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2019 Oscar Circuit: Best Production Design

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The talented production designers nominated this year at the Oscars built the worlds of some of the most lauded films of the year. Whether it be 1960s Hollywood, 1940s Germany, present day Korea or every decade in between, there’s no stopping the talent behind these sets. In fact, all five of these films were nominated for Best Picture, in addition to Best Production Design.

The nominees for Best Production Design are:

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  • “The Irishman” – Production Design: Bob Shaw; Set Decoration: Regina Graves
  • “Jojo Rabbit” – Production Design: Ra Vincent; Set Decoration: Nora Sopková
  • “1917” – Production Design: Dennis Gassner; Set Decoration: Lee Sandales
  • “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” – Production Design: Barbara Ling; Set Decoration: Nancy Haigh
  • “Parasite” – Production Design: Lee Ha Jun; Set Decoration: Cho Won Woo

Now let’s take a deeper look at the nominees:

“The Irishman” – Production Design: Bob Shaw; Set Decoration: Regina Graves

Martin Scorsese has never been one to shy away from a challenge. The five decades-spanning epics of “The Irishman” has so much to admire, production design included. The painstaking recreations of the Teamsters rallies and Philadelphia from the 1950s really shine through, especially under Scorsese’s direction and Rodrigo Pierto’s cinematography. The ’70s set dinner honoring the titular Irishman, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), ranks as one of the most beautiful and grand sequences of the film. The production design helps chart the time period and passage of time better than even the visual effects do. It’s because Bob Shaw and Regina Graves have such an uncanny eye for period-specific detail.

The pure scope of “The Irishman” puts it in this category. Scorsese films have factored into this category before, with “Hugo” and “The Aviator” winning. Yet, those films were recreations of Hollywood, something that “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” does extremely well this year. While “The Irishman’s” production design visually recalls the mob movies of Scorsese’s past, those were not the films that were honored by Oscar in their time. As of late, “The Irishman” has found its buzz stalled, with many predicting it to go home empty handed. This wouldn’t be the first time a big budget Scorsese epic walks in with ten nominations and goes home with nothing (hi, “Gangs of New York”).

“Jojo Rabbit” – Production Design: Ra Vincent; Set Decoration: Nora Sopková

The tonal challenges of making a WW2 Nazi-centered comedy trickled down to every area of “Jojo Rabbit’s cast and crew. This includes the production design, which had to both accurately depict Nazi Germany while also feeling warm and lighthearted. Production designer Ra Vincent opted for bright technicolor, especially in Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) and Rosie’s (Scarlett Johansson) house. Yet, the Nazi offices have a clear, regimented bland-ness to them, helping to pull Jojo closer to the light.

Recently, this category has been kind to more offbeat films. Winners like “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Shape of Water” and “Hugo” suggest that artistic interpretations of the past can excel here. Unfortunately, “Jojo Rabbit” lacks the big grand sets that made each of those films frontrunners. The pops of color help set this apart from its more dour or realistic competitors. However, this is likely not quite enough to sway a majority of voters.

“1917” – Production Design: Dennis Gassner; Set Decoration: Lee Sandales

For films that take place largely outdoors, it can be harder to appreciate the production design. “1917” features large sections of the film where our heroes – Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) run about the Western front. However, the production design not only accurately recreates the trenches and tunnels of WW1. It also provides a richly textured, navigable sense of place for Roger Deakins’ camera to roam around in. One can almost map out every twist and turn of the trenches. The night-time abandoned town feels glorious and grand, especially being as remote as it is. It takes an expert filmmaker to highlight the spectacular job of production design.

