Oscar Nominees: Best Production Design

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Every day from now until the Oscars on Sunday, February 26 I’m going to deconstruct the nominees in each category. I’ll give you their history with the Academy, some extra thoughts on each nominee/film, who was snubbed, and what you might consider before choosing them in your office pool.

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Nominee: Patrice Vermette, Paul Hotte
FilmArrival
Oscar History: Vermette was nominated once before, for The Young Victoria. This is Hotte’s first nomination.
Thoughts: Making a futuristic world look not so futuristic is not small feat and Vermette and Hotte aided Arrival‘s director in creating a unified vision of a not too distant future.  From the structured plain-ness of Amy Adams lakefront home to the various tents and pop up war rooms where government officials and scientists work together to figure out what some unexpected visitors want, the production design is organized and focused.  It’s actually a bit too subtle to truly contend with its fellow nominees, but overall the design is crisp.

Nominee: Stuart Craig, Anna Pinnock
FilmFanastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Oscar History: Craig has been nominated 10 times before, winning for The English Patient, Dangerous Liaisons, and Gandhi.  Pinnock has been nominated five times before (twice in one year!), winning for The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Thoughts: For me, I always associate production design with the physically present sets and props the actors interact with.  While that does fall under the banner, the job of the production designer is to make cohesive all elements of the film production, including visual effects.  There’s a lot of imagination on display here and the period setting definitely helps one understand how these designers were nominated…but too much of the film feels created not crafted.

Nominee: Jess Gonchor, Nancy Haigh
FilmHail, Caesar!
Oscar History: Gonchor was nominated once before, for True Grit. Haigh has been nominated six times before, winning for Bugsy.
Thoughts: Period pieces always tend to fare better because in the eyes of the Academy, there’s a greater degree of difficulty in the full recreation of the past.  The designers involved with Hail, Caesar! certainly got the feel and look of early Hollywood, creating not only several jaw dropping sound stages but a fully realized backlot and several glamorous beach front mansions.  Remember what I say (because I’ll be saying it often throughout the next few weeks), nothing pleases Hollywood more than to reward films about Hollywood.  

Nominee: David Wasco, Sandy Reynolds-Wasco
FilmLa La Land
Oscar History: First time nominees.
Thoughts: Following along in the footsteps of Hail Caesar!, La La Land also takes place on the back lot of a movie studio and makes its own dreamy trip through a soundstage featuring several genres of classic Hollywood.  There’s a more modern realism afoot and the nominees here were admirably able to clean-up Los Angeles without scrubbing it of all its underbelly touches too much.  I actually started to notice the production design more in the second half of the movie when we visit more intimate venues and glide through a fantasy sequence where the attention to the details makes all the difference.

Nominee: Guy Hendrix Dyas, Gene Serdena
FilmPassengers
Oscar History: Hendrix Dyas has been nominated once before, for Inception.  Serdena has been nominated previously for Her.
Thoughts: This one is just completely odd to me.  Watching Passengers I remember specifically feeling how artificial everything looked.  The inner workings of the spaceship transporting human cargo to another galaxy is certainly grand in scope and doesn’t go the traditional route but the added visual effects tended to overwhelm the simple design elements..  Where most movies set in space have dark passageways and cold edges, the designers for Passengers balanced a brighter palate, lending some warmth to an overall chilly movie.

Missed Opportunity:

Should Been Nominated: Jean Rabasse for Jackie
Why?: I’m shocked Rabasse didn’t land a nomination for his striking recreations of historical locations in Jackie.  Perfectly blending with the work of the costume designer, the art direction was immaculate and not just the same old artist interpretation of the White House.  Rabasse had his work cut out since so many others have had a chance to put their own stamp on the Kennedy’s and their compounds…but this movie felt like it truly lept from the pages of history.  Passengers should have been swapped out for Jackie.

While I would love Hail! Caesar to nab the statue, it’s looking likely that La La Land, with its more contemporary take at Hollywood will continue its consumption of Oscars with a win here as well.

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