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Ah, Best Production Design. It was about time the name was changed.
Previously known as “Best Art Direction,” the award doesn’t cite a movie’s art director. Rather, it recognizes both the production designer, who is in charge of the set designs and the overall art department, and the set decorator, whose responsibility it is to fill up those environments with accouterment that truly brings them alive.
The Designers Branch, as it is now known, votes for the nominees in Best Production Design. It also contains the costume designers, making the branch responsible for two of the Oscar categories, like the sound branch. And while the category’s name has changed, the rules have not, so branch's past behavior provides helpful guidance in handicapping this race.
The designers strongly prefer period pieces, which consistently make up two-to-four of the nominees, usually closer to four. That said, fantasy endeavors consistently score a nomination each year, sometimes up to three. Contemporary films are very rarely nominated.
As always, Best Picture contenders are worth paying attention to, but the branch is more inclined to independent thinking than many other crafts branches. Prior to the last few years (in which there were more than five Best Picture nominees), there hadn’t been more than one Best Picture nominee cited in this category since 2004. (2006 was a Best Picture-less year.)
Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” has proven to be divisive. I seriously doubt it’s heading towards a nomination in the top category. But there is no dispute whatsoever about the quality of its design elements. Sarah Greenwood has been nominated for two previous Wright efforts, “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement,” as well as Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes.” Even up until the morning of nominations, none of those nods seemed assured, as deserved as they all were. This nomination does seem assured from this vantage point, and I’d call Greenwood the favorite to win alongside her longtime set decorator Katie Spencer, with whom she has shared all her nominations.
“Les Misérables” also takes a classic novel to the screen, via the stage, where it was turned into a musical. Musicals tend to do well in this category, scoring nominations even when the films are overall disappointments (see “Nine,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Dreamgirls,” for instance). This will also be set in early 19th Century France, providing inherent opportunity to draw attention to itself. Eve Stewart probably came close to winning for “The King’s Speech” (she was also nominated for “Topsy-Turvy”), and I suspect she’ll be back in the thick of it for this Hooper collaboration.
Changing the setting to America, “Lincoln” is also set in the 19th Century, and ought to provide a range of venues for Rick Carter to showcase his talents, from the surface of the Civil War to Washington’s corridors of power. Carter, who won this award for “Avatar,” was nominated last year for collaborating with Spielberg on “War Horse.”
Speaking of Best Picture contenders, Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” paid exquisite attention to detail as it made us truly feel we were in a post-World War II world-of-opportunity that nonetheless confined people. Jack Fisk (Mr. Sissy Spacek) should have won this award for “There Will Be Blood” and he is working with co-production designer David Crank and set decorator Amy Wells this time around. I truly hope they are nominated. But given other work that is more likely to be showy, I have my doubts.
If there are close to 10 Best Picture nominees this year, something like Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” could sneak in. While I am hardly Anderson’s biggest fan in the world, the sweet and sentimental tale is probably his most Oscar-friendly film to date. While the sets were not extraordinarily showy, they were, like Fisk’s take on “The Master,” intricate and detailed. They appropriately created the period while also fitting into (this) Anderson’s semi-fantastical world. Adam Stockhausen has not been an awards magnet to date but that may not matter – it didn’t for Anne Siebel, who scored a somewhat surprising citation last year for “Midnight in Paris.”
Sharon Seymour created the late-70s/early-80s in painstaking detail for “Argo.” Hollywood itself was among her creations. I particularly loved some of the details added by set decorator Jan Pascale (Oscar-nominee for “Good Night, and Good Luck.”), such as massive period computers. Like most, I consider the film the Best Picture frontrunner, and while that is not an enormous bonus, it is still a sizable one. Admittedly, the work is not as showy as some other contenders. But I’d still give it strong consideration.
I’ll finish my discussion of the period contenders by looking to J. Michael Riva. Oscar-nominated for “The Color Purple,” Riva passed away this summer at the too-young age of 63. Prior to his death, he served as production designer on Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” (as well as the summer's "The Amazing Spider-Man"). While no Tarantino film has been nominated in this category (even, surprisingly, "Inglourious Basterds"), his films always give crafts artists an opportunity to shine. A 19th Century western also seems to be the sort of title that allows a production designer to show his or her craft. So depending on the film’s reception, Riva could well earn a posthumous nomination.
As I stated at the outset, this category makes room for at least one, often two or three fantasy titles each year. I’m not sure what will fill that space this year, but I see no reason to think that it will not be filled.
Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” was a visual treat. In both its space ship and its take on outer space, Arthur Max showed vision that was appropriately imaginative and futuristic. Max also earned nominations for Scott’s “Gladiator” and “American Gangster.” If the branch can remember this title in December, he may well find himself in contention.
On the note of prequels, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” marks the beginning of Peter Jackson’s three-part prelude to “The Lord of the Rings.” Not unlike George Lucas’s “Star Wars” prequels, I fear this could be bloated and detract from the strength of the original series. Even so, there is no denying this has great source material. And Grant Major’s production design on the original trilogy should be considered justly legendary. Dan Hennah, previously set decorator under Major, has graduated to production designer this time around. He’ll be in the conversation, even if he ultimately is not a nominee. Of that I’m confident.
The last fantasy film I’ll cite is also, at least to some extent, a period film: the Wachowski/Twyker adaptation of “Cloud Atlas.” Hugh Bateup and Uli Hanisch have not received Oscar love to date but they managed to blend many fantastical visions of the future with many different cultures across many different time periods. That would seem to be the stuff this category is made of. If, that is, the Academy can tolerate the movie; neither audiences nor critics have eaten it up.
Finally, I’ll turn to a film that is somewhat period, somewhat contemporary and even somewhat fantastical – Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi.” The film may be most memorable for its exteriors but its design should be very memorable indeed. Plus, it could always benefit from a potential sweep. David Gropman is probably due for a return since his unexpected nomination 13 years ago for “The Cider House Rules,” while set decorator Anna Pinnock has two nominations to her name.
So there are the top 11 real contenders as I see them. I feel more confident in narrowing down this field than, say, Best Sound Editing. But it’s possible I’ve missed someone. Who do you see making the cut?
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