OSCAR GUIDE: Best Art Direction

Posted by · 9:30 am · February 9th, 2011

The art directors settled on a wonderful quintet to represent their form in 2010. Each of these films (okay, I haven’t seen one of them) manages to showcase art direction in organic ways, even when it comes to the contender with the most robust and vibrant design to offer.

When it comes to the design categories, though, abundance can be an asset. There’s no question about it. The old joke is “Most Art Direction” or “Most Costume Design,” rather than “Best.” And unfortunately, that extends sometimes into the nominations process as nuanced, subtle work is disregarded each and every year. But even with that caveat, this is a handsome slate.

The nominees are:

“Alice in Wonderland” (Robert Stromberg; Karen O’Hara)
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” (Stuart Craig; Stephanie McMillan)
“Inception” (Guy Hendrix Dyas; Larry Dias, Doug Mowat)
“The King’s Speech” (Eve Stewart; Judy Farr)
“True Grit” (Jess Gonchor; Nancy Haigh)

One of the most egregious omissions, as you’ll note at the bottom of this piece, was Dante Ferretti’s expertly rendered work on “Shutter Island.” Alas, it’s one of countless areas where the films as shafted this year, so there’s nothing to gain by complaining.

A couple of years ago, Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” managed to edge out Best Picture nominee “There Will Be Blood” for the win here. It’s possible a similar trick is pulled this year, as “Alice in Wonderland” is definitely a spoiler possibility in this race. Here is a film defined by its design elements, like most of Burton’s filmography. Last year’s winner in the category, Robert Stromberg, could easily lap up his second statue (along with set decorator Karen O’Hara) should the Academy fall back into that old “Most Art Direction” routine noted above.  I don’t mean as a slight in this instance, though. The production design on this film may have been gaudy for some, but its imagination knew no bounds.

The only film nominated for an Oscar that I didn’t see this year was “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1.” I’d rather re-watch the others, which have melted into one film in my brain, before taking in the big finale with this and next year’s double-dip. So I’ll be upfront and note that the extent of my knowledge of the art direction in this film stems from trailers, TV spots and production stills. Nevertheless, Stuart Craig and Stephanie McMillan are the surprise representatives of their film in the Oscar line-up this year, and it’s a franchise I suspect will get a more significant campaign push next year. So bravo to them for their third nominations on the series to date, but the road surely ends there.

I go back and forth on a personal pick here this year, but most of the time I fall back on the undeniable practical application of art direction blended with special effects work in “Inception.” Production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas and set decorators Larry Dias and Doug Mowat manifested Nolan’s eye-popping dreamworld to staggering effect and even when they weren’t showboating in the set pieces, they were carving out a specific place and a definitive design identity for the film that sometimes goes under-appreciated. For those reasons, I’d definitely call this a dark horse possibility, but it’s difficult to compete with extravagance in these fields. And this year, the extravagance isn’t really as arbitrary as it has been in years past. But fingers crossed, nevertheless.

My pick for the win here is actually a sterling example of balanced but thematically relevant art direction. In “The King’s Speech,” director Tom Hooper was very interested in his actors’ relationship to their space. Part of that was carried across in the way he chose to shoot the film, but quite a lot of thought obviously went into the design elements of the film, as well, particularly the production design. Veterans Eve Stewart and Judy Farr won the Art Directors Guild award in the period category this year, which can sometimes be an indicator here, but that’s not always the case so don’t be looking too hard at precursors here. Nevertheless, if you’re betting on a quasi-sweep for the film, as I have been doing since mid-January, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to place some chips here.

Another period piece could be in the mix, too, making this a rather competitive category when you get right down to it. Jess Gonchor and his set decorator Nancy Haigh did a marvelous job of creating the world of “True Grit,” landing the film one of 10 nominations. Sometimes I notice the proper appreciation isn’t paid to the art direction of the film, largely because there are so many exterior scenes. But the fact remains this crew built considerably onto an existing town and the minutiae of Haigh’s set decoration is apparent in every nook and cranny. Depending on how deep and broad the support for the film may be (which is still up for debate, regardless of the total nominations), this could be an interesting surprise on Oscar night. I consider it the fourth in line, but it all feels like it could be very fluid.

Will win: “The King’s Speech”
Could win: “Alice in Wonderland”
Should win: “Inception”

Should have been here: “Shutter Island”

Check out my current rankings for this race at its dedicated Contenders page here.

What do you think deserves to win the award for Best Art Direction? Have your say in today’s sidebar poll!

[Photos: Warner Bros. Pictures, The Weinstein Company]

→ 40 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Oscar Guide

40 responses so far

  • 1 2-09-2011 at 9:47 am

    Andrej said...

