmut Sorge, Der Spiegel (Hamburg), 2/5/2002

A City Rewriting Its Own Fantastic Script,” Bill Buford, The Guardian (London), 12/15/2001

Praise for Celluloid Skyline

Turning every page of this sublimely illustrated book brings a new thrill, not just because the pictures are so apt and so exquisitely presented but also because the text is so lucid, so cogently argued, so dense with pertinent examples, and even, dare I say it, poetic.
Christopher Sylvester

One of the most important, and enjoyable, books about the effect of Hollywood on our perception of reality, in particular, the reality of New York City, that I have ever read. His research has been staggering, the hundreds of films stills alone, all but a few unknown to me, would justify a prize for archival industriousness. But he has put a corresponding amount of original thought into the story of how New York’s urban development, in all its glamor and grime, was taken with then to Hollywood by the writers forced west by the Depression....Sanders seems to know everything...
Alexander Walke

[Sanders’] enthusiasm is well calibrated, with nicely timed, wow-inducing excursuses throughout, on art history, politics, architecture, or the technical details of film production. And hundreds of photographs —beautifully reproduced, many of them previously unpublished – are often rivaled for interest by their corking captions....[A] brilliant synthesis of film history, architectural criticism, and the politics of artistic production...
Michael Joseph Gross

As an architect, Sanders’ knowledge of design and structure enhances Celluloid’s nearly 500 pages. His keen eye and accessible style make us understand, say, the difference between Warner Bros.’ concept of Broadway and MGM’s, where “the theaters...were typically streamlined art deco masterpieces.” Many of the book's 328 sharp illustrations haven't been seen since they left studio files, and the Afterword and Acknowledgment section is a veritable study guide to Hollywood studio era methods of recording design aspects of production. The culmination of Sanders’ 15 years of work has become a timely tribute to a skyline that, with and without the World Trade Center, can never be diminished.
Lisa Mitchell

Richly illustrated, elegantly written, and keenly perceptive....overflowing with information and insight....an encyclopedic, consistently smart book with an original perspective.
Leonard Quart

Sanders organizes this highly readable tome by chronology and architectural element....It’s easy to amble from cover to cover, or you can skim and stop as your whim takes you. The volume is chock-full of historical and technical detail: the addresses of turn-of-the-century film companies, the evolution of cameras and sound, evolving art directors’ techniques and tools....Drawing on exhaustive scholarship from wide-ranging sources, Sanders’s unique contribution is showing us through an architect’s lens how various social and cinematic developments merge....Clearly a labor of love, Celluloid Skyline helps you see both the city and the movies anew.
Francine Russo

Sanders is an architect by training, and his book, whose readings of the cinema’s numerous New York stories would put many a professional critic to shame, is built to last. Page for page, this is the best new film book of the year.
Christopher Bray, The Literary Review

Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies is a magnificent book, a searching and intelligent account of how the city shaped the movies and, in turn, how the myth making power of the movies helped shape the city....James Sanders is not a film critic or historian; he’s an architect. Yet his knowledge of movies and filmmaking is profound, and his approach to the movies through his professional discipline is unique and revelatory.
Charles Matthews

James Sanders’s...wonderfully informed and informative Celluloid Skyline...is virtually without precedent...given its depth of research, the richly detailed elegance of its critical argument and, most important, its ability to expand and redirect the way we think about movies....Brilliantly acute....with unflagging energy and attention to detail on literally hundreds of movies, through the decades, through every imaginable genre....As [Sanders] observes, New York remains...the single greatest locus not just of California dreaming but of American dreaming. Sanders is the Freud of that dream, its hugely informed and gracefully civilized interpreter. And his great work causes us finally to think afresh not just about his particular subject but also about the whole vast movie enterprise.
Richard Schickel

Sunday Telegraph

This beautifully produced and totally irresistible volume demonstrates the omniscience and omnivorousness of James Sanders, an architect who not only appears to know everything that needs to be know about New York architecture but, in addition, everything that needs to be known about the cinema, and about architecture as it relates to the cinema.
Gerald Kaufman

What a marvellous – miraculous – book! I don’t know whether I’m more bowled over by the pictures or the text; of course it’s the two together, and the intelligence and thought guiding both
Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Thorough, smart, informative, entertaining, beautifully illustrated and designed....a powerful, almost three-dimensional way of looking at moviemaking as somehow parallel to the art of city making. Sanders has nailed what he set out to do: he has written what should be the definitive study on the subject, and he has also left us with a strong model for any future research on the meeting between the metropolis and the movies.
Phillip Lopate

You won’t read a more lucid or measured insight into a city’s consciousness than Celluloid Skyline....Sanders’s encyclopedic exploration of interiors and architecture in three films by Woody Allen....is splendidly used to capture changes in civic sympathies and a more optimistic view of urban life. And his essay on perhaps the greatest New York movie, Rear Window...is among the most perceptive in the mighty Alfred Hitchcock library.
Douglas McCabe

In these densely illustrated pages, Sanders proposes that there have been two New Yorks throughout the twentieth century —the real city where we live, and a dream, or movie, city, made up of images and models and sets and mattes....To his great credit, he sees the dream city not as a myth in need of deconstruction but as a commentary in need of explication—a kind of parallel universe, neither more nor less fantastic than the subject it mimics and enlarges. He is subtle—his analysis between the Manhattan of “Annie Hall” and the Manhattan of “Manhattan,” two years later, is worth the price of admission—and, to judge by the movies he praises...he is also sound.
Adam Gopnik

Sanders...has a rich and deep understanding of the ways movies about New York have beamed out a siren song to people around the country....This is a massive project, and yet Sanders’ efforts do not flag....With Celluloid Skyline, Sanders does justice to the people who have raised up this creation on the silver screen.
John Freeman

Sanders’s book seems to tell us virtually everything there is to know about Hollywood’s long-standing relationship with the Empire City...[W]e come away from this book grateful to its author for heightening our understanding of how the fabled and filmic New York has stolen our imagination.
Jenna Weissman Joselit

  • Written by:
    James Sanders
  • Publishers:
    New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001 (US)
    London: Bloomsbury, 2002 (UK & British Commonwealth)
  • Funding & Support:
    National Endowment for the Arts
    Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts
    New York State Council on the Arts
    Furthermore, a program of the J.M Kaplan Fund
  • Research Associate:
    Joan Cohen
  • Interior Design:
    Ralph L. Fowler
  • Cover Design:
    Chip Kidd
  • Photo Credits:
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