Tech Support: 'Life of Pi' has a strong crafts showing at the Oscars

Posted by · 9:35 am · February 25th, 2013

I”m writing this column, the last Tech Support entry for this 2012-2013 Oscar season, with a strange combination of ambivalence and a touch of the bittersweet. Despite the fun of awards season, and this one in particular, it is somewhat relieving to see it come to an end.

The actual show and array of winners certainly had its down moments, but it won”t go down in my memory as an appalling evening, notwithstanding all the knives that were out for Seth MacFarlane this morning. Then again, maybe I”m getting easier to satisfy in my old age, as I don”t think the Academy has had an appalling show or set of winners since 2001. This won”t stick out in my mind as a great show, but there were aspects of it that I loved.

I matched my best prediction rate ever – going 20/24 (arguably 21/25 depending on how one counts Best Sound Editing – I’ll get to that). But I did miss two of the first three awards (Best Supporting Actor – Christoph Waltz becoming a two-time Oscar winner remains one of the weirdest things in my opinion – and Best Animated Feature). My ability to turn around the ship was largely seen in the crafts categories where I managed to go 9/10, a personal best.

But like the races as a whole, while there were many crafts category wins I was thrilled with, and others I was content with, there were many that left me rather disappointed.

The one crafts pick I missed was Best Production Design. As much as I truly wanted “Anna Karenina” to win, it ultimately fell not to the epic fantasy of “Life of Pi” or the epic period of “Les Misérables,” which could have made David Gropman or Eve Stewart a first-time winner, but Rick Carter”s meticulous period work on “Lincoln.” That was surprising indeed.

Carter, who put together the “Lincoln” White House with set decorator Jim Erickson after painstakingly detailed research and work that took about a decade, now has two Oscars. He won in 2009 for “Avatar.” I”m happy for them. I wondered if this would yield victories for “Lincoln” in Best Adapted Screenplay or Best Director. Alas, it was not to be.

The great Sarah Greenwood will have to wait for her Oscar. While a fourth loss in eight years must be disappointing, the fact that she and set decorator Katie Spencer have earned four nominations in that period is a testament to their talent.

“Anna Karenina” was far enough ahead in Best Costume Design that Jacqueline Durran could not be caught. This incredibly talented and classy costume designer won the Oscar that many assume she earned for “Atonement” (a phenomenon, to borrow Guy”s terminology, of the “phantom Oscar”…does anybody remember “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”?) I was thrilled with this victory. Not only was she the only past nominee who hadn”t won before, but this was richly deserved.

The split between Best Production Design and Best Costume Design is telling. These categories used to go together far more often than not – nine out of 11 years between 1995 and 2005! But now they”ve gone in separate directions for six of the past seven years. And, more to the point, they”ve become separate branches. It looks like this trend could continue in years to come.

Other veteran nominees who earned their first statuettes last night were William Goldenberg (Best Film Editing for “Argo”) and Lisa Westcott (Best Makeup and Hairstyling for “Les Misérables”). These are also deserved, if fairly predictable wins, even if I preferred Goldenberg”s work on “Zero Dark Thirty.” He, Westcott and Julie Dartnell (co-winner with Westcott) were all clearly thrilled to triumph as well. That was lovely to see.

As has been observed elsewhere, “Life of Pi” led the winners tally with four victories, compared to just three for “Argo” (and “Les Mis” for that matter). I failed to predict its Best Director victory, but I did manage to guess its triumph in three crafts categories, as did most.

Let”s start with the unambiguously deserved win. The visual effects work on “Life of Pi” was miraculous. Bill Westenhofer probably should have known when to get off the stage, or at least he should have made his plea for laid-off artists at the Rhythm and Hues effects house earlier in said speech (I loved the use of the “Jaws” theme, though). This victory may also remind of the importance of being a Best Picture nominee, and not being a solo nominee, in this category.

I was also pleased to see Mychael Danna win Best Original Score as he reaches the pinnacle of his profession after a quarter-century being passed over. Yet again the advantage that a first-time nominee has – when nominated – shines through. I admit I preferred Dario Marianelli”s amazing work on “Anna Karenina.” It was also sad to see Alexandre Desplat (“Argo”) and Thomas Newman (“Skyfall”) lose yet again. Newman was one of three “Skyfall” artists who keep a tragic 0/37 cumulative Oscar history going.

To be fair, however, I did prefer Danna”s work to Newman”s. The same cannot be said in Cinematography, where I honestly felt Roger Deakins deserved the statuette over Claudio Miranda. Miranda”s genuine happiness was touching, however, and I also think many criticisms of his work as essentially being a computer game are totally unwarranted and unfair. Deakins is philosophical about this. I remain convinced he”ll triumph one of these years. He has to, no?

Deakins is not the only “Skyfall” nominee my heart bled for, as Greg P. Russell lost for the 16th time in Best Sound Mixing. I cannot fault Andy Nelson and company”s work on “Les Misérables,” nor was the category exceptionally difficult to predict. But this was likely Russell”s best chance to win in quite some time. (He wasn”t winning for “Salt” or any of the “Transformers” movies, that’s for sure.) He doesn”t seem to be slowing down, however. I”m quite sure we”ll see him on stage in the not-too-distant future. Consistency is everything.

That leads me to perhaps the biggest surprise of the night. For the sixth time in Oscar history there was a tie! This easily could have seemed part of Mark Wahlberg”s act so his reaction said it all. “NoB.S., it’s a tie.” That this occurred in Best Sound Editing is all the more appropriate given how close that category clearly was this year.

On the one hand, “Skyfall” seemed like the winner, sticking out as a respected action nominee, giving second and third statuettes to Karen Baker Landers and Per Hallberg. But then again, “Zero Dark Thirty” seemed so deserving and an obvious spot to give an award to Kathryn Bigelow”s film. (Only “Beasts of the Southern Wild” failed to win an Oscar of the nine Best Picture nominees.) I was struggling between these two all last week. Lo and behold, they both came through! They fended off “Life of Pi,” which also seemed to be at a risk of taking it. I”m pleased with the Academy”s tastes here, as two very different but very deserving soundscapes managed to share the glory.

With victories not only in Best Sound Editing but Best Original Song, the James Bond franchise doubled its total number of Oscar wins in one night. “Goldfinger” had won Best Sound Effects and “Thunderball” had won Best Special Effects. The win for Adele and Paul Epworth wasn”t surprising, but it was also very well-deserved.

And in the words of Adele, “This is the End.” With that, I sign off. It”s been a pleasure highlighting the invaluable contributions of our below-the-line crafts artists this year. I”ll see you in a few months. Feel free to share your final thoughts below!

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