Oscar Circuit: Best Production Design

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danteferrettiiNew name. Same Category. The Academy Award for Best Production Design celebrates the best in art direction and set design. Production designers have an incredibly difficult role in the making of film. Whether it’s a fantasy film set in far off world or a recreation of a historical building, production designers create the physical building blocks that allow us into the world of the film. Last year this award (called the Academy Award for Art Direction), went to Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo for Hugo.

And the 2012 Nominees are…
Sarah Greenwood – Anna Karenina
Dan Hennah – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Eve Stewart – Les Miserables
David Gropman – Life of Pi
Rick Carter, Jim Erickson, and Peter T. Frank – Lincoln

Lincoln is the most traditional of the nominees in the field, as the production designers. Given that this film is so much about the dialog and the political machinations of the characters, the production design had to be true enough to the era to not look fake, but also not so showy that it took away from the language. It also doesn’t hurt that film is set in our nation’s capital, therefore ensuring historical realism as a necessity to the production design. What impresses me more about this production design is that is how well it works with Janus Kaminski’s cinematography. Even though Kaminski added lighting in order to film, the team had to be cognizant of the shadows the objects on the set would cast. That amazing shot of Lincoln walking out to his coach near the end of the film wouldn’t have been possible without the close relationship between the production design and cinematography.

Les Miserables is 2nd to Lincoln in terms of traditional set design but with a few wrinkles thrown in. It’s got the enviable position of being both historical fiction and a musical, which allows for more expression with the design. Considering the miserable nature of most of the characters in the film, Eve Stewart manages to walk the tight rope of having the most dire areas look a mess but still interesting. It also must be an interesting job being a production designer for Tom Hooper in that sometimes you’re wore with be shown off with his canted angles (any scene set in a church looks amazing) or completely done in by his close ups (the prostitutes ship yard, especially during I Dreamed a Dream). Also, it must be noted as a fan of the musical, the barricade was pretty fantastic.

Certainly the most showy of the nominees, Sarah Greenwood’s work on Anna Karenina is a stunning example of form meeting function. The shifting sets inside the theater provide not just visual stimulation, but a fun backdrop to this tale of aristocracy. It’s impressive that Sarah Greenwood was able to use Joe Wright’s vision to such aplomb. Consider that at various points in the film the theater is used to house a clerks office, an opera, a ballroom, a field of grass, a train station, and a freaking horse race. It boggles my mind how rich and ornate they were able to make each set look, given the shifting nature of the tale. Even when the film breaks out of the theater, the production design doesn’t miss a step.

The most interesting nominee in this set is David Gropman. With the majority of film taking place on a boat, Life of Pi doesn’t really jump out at you as a traditional Production Design nominee. But I like that the Academy embraced the film in this way. Considering that everything about the design of this film has to not only serve the story, but the 3D filming, one can see how they came to the conclusion that this film should be nominated for an Oscar. Just think about the dimensions of the boat that Pi and Richard Parker move around, how the objects are placed within the ship and Pi’s raft, the detail with which Gropman managed to get is amazing. There are also really nice examples of production design with the zoo scenes and Pi’s home.

Which brings me to, the final nominee, Dan Hennah. Again? He’s been nominated for every film set in Middle Earth, equaling the number of times Stuart Craig was nominated for Harry Potter series and those noms were spread across 8 films. It’s not that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey doesn’t have new elements in the production design (the ork lair and Gollum’s cave are two of the best), but other than that we’ve seen these forests and Elven kingdoms before.

If I Had a Vote: Sarah Greenwood – Anna Karenina

Will Win: Rick Carter, Jim Erickson, and Peter T. Frank – Lincoln

Snubs: Cloud Atlas, The Impossible, Moonrise Kingdom, Prometheus, Skyfall