TECH SUPPORT: Best Art Direction — Volume I

Posted by · 12:30 pm · August 20th, 2009

Michael Gambon in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood PrinceSets and props can create a time period, an era or simply the feel of a scene.  And the individuals involved in this process are awarded by the Academy in the category of Best Art Direction.

Ironically, the art director of a film is not recognized here. Rather, the production designer – the art department and design head – is awarded alongside the set decorator, who is in charge of the props and overall dressing of the set.

Like Best Costume Design, which I covered a few weeks ago, this category has a tendency to reward period pieces. Even so, fantastical features do tend to show up more often, with nominees frequently overlapping the two genres, seen in a winner such as “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

John Myrhe has triumphed in this category for both of his collaborations with Rob Marshall, and I fully expect him to earn his fifth nomination this year for “Nine.” Recreating the Italy of Federico Fellini will put his talents to the test.

Janet Patterson has found herself a three-time nominee for her costume work. This year, she is also acting as production designer of Jane Campion’s “Bright Star.” Every indication we have from the film so far is that both her work and the film will be the sort that this branch will embrace.

Sarah Greenwood has managed two nominations in recent years for collaborating with Joe Wright, both for “Atonement” and “Pride & Prejudice.” With “Sherlock Holmes,” she will once again be recreating a period England, albeit on a much larger scale. If the film proves popular, I fully expect Greenwood to be in the hunt.

Also a recipient of two nominations in recent years is Nathan Crowley, cited for Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” and “The Dark Knight.”  He has yet again handsomely recreated the past, this time for director Michael Mann in “Public Enemies.” While the film did not catch fire like many were hoping, I still think it has a shot in the tech fields.

Hilary Swank in AmeliaMira Nair’s “Amelia” will also recreate the America of the 1920s and 1930s. Stephanie Carroll has not been an awards magnet to date, but a project like this will be a forum to show her talents. Let’s see how the film is received

The passing of the great Henry Bumstead in 2006 meant Clint Eastwood needed to find a new production designer. He turned to industry veteran James Murakami, who earned a nomination for “Changeling” last year.  While “Invictus” will not exactly be a distant period piece, I nevertheless suspect recreating the South Africa of the early 1990s could provide an excellent opportunity for this veteran.

“The Lovely Bones” is also set in the not-too-distant past, the 1970s.  Nevertheless, Peter Jackson’s directorial vision requires a lot of his crafts artists. I’ll be curious to see what sort of opportunities Naomi Shohan is given.

Then we come to the truly fantastical features.

Stuart Craig has been nominated for two of his past efforts in the “Harry Potter” franchise. “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” continued to develop more settings in the magical world of J. K. Rowling. Craig, an eight-time nominee and three-time winner, has clearly become very respected in a career spanning more than three decades. Another trip to the Kodak is certainly possible.

For all we know, James Cameron’s “Avatar” could have virtually no reliance on sets.  Regardless , it could also provide an opportunity for Rick Carter and Robert Stromburgh to show all their creative genius. I personally can’t wait to see more of this film.

Inglourious BasterdsK. K. Barrett has been responsible for creative work on the films of Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and Sofia Coppola. “Where the Wild Things Are” will be heavily based in the outdoors. Even so, exteriors are not always a huge drawback in this category and, moreover, this will require a huge amount of creativity.

I’ll end by discussing a production designer whose innovative work has been unfortunately ignored by the Academy to date. David Wasco’s sets have been integral to the feel of films ranging from “Pulp Fiction” to “The Royal Tenenbaums” to the “Kill Bill” movies. In “Inglourious Basterds,” he has probably been granted his most traditional Oscar setting to date: the Second World War. Even so, Tarantino efforts tend not to be “Oscar bait” these days.  Let’s see how the film goes down with the public.

Of course, these strike me merely as the most likely films from this vantage point. Others could certainly come along and surprise us!  We’ll reassess in a few months.

What about you?  What are your thoughts on the race for Best Art Direction?  Have your say in the comments section below!

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7 responses so far

  • 1 8-20-2009 at 1:27 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Wow, not even for Kill Bill? Hope Wasco gets some recognition this year, provided he deserves it.

    Another film that I hope gets some awards traction, though I know it won’t, is Coraline. Seriously, how hard was it to create some of those set pieces and make them gel so smootly with the overall look and feel of the film? But it’s *animated*, and we all know how the academy treats those movies. Still, one can dream.

  • 2 8-20-2009 at 1:38 pm

    red_wine said...

    From the trailer today and the story, seems like Avatar is mostly based in the computer animated jungles of Pandora, so there might not be an opportunity for a production designer. Nine again is a sure shot nomination and the probable winner. Bright Star, Amelia, Public Enemies sound like good bets. In the past, prestige pics with failed awards campaign (like Changeling, Dreamgirls, Rev Road, Sweeney Todd, American Gangster) have done well. Some people have even mentioned Coraline. And IB, which is getting extremely good reviews, might now seem like a respectable choice.

  • 3 8-20-2009 at 2:23 pm

    Mike said...

    Re: Stuart Craig and Harry Potter 5

    None of the films have captured the labyrinthine corridors and nooks and crannies as beautifully as the Half Blood Prince. Credit is also due to DoP Bruno Delbonnel for helping Craig use light and color to mold the hallway interiors. Both are highly deserving of a nod.

  • 4 8-20-2009 at 2:27 pm

    Andrew said...

    I think you’re on the right track with these choices.

    How about “The Road”? It may appear to be more of a cinematography choice, but as you said, outdoor sets can involve a lot of creativity. I’m excited to see how they are going to design the truck/bridge sequence, as well as the house that they hide inside.

    Another one to consider is Julie Taymor’s “The Tempest”. Her films do well in the craft categories, and the fact that Mark Friedberg has never been nominated for an Oscar could mean it’s his time. (Far From Heaven, Synedoche New York, Life Aquatic)

  • 5 8-20-2009 at 3:16 pm

    N8 said...

    You didn’t mention Alan MacDonald for “Cheri”. The reception was pretty indifferent, and the costumes were pretty domineering, but the sets are still major Best Art Direction bait.

  • 6 8-21-2009 at 1:53 am

    Kevin said...

    I have to second Mike’s opinion – the sets on HP were incredibly detailed, thoughtful and thoroughly deserving of a mention.

  • 7 8-31-2009 at 2:22 pm

    John said...

    I don’t know how much its sets were visual FX (much of it looked pretty tangible to me), but STAR TREK created a 23rd century that was both familiar and new, gritty and fantastic. It would be a very worthwhile contender.