The design of a film truly does “set the scene.” I’m obviously speaking literally in part – the sets fill up our screen and can therefore present interesting opportunities for glitz and glamor, the complete opposite or anything in between.
But I’m also speaking on a more fundamental level: sets and props build the atmosphere of the world a film's characters inhabit. If done well, the job of the directors and actors becomes much easier. It seems only fair that the talented individuals who engage in this art are recognized by their peers in an Oscar category.
Despite being called the Academy Award for Best Art Direction, the art director is unfortunately not awarded in the category. Rather, the production designer and the set decorator are cited. The production designer is in charge of the film’s entire art department as well as designing and blueprinting set construction. The set decorator is in charge of filling up those sets with elements that flesh out the space.
Much like in Best Costume Design, period films tend to dominate in this category, though slightly more fantasy films are cited here than there. Being a Best Picture nominee helps, though not as much as in many other categories. Despite some favorites, usually at least one or two of the production designers, and two or three of the set decorators, are first-time nominees each year. Fundamentally, I’d say what this branch goes for above all else is showiness.
So with those observations out of the way, what do I think are the major contenders this year?
In most categories, the “Harry Potter” series has had a mixed run with the Academy. There have only been two places where the series has scored more than once. One has been Best Visual Effects. The other has been Best Art Direction, with Stuart Craig and Stephanie McMillan finding a home here for “The Sorcerer’s Stone,” “The Goblet of Fire” and “The Deathly Hallows: Part 1.” With "The Deathly Hallows: Part 2" being the last chance to cite them for their accomplished work on this series (and indeed, the Art Directors Guild has already tapped them for their work on the series this year), I’m quite confident they’ll be back. The addition of Gringotts was one of the series’s great accomplishments from a set perspective. The real question is, will they win?
In my view, that depends largely on whether another fantasy film by a beloved production designer manages to triumph instead. I am speaking, of course, of “Hugo,” Martin Scorsese’s latest collaboration with Dante Ferretti. Ferretti finally won this category (on his seventh nomination) for Scorsese’s “The Aviator.” He won again three years later for Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” On this film, he will be combining period and fantasy on a very lavish production. Assisting him as set decorator is his frequent collaborator and real-life wife Francesca Lo Schiavo. This seems like an extremely likely nomination, and a real contender for the win.
Also firmly in the running, however, is Rick Carter for Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse.” Carter won this category two years ago for James Cameron’s “Avatar” and on this effort he now has the opportunity to recreate World War I-era Europe and Britain. Assuming the film is the contender we all expect it to be, I fully expect him to be in the running.
“The Artist” will recreate Old Hollywood of the late 1920s and 1930s and will have to take account of black-and-white filming. Moreover, I expect this film to be a tech category behemoth. Laurence Bennett has done interesting TV and contemporary work for years but has never had a real Oscar contender. I fully expect this to change that.
I’m less sure of how “The Help” will do overall in the craft categories. Its box office is certainly a mark in its favor, and I expect it to get at least two acting nominations, with Best Picture probably coming along (in my view) as well. Mark Ricker received a guild nomination for “Julie & Julia,” which indicates growing respect among his colleagues. That said, the work here not that showy compared to many other contenders, and the film is divisive as well. So we’ll see how Ricker’s run ultimately plays out.
On paper, “J. Edgar” seemed to be a prime contender for James Murakami to return to the Oscar game after earning his first nomination three years ago for Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling.” But even though the work was impressive and appropriately period, it seems to lack the showiness of many other potential contenders. Moreover, I think the cool reception to the film will be difficult to overcome.
In the realm of fantasy, Bo Welch’s take on Valhalla on Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor” required immense creativity and was integral to the plot. Welch has not been nominated in 14 years, if you can believe it, and the film will likely be forgotten by year’s end. But if it were to survive anywhere, it just may be here.
Another respected summer action film is “Captain America: The First Avenger,” which gave three-time nominee Rick Heinrichs the chance to do very creative fantasy work while also working in significant history elements. Heinrichs won this category for “Sleepy Hollow” and while I still believe other titles are more likely ultimately to survive to nomination morning, I don’t think it would be wise to write him off yet.
Also in the realm of showy period is “Anonymous,” which gave Sebastian Krawinkel the opportunity to craft a Roland Emmerich-style take on William Shakespeare. But as quality as the work was, blending sets with CGI seamlessly, I don’t think the film has much going for it that would result in Academy love.
“Jane Eyre” managed to earn much respect earlier in the year. The question still remains if it will be able to translate any of that into awards success at the end of the year. I’m not sure. That having been said, after Michael O’Connor’s costumes, Will Hughes-Jones’s helming of the art department would seem its best chance. Early 19th Century England does tend to pique the fancy of this branch from time to time (“The Young Victoria” and “The Duchess” jump to mind from recent years).
Moving along in British history, Sarah Greenwood received a very deserved nomination in this category two years ago (the third of her career) for “Sherlock Holmes.” This year, she is responsible for its sequel, “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.” I have no doubt her work will be very good and given that she’s drawn blood once on this franchise, she may well be able to do it again. Even so, one cannot help but wonder if the novelty will have worn off. The trailer looks even more slapstick than its predecessor, which I doubt will help matters.
Yet a little later in European history, albeit in Munich, is “A Dangerous Method,” which by all accounts has very fine production design courtesy of James McAteer. I don’t know if this film will catch on with the Academy at all. I think it likely won’t. Even so, if it manages to earn a berth in any categories, this would be among the most likely.
Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” won the hearts of many, myself included. While hardly on par with “Annie Hall” or “Manhattan,” the film played to many of Allen’s strengths and reminds us of many of the talents that make him one of the greats of cinema. That said, it hardly seems to be a crafts category sweeper. Nevertheless, Sonia Grande’s recreation of both modern and 1920s Paris required her to wear multiple design hats, and the period work, though subtle, was effective. If the Academy loves the film, which they might, could it score here?
Moving slightly more forward in history, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” recreates the spy world of the Cold War and by all accounts Maria Djurkovic’s work is excellent. The question is whether it will be too subtle for this branch. Moreover, will the film be able to find a base with a December release? It could end up being just the Gary Oldman show. Or not even that. Even so, I think Djurkovic has the strongest contender of her career, and this is among the film’s best chances outside of Oldman and the screenplay.
I’ll end by citing memorable low key work that likely won’t find its way to a nod but I thought I may as well flag: Jack Fisk’s design on Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” Fisk, who has worked on all five of Malick’s films, did innovative, frequently austere work that fit extremely well into Malick’s latest meditative effort. I for one loved the stark contemporary work even more than the more traditionally awards-friendly period and fantasy parts. The fact that all three blend together is a bonus. Fisk has remarkably only been nominated once over his four-decade career (for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood”), and his colleagues may just choose to further correct that injustice. Even so, the non-Academy-friendly nature of the film, and the minimalism of the production design, will be a hindrance.
Well that’s the way I see this category at the moment. A lot can happen over the next two months, however! How do you see it playing out?
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