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Hollywood’s design credit dilemma

ADG's 'Tintin' nom highlights production designer/art director issue

A heated dispute within the Art Directors Guild over a credit on “The Adventures of Tintin” has exposed a long-simmering debate over the title of production designer vs. art director while also raising questions about the changing role such artists play in a filmmaking process making ever greater use of digital tools.

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On Jan. 3, when ADG released its nominees for excellence in production design in 2011, it recognized an individual for each film, TV show and commercial on the list — except for “Tintin,” one of the five nominees for fantasy film and now a Golden Globe winner. For the Steven Spielberg movie the potential honoree was designated as TBA because no production designer was on the film’s credits. “We were looking for who was responsible but couldn’t get that info,” said ADG prexy Tom Walsh.

Following inquiries, the producers — who include Spielberg, Peter Jackson and Kathleen Kennedy — picked Kim Sinclair, referred to in the production notes as visual effects art director, as the person most responsible for the look of the film. As a result, Sinclair is the only art director on this year’s ADG’s noms list; the other 44 nominees are production designers.

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At issue here is that a guild that in name is formed of art directors presents awards to its members for “production design,” while the Academy often gives awards for “best achievement in art direction” to those same individuals.

“It’s confusing to the industry and the audience that the Academy still chooses to award best art direction to the production designer, and it undermines the director and the producer when the production itself is not clear on the roles,” said Alex McDowell, production designer on the upcoming “Man of Steel.”

The quandary has historical roots. In film’s early years, art directors designed a pic’s overall look. Then, on “Gone with the Wind,” David O. Selznick agreed to give his art director, William Cameron Menzies, the more all-encompassing title of production designer. Today, production designers are the acknowledged department heads to whom art directors, set decorators and others report.

The producers’ designation of Sinclair rankled some guild members because “ADG takes the view that every film should have a production designer,” said a person close to the guild.

McDowell added that animated films and those created via performance capture (“Tintin” falls in both categories) should also have a production designer. “The production designer’s primary role does not change because of the methodology of the film,” he said. “Animation and vfx films have all the same conditions as in-camera films; they’re based on real physics, every surface needs to be designed and defined… and they require environments and characters that need to be defined and designed.”

McDowell is not alone. “I can’t imagine making an animated film without somebody in a production designer role,” said Yarrow Cheyney, who had the credit of production designer on the animated “Despicable Me.” “If they’re fulfilling the role, their credit should reflect that.”

Some production designers think their guild should do more to clarify the roles of its members. “Perhaps if ADG were completely clear in its categorization of the art department and its hierarchy, our union would be called the Production Designers Guild,” said Scott Chambliss, production designer on “Cowboys and Aliens,” who also got an ADG nom in the fantasy film category. “Then the guild would be much less likely to find itself in the baldly embarrassing position of its membership nominating a film for excellence in production design that had no officially designated production designer.”

Such a move, added Chambliss, could spur the Academy to end the practice of “giving an award for best art direction to a production designer and a set decorator, but not to an art director.”

As for “Tintin,” the trio that worked on its design — vfx art director Sinclair and art directors Andrew Jones and Jeff Wisniewski — previously collaborated on “Avatar” and imported many of the digital tools from Jim Cameron’s opus to Spielberg’s work. Many production designers think that in addition to updating its terminology, ADG needs to continue to educate its members on new technology because production design is now often part of a complicated process that includes previsualization and vfx, and the disciplines can’t be separated from each other.

“The moral of this story is that these hybrid films reinvent the roles,” Walsh said. “This year we put out a film for first ballot with TBD as designer. I assure you we won’t go down that path again.”

Elevation Talent Agency signed editor Matt Garner (“Butter”), line producer Susan Leber (“Margin Call”) and makeup artist Emily Ansel (“Keep the Lights On”).

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