It’s got a new name! Best Art Direction is now Best Production Design, in keeping with the equivalent change of the Academy branch. Of course, the name change doesn’t have any practical impact on the content of the category or its predictability, but it is cool nonetheless.
This year’s crop is an interesting bunch. Three of the five nominees are also up for Best Picture, though the category doesn’t align with the top often enough to make it a no-brainer. There are three period films and two fantasy films, in keeping with the Academy’s reluctance to award contemporary design.
And it goes without saying that most of the nominated films are visually stunning. Check out the nominees for Best Production Design with my prediction in red:
Why It Was Nominated: The theatrically-inspired sets of Anna Karenina are perhaps the most impressive component of this jeweled production. Embracing the fading glamour of late-19th Century Tsarist Russia, Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer worked with Joe Wright to translate an enormous novel into cinema by way of another art form entirely. Locations blend into one another as the cast dances through the condensed spaces of St Petersburg and Moscow, accompanied by swooping ominous trains, glimmering fireworks, and a perfectly constructed race track.
Why It Might Win: It’s the best work in the category, as well as the most creative. Greenwood and Spencer are due, after three nominations for Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, and Sherlock Holmes. If enough Academy members have seen the film it should be in pretty good shape.
Why It Might Not Win: The fact that Anna Karenina isn’t nominated for picture, writing or direction could be an indication of less support. The four nominations it did get are a good sign, but if there’s a groundswell for Life of Pi or Lincoln then Production Design could be folded into the larger vote tally for a Best Picture nominee.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Why It Was Nominated: The Academy may not have loved the film as a whole, but they’re certainly fans of the way Middle Earth looks. As they should be: The Shire might be old hat by now, but the underground goblin kingdom and the strange and wonderful world of Radagast the Brown are worth the attention.
Why It Might Win: Residual love for the Lord of the Rings trilogy would be the only way The Hobbit can pull this off. Production designer Dan Hennah already has an Oscar for Return of the King, and set decorators Ra Vincent and Simon Bright are veterans of the project (though they had lower profile jobs for the trilogy and were thus not nominees).
Why It Might Not Win: The Hobbit has been criticized for being a mediocre and messy afterthought to a trilogy of films that won plenty of Oscars on their own merits. Despite much of the excellent work that went into the production design of the film, it’s mostly lucky to be nominated.
Why It Was Nominated: The Academy has a history with big musicals in this category, and Les Misérables is nothing if not a big musical. It may not be an attractive period film, set in the sewers and slums of 19th Century Paris, but it is period and that was enough to get it nominated. Also, there’s a neat elephant.
Why It Could Win: With eight nominations, Les Misérables is at the top of the heap this year. A sudden interest in the film beyond Anne Hathaway could lead it to victory here and in Best Costume Design and Best Makeup and Hairstyling. If the critically reviled Alice and Wonderland can do it, so can this.
Why It Might Not Win: To put it bluntly, Les Misérables is a bit ugly. A lot of the sets look like cheap theater sets, and unlike Anna Karenina it isn’t on purpose. It won the BAFTA, but they loved the film and it’s a British production. It’s much harder to see it finding success at the Oscars.
Life of Pi
Why It Was Nominated: Life of Pi is one of the most beautiful films of the year. The opening sequences in India are charming and colorful, particularly those set in Pi’s parents’ zoo. The ocean sequences are breathtaking in a totally different way, confronting the enormity of the high seas and perhaps god as well. Pi’s creativity in manipulating his life boat and his makeshift raft are indicative of a triumph of design that works on every level.
Why It Might Win: Life of Pi is this year’s Hugo. It’s a technical, 3D marvel by a widely respected Oscar-winning director that probably won’t win Best Picture. It could, however, easily pick up a number of awards along the way. This is within its grasp, and it’s probably right behind Anna Karenina in that particular race as it stands right now.
Why It Might Not Win: Production designer David Gropman and set decorator Anna Pinnock don’t have quite the Oscar history of Greenwood and Spencer for Anna Karenina, though that probably doesn’t matter too much. The real weakness of Life of Pi could be confusion over the boundaries between computer generated images and production design, which is still a debate in Hollywood.
Why It Was Nominated: Lincoln is the nominee Juggernaut this year, getting plenty of attention for every element of its production. The 1865 White House and Capitol are meticulously recreated down to the last inkwell. Lincoln is nothing if not obsessed with its own historical accuracy, sometimes to excess. Its production design, however, is not one of those excesses.
Why It Might Win: It’s certainly possible. If there’s an upswing in Lincoln support that we didn’t notice, the film could carry off a lot more than anyone is expecting. The production design may not be as flashy as some other nominees, but it seems silly to completely discount a period piece that’s so successful.
Why It Might Not Win: The film’s moment seems to have passed. If Lincoln turns around and wins Best Picture, it will probably have picked up Best Production Design along the way, but that seems unlikely. The other films in the category are simply more noticeably designed and create more open worlds.