Many years ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences began honoring Interior Decorations, which, over time, morphed into the Best Achievement in Art Direction as movies grew larger and the scope of the designs grew exponentially. In 1928 the Award was first given to William Cameron Menzies for his work on two films, The Dove and Tempest. Throughout the years, notable films such as Gone With The Wind, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and more modern fair like Sleepy Hollow, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, and Moulin Rouge have captured the award. The award symbolizes a stunning and beautiful achievement in the decoration of sets and the overall aesthetic look of scenery in which the story takes place.
Arthur Max (art direction) and Beth A. Rubino (set decoration), American Gangster
Why It’s Nominated: This is the second nomination for Arthur Max, who was previously recognized for his work on Gladiator. American Gangster was been near universally praised which always lends itself to being recognized in other categories. Period films often receive the most attention because of the work involved in creating a believable past world. Arthur Max and Beth Rubino helped seamlessly craft the look of 1968 and allow for a total immersion in the film.
Why It Might Win: I personally believe that American Gangster faces an uphill battle in this area. The amount of work that goes into creating a relatively recent time period is often overlooked in favor of films that require “more work” in terms of crafting an entirely distant time period. But the film does the often difficult job of streamlining all aspects from time period from cars to tables to windows in a police station. Often examining the background leads to easily spotted out of place but American Gangster constantly feels well put together.
Why It Might Not Win: The odds against American Gangster say nothing about the quality of the film’s art direction, but rather the strength of the other nominees. Going up against films of a larger scale of art direction often leave the more subtle art direction films in the dust.
Sarah Greenwood (art direction) and Katie Spencer (set decoration), Atonement
Why It’s Nominated: Oscar-baiting aside, Atonement has received fairly universal praise from critics and viewers alike. Most of the negative comments about it just level a finger at it for blatantly being an Awards Season film, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sarah Greenwood ratchets up her second nomination for art direction on top of the similarly dressed Pride and Prejudice.
Why It Might Win: Greenwood has already struck out once and the Academy does like to reward consistent work. The set direction on Pride and Prejudice does bear some similarities to this work, which may work in her favor, or conversely against her. The scope of Atonement will prove to be a boost to this film as there are a variety of disparate locations that needed to be dressed.
Why It Might Not Win: Again, Greenwood has failed to capture an Oscar during the last go-round for a Keira Knightley flick, so the Academy might not be feeling her. Again, the film is based in a relative modern and realistic setting compared to some of the other films, and their strengths may just overpower this more standard setting.
Dennis Gassner (art direction) and Anna Pinnock (set decoration), The Golden Compass
Why It’s Nominated: Gassner has a whopping four nominations for Oscars, including a win for 1991’s Bugsy. He has proven himself time and again of being entirely capable of recreating or creating worlds with his decorations. The Golden Compass, despite a somewhat lackluster reception, does deserve recognition for the amount of work that went into creating an entirely new world in many aspects.
Why It Might Win: Gassner has already proven he can bring home the bacon and the nominations. It also has pure scale on its side with the amount of work that went into it. There is a ton of pre-production design work in crafting some this large and the Academy may look to reward that.
Why It Might Not Win: Oscar is a fickle guy when it comes to fantasy films and that is one of the big things stacked against it. The other major turn-off for the Academy is the use of computer generated imagery. Despite recent trends in films, the Awards like it old school and love to see actual red drapes hanging down a thousand feet rather than some computer generated drapes. The sheer scale of the film works for it, while the actual work required to bring it to the screen goes against it.
Dante Ferretti (art direction) and Francesca Lo Schiavo (set decoration), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Why It’s Nominated: Ferretti is the man when it comes to art direction with a massive 8 nominations including a win for 2004’s The Aviator. Tim Burton’s films often get attention in the design department as his gothic stylings are visually stunning. Sweeney Todd has been getting lots of attention from all corners of the world and Johnny Depp has been pushing himself and his films closer and closer to the big win.
Why It Might Win: Sweeney Todd has a fantastic combination of things working in its favor. The design is epic in scale, recreating a real historical time period in a gothic representation. It’s nearly as original as crafting an entirely new world with the added challenges of remaining somewhat true to history. The Tim Burton helmed and similarly dressed Sleepy Hollow won an academy award in the recent past. The excellence in design and the grand scope of things may deserve the nod.
Why It Might Not Win: Sometimes the Academy does odd things. And Sweeney Todd is an odd film. The weirdness infused in the film may push the Academy away, though I feel this film is probably the front runner. There is nothing that should stop this film from winning.
Jack Fisk (art direction) and Jim Erickson (set decoration), There Will Be Blood
Why It’s Nominated: More like There Will Be Gold for this critically acclaimed powerhouse. If Oscar’s were a milkshake, this film would Drink It Up! Sluuuurrrrpppp! That aside, this film has a fantastic look to it and was a shoo in for a plethora of awards. This marks Jack Fisk’s first nomination from the Academy.
Why It Might Win: There Will Be Blood has the possibility to pull off a sweeping number of victories. When a movie is really well received, as this one is, the Awards seem to fall into place. Again with a time-spanning historical piece a lot of care must be placed in making sure there are no objects around that couldn’t have been there and Blood does a fantastic job and getting you emerged in the experience.
Why It Might Not Win: While there is nothing wrong with this films art direction, it just doesn’t strike me as the strongest in this category. I’d imagine its great look and great reception will make it a contender, probably in the number two spot overall, but I believe the competition from Sweeney Todd will be just a bit too much for this period piece to handle.
Who will win?
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Ferretti is the most highly decorated and celebrated of any of the nominees and Sweeney Todd looks to add another notch to that bedpost. The film has so much going for it in art direction, from the wondrous city streets and the dark, barren interiors. Unlike the other films, where art direction was a part of the experience, in Todd the art direction makes the experience. It’s hard to imagine this film looking any different than it does – and if it were so it probably would be for the worse. The perfect mixture of fantasy, critical reception, and historical accuracy will ensure that Ferretti puts another Golden Man on his mantle piece.
Who should win?
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Who got overlooked?
3:10 to Yuma
Capturing the true grit of the old west with clever homages back to the silver age of cinema, 3:10 to Yuma deserved a second look.