Albert Nozaki, 91; Art Director for Movie ‘War of the Worlds’

Times Staff Writer

Albert Nozaki, an Academy Award-nominated art director whose credits include the epic “The Ten Commandments” and the science-fiction classic “The War of the Worlds,” has died. He was 91.

Nozaki, whose nearly four-decade career at Paramount Pictures was interrupted by his relocation to the Manzanar internment camp during World War II, died of complications of pneumonia on Nov. 16 in a hospital in Los Angeles.

“He was one of the last great studio-system art directors,” Eric Warren, an art director, told The Times this week.


Beginning as a draftsman in the Paramount set-design department in 1934 and continuing until his retirement in 1969 as the studio’s supervising art director for features, Nozaki worked on innumerable films.

Among his credits as an art director are “The Big Clock,” “Sorrowful Jones,” “Appointment with Danger,” “Pony Express,” “Houdini,” “The Buccaneer” and “Loving You.”

Nozaki received an Academy Award nomination for color art direction, with Hal Pereira and Walter H. Tyler, for director Cecil B. De Mille’s 1956 production of “The Ten Commandments.”

But Nozaki knew which movie he would be best remembered for, said his friend, Robert Skotak, an Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor (“Aliens” and “Terminator 2”).

“The last time I saw him he said, ‘I guess “The War of the Worlds” is my masterpiece,’ ” Skotak told The Times. “He said this in a very humble way because everybody had been telling him that. Al was very modest. He was a sweet, very special person.”

Nozaki had worked on producer George Pal’s 1951 science fiction film “When Worlds Collide” when Pal tapped him as art director to convert and modernize the written visuals for his 1953 screen version of the H.G. Wells novel about Martians invading Earth.

The Technicolor movie, directed by Byron Haskin and starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, is considered a classic of the genre and won an Academy Award for best visual effects.

The filmmakers built a downtown Los Angeles in miniature, and one of the movie’s most memorable scenes shows a Martian war machine firing a deadly ray that disintegrates City Hall.

“For Angelenos, that had to be quite a shock; it seemed totally real,” said Bob Burns, a Burbank movie historian and collector who knew Nozaki. “They did so many innovative tricks that had never been done in a film before. It was just a unique picture, and Al’s contribution to that was enormous. The look of the whole film was all his.”

The “remarkable thing” about Nozaki’s work on “The War Of the Worlds,” according to Skotak, “is he story-boarded the entire movie himself, meaning he drew every camera angle, including what’s in the shots. He also designed all the technology -- the war machines, the meteor, the Martians -- all the special things that are in the movie that don’t exist.”

In an interview for an Art Directors Guild Film Society tribute to his career in 2000 that included a screening of “The War of the Worlds,” Nozaki described how he came up with the memorably menacing Martian war machines, which resembled manta rays.

“In the original script, the three legs of the ship were extended, based on the ideas in H.G. Wells’ work,” Nozaki said. “But I realized there was an impracticality of the design, given that it was the 1950s and significant technological changes had taken place since the original novel and even the [1938] radio broadcast” by Orson Welles.

“I took the initiative to make it another shape, and in July 1951 on a Sunday afternoon at home, the shape of a sea creature flashed across my mind,” he said. “The mushroom-like Martian also was my design, and made life-size so a man could enter it and maneuver its extremities. The film looks as futuristic now as it did back then.”

Warren, who interviewed Nozaki for the Art Directors Guild tribute, agrees.

“I think the space ship and the creatures really had an organic feeling and a reality in the creepiest possible fashion that many science-fiction creations of the period didn’t have,” he said. “You get the feeling that there is something alien there.”

One of three sons of a banker father, Nozaki was born in Tokyo on New Year’s Day, 1912. His family moved to the United States when he was 3 and settled in Los Angeles, where Nozaki demonstrated an early ability in art, particularly drawing.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from USC in 1933 and a master’s degree in architectural engineering from the University of Illinois in 1934. An invitation that year to tour Paramount from a friend who worked at the studio prompted Nozaki to apply for a job in the art department.

Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he was abruptly dismissed from his job at Paramount. In the spring of 1942, in the roundup of 120,000 West Coast residents of Japanese descent, he and his wife, Lorna, were forced first into a distribution center at Santa Anita and then sent to the Manzanar internment camp in California’s Owens Valley.

In April 1943, after they and other detainees signed pledges stating their willingness to defend the United States and to relocate to the Midwest, the Nozakis were allowed to leave Manzanar.

Nozaki worked as an industrial designer in Chicago until returning to Paramount after the war and beginning what the Art Directors Guild Film Society called the “most prolific phase of his career.”

He became a U.S. citizen in 1954.

In 1963, he was stricken with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that would leave him blind a decade later.

Although he ultimately had to give up set work, he was appointed to the prestigious position of Paramount Pictures’ supervising art director for features, a job he held until his retirement in 1969.

He is survived by his wife, Lorna, of Los Angeles; his daughter, Elin, of Monterey Park; and his brother, Ken, of El Cerrito, Calif. A memorial service was held Monday at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills.