When pundits begin to go on about the look of a film, most often the person they name drop is the director, or maybe the cinematographer. But one should never overlook the importance of the production designer. They’re probably the most hands-on when it comes to dealing with the collaboration of all the costumes, hair, and makeup, dressing locations and building sets, finding or fabricating props, and basically ensuring that everything you see on the screen fits into a unified vision of how the movie is supposed to look. One might even say that these are the people who create the worlds that movies exist in.
Because of that, the further away a film can get, visually, from our everyday reality, the more likely it is to be recognized for its production design come awards season. It’s much easier to notice the work that went into creating a fantasy world or bringing back a lost era than it is to notice the work that went into making Vancouver look like New York, after all.
In keeping with that trend, this year the Academy has chosen for the category’s nominees a movie that takes place in the swinging 70s, a movie that takes place in the vacuum of space, a movie that takes place in the roaring 20s, a movie that takes place in a future version of LA, and one that takes place in the plantation-era of the southern United States. Nothing from either the here or the now. Here’s a rundown of each, with my prediction for the winner appearing in red.
American Hustle – Judy Becker (Production Design); Heather Loeffler (Set Decoration)
Why It Was Nominated: Because it’s telling a story that’s set in the 70s, and it does everything it can to make sure that the scenery that surrounds its characters is gaudy yet still depressingly brown and beige, in that special way only interior locations from the 70s are. I mean, really, what was everybody thinking with the aesthetics they gravitated toward in that decade? The liberal drug use of the late 60s must have eaten away everyone’s brains even more than we thought.
Why It Might Win: Last year David O. Russell had quite a bit of success with The Silver Linings Playbook, so there’s a good chance that this year the Academy is going to try to keep that train rolling by giving American Hustle Best Picture and a laundry list of lesser awards leading up to the big one. Seeing as American Hustle is just the sort of good movie whose legacy is likely to get ruined thanks to Oscar over-hype, Best Production Design could be exactly the sort of Academy Award it wins but doesn’t really deserve.
Why It Might Not Win: Let’s be honest here, if American Hustle is going to win any of the art awards, it’s going to be costume design. That’s where it’s going out on a limb, that’s where it’s grabbing for attention. The team of designers did good work making the locations of their film immersive and whatnot, but what they were pulling off wasn’t nearly as challenging as what everyone else in this category pulled off, so they’re less likely to earn a consensus of votes.
Gravity – Andy Nicholson (Production Design); Rosie Goodwin and Joanne Woollard (Set Decoration)
Why It Was Nominated: Because, despite the science-based nitpicks that Neil DeGrasse Tyson was able to come out of his screening of Gravity with, Alfonso Cuarón did do a fair amount of research to make sure that his movie was believable enough to envelope the audience in its reality, and that meant its design team needed to do a lot of work to create space stations and satellites that looked exactly like space stations and satellites that actually exist, and space debris that looked exactly like what all of those space stations and satellites would look like if they were suddenly smashed into pieces.
Why It Might Win: Because Gravity is a populist movie that did very well at the box office, and the visual aspects of it were legitimately stunning to boot. If you’ve followed the Oscars at all, then you know that plenty of super-popular movies have swept through the vast majority of awards whether they deserved them or not. The fact that this one was actually well done could almost be an after thought.
Why It Might Not Win: The design of this movie is the sort of design that’s meant to faithfully recreate reality, which means it’s essentially supposed to fade into the background without you ever really noticing it. That doesn’t mean that putting together all of the environments for a movie like this is less challenging than putting together the environments for other sorts of movies, just that the skill that it takes is harder to appreciate, and the the more subtle a thing is the less likely it is to win any awards. Particularly with so much attention on its effects.
The Great Gatsby – Catherine Martin (Production Design); Beverley Dunn (Set Decoration)
Why It Was Nominated: It has the grandest, most numerous, most intricate sets of any movie that came out last year, and each set is stuffed full of design flourishes and period-era props for viewers to feast their eyes on. In some ways, its actually the production design that’s the star of this film, with the actors playing second fiddle.
Why It Might Win: Because it’s a period piece and a bit of a fairy tale film all in one, and those are two types of movies that always do well in this category. Plus, Martin won this award for her work on Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! back when it was called Best Art Direction-Set Direction, so there’s a precedent for the Academy liking this team and this style.
Why It Might Not Win: It’s the only one of the nominees that’s not also up for Best Picture. As a matter of fact, the only thing that it’s up for is this and the costume design award. Plus, it was released too early in the year for it to be too fresh in all that many voters’ memories. There just isn’t any momentum behind this movie, awards-wise. Let’s be honest though, voters love huge sets, so this thing probably has it in the bag anyway.
Her – K.K. Barrett (Production Design); Gene Serdena (Set Decoration)
Why It Was Nominated: Movies that are set in the future all too often rely on churning out the same sleek, antiseptic aesthetic—like if the design language of today’s Apple products was extended out to encompass everything we see and interact with. Her went in a completely different direction, making a vision of the future that was almost a hipster resale shop throwback, and that included all sorts of bright colors and tactile, human design elements. Plus, they were able to create a viable public transportation system for the Los Angeles area. What miracle workers.
Why It Might Win: Her is the sort of movie that’s going to be, visually, very influential when you start to look at movies that are set in the future going forward. Like Minority Report led to pretty much every future movie having clear displays and gesture-based interfaces, this one is likely to spawn a bunch of unassuming-looking, voice command-based imitators. Whether or not the Academy is able to get ahead of the game by supporting the decisions it made with an award will be interesting to see.
Why It Might Not Win: Honestly, Her is a movie that has a ton of buzz with movie-obsessed cultural types, but I’m not so sure it has resonated enough with mainstream audiences or even the upper crust of mainstream audiences to get the attention of the Academy. Do you really imagine a movie that’s as weird as this one running away with a bunch of awards during a ceremony that’s still so concerned with what kind of ratings its TV broadcast pulls in? Maybe. So, in a great show of optimism, I’m going to predict it as the winner, because it certainly contained my favorite work of the year.
12 Years a Slave – Adam Stockhausen (Production Design); Alice Baker (Set Decoration)
Why It Was Nominated: From its depictions of the bustling urban areas of the north to the sweltering plantations of the south, no matter where 12 Year a Slave took you, it always felt like you really had been plopped right down into the middle of the 1800s, and that had quite a bit to do with the design of the environments that all of the action took place in. Fancy restaurants, dismal slave quarters; this movie did it all, and well.
Why It Might Win: Because movies that recreate another time and another place always seem to take home these art-driven Oscars, and 12 Years a Slave is the nominee this year that goes the furthest back in history. There’s certainly precedent for a movie that looks like this taking home the award. That it’s such a good movie may just be a bonus.
Why It Might Not Win: The Academy likes historical dramas, but the kinds of historical dramas it likes are the grand, sweeping kind that are full of vast landscapes and emotional music. McQueen’s film, with its unflinching camera work and its slightly detached, clinical observance of human suffering, might be a bit too subtle for them to respond to, across the board.