What makes this year’s Oscar nominees for production design stand out

Five production designer/set decorator duos will compete for the Academy Award for Best Production Design: Arrival, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Hail, Caesar!, La La Land and Passengers.

Production design is about the art of making movies look visually stunning. At the Art Directors Guild Awards earlier this month, director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) described what he sees as the challenge of the job.

“Production designers and art directors must understand architecture, history, theater and the psychology of dreams because good art direction is the art of constant communication without saying a word,” Bird said.

Bird was talking to a roomful of production designers, art directors and set decorators — a community that knows well the labor that goes into movie making.

This Sunday five production designer/set decorator duos will be considered for the Academy Award for Best Production Design (the category’s original name was Best Art Direction, but was changed to its current name in 2012 for the 85th Academy Awards.)

Oscar-nominated art directors and set decorators include: Arrival (Patrice Vermette and Paul Hotte), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Stuart Craig and Anna Pinnock), Hail, Caesar! (Jess Gonchor and Nancy Haigh), La La Land (David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco) and Passengers Guy Hendrix Dyas and Gene Serdena.

“You couldn’t have five more different films to one another,” said Tom Walsh, past president of the Art Directors Guild and producer of last week’s awards event. He’s also an Emmy Award-winning production designer currently working on the Netflix show Longmire. “There’s nothing in common other than the quality of the work and the storytelling, which is superior on all counts.”

La La Land

There are some commonalities in the five nominees. Hail, Caesar! and La La Land are both set in a heightened version of Los Angeles and specifically Hollywood.

“The strength of [La La Land] is the fact that it is real, it is tangible, and it’s not trying to be nostalgic,” Walsh said, “but it’s also trying to make it feel like these are real moments and these are real people — versus the glossy version of an MGM musical like Singing in the Rain where it’s always artifice within a real environment.”

Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar! celebrates the golden era of the studio system, Walsh said, with behind-the-scenes stage productions and the use of real stages on Hollywood lots where those films were shot in the past.

“I mean, just think of the Esther Williams moment alone, or working in the tanks and the huge submarine and real backdrops. They actually tried to do a lot of their work in camera as well, and not relying too heavily on CGI. They kind of approached it [the way filmmakers were] making movies in the 50s as opposed to using a lot of techniques to enhance it and extend it.”

Arrival

As far as sci-fi films, Walsh said Passengers is rightly being heralded for “the level of craft and detail,” while the first alien encounter scene in Arrival “really felt like a real international moment and not just science fiction.”

Passengers

Both films “actually applied scientific logic in the creation and execution of their worlds. So there’s a level of detail and plausibility that exists which makes them actually intelligent movies,” Walsh said.

The other film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, included production designer Stuart Craig and set decorator Anna Pinnock.

“The whole concept of the zoo in a suitcase — I mean, that was fantastic and theatrical. I loved every minute when we were down in the bottom of that suitcase,” Walsh said. “It was done with absolute precision and clarity and mastery.”

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Walsh said this is a golden age for production design because you have so many tools at your disposal, and yet it’s also very challenging because you’re having to reinvent the wheel with every project. Without a studio system, craftspeople have to work with new teams on each film.

“They taught us how to make things on an industrial scale,” Walsh said. “They were advanced universities for craft and applied engineering and applied learning, and everyone learned from each other.”

As for the sets, most of them end up in dumpsters and landfills. When there was a studio system, everything was recycled and reused.

“Unless it’s a hero piece or pieces, like the Harry Potter canon… those pieces will go into the corporate archives because nobody wants them going out there on eBay and profiting off of the film. Specific things in wardrobes and art are kept in storage until they decide there’s no longer any value to them, but everything else sadly goes into the dumpster. And that’s just the world we live in,” he said.

This Saturday, Walsh will co-host a discussion with all the nominees for the production design Oscar. The panel discussion is presented by the American Cinematheque and the Art Directors Guild and Set Decorators Society of America. More information here.