According to interior designer and author Cathy Whitlock, whose latest book, “Designs on Film: A Century of Hollywood Art Direction” was published by Harper Collins in December, production design is one of “three crucial elements of a movie, along with cinematography and direction — because at its core, it tells the arc of the narrative, and without a great setting, you can’t really have a great film.”
A case can be made for the importance of other critical ingredients, such as editing and sound, but Whitlock’s belief underscores the role of production design and art direction in shaping the look of a movie — and her book, with its copious illustrations — fully supports her argument.
Whitlock noted that the Oscars have always tended to embrace fantasy sets, “and in terms of this year’s more noteworthy films, the trend looks to be stronger than ever, with a lot of CGI films in the running. ‘Avatar’ won the art direction Oscar last year, and I think we’ll see another big fantasy winner this year.”
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Before it was nommed she cited “Inception” as a “very strong contender, thanks to great, imaginative design by Guy Hendrix Dyas. He did such an amazing job of balancing all the digital effects and all the shots that were done in-camera, which is a very tricky thing to pull off. I have to say, there were many times when I was watching it and going, ‘Is that really real? Did they really create that?’ And that’s the sign of great production design to me.”
By contrast, “Alice in Wonderland” “is far more about the CGI than establishing any sense of reality, and very ‘Burtonesque’ — but then I think you kind of expect that look from (Tim Burton’s) films,” she said. “Alice” also got a nod.
At the time she was interviewed Whitlock also thought that Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” stood a chance of scoring a nom “as the Academy really loves Dante Ferretti’s work.” The longtime Scorsese collaborator won the Oscar for that helmer’s “The Aviator,” and again for Burton’s “Sweeney Todd,” but “Shutter Island” was shut out of this season’s noms.
Whitlock noted that “Island” “used a lot of German expressionism and spooky shadows, combined with CGI and realistic sets, to set the tone for the story of Leonardo DiCaprio’s madness, and the design was integral to the film and how it was shot.”
Before the noms Whitlock felt the trend toward more CGI could also help films like “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” and “Tron: Legacy” score noms. She was right on the first count.
As a “huge fan” of period pieces, Whitlock had high hopes for “The King’s Speech.” “You can tell right away with so many of the costume dramas and lavish period productions that they pulled out all the stops and just shot their budget,” she said. “But what’s interesting about ‘The King’s Speech’ is that they had a very limited budget with which to recreate Buckingham Palace and the whole royal setting.”
“(The filmmakers) did a really good job of making a far more subdued royal look, which fit well as it is set in England on the brink of war and still in the Depression era. And they made a nice contrast between the subdued royal setting and Geoffrey Rush’s very minimal office,” Whitlock said. “You really got a sense of how grim the times were. Everything about the movie just clicked.”
Those making the nominations apparently agreed and “Speech” made the cut.
Whitlock also had praise for “The Social Network.” “They did a brilliant job of recreating Harvard and the first Facebook offices, although none of the sets really stood out for me,” she said. “The script was so entertaining that for once the dialogue really took over the visuals.”
“Network” wasn’t nommed. Nor was “Black Swan,” a film Whitlock considers “beautifully designed.”
“True Grit,” however, did get a nod. “The Academy loves a good western and this was meticulously detailed and crafted,” Whitlock said, “so that you really felt transported back to that place and time.”
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