    I don’t get why HP7 got the art direction nod. It’s not bad at all, but the movie is taken so far away from Hogwarts and the vecinities that I can’t really compare Deathly Hallows’s art direction with the others’s from the franchise. With more than three quarters of the movie taking place outdoors, I don’t know why it didn’t got the cinematography nod instead, which was the movie’s strongest asset in my opinion.

    Will win: The King’s Speech.
    Could win: Inception.
    Should win: Inception.

    Should have been here: Shutter Island, The Ghost Writer, I Am Love, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

  • 2 2-09-2011 at 9:55 am

    Matt King said...

    “Nevertheless, Stuart Craig and Stephanie McMillan are the lone representatives of their film in the Oscar line-up this year” and “And it’s the second year in a row a single craft branch stuck up for the franchise.”

    I’m confused by this. Isn’t HP7 also nominated in VFX? Maybe I missed something.

  • 3 2-09-2011 at 9:58 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    This is the one category this year where I really can’t get enthusiastic about any one nominee. Four of these films actually have design aspects — some major, some minor — that bother me, so the handsome period work on “True Grit” takes my “should win” citation by default.

    I agree with your “will win” and “could win” picks, though “Inception” still strikes me as a possibility.

    Should have been here — “The Illusionist.” I’m consistently amazed how few people realise that animated films have art direction too.

  • 4 2-09-2011 at 9:59 am

    JJ1 said...

    Will win: The King’s Speech
    Could win: Inception
    Should win: either of the above. The King’s Speech’s art direction – on a second look – is actually quite exquisite. Inception, need I say more, just a ‘wow’; like most other aspects of the film.

    I really liked Alice’s art direction, but it really was almost an overload.

    Harry 7, Part One: The Ministry of Magic set piece probably got this a nomination alone. Gorgeous, intricate use of space.

    Should have been here: Shutter Island, Ghost Writer (making the setting look undeniably like Massachusetts). Both film’s art d. are incredible .

  • 5 2-09-2011 at 10:01 am

    JJ1 said...

    Guy, I agree (regarding animation & art direction).

    And in fact, I remember thinking that ‘Legends of the Guardians’ and last year’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ could have gotten cinematography nods and I wouldn’t have been mad.

  • 6 2-09-2011 at 10:03 am

    N8 said...

    Your forgetting HP7’s nomination for visual effects.

  • 7 2-09-2011 at 10:08 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I totally spaced it on the HP7 visual effects nod, guys. Thanks to the first guy for letting me know. And to the second guy for thinking the first guy wasn’t enough.


  • 8 2-09-2011 at 10:10 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “I’m consistently amazed how few people realise that animated films have art direction too.”

    Indeed, but I truly believe they have no place here. It’s just not comparable, to me. I would argue in favor of a separate category for digital (Avatar, etc.) art direction that ought to include animated contenders, but I really don’t think it’s fair to put the building of a bricks-and-mortar city up against the creation of same in a computer or even on a page.

  • 9 2-09-2011 at 10:15 am

    red_wine said...

    Will win: (no idea)
    Could win: “Inception”
    Should win: “The King’s Speech”
    Should have been here: “I Am Love” & “Carlos”
    Also: “Exit Thorough The Gift Shop” & “The Ghost Writer”

  • 10 2-09-2011 at 10:21 am

    Hans said...

    “Should have been here — “The Illusionist.” I’m consistently amazed how few people realise that animated films have art direction too.”

    I remember when the ADG gave WALL-E a nomination that was incredibly warranted. Last year, the Oscar went to Avatar, arguably 3/4 of an animated film. Hopefully these are signs that the bias against animated films is slowly being chipped away.

    Inception or TKS would be handsome winners. Personal preference with the former, of course

    The Malfoy Manor, Xenophilius Lovegood’s house, and the Ministry are all very nice sets. Very impressive that this film got a nod despite no scenes at Hogwarts, an art director’s wet dream.

  • 11 2-09-2011 at 10:49 am

    James C said...

    I would love if Inception won. The King’s Speech had mostly a sweep, I’d have to thank the Academy for still picking something like Inception. Such unique designs.

  • 12 2-09-2011 at 11:13 am

    Hans said...

    Also, Kris, minor nitpick, but I think that’s a still from HP6, at the end when Harry is looking at Dumbledore’s wand. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t a flashback in HP7 or anything.

  • 13 2-09-2011 at 11:56 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    (I thought it might be.)

  • 14 2-09-2011 at 11:56 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    But seriously, none of the stills really showcase the art direction. Hmm…

  • 15 2-09-2011 at 12:00 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Alright, this will have to do.

  • 16 2-09-2011 at 12:03 pm

    Speaking English said...

    My pick is also between “Inception” and “The King’s Speech,” but I lean towards “Inception” for its extremely innovative yet at the same time very grounded and graphical design.

    I’d like to agree with you about animated films not having a place here, as well.

