As mentioned in my rundown of Best Cinematography at the Oscars, the Production Design field is so closely linked creatively that all five movies nominated there are also nominated here. This Oscar goes to the film’s production designer and its set decorator, both highly crucial roles to any film, which is why (like Cinematography) four of the five movies nominated for Production Design are Best Picture nominees as well.
It may come as no surprise that Gold Derby’s Experts have Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” – the only movie this year nominated in every single below-the-line category (save Best Original Song) – ahead to win for Production Design, although a few of them lean towards “Nightmare Alley” or “West Side Story.” But this is not about who will win as much about why all the nominees are bona fide winners already.
As of this writing the Production Design category has been relegated off the main Oscars ceremony to the pre-show, but make no mistake that none of these movies would look this good without the talented individuals in the art department designing and building the sets and environments for each movie.
“Dune” – Production Designer: Patrice Vermette; Set Decorator: Zsuzsanna Sipos
“Dune” has been wowing moviegoers to the tune of $400 million worldwide. There are many below-the-line artisans responsible for this, along with Villeneuve, whom sadly, was not nominated by the Oscars for his direction. Vermette had to take Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel (co-written with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth) and create a new look for the world of Arrakis and its fortress strongholds, as well as design the fantastic technology of said world. With his art department, along with the visual effects team, Vermette helped Villeneuve achieve his otherworldly vision, earning Vermette his third nomination, his prior one being for Villeneuve’s “Arrival” (and before that “The Young Victoria”).
Although many of the settings are stark, there are enough details added by set decorator Sipos and her team to fully establish and bring to life the domiciles of Houses Atreides and Harkonnen. Although this is her first Oscar nomination, she performed similar duties on Villeneuve’s previous sci-fi film, “Blade Runner 2049.”
“Nightmare Alley” – PD: Tamara Deverell; SD: Shane Vieau
The first half of Guillermo del Toro’s noir thriller, based on a William Lindsay Graham novel, takes place at a carnival in the late ‘40s as Bradley Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle arrives, destitute and looking for a job. Over the next hour we explore every nook and cranny of that carnival, from the “geek pit” to the stage on which Toni Collette’s Madame Zeena performs. Deverell and Vieau’s work creating a full-scale working carnival – a set that was built before the COVID pandemic halted production for six months – is only half the story, since the film’s second half follows Carlisle as a successful performing medium in the city of Buffalo.
Besides the amazing venues in which Carlisle performs, anyone watching the film should be blown away by the amazing art deco buildings and rooms, such as the wood-lined walls of the office of Cate Blanchett’s Dr. Lilith Ritter. The work of first-time nominee Deverell and her set decorator is a marvel to behold, something that brings atmosphere to del Toro’s vision, as captured in classic noir style by the camera and lights of cinematographer Dan Laustsen.
“The Power of the Dog” – PD: Grant Major; SD: Amber Richards
This was a surprise nomination. Jane Campion’s Oscar nominations leader (with 12) didn’t even get a bid from the Art Directors Guild despite Grant Major being a two-time ADG winner for his work on Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies. But he’s also a four-time Oscar contender and won for 2003’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” which swept the Oscars at the 2004 ceremony.
The job of the production designer involves more than creating fantastic worlds or environments, as in “Dune” and “Nightmare Alley.” In this case, it was all about finding the gorgeous locations and building what was necessary to create the perfect setting for intense family drama, which also had to capture the Montana setting despite being filmed in New Zealand.
Major’s set decorator, Amber Richards, is a first-time Oscar nominee, but the way she populated the various locations and sets with period-specific props and details tells us so much more about Benedict Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank, Kirsten Dunst’s Rose, and her son Peter played by Kodi Smit-McPhee. Richards’s work was just recognized with the top film award from the Set Decorators Society of America in addition to her Oscar nom, so it’s obvious how much all those elements impact every aspect of Campion’s emotion-driven film.
“The Tragedy of Macbeth” – PD: Stefan Dechant, SD: Nancy Haigh
If you want to discuss absolutely stunning work in production and set design, you don’t have to venture too far into Joel Coen’s Shakespeare adaptation to see that from Dechant, receiving his first Oscar nomination after working in the art department for a number of movies nominated by the academy for production design, including Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” and James Cameron’s “Avatar.”
What Dechant did with his set decorator, Nancy Haigh, is create an eye-catching, expressionistic backdrop for the dramatic performances by the likes of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, unlike any production that’s ever adapted the Bard’s masterwork. And this is despite — or maybe because of — Coen’s movie being presented fully in black and white.
“West Side Story” – PD: Adam Stockhausen; SD: Rena DeAngelo
Stockhausen’s work on “West Side Story” was already recognized by the Art Directors Guild with a nomination before he received his Oscar bid. The work he did with his set decorator DeAngelo to recreate the New York City of the ‘50s as developers begin destroying the Upper West Side, threatening the Polish and Puerto Rican families that live there, is quite breathtaking when first established by the movie’s opening dance number.
From there, we get a number of terrific locations like the drug store run by Rita Moreno’s Valentina – a fine example of DeAngelo’s set decoration – and other locations like the alleyway behind Maria and Anita’s apartment, the high school gymnasium, and more. These sets and backdrops allowed Spielberg’s retelling of this award-winning musical (the 1961 version won the Oscar for Art Direction) to chart its own unique path.
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