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The Oscar noms for art direction

The Good Shepherd

Most of the nominees in this year’s art direction category are showy enough to explain themselves. And then there’s “The Good Shepherd.” At first glance, voters might question why it was chosen alongside flashier fare, but a discerning eye reveals there’s quite a bit more going on beneath the surface.

Production designer Jeannine Oppewall, a four-time Oscar nominee, snuck in details wherever she could to tell the tale about the early days of the CIA, crafting a handsome, deliberately understated look for the pic’s period settings. Motifs such as a federal eagle on the base of a lamp symbolize the ultimate power of the government, while a ship in a bottle serves as a metaphor for the state.

“We tried to be very subtle in the design and not make a big event of it,” she explains. “These are people who didn’t want attention drawn to themselves.”

Mirrors also play an essential design theme in the film. They cover the walls in a bar where Matt Damon’s character meets up with an ex-flame, reflecting the duplicitous nature of his character. In another scene, a Russian defector is being interrogated in a room with a massive mural of a hunt scene in back of him.

“It’s the hunter and the hunted being played out all around him,” says Oppewall.

Robert De Niro, the film’s director, was a willing co-conspirator in playing with such visual metaphors. “It was a pleasure to work with De Niro,” she says. “If he had an idea he would express it, and if he didn’t, he would tell me to get one.”

— Rachel Wimberly

Dreamgirls

Art Dir.: John Myhre; Set Decoration: Nancy Haigh

Why it’ll win: The Academy loves a hometown production, since it supports local business. Add that to impressive period work, and “Dreamgirls” is hard to beat. Pic’s big challenge was finding Los Angeles locations to play not only 1960s Detroit, but also stops along the girl group’s whirlwind tour. “We got to go through almost every one of these beautiful old theaters downtown top and bottom,” says “Memoirs of a Geisha” winner Myhre.

Why it won’t: Though “Dreamgirls” scored more noms than any other 2006 release, absence in picture and director categories suggests Acad may have reservations.

Pan’s Labyrinth

Art Dir.: Eugenio Caballero; Set Decoration: Pilar Revuelta

Why it’ll win: The critically acclaimed fairy tale finds a young girl caught between two worlds, and the design helps distinguish the two. “I always thought this girl would be dreaming about going back into her mother’s belly,” says director Guillermo del Toro. “That’s why all the references in the fairy-tale world are uterine.” Who can resist a candidate that demonstrates artistic vision and intellect?

Why it won’t: The director’s imagination may be a little too active for some voters. “Look at the pattern on the floor of the throne room at the end, and you’ll see quite an obscene little shape,” laughs del Toro.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

Art Dir.: Rick Heinrichs; Set Decoration: Cheryl Carasik

Why it’ll win: Previous Acad winner Heinrichs (“Sleepy Hollow”) and five-time nominee Carasik layered historic and fantastic elements for this stylized period pic set rather loosely in the golden age of pirating. Pic’s three floating sets, Captain Jack Sparrow’s Black Pearl included, are wonders of modern techniques, plaster casts (the Flying Dutchman’s oozing, sea creature-covered decks) and period detail (aged rope rigging, working cannons).

Why it won’t: Spectacular crowdpleasing pic was a mega-grosser and based on a Disney theme park ride — certainly not in the Acad’s preferred realm of the esoteric.

The Prestige

Art Dir.: Nathan Crowley; Set Decoration: Julie Ochipinti

Why it’ll win: Conjuring up realistic and richly textured environments of 1890s-era London was Crowley’s assignment. A vet collaborator with helmer Christopher Nolan, Crowley extensively researched the era, magicians’ studios and tools-of-the trade but aimed for a Victorian Modernism — the past with a contempo edge. Using practical locations and stages around Los Angeles, Crowley’s 68 sets ranged from classic English pubs to Victorian-era hospitals and vast theaters.

Why it won’t: Two handsomely designed period magician films (rival “The Illusionist” is up for best cinematography) may be too much for Acad voters to differentiate.

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