When the Motion Picture Academy announced the Oscar noms on Jan. 23, there was the usual assortment of period and futuristic fare, but three contemporary films also made the final cut as best picture contenders: “Get Out,” “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
But that trend didn’t hold up in the below-the-line categories of costume, hair & makeup and production design. Only one contemporary film earned a berth in those three key sectors, and it was a dark-horse candidate, “Wonder,” which earned a hair & makeup nom for its prosthetics.
That’s par for the course in key artisan categories, where contemporary designers are regularly shut out. Even when a contemporary film does earn a crafts prize — as “La La Land” did for production design last year — there’s usually a fantastic or comic-book element involved.
“They’re always looking for something bigger and flashier,” says “Get Out” production designer Rusty Smith. “British corset dramas may win best picture after being shot in a castle. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but they also filmed on location — just like we did.”
With “Get Out,” the design elements were just as meticulous as those of any of its competitors — the central house in the film had to appear to be in upstate New York, but was shot in Alabama. The basement set needed to look as if it were part of the house, but it was shot elsewhere. And the costumes, done on a $30,000 budget, needed to not just clothe, but be subtly disquieting.
“I wanted them to all appear awkward,” says costume designer Nadine Haders. “The goal was to make it just a little off. There was definitely satire to the costumes in the film, intentionally.”
Meanwhile, production designer Inbal Weinberg worked closely with “Billboards” director Martin McDonagh’s script to inject her own insight into the story. “I was able to bring forward some ideas that were perhaps not in the film originally,” she says. The gift shop operated in the film by Frances McDormand, for example, had originally been written as part of Main Street. “I said to Martin that it would be more interesting if this gift shop was out of the way, reflecting that Mildred is kind of an outcast.”
Costume was equally critical to character development in “Lady Bird,” whose titular protagonist undergoes a journey of self-discovery in 2002, when the film takes place. Says designer April Napier: “It’s just prior everyone having an iPhone or being on the internet. I thought a lot about where Lady Bird would have her references, where she discovers her identity — books, films, music. So she wears things from the ’50s and the ’60s and the ’80s — and things that are contemporary.”
Yet none of those artisans ended up with nominations, even if their films did. “A more subtle, contemporary film is harder to grasp,” says Napier. “The design elements behind it have to be more nuanced and subtle.”
As for “Wonder,” the sole contemporary nominee in any of those three categories, the hair and makeup department heads were not themselves nominated — only Arjen Tuiten, special makeup designer for 9-year-old star Jacob Tremblay. Tuiten had to fit him with full head and neck prosthetics, crooked teeth and a wire system to make his eyes droop. “If this makeup didn’t work, we could never have made the film,” he says.
For all of its seamless subtlety, Tuiten insists it was possibly the most work he’s ever done on an actor. “The makeup for [Jacob’s character] Auggie was harder to do than the makeup I did on the Pale Man in ‘Pan’s Labyrinth,’” he says, in part because it had to look realistic, not fantastical.
Weinberg suggests there’s another element that period or fantastical films have going for them: creating a “now” can be jarring to the eye, she says since we’re all too close to those elements.
“Because we’re in the ‘now,’ we haven’t attached aesthetic values to the things around us,” she says. “When you design something contemporary, you have to be very careful to make it aesthetically pleasing without falling into nostalgia.”
In the end, the seamlessness that contemporary designers strive for and achieve can make their contributions practically disappear in their eyes of viewers — even though they’re just as carefully curated and imagined as any castle, bustle or aging makeup.
And while the guilds have all singled out contemporary films as worthy of separate awards, the Academy has yet to split that particular hair.
“If it’s not a big period piece with set pieces, it’s not important,” Haders says. “OK, that might not be the right word, but if it looks easy, it must have been easy. That’s how it’s looked at.”