Last year for the special LAMB Devours the Oscars series (where members dive into each of the Oscar categories) I chose the Production Design category. Since I found it so interesting last year – and it really gave me another reason to look at the nominated movies – I chose the same category for this year! So welcome to your Production Design/Set Decoration breakdown.
The Academy Award for Production Design recognizes achievement for art direction in film and combines both production design and set decoration, which are two different jobs that work hand in hand on any film or TV set. A production designer is responsible for the assembled sets and overall visual look of a production. The set decorator is responsible for furnishing interior and exterior sets. If a movie has a scene set in a bedroom, the production designer comes up with the plan for the bedroom setup and layout, and works with the set decorator to fill it with the necessary items to enhance the story. Those items can assist with character exposition, or can distract from the scene set inside the room if the job is done poorly. It is a very fine skill that is developed over many years, and that is why a director will often work with the same production designer and set decorator over many movies. Which is also why all but one of the pairs of nominees this year have multiple nominations already. The five nominated movies are Beauty and the Beast, Blade Runner 2049, Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, and The Shape of Water.
Beauty and the Beast:
Sarah Greenwood (Production Design) and Katie Spencer (Set Decoration) are a formidable team with this being their sixth nominations (Anna Karenina, Sherlock Holmes, Atonement, Pride & Prejudice), not to mention, they are also the team behind Darkest Hour – another nominee this year! In this movie, Belle takes her wrongfully imprisoned father’s place in the castle where he is being held. She stands up to the castle's lord, the Beast, but as they spend time together, the Beast reveals his inner prince, inspiring Belle to return his love. It certainly is a daunting task to take something so familiar as an animated Disney classic and transform it to live action sets.
While Greenwood and Spencer did an incredible job recreating the look of the cartoon and making the sets lush and vivid, they lose just a few points in my book, as they had the animated film as a reference.
Greenwood and Spencer are also nominated for Darkest Hour, which tells the story of Winston Churchill during the early days of World War II faced with the choice of continuing to fight or try to settle with Hitler. This one should easily win the makeup category as it takes the very Gary Oldman-y looking Gary Oldman and transforms him into Winston Churchill, but what about the production design? Once again Spencer and Greenwood do an amazingly detailed job of recreating Churchill’s office and surroundings from the time.
But again, since nothing needed to be invented or created originally, it seems that the true skill here is in the team recreating sets from research on hand.
Blade Runner 2049
The production design on Blade Runner 2049 is by Dennis Gassner, and this is his sixth nomination (Into the Woods, The Golden Compass, Road to Perdition, Barton Fink, Bugsy). The set decoration is by Alessandra Querzola, and this is her first nomination. This is a movie set three decades after the original Blade Runner Deckard went missing. LAPD replicant officer K is tasked with eliminating older, rogue replicants that have a tendency to be less controllable. In the process, he learns something shocking, and needs Deckard to uncover the truth about the history and future of replicants. Here we have a movie with stunning, incredible, original visuals that absolutely assist in telling the story.
Yes, the team had the original movie as a reference point, but the stunning sets and landscapes of this desolate future are beautiful and heartbreaking. I loved the huge statues as K walks into Deckard’s Vegas lair. The farm in the beginning as K is carrying out his job essentially conveys the backstory of Dave Bautista’s character living there. K’s apartment and office help to convey his own inner turmoil while Jared Leto’s office conveys his isolation and elitism. The look of this movie is incredible, even if I wasn’t completely drawn in by the story.
Nathan Crawley is the production designer on Dunkirk, and this is his fourth nomination (Interstellar, The Dark Knight, The Prestige). This is also set decorator Gary Fettis’s fourth nomination, but for different movies (Interstellar, Changeling, The Godfather Part III). This movie tells a story from the spring of 1940, when hundreds of thousands of British and Allied troops are trapped by German forces on the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France. Christopher Nolan movies have a distinct look and this one is no exception. Again, the design is done to expertly mimic the look of the actual time, and has the added puzzle of having a lot of scenes outside.
The movie looks good, but again, as a faithful recreation, even the stylized sets are reflections of what was. The bleak coloration and stark realism add to both the hopefulness and helplessness of various characters.
The Shape of Water
Paul Denham Austerberry is the production designer for the Shape of Water, and he worked with two set decorators, Shane Vieau and Jeff Melvin. Where the desolation and hopelessness of Blade Runner is conveyed in its set design, this movie really uses the additional aspect of color and creativity to help tell the story of the 1962 government scientific lab in Baltimore that houses a fish-man and the mute janitor who falls in love with him. Director Guillermo del Toro himself clarified the use of color via his twitter feed: Elisa's world: Cyan and Blue (underwater), everyone else's homes (Giles, Zelda, Strickland) in goldens, ambers and warm colors (Day/air), red for cinema, life and love. Green is everything about the future (pies, car, lab, uniforms in lab, gelatine, etc.) Using these guidelines from the director, the team translated it into amazing sets.
Like other del Toro movies, the sets are incredibly designed and almost hyper-real, very much in line with his “adult fairy-tale” aesthetic. The lab is filled with interesting shapes and lines, and bits of things on shelves and carts that you almost want to stop the movie to look at more closely. Elisa’s apartment is above an old movie theater, and is filled with items that help to tell the audience about her. Every part of the movie is carefully crafted to appear not real, but almost surreal, in perfect alignment with the story.
According to my meager research, Blade Runner 2049 is the predicted winner, and that makes sense, because that movie looked amazing. I loved the look of Shape of Water, but honestly, for me, there were a few movies that didn’t make the list. There’s this prejudice against giving big-budget superhero movies Academy love, but the look of Thor Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 were both mind-blowing. Think about the throne room on Sakar where Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster holds court, or the Hulk’s quarters in Ragnarok. Even more so – the sets on GOTG2 are phenomenal. Ego’s room of storytelling orbs, the Sovereign’s throne room, even the Ravagers’ ship were all visual masterpieces.
I also feel that Star Wars Episode VIII, the Last Jedi, deserves a mention. The look of the bridge on the rebel cruiser, the casino on Canto Bight, Snoke’s throne room with his incredible red curtain which is very not-fireproof, and Luke’s quiet place of isolation on Ach-To are all incredible sets that enhanced the story through color and design.
While Star Wars might be my pick for a winner, that does not help your office Oscar pool choice. Go with either Blade Runner or Shape of Water – they are the safest bets!