From 'Gladiator' to 'Quills,' Oscar field is wide open

The look of the movies at the turn of the century has been influenced by two intensifying trends: the use of computers to paint in scenery, and the crossing of national borders to globalize what had been parochial or exotic images, creating more options and concepts for Hollywood’s production designers.

Pictures as varied as the Roman epic “Gladiator,” the storybook standard “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and the Coen brothers’ picaresque lark “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” used computer graphic imaging to create extensions of grand-scale sets, key images and whole sections of pertinent scenes.

“Visual effects are considered just another tool now, but an incredibly viable and cost-effective one,” says Nancy Bernstein, senior VP of feature films for Digital Domain, which created much of Whoville for “Grinch” as well as a Mississippi flood for “O Brother.” “We worked with (production designer) Michael Corenblith to extend the look of ‘The Grinch,’ gave it a vastness, a sky and landscapes. We were involved for 19 months on ‘The Grinch’ in pre-production.”

Meanwhile, overseas pictures continue to influence: Ang Lee’s Chinese epic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”; the European period chamber pieces of “Chocolat,” “Shadow of the Vampire” and “An Everlasting Piece”; the more expansive Euro pics “Vatel” and “Quills”; and the south-of-the-border portraits of “Before Night Falls” and “Traffic.”

Simple locales

And domestic sets that would seem ordinary — yet stood out with character — in 2000 included offices in “Dr. T and the Women” and “Erin Brockovich,” docks in “Men of Honor” and “The Perfect Storm,” low-rent locales in “Nurse Betty” and “Jesus’ Son,” sports facilities in “Remember the Titans” and “Bring It On,” and small towns in “Spring Forward,” “You Can Count on Me” and “My Dog Skip.”

“Too many Academy voters mistake majestic settings for the best production design,” says Mark Johnson, the Oscar-winning producer of “Rain Man” and executive producer of “What Lies Beneath.” “I’m in my second year as chairman of the Academy’s foreign film executive committee, and I get to discover new talents, and world cinema is making a big impact.”

Global travels

With seasoned talents, too. Assheton Gorton, the Wales-based production designer, who was Oscar-nominated for “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1981), did the big, colorful sequel “102 Dalmatians” and was also impelled by the production deal for “Shadow of the Vampire” to make and stage that entire film in the tiny nation of Luxembourg.

“There’s no (computer graphics) in the film,” he says. “We created it in front of the camera, the old-fashioned way, which never goes out of style. The philosophy for the film was all about light and dark. As Murnau (John Malkovich) says in the picture, ‘If it’s not in the frame, it doesn’t exist.’ “

Color and architecture were extremely important to the storytelling in the period films “Vatel” and “Quills.”

“(Director) Roland Joffe and I discussed the colors of the different party scenes, as well as the way in which we would differentiate the court of Louis XIV against the life of Vatel and the servants,” says production designer Jean Rabasse. “The way we did that was using saturated colors and gold to show the court, whereas Vatel’s world with the servants was shown in cold color tones. I got the opportunity to go beyond my limits with this film.”

England substituting for France

“We were to shoot in the U.K. and I spent quite a bit of time finding bits of England that looked like France,” says “Quills” production designer Martin Childs, who won an Oscar for 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love.” “We discovered big chateau-like houses in the country: mid-19th-century England that looked like 18th-century France, which we used. It was (director) Phil Kaufman’s idea to shoot in story order, a great luxury you almost never have, so we were able to reshade and repaint as things went along and got more unpleasant for the Marquis de Sade at Charenton Asylum.”

“Production design, which has been neglected in the past, is and will be in the years ahead a crucial art form,” says Jack DeGovia, president of the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 876, the Art Directors Guild. “Production design is analogous to the role that designing is playing in the new world culture. People are overwhelmed with information and choices. Production design in motion pictures will set standards as to what’s worth paying attention to.”

DeGovia cites the psychological thriller “The Cell,” with production design by Tom Foden, as a cutting-edge piece informed by social consciousness.

“It’s very tough stuff,” DeGovia says, “scary, brutal and telling, splashy, with wonderful ideas.”

Brashness in production design can also be applied to the familiar, say Depression-era Mississippi.

“I set out to play off those black-and-white, hand-tinted photographs of the times,” says Dennis Gassner, an Oscar winner for “Bugsy” (1991) and production designer for “O Brother,” his fourth Coen brothers movie. “We did everything to achieve that steamy Mississippi summer environment and looked for icons of the region and times, unique spaces, folklore impressions.”

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