Editor’s Note: From yesterday’s costumes we turn to the production design today in our journey through the Oscar categories leading up to February 28’s Oscar Night.
Trivia: The last science fiction / fantasy film to win the Oscar in this category without being a period film was Avatar in 2009 and before that it was Batman in 1989. Adam Stockhausen is the only past winner nominatred this year. He ahs been nominated for the 2013, 2014 and now 2015 ceremonies. Eve Best has been nominated thrice before, but never won.
Although we may not be able to predict which film will have the best production design according the Academy Award voters, it is most certainly a bifurcated competition. Set in either the near-future or the past, the Oscar-winning design is inspired by either extreme vastness or by intricate detail. Audiences have been treated to the gloriously snowy Sublime of Alberta, Canada in The Revenant (Jack Fink), the vast emptiness of extra-terrestrial dust in The Martian (Arthur Max) and the apocalyptic desert wasteland of Mad Max: Fury Road (Colin Gibson). On the other end of the spectrum, viewers have been treated to the lavish art-nouveau of the 1920s in The Danish Girl (Eve Stewart) as well as the faux-noir Cold War 1960s Bridge of Spies (Adam Stockhausen). However stunning each of these films is, only one of the nominees will take that coveted golden statue home. In her interview with production designer of The Danish Girl, Eve Stewart, Madeleine Davies explains that “[a] production designer’s job is to oversee all visual elements of a film and help shape its visual theme,” .However, it is not solely the creation of beautiful scenery that gets you the Oscar, and Oscar-Nominee Eve Stewart herself suggests that production design must “support the characters and the story wherever [it can]” in order to fulfil its purpose.
Notably, the production design of The Danish Girl does exactly that. The art as well as the architecture was designed to act as pathetic fallacy to the characters emotions, through the use of colour specifically, and succeeds in every respect. Inspired by Vilhelm Hammershøi’s paintings, the early emotional developments within the film are supported by mostly white, blue and grey, while during the period of Gerda Wegener’s success and her husband’s alter ego Lili’s growing confidence, the colours in the production design explode into the brighter and more colourful palette of Gerda’s own paintings. The film is a period set-piece like most of the other nominees, but especially Stewart does not shy away of showing us that a film’s production can be as artfully designed as the paintings it is based on.
Falling into a similar category, the Bridge of Spies’ production design recreates the late fifties and early sixties around a story ‘based on true events.’ Although it may not be as exuberant as The Danish Girl, the film uses the free range camera movement as well as its colour to its fullest potential: brown, blues and greys rule in Adam Stockhausen’s vision of the past (who also happens to be the genius behind last year’s Grand Budapest Hotel Academy success).
The men’s world established in the film therefore still is placed in that curiously recognisable Cold War timeline, but with a modern twist. As a historical drama, the film’s locations are various and complicatedly constructed to be as historically accurate as they can possibly be. This skill is shown off in the first 10 minutes especially as a near-silent opening scene has the audiences chasing a man from alleys, to main roads, and to subway stations of Brooklyn in ’57. The true feat of this production is the full recreation of Berlin in the 60s. The modern city notably lacked that iconic and crucial wall that had divided its former self, which meant Stockhausen had to rebuild it in a Polish town nearby. Using old German video images of the original construction and Stockhausen’s material, director Stephen Spielberg was able to bring the dreaded beast back to life. The sheer scale of this production as well as its intricate design details is what makes this film a viable Oscar candidate.
Perhaps not as detailed, but definitely more breathtakingly large is the production of The Revenant, which has a distinctly different tone and palate from the other nominees. It is fair to say that this film’s production design was not so much up to its designer Jack Fisk, as it was up to the beautiful landscape. This leaves the production itself unsurprisingly bare, but not unimpressive. The wood, mud and stone we encounter in the scenes is all Fisk could get his hands on at each location and with it he then built both the Indian villages and the poacher’s outpost. However, Fisk’s hand is mostly visible in the dream sequences, which convey some incredibly impressive imagery when it comes to story. Built from Styrofoam molds, Fisk’s production team created an entire deteriorating church and a mountain of bison skulls that do not only looked authentic, but eerily embody Glass’ dance with death and memory within the film. The haunting images of the desolate places, crumbling civilization and the cold touch of this cruel wilderness compliment the story well, but I would argue the film owes more to director Alejandro Iñárritu and DoP Emmanuel Lubezki excellent eye for the larger-than-life landscapes than it does the production design for its skill or imagery.
In contrast, Mad Max: Fury Road’s production (pictured in the header image) very much depended on man-made designs as the desolate Namib desert into Mad Max’ post-apocalyptic sand world. This production team was responsible for most of what makes this film so enticing, namely “all props and weapons, sets and settings, and, of course, the vehicles that ‘drive’ the film’s action” (Creative Media Skills). This immense effort becomes especially clear when contrasted with the earlier Mad Max films and it is safe to say that Colin Gibson has put his budget to good use in improving its former style. With the expertise of Guy Norris (stunt co-ordinator) as well as Dan Oliver and Andy Williams (SFX), Gibson was able to make the vehicles come ‘alive’ in a choreographic orchestra of the action scenes, which gave DoP John Seale some amazing material to work with. Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the most spectacular production designs I have ever seen and is very serious contender for the top spot this year.
Very similarly bare is the landscape in The Martian, although Arthur Max’s production team was tasked with working on a less creatively flexible design: scientifically accurate reality. The Martian, with some help from NASA, lived up to that reputation (how can we expect anything less than ground-breaking from Ridley Scott’s loyal production designer?). Max’s team was tasked with recreating NASA HQ, building a high-tech Martian base in the Jordanian desert and design a fully operational spaceship. Drawing on inspiration from 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick 1968) and NASA’s research, The Martian production team was ready to “make it look cool” (Interview conducted by Krisopher Tapley). Like Blade Runner before it, The Martian skilfully shows us a vision of our own future, and a gorgeous one at that. Although their nomination shows they succeeded in doing so, the designs itself are as emotionally cold as they are practical. Literally created by the numbers the production is based on interpretations of NASA’s existing colour palettes and constructions. Nevertheless, it deserves high praise for the amount of effort put into the realistic feel of the whole, which is absolutely stunning.
Some of my own personal favourites are unfortunately missing from the list: the beautiful Crimson Peak (PD Thomas E. Sanders), the smooth and futuristic Ex Machina (PD Mark Digby) and the gloriously nostalgic The Force Awakens (PD Rick Carter). Undoubtably, we are just not meant to have it all. However, the excellence of the nominees is undeniable. Ranging from art form to an intricate historical drama, to post-apocalyptic or outer-worldy wastelands and the wild snowy Sublime, these production will ultimately be examined for skill, dedication, and emotional connection. As it is an amazing feat of practical film magic instead of simply paying for CGI, my vote goes out to Mad Max for now. However, the well-deserved rewatch of each of the nominees is bound to keep my vote in swing till the end of Febuary.