The recent BAFTA win shows that “1917” is a major threat in this category. If voters love the film as much as precursors suggest, its best day at the Oscars could be eight wins. Still, it takes more than Best Picture heat alone to win this category. The only Best Picture winner this decade to also win Best Production Design was “The Shape of Water,” which was already favored to win this category. War movies, like “The Darkest Hour,” “The Imitation Game” and “War Horse,” have struggled recently. While “Lincoln” could be considered a war film, it won this category more-so for its recreation of nineteenth century government buildings. If “1917” wins Best Production Design, it’s likely sweeping all the way to Best Picture.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” – Production Design: Barbara Ling; Set Decoration: Nancy Haigh

One cannot deny the skill it took to recreate 1960s Hollywood in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” The de-aging of so many Hollywood landmarks seems remarkable and eye catching. From Musso and Frank’s to El Condor, the film feels frozen in a bygone time. Not only that, it’s rosy colored lens deflects the impending terror of the Manson family and luxuriates in the iconic locales of the time. What fun it is to follow Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) to the Playboy mansion, even while dreading what horrors she may run into later. Sequences like Spawn Ranch are even more memorable, despite not being tied to famous places that are so easily recognizable. The vast expanse of this former movie set, now Manson compound, derives terror from its remote nature. The layout of the compound places Squeaky Fromme’s (Dakota Fanning) abode in the center, a hub to be protected.

If there’s one consistent theme this decade, it’s that Production Design goes to the most “Hollywood” movie. “Hugo,” “La La Land” and even “The Shape of Water” illustrate that the Academy’s love of self-referential movie lore pays off. Compared to those movies, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” has even more production design feats to show off. The recreation of Cielo Drive, Spawn Ranch and ’60s Hollywood Boulevard will thrill voters who lived during that time. Even the “Production Design within the film” (Rick Dalton’s old movie, the western set) add to the narrative to give the film this win. The ADG win helps justify this vote even further. The only thing standing in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s” way is the Best Picture heat from “1917” and “Parasite.” Will momentum propel them in front of this frontrunner?

“Parasite” – Production Design: Lee Ha Jun; Set Decoration: Cho Won Woo

“Parasite’s” thesis on class disparity becomes tangibly clear thanks to the amazing production design work. The beautifully sterile Park household feels miles away (and above) the underground apartment where the Kim family resides. Perhaps the biggest headline this Oscar season belongs to “Parasite,” as Production Designer Lee Ha Jun constructed both of these locations as sets. We start first with the Kim family, whose home features a toilet that is closer to ground level than anything else in the home. Their tight quarters visually conveys their poverty in ways that are interesting and novel. Meanwhile, the Park’s luxurious abode is so pitch perfect, it almost has to have been built.

What “Parasite” has in its favor is the degree of difficulty. The sets look great on their own, but knowing that both houses had to be constructed thrusts this further into the conversation for a win. The ADG win reinforces that voters, at least in the Art Directors branch, are aware of this facet of the campaign. Also, as “Parasite” gains heat in the Best Picture race, it stands to pick up other wins on its way to the big prize. However, the lone contemporary film this decade to win Best Production Design (“La La Land”) was a bright, Hollywood-focused musical that made its production design known. Will “Parasite’s” less overtly showy work be able to pull off the same feat?

Final Words

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Will Win: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” – Production Design: Barbara Ling; Set Decoration: Nancy Haigh

Should Win: “Parasite” – Production Design: Lee Ha Jun; Set Decoration: Cho Won Woo

Could Win: “1917” – Production Design: Dennis Gassner; Set Decoration: Lee Sandales

Should have been nominated: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (Production Design: Thomas Grézaud), “Pain and Glory” (Production Design: Antxón Gómez), “Ad Astra” (Production Design: Kevin Thompson; Set Decoration: Karen O’Hara)

Which Production Design nominee are you rooting for at the Oscars? Who should have been nominated? Comment below and share your thoughts! Also, make your picks at the Circuit Hub.

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Written by Christopher James

Christopher James has been an Oscar obsessive ever since watching his first ceremony at age 5 when "Titanic" won Best Picture. He is a recent graduate from Loyola Marymount University with degrees in Screenwriting for Film and Television and Marketing. Christopher currently works in media strategy and planning at Liquid Advertising, based out of Los Angeles, CA. You can find Christopher running on the sunny beach, brunching at trendy restaurants or mostly just sitting in a dark room watching movies and TV in sweatpants. Follow me on Twitter @cwj92movieman

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Ryan

I’m rooting for Parasite although I predict it will be 1917. Also, Shadow, Little Women, and Ready or Not should have been nominated.

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