Saturday, February 6, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Production Design

The recreation of the Berlin Wall in Bridge of Spies is one of the most impressive feats of production design this year.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Best Production Design

The nominees are:

If the point of film is to transport us to other worlds, which I believe it is, then the art directors, set decorators, and production designers are the people who make those worlds feel real. They provide the texture and life that allow us to get lost in places we never imagined finding ourselves. They create the universes in which filmmakers set their stories and the spaces in which actors explore their characters’ lives. Their job is to make the artifice of film feel like reality for a couple hours.

It is probably for all those reasons the Academy has shown disproportionate love to period and fantasy films over the years. It has been nearly 40 years since a contemporary drama won this category – All the President’s Men in 1976, primarily for its recreation of the office of The Washington Post. This year, the only nominee that could even be considered contemporary would be The Martian, and it is a sci-fi film set in the future, so even if it were to win, I think the streak stays alive. The rest of the nominees fit firmly within the confines of the Academy’s wheelhouse.

Mad Max: Fury Road – From that jumping-off point, Mad Max: Fury Road is a fantasy, I suppose, but in only the loosest sense of that word. George Miller’s twisted post-apocalyptic actioner takes place in a true hellscape. Every element of this film looks like it was created by demons, which is absolutely perfect for the feeling Miller is trying to evoke. There are a lot of beautiful little details in this film, but if we are being honest, what people remember are the war rigs and other vehicles. They are fully operational marvels of design and craftsmanship – and they look damn cool.

Production designer Colin Gibson, a first-time nominee with few feature films to his credit, came up with the designs for most of the war rigs, and he and his team brought his nightmarish ideas to life. Meanwhile, set decorator Lisa Thompson, also a first-time nominee, populates each scene with the kind of small touches that sell the truth of this hell.

Bridge of Spies – Moving from the creation of a whole new reality to the recreation of an old one, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is a gorgeously realized Cold War thriller that takes audience back in time to early 1960s Berlin. While much of the film is wonderfully decorated – James Donovan’s home décor and the Soviet offices are particularly impressive – the element that stands out most, as I mentioned at length in my review, is the Berlin Wall. To watch the wall go up in Spielberg’s film is to forget the last 50 years of history and be transported to the moment when a world was literally and figuratively split in two.

Adam Stockhausen, the film’s production designer, won his first Academy Award just last year for Wes Anderson’s storybook The Grand Budapest Hotel, and he was previously nominated two years ago for 12 Years a Slave. Meanwhile, these are the first nominations for set decorators Rena DeAngelo and Bernhard Heinrich. DeAngelo did, however, win an Emmy for production design for her work on the pilot episode of Mad Men, which evokes a similar early ‘60s feel, though with a clear emphasis on Americana.

The Danish Girl – A bit of a surprise nominee, though not entirely unpredictable, director Tom Hooper’s Lili Elbe biopic may not have caught on much with the Academy, but it is nothing if not beautifully rendered. This is the second year in a row a film about the life of an artist has been nominated in this category – after the excellent Mr. Turner last year – and with good reason. The controlled chaos of an artist’s workspace is not easy to capture, while the extravagant interiors of the high-class art world are an equally difficult challenge to master.

Production designer Eve Stewart has two previous nominations for wildly different work – the ornate designs of Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy and the understated reserve of Hooper’s The King’s Speech. Michael Standish on the other hand has been set decorator on just three feature films, though his work on last year’s Victor Frankenstein stands out despite that film’s critical and commercial failure. Stewart and Standish’s work on The Danish Girl is admirable, but they are up against four Best Picture nominees in this category, which means they are probably the least likely winners.

The Revenant – It is easy to get lost in the gorgeous, natural exteriors of The Revenant, but the production design team is as responsible for the beauty of the film’s world as Mother Nature. The work particularly shines in the varied designs of the camps of the many disparate groups trudging through the wilderness such as the French-Canadian fur trappers, the various native tribes, and Hugh Glass’ roaming campsite. In addition, Fort Kiowa, the destination for every major character in the film, is a tremendous feat of design and art direction, appearing as a sanctuary of human establishment amid the bleak and unforgiving wild.

Production designer Jack Fisk, a previous nominee for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, has worked extensively with director Terrence Malick. Indeed, his work on Malick’s The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and in particular The New World feels of a piece with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s very Malick-like meditation on the natural world and man’s place in it. Set decorator Hamish Purdy has spent most of his career as an assistant on big-budget blockbusters, but he finds the right level of restraint and detailing to fit perfectly into the world of The Revenant.

The Martian – I complained last year that the Academy sometimes is inexplicably wowed by sci-fi films that recreate the complex inner workings of spaceships. Specifically, nominations in consecutive years for Gravity and Interstellar felt unwarranted. I stand by those complaints, but Ridley Scott’s The Martian is a different story. Yes, it also features a number of sequences aboard semi-futuristic spaceships, but its real standout work is in the Martian basecamp and the NASA headquarters, which each take elements familiar to us and make them fresh and interesting.

Arthur Max is a three-time nominee who has worked almost exclusively as a production designer for Scott the past 15 years. As much as Scott has hopped across genres, Max has followed him there with wonderfully varied work on films as disparate as Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster, and Prometheus. Set decorator Celia Bobak, a previous nominee for the musical adaptation The Phantom of the Opera, has not worked in the sci-fi genre before, which probably works to her advantage in making us feel like The Martian is not set very far outside our own reality.

The final analysis

The Art Directors Guild, the only real precursor for this category apart from the BAFTA Awards later this month, hand out three feature awards – fantasy, period, and contemporary. The winners this year were Mad Max: Fury Road for fantasy, The Revenant for period, and The Martian for contemporary. Bridge of Spies and The Danish Girl were also nominees for period. If we narrow the field to just the three winners, it seems probable the Academy will be drawn to the ostentatiousness of Mad Max: Fury Road, giving that film the slight edge here.

Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should have been here: Ex Machina

Tomorrow: Best Costume Design

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