Despite receiving all of the Oscar screeners months ago and diligently working my way through them with my mother (who LIVES for this ritual), this year’s Academy Awards still managed to creep up on me. Nevertheless, I welcome this weekend’s awards with total excitement and curiosity (both for who the winners will be and for Derek McLane’s stage design.)
It should come as no surprise that I take a keen interest in the unique world-building on display in each year’s offerings, and this year was especially impressive. It’s a special treat to take in the imaginative production design I see on the big screen each year and it never fails to inform and inspire my own work as a designer. So, without further ado, here are my thoughts on this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Production Design.
(And while Star Wars Rogue One didn’t receive a nomination in this category, just know that in my totally biased, Star Wars-obsessed opinion, it’s probably my favorite).
Arrival (Patrice Vermette) - I loved this film and the way its architecture and color palette really stood out. The spaceship, for one, was really inspiring in terms of its overall shape. Its attention to that aerodynamic, organic-but-not-earthly-organic shape - with its irreverent turns and asymmetricality - gave it a simple and balanced profile that made it feel like it was from another world. No wonder it made the key art movie poster next to Amy Adams. Meanwhile, the color palette felt pale and lifeless, which I thought suited the film’s comparing/contrasting of two different life forms letting the communication and connected souls stand proud. I absolutely loved the three dimensionality of the written word and the way they executed the study of the alien language was utterly brilliant.
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them (Stuart Craig) - I should preface this by saying I’m not a Harry Potter guy, but I did love the 1920’s New York period study of this film. All of the visual effects sprinkled on top of the production design with all the magic were just beautiful. At times, it made me a little dizzy, but to me the best part about the film’s visual style was that it didn’t feel childish. To the contrary, it felt really rich for all ages; a big accomplishment given the young adult-leaning story line.
Hail, Caesar! (Jess Gonchor) - I loved this story and the time period they were jumping off from. It was so nice to look at all the images depicting the history of the studio lots / production design / costume design as they all played out in the films they satirize within this feature. They used different scenic tricks just like they used to nearly 100 years ago - from painted backdrops to fake ivy - all things that probably looked fantastic on film back then but are ultimately, theatrically, a little cheated. It was especially cool and unique to see these techniques presented in much higher definition than was the case in the old films. You could basically freeze frame each still and get a history lesson on decorative arts, architecture, and even Hollywood. Awesome.
Passengers (Guy Hendrix Dyas) - Apparently, this was one of the biggest architectural builds as a fully-realized world built for a film in a long time. This is an amazing undertaking considering there were only 2 main actors present for the majority of the film. As a study of the future and travel to another hospitable planet, the film brought up some really interesting design questions: Namely, what the heck could that travel/transport look like? The production design wasn’t too far off from what we can relate to now, with some internal lighting, lots of transparent touch screens, and some real tactile and relatable things that I think I’d certainly look forward to in the real world (it would be awesome if my iPhone was see-through like that). Overall, I thought it was really beautiful to look at and I thought the film got a bad rap. Like why? I really enjoyed the story (sure, maybe it was a little over-marketed, but I loved it). I’ve been working with warm, white light, either architecturally contrasting or really soft a lot lately - in fact on most of my projects - and this was on full display in Passengers. While it’s not necessarily natural light from the sun, it felt really inviting and it definitely played a character in this movie. All of the architectural lighting that wrapped around every surface made the space feel identifiable, not scary or intimidating like you often see in outer space movies which typically convey cold and artificial lighting. They really brought you into the space with this one. I think it has a chance of winning, and, yes, I’m checking this one on my ballot at my office’s Oscar pool.
La La Land (David Wasco) - Probably the movie I enjoyed most this past year. La La Land wasn’t really trying to be too polished of a musical and you could see that reflected in much of the scenery and production design. They really focused on showing humble, authentic spaces that are true to Los Angeles in the present day. The apartments of the main characters, especially, completely jump out and feel 100% genuine. From the navajo white walls to the vertical blinds, it reminds you of apartments you have seen; that your friends live in. At the same time, the depiction of the studio backlots also felt real and filled with everything you’d normally see (not cliche like those Capital One commercials where you might see an astronaut walk past). In unison with the production design, the main characters aren’t completely polished singers or dancers, and that brought a level of authenticity that I think forcefully brought you into the story. From the moment the viewer is roped in, they definitely punch up the design to take you on a journey that just keeps building. As the magic continues to build throughout the film, the production design builds alongside it, and suddenly the characters are dancing through endless scenery and Hollywood magic. And how about using the traffic from the onramp of the 110 freeway as the backdrop to the film’s opening musical number? Just brilliant. Thank you, David.
Unexpected Favorite: A Monster Calls (Eugenio Caballero) - This one wasn’t nominated in the Production Design category, but I think it should have been an honorable mention. A coming of age movie about a British boy who’s given life lessons from a talking tree, this movie and its production design really shocked me. The film transitions into a beautifully illustrated animation of a three-dimensional watercolor painting where every brush stroke is animated and weaves you through multiple stories with dazzling visual effects. Let me say that again: THREE DIMENSIONAL WATERCOLOR PAINTING. Yum. It’s just BEAUTIFUL and the visual effects artists make it look like a real painting. There is a blurred line between Production Design and Visual Effects and even though it’s a separate category a special relationship between the two can transport you into a place with incredibly unique artistry. This movie is the perfect example of that.
As I’m writing this, the winner hasn’t been announced yet... I wonder who will win. What do you think of these films and did you predict the winner?