This year’s production design Oscar race is, as ever, heavy on period pieces. But there are some fantasy contenders mixing things up and, if voters are willing to look, plenty of worthy possibilities that lie off the beaten path.
In one of the most extravagant builds of the year, production designer Jess Gonchor, a Coen brothers regular, and his team recreated the Tampa neighborhood of 1930s Ybor City in Georgia (thanks to tax incentives). It’s large-scale, detail-oriented stuff, as is Gonchor and company’s work on the Coens’ “Hail, Caesar!,” which transports the viewer back to 1950s Hollywood in lavish and eye-popping ways.
Speaking of lavish, Dante Ferretti takes us to 17th Century Japan for Martin Scorsese’s “Silence.” He also took on costume design duties for the film. A three-time Oscar winner, twice for Scorsese productions (“The Aviator” and “Hugo”), Ferretti should be good for his 11th nomination to date, assuming voters see the late-breaking entry in time to absorb it.
“La La Land” director Damien Chazelle tapped Quentin Tarantino’s go-to production designer, David Wasco, to bring the low-tech, expressionistic sets of his musical to life. It could be enough to land Wasco his first-ever Oscar nomination.
Meanwhile, Stuart Craig has racked up four nominations on the “Harry Potter” series alone. In the Wizarding World spin-off “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” he again builds out an entire world that could leave the branch dazzled. Or have they been there and done that by now?
One wild card is Morten Tyldum’s “Passengers.” Production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, a previous nominee for “Inception,” could have leaned on green screens and an ample CGI-assist, but the practical sets of the film, bringing the Starship Avalon to life, are all very immersive and intricate. It would make for a much-needed bit of variety in the category.
Like “Hail, Caesar!,” Warren Beatty’s “Rules Don’t Apply” zaps the viewer back to 1950s Hollywood. Four-time Oscar nominee Jeannine Oppewall (“L.A. Confidential,” “Seabiscuit”) headed up the art department, and though the film was a box office disaster, that shouldn’t undercut the impressive crafts on display.
For Pablo Larrain’s slice-of-life biopic “Jackie,” Jean Rabasse — a nominee for 2000’s “Vatel” — recreated White House interiors at Luc Besson’s Cite du Cinema studio outside of Paris. The attention to detail in bringing these environments back to life is just the kind of thing Rabasse’s fellow designers appreciate.
Other films that transported audiences to another time include “Allied” (Gary Freeman’s CGI-boosted recreation of World War II-era London), “The Birth of a Nation” (Geoffrey Kirkland’s slavery era trappings), “Florence Foster Jenkins” (Alan MacDonald’s evocation of the 1930s New York socialite scene), “Cafe Society” (Santo Loquasto’s evocation of the 1930s Los Angeles socialite scene) and “Love & Friendship” (Anna Rackard lifting Jane Austen’s world off the page).
Things start to feel a bit repetitive when you boil the period pieces down like that, though. Elsewhere, “Hacksaw Ridge” offers a cocktail of 1940s Americana and World War II Pacific Theater horror. “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” further builds out George Lucas’ world with aplomb. “The BFG” blends practical sets with top-notch CGI. Also worth pondering is “The Handmaiden,” which the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. recently heralded in this realm. (It’s usually the costumers who venture out for such contenders, though.) And if the branch wants to go there, the overall design of “The Jungle Book” was immersive and quite an achievement.
But straying farther afield, what about something like “Green Room” or “10 Cloverfield Lane?” Both films really live or die by their claustrophobic geography. Or how about the subtlety of “Loving,” which matches director Jeff Nichols’ no-fuss approach to the material? And there’s a lot of meticulous detail going on in “Arrival.”
The most deserving contender in the race isn’t even likely to get a second look thanks to how much animation has been ghettoized: Laika’s “Kubo and the Two Strings” probably deserves both this and the costume design Oscar running away. Alas…
Members of the Art Directors Guild will help narrow all this down on Jan. 5. when they announce nominations in the fields of period, fantasy and contemporary design.