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For the second year of "Best Production Design" (the category previously known as Best Art Direction), we have a slightly different system of choosing the nominees. That's because the costume designers have split off from the designers branch to form their own branch. It'll be interesting to see how this long overdue development affects the race in both categories.
The production design field in the past has favored period pieces, though at least one fantasy title tends to find a home every year. It is rare for truly contemporary films to be nominated.
The category, despite its name, awards set decorators as well as production designers. Being a veteran certainly doesn't hurt one's chances. But this is far from the Academy's most insular branch. Last year was, I believe, the first time since 1984 with no first-time nominees.
I don't expect that to happen again this year because, among other reasons, Adam Stockhausen looks reasonably assured of a nomination for Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave." Having done top-notch work last year on Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom," his recreation of 1800s America in meticulous detail on this leading Best Picture contender seems exactly what this branch is likely to embrace, even if a lot of the setting is exterior. Set decorator Alice Baker would also be a first-time nominee.
Michael Corenblith was previously nominated for two Ron Howard films: "Apollo 13" and "Dr. Suess' How the Grinch Stole Christmas." This year he gets to recreate both 1960s Hollywood and early 20th Century Australia on John Lee Hancock's "Saving Mr. Banks." The ability to show off two different historical periods on a likely Best Picture contender leads, in my view, to a likely nomination.
Another extremely likely nominee is Catherine Martin for Baz Lurhmann's "The Great Gatsby." Lurhmann's longtime production (and costume) designer is also his wife. She has won this Oscar for "Moulin Rouge!" and been nominated for "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet." (She has also won Best Costume Design for "Moulin Rouge!" and been nominated for "Australia.") Even detractors of this film could not dispute its outstanding design work. I expect a strong push in the visual categories and would be quite surprised if this meticulously detailed work (featuring superb set decoration from Beverley Dunn) does not end up in the final five.
While Martin is a consistent nominee for her collaborations with Lurhmann, Dan Hennah is a consistent nominee for his collaborations with Peter Jackson, having earned five nominations and a win over the past dozen years, first as a set decorator and then as a production designer. He and set decorator Ra Vincent were nominated last year for "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." This year's sequel "The Desolation of Smaug" will add new parts of Middle Earth, notably the dragon's lair. While I think the novelty will eventually wear off here, I still think that among the competition this year, they are likely in solid shape.
Space movies can be hit-or-miss here. But "Gravity" is clearly heading for a massive tally of nominations. And the branch has recently warmed up more and more to CGI-aided production design ("Avatar," "Life of Pi"). But this film also meticulously recreates interiors of the International Space Station and Soyuz spacecraft. Given those factors, Andy Nicholson must be considered a leading contender for Alfonso Cuarón's latest. But the built sets were not plentiful and it can't score everywhere, can it?
Far more subtle would be Jess Gonchor's recreation of early 1960s Greenwich Village on "Inside Llewyn Davis." This longtime collaborator of the Coen brothers and Bennett Miller was finally nominated for "True Grit" in 2010. Has that alerted the branch to his serious talents? I hope so. And this is certainly a film we will see more of this awards season. Set decorator Susan Bode was nominated 19 years ago for "Bullets Over Broadway."
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