  • 17 2-09-2011 at 12:05 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Kudos to the “Harry Potter” nom here. Well deserved.

  • 18 2-09-2011 at 12:08 pm

    Maxim said...

    “Indeed, but I truly believe they have no place here. It’s just not comparable, to me. I would argue in favor of a separate category for digital (Avatar, etc.) art direction that ought to include animated contenders, but I really don’t think it’s fair to put the building of a bricks-and-mortar city up against the creation of same in a computer or even on a page.”

    I suppose that what you are saying makes sense. It’s unfair to have these things compete with each other (even as many lfe action films increasingly rely on CGI to complete their sets)

    I am still, however, compelled to point out that the name of the category is Art Direction and not Best Sets and Decorations.

  • 19 2-09-2011 at 12:13 pm

    Maxim said...

    Meaning that the category name emphasises the creative aspects over the practical ones. Not that this has much to do with the fairness aspect you talked about earlier.

  • 20 2-09-2011 at 12:57 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    That’s not what “art direction” means in the industry, though. Traditionally, when you’re talking about art direction, you’re talking about practical applications. Which is why, frankly, it was something of a shock that the ADG decided to honor WALL-E two years ago. But it’s not a literal piece of terminology. Again, though, it’s about having apples and oranges competing in the same stew. Much like, some would say, practical effects (known as “special effects”) probably shouldn’t be in the same category, Best Visual Effects, as CGI exhibitions.

    It’s a debate, to say the least. At the end of the day, I’d say it all comes down to this: awards for art are pointless and ultimately arbitrary.

  • 21 2-09-2011 at 12:57 pm

    SJG said...

    I suspect that part of the reason Harry Potter got the nomination in what some people consider an otherwise lackluster example of art direction is because Stuart Craig was apparently the creative mind behind the animated sequence about the Deathly Hallows, which was a real stroke of genius.

    And I tend to think that the film deserves a nomination simply for Delores Umbridge’s office alone, which kept the general look of the Ministry as a whole, while injecting a lot of the evil saccharine cutesiness of the character, and heaping on copious amounts of opulence that make it seem garish and tawdry.

    Actually, the more I sit here and think about it, the more I’m enamored of HP7’s art direction, considering I haven’t been much of a fan of the entire series with regards to that element of their production. There’s a lot of good stuff there.

  • 22 2-09-2011 at 1:17 pm

    Maxim said...

    “Traditionally, when you’re talking about art direction, you’re talking about practical applications.”

    But Kris, you really cannot separate one from the other like that. Much like how I suspect Adapted Screenplays are judged and nominated, people are ultimately voting for what they see on the proverbial celluloid.

    And in case of digital sets which have been nominated and won before (Like those in Avatar), the words like ” practical applications” if not entirely lose their meaning , then, at the very least, get blurred with with the actual process of designing.

    As such, I believe that the phrase “Art Direction” does reflect how Academy voters think of the category, the animation bias notwithstanding. (and another reason why many consider. Otherwise why would something like Alice In Wonderland would be considered a strong contender (not that I do not think that there wasn’t a big practical element about how the film’s look came together). So could it be that there is a difference between what “Art Direction” means in the Industry vs what it means at the Oscars?

  • 23 2-09-2011 at 1:17 pm

    JJ1 said...

    Yeah, I honestly believe H7 Pt. 1 deserves this nod, wholly. Just because a hefty portion of the 2.5 hours takes place outdoors doesn’t mean the interiors and overall art design/direction throughout weren’t fantastic in their space(s). I believe they were.

  • 24 2-09-2011 at 1:24 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “the words like ” practical applications” if not entirely lose their meaning , then, at the very least, get blurred with with the actual process of designing.”

    I don’t disagree. I’m saying, if anything, it’s time to split the category.

    And with a fiancee who has spent time in the trenches of art department, I’m quite aware of how the term “art direction” is perceived. It’s not an abstract idea we’re talking about here.

    In any case, yes, there is a difference between people who have no idea what it means to be an art director and people who do. So when the Academy votes at large, indeed, they’re just voting on what they see with a limited understanding of the process beyond their own brief encounters with it (obviously meaning outside the branch). So I certainly wouldn’t look to that as a gauge. The term doesn’t just take on a different meaning because certain voters aren’t particularly educated on the matter.

    And by the way, there are a ton of practical sets on Alice. Just because they were meant to mingle with green screen and CGI doesn’t mean those sets weren’t considerable.

  • 25 2-09-2011 at 2:18 pm

    Graysmith said...

    Slightly off-topic, but seeing as there’s a photo above and everything.. What did The King’s Speech look like when you saw it?

