Oscar Guide 2011: Best Art Direction

Posted by · 10:09 am · January 25th, 2012

(The Oscar Guide will be your chaperone through the Academy’s 24 categories awarding excellence in film. A new installment will hit every weekday in the run-up to the Oscars on February 26, with the Best Picture finale on Saturday, February 25.)

The art directors ended up with a slate packed with Best Picture-contending films this year, the one outlier being the closing installment of a franchise that has been a perennial fixture of the category. Nostalgia rules the field, reflective of the thematic undercurrent at play throughout the season.

Lavish productions like “Anonymous” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” and more finely-tuned, thematically relevant work like that seen in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Drive” were left off the final tally after scoring with the guild. What remains is an understandable quintet and a brawl between two films for the win that will be evident throughout a number of categories this season.

The nominees are…

“The Artist” (Laurence Bennet; Robert Gould)

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” (Stuart Craig; Stephenie McMillan)

“Hugo” (Dante Ferretti; Francesca Lo Schiavo)

“Midnight in Paris” (Anne Seibel; Hélène Dubreuil)

“War Horse” (Rick Carter; Lee Sandales)

It would have been nice to see the branch spring for more subtle work, like, say, “The Guard,” or if the stellar work on “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” and “Water for Elephants” could have found room to mix things up. Alas, the Academy boiled things down, as they always do.

When the Best Picture frontrunner is a period piece celebrating the dawn of talkie cinema and it gets in for Best Art Direction, watch out. “The Artist” is a fine example of difficult art direction, as it’s an entirely different exercise when it comes to black and white. Proscenium arches and celebrity abodes pop off the screen and the attention to detail does show. Perhaps the film, likely to take the big prize, will sweep a number of other areas with it, and this could easily be one of them. This is the first nod for production designer Laurence Bennet and the second for set decorator Robert Gould (“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”).

The Harry Potter franchise has done fairly well in the Best Art Direction category, wracking up three nominations along the way. The heads of the department are one of the few consistent elements of the series as other craftsmen and women have come and gone elsewhere. And this year the work on “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” was no less exceptional, a vibrant blend of real environments with CG elements, marking the ninth Oscar nomination for production designer Stuart Craig. He won three times previously for “Gandhi,” “Dangerous Liasons” and “The English Patient.” Set decorator Stephenie McMillan was first recognized with him for the latter.

The beast of the category, though, is Dante Ferretti‘s bold, lavish, expertly researched achievement on Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo.” There really isn’t a question, I don’t think. Whether it’s the jaw-dropping rendering of a 1930s bus station or the reconstruction of Georges Méliès’s all-glass film production studio (and all the set design elements of the films he made there), the design work on this film is simply astounding. Ferretti was snubbed here last year for equally brilliant though less extravagant work on “Shutter Island,” but extravagant is often what it takes to get recognized, so here he is for a ninth time in the category (and the eighth for his wife Francesca Lo Schiavo), gunning for Oscar #3.

The surprise nominee in the category was “Midnight in Paris,” which didn’t show up at the guild and was assumed mostly out of the running in the below-the-line categories. Still, for a Best Picture/Best Director/Best Screenplay nominee not to show up elsewhere would have been strange, so here it is. The design elements are particularly of note in the film’s 1920s Paris sequences (and if the designers were feeling this rewarding, they might have offered a leg up to costume designer Sonia Grande). Alas, the nomination is likely the extent of the recognition here, and that’s already more than most expected. This is the first Oscar nomination for production designer Anne Seibel and set decorator Hélène Dubreuil.

After a really poor guild showing, Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” managed to pop up in a number of areas after all, including in the art direction field. This is Rick Carter‘s fourth Oscar nomination and, if you can believe it, his first for a Spielberg effort. (They have been consistent collaborators for some time.) The film is dominated by exterior scenes, but the set details are no less impressive, and they’re wide-ranging at that, from Dartmoor farmhouses to the trenches of World War I. It’s nice to see the film recognized for that. Carter previously won this award for “Avatar” in 2009 and you have to go back to 1994 and “Forrest Gump” for his last nomination prior to that. This is the first Oscar notice for set decorator Lee Sandales.

Will win: “Hugo”

Could win: “The Artist”

Should win: “Hugo”

Should have been here: “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”

Keep track of our current rankings in the Best Art Direction category via its Contenders page here.


What do you think deserves the Oscar for Best Art Direction? Have your say in the comments section below.

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