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Sci-Fi and Period Tales Rule Oscar Production Design Race

When looking for trends in the race for the art direction Oscar, there are two that stand out: voters favor historical films and they’re not crazy about science fiction.

Films that are set primarily in the present day have only won six times since 1968 (1976’s “All the President’s Men,” 1978’s “Heaven Can Wait,” 1979’s “All That Jazz,” 1989’s “Batman,” 1994’s “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and 2016’s “La La Land”) and the category has only been won by five science-fiction films since the Academy Awards debuted in 1929 (2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” 2009’s “Avatar,” 1977’s “Star Wars,” 1967’s “Fantastic Voyage” and 1954’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”).

This year, the category has its own set of micro-trends.

While no present day-set films are among the nominees, two are science fiction, “Blade Runner 2049” and “The Shape of Water” (also a period piece, set in 1962), and they both draw inspiration from the blocky, concrete-heavy Brutalist architecture of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

The Brutalist centerpiece in “The Shape of Water” is the Occam Aerospace Research Center, an industrial structure dominated by teal blue tones in which janitor Elisa (Sally Hawkins) discovers an aquatic humanoid creature (Doug Jones) being tortured by its government captors. Portrayed by the ’60s-era Andrews Building at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, and studio sets, Occam is dominated by severe angles leavened by a few rounded corners that stylistically link it to the arched window (inspired by the 1948 film “The Red Shoes”) in Elisa’s early 20th century apartment.

“I liked that there were some similarities in the world that she inhabited, but one was this oppressive hard-edged space and the other one was this earlier architecture, much more romantic kind of space,” says the film’s production designer, Paul Austerberry.

Director Denis Villeneuve didn’t merely want the look of “Blade Runner 2049” to evoke Brutalist buildings like London’s Barbican Centre, he wanted “brutal” to be the “keystone word” for an aesthetic that communicated the harshness of its dystopian setting.

According to “Blade Runner 2049” production designer Dennis Gassner, the key to defining that aesthetic was the design of the “spinner” flying cars, which were sharper and more angular than those in original “Blade Runner” (1982), with a slate gray color reminiscent of concrete and weathered metal.

Gassner says the spinner “created what I call a ‘pattern language,’ and the language permeated throughout the rest of the film.”

Another trend in this year’s race for the production design Oscar is not a style, but the subject of two nominated period films: the British government’s efforts to evacuate more than 300,000 British troops from the beach at Dunkirk, France, in 1940, and the runup to the Battle of Britain.

In Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” production designer Nathan Crowley returned to the historic locations to re-create the rescue in the most organic way possible, using period boats and airplanes and rebuilding a large portion of the kilometer-long Dunkirk pier (also known as a “mole”) from which the majority of the soldiers disembarked.

In director Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour,” production designer Sarah Greenwood was tasked with re-creating the London backdrop for British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s political maneuverings before Nazis attacked the U.K. She says her process for “Darkest Hour” didn’t really differ from the one she employed on “Beauty and the Beast,” which is also up for the production design Oscar.

“I approach all my projects the same way,” Greenwood says. “I read and do a lot of research and find key jumping off points. The main difference is that ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is a fairy tale, but it’s set in 1740s France, so it had a period I could reference.”

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