    It just opened here, saw it the other night and the whole damn movie I’m wondering why the print is so dark and most importantly why it is such a heavy blue tint. The photo above does a decent job of retelling what I saw, so I’m just wondering if that’s actually what the film is meant to look like because I seriously thought there must’ve been some error when they made that print. Most films have tints and tones and whatnot, but it just looked washed out, bleak and lifeless. I’d be appalled if it actually got a cinematography nomination when it looked so horrid.

    The trailer (as it appears on Apple.com anyway) looks the way I expected it to, they way I believe it should look like.. But the photo above looks much more like what I saw, so I’m just curious what other people saw.. I hope it’ll look like the trailer when it comes out on Blu-ray, or I’ll never watch it again. Such an eyesore.

  • 26 2-09-2011 at 2:27 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    The photo above is taken from the screener, so probably not the best thing to gauge. But the film is a bit murky in general, which I quite liked.

  • 27 2-09-2011 at 2:44 pm

    JJ1 said...

    I would also think that the blue hue was a stylistic choice; to create a little distinction.

    I liked it, as well. But I also have seen movies where the choice of hue has brought the film down a notch (in my opinion). I guess it depends on the film.

  • 28 2-09-2011 at 2:54 pm

    RealDogBoy said...

    The discussion about “most” versus “best” art direction has made this a very interesting read — thanks to the contributors.

    My favorite in the race is “Alice” — so maybe I can’t get over my bias in favor of “most” — as long as it consists of beautiful images that serve the story and characters.

    I also have to confess a bias against awarding “art direction” to a film that merely -re-creates a place and time that is well documented ( 1930s England or 1870s Arkansas) — so less imagination is called for. And I love the look of both of those movies.

  • 29 2-09-2011 at 3:19 pm

    Nicolas Mancuso said...

    Will win: “The King’s Speech”
    Could win: “Alice in Wonderland”
    Should win: “True Grit”

    Should have been here: “Daybreakers”

  • 30 2-09-2011 at 3:51 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Graysmith, if it bothered you that much I have to believe it was a defect in the projector/print. It should look as it does on the trailer.

  • 31 2-09-2011 at 4:19 pm

    Tom C. said...

    “Inception” SHOULD be the undisputed winner here. But, while I don’t agree with the notion of a “King’s Speech” sweep (or maybe I just don’t want to), this is one that I’m pretty sure that Tom Hooper’s film will take down.

  • 32 2-09-2011 at 5:36 pm

    Graysmith said...

    I certainly hope it was just the print. The way the films looks in trailer definitely shows a blue hue as a stylistic choice. But it looks fine there since it wasn’t affecting skin tones and such, which it does in the screenshot above and the print I saw.

    Anyway, sorry for hijacking the thread, I just needed to make sure it wasn’t meant to look that way.

  • 33 2-09-2011 at 7:40 pm

    Kevin K. said...

    I have to agree with Kris. Inception is pretty much Architecture: The Movie and truly deserves to win here. In fact, I’m predicting it will win, since I don’t think The King’s Speech has enough sense of geography and spacial relation to really show off it’s set design. Inception, on the other hand, really shows off the immaculate craftsmanship of Guy Hendrix Dyas and his colleagues. Truly, Inception, more than any other film this year, deserves to sweep the tech categories, because no matter your opinion on the quality of the narrative, etc, it’s a below the line masterpiece, plain and simple.

  • 34 2-09-2011 at 8:14 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...


    Not in sound mixing.

  • 35 2-09-2011 at 8:44 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Agreed. “True Grit” should take Sound Mixing.

  • 36 2-09-2011 at 9:57 pm

    P S said...

    Alice in Wonderland should definitely win the award for “Most Art Direction”. And it is the only reason why it got a nomination. I do like the art direction in the rest of the nominated films. My pick for this year is Harry Potter 7. As many have mentioned, the Ministry of Magic set alone is enough to warrant this film a nomination. The sets for that film were really memorable…very detailed and organic. But I doubt it’s going to win this year. I do hope that WB campaigns heavily for the franchise next year, so Stuart Craig can finally get his due.

  • 37 2-09-2011 at 10:06 pm

    Someone said...

    Should win: HARRY POTTER 7
    Could win: INCEPTION
    Will win: THE KING’S SPEECH

  • 38 2-09-2011 at 10:33 pm

    Glenn said...

    I think animated films deserve to be noticed here. It’s not like Stuart Craig physically build the sets himself. He designed them, just as someone designed the sets of “Wall-E” or “The Incredibles” (two animated films I’d personally have nominated) and oversaw people bring them to light. Animation sets don’t have a lesser responsibility to the story and should be judged accordingly.

    But, meh, that’s what I think. The Academy aren’t going to recognise it any time soon though.

  • 39 2-10-2011 at 2:38 am

    RichardA said...

    Should win: The King’s Speech. I just love that back wall in Logue’s office.

  • 40 7-29-2011 at 11:02 pm

    prakash gurung said...

    all of the above movies are awesome and best of luck to them………..