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Oscar Watch: Three Designers Compete With Period Films

It took teamwork to create the look of this year's top craft nominees

As a team, production designer Judy Becker and costume designer Michael Wilkinson just click.

“The entire world is our palette,” says Wilkinson. “In another lifetime, Judy would be a sculptress or an installation artist — and I share this passion with her.”

The pair first worked together on Zach Braff’s 2004 “Garden State,” finding an immediate connection. But they waited 10 years for a job to bring them together again — and when “American Hustle” did just that, they each scored Oscar nominations out of it.
“It was worth the wait,” Wilkinson says.

Not every production/costume designer duo has to be as in-sync as Becker and Wilkinson. But this year, three films (all period pics) scored Academy Award nominations in both production and costume design categories. In each case, the designers behind the nominations for “Hustle,” “12 Years a Slave” and “The Great Gatsby” are a study in how two key below-the-line slots on a film do best when immersed in a shared vision.

Becker and Wilkinson spent a lot of time working side by side on “Hustle,” ultimately creating character-specific “walls” on which they could pin clothing or wallpaper swatches, to make sure everything would blend right. “We were both researchers, and we loved submerging ourselves in the (1970s) period,” Wilkinson says. “When you look at (director David O. Russell’s) movies and my movies and Judy’s movies, it’s not all about showing the pretty. It’s (about) humanity, warts and all.”

Unlike the “Hustle” crew, “12 Years” production designer Adam Stockhausen and costume designer Patty Norris spent relatively little time in each others’ presence while plotting out the movie’s design.

“We didn’t work together a lot, but we naturally had a conversation about things,” Norris says. “Adam’s very easy to work with — and there’s not a lot you’re going to argue about: ‘Oh, that building’s gray and I want to do beige.’ ”

Stockhausen says they just agreed early on how the look of the film would progress: rich, deep tones for Solomon Northup’s life in Saratoga; blasted, washed-out looks the further down the ladder he went once he was kidnapped into slavery.

Knowing how and when to defer to one another is key in maintaining a good balance in the costume/production designer union. Stockhausen says there were times when his sets could not be altered or adapted, in which case costume followed his lead. In others, costume set the tone.

If the same person is both production designer and costume designer, that doesn’t necessarily remove the notion of cooperation. Catherine Martin, wife of “Gatsby” director Baz Luhrmann served in both roles, but she was always in active discussions. “The collaboration is really between us,” says Martin of Luhrmann, who plots out the visual look of his movies a long time in advance.

“The visual language for his films is developed with the writing of the script,” she adds, recalling how some years before “Gatsby” began shooting they took photos of the ruins of a circular pool on Long Island and acted out Gatsby’s death scene right there.

But, she insists, just because he storyboards his films far in advance doesn’t mean he’s not open to other creative suggestions. “That’s what makes it really exciting,” she says. “He operates in a place where he values discussion, argument and eventually consensus.”
For “Gatsby” set decorator Beverley Dunn, working on a pre-visualized production like “Gatsby” is ideal. “Baz is such a visual storyteller,” she says. “He makes your work in the art department very invigorating. I’ve been on films where it’s all about the actors and talking heads — rather than letting the background tell some of the story.”

Regardless of how their collaborations came together, not one of these nominees lament having too small of a budget. Chuckles Martin, “You never have enough resources, but that is what makes you creative. If we had all the time and money, we would never finish anything.”

Wilkinson agrees: “With more time and money, we might have overthought and overanalyzed — we didn’t have time to consider a million options; we just had time for one or two.”

In the end, it’s about knowing what resources you do have — and quite often designers find their greatest resource is each other. “The whole thing about movies is working together,” says Norris. “I’m not prepared for arguments.”

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