Faithfully re-creating 1927 Los Angeles on a tight shooting schedule of 35 days was the biggest challenge faced by “The Artist” production designer Laurence Bennett.
“Prep time was relatively short and the story so ambitious in what I needed to show,” he says. “There were so many sets and so many locations that a real problem was the logistical jigsaw.”
But with so little extant of old Hollywood, it was challenging finding even street corners that had the right look and feel.
A black and white film presented its own set of challenges for set decorator Robert Gould, who repainted vintage furnishings and dyed fabrics in contrasting shades so that colors would look crisp onscreen. After digging through Warner Bros.’ research department, Gould scoured the prop warehouses of Los Angeles to find period-specific lampshades, decorative accents and even cash registers.
Some of the most memorable props, like a monkey sculpture, were easiest to find — it was more mundane objects like lampshades that were hardest to acquire in the required quantity (Gould ended up fabricating about 25% of the lampshades in the film).
The French chateau-like Los Angeles home of screenwriter-director Shane Black was transformed into a sprawling mansion location and filled with vintage treasures. Gould feels like “we really captured the sense of old Hollywood. … there’s a whole mystique about old Hollywood and I think this movie brought it back to life.”
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – PART II
Stuart Craig is no stranger to Oscars — he has three already. And as they’re all for production design, it comes as no surprise that he stores them in a beautiful handmade cabinet at home. “I did design it,” he admits. “But not specifically for them! They’re not ostentatiously visible.”
It may be time to make more room in that cabinet: Craig and set decorator Stephenie McMillan are nominated for Oscars for achievement in art direction this year for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” the final installment of a franchise that has kept Craig solely occupied for 10 years.
Yet despite his years of experience, “Part 2” included several challenges, including constructing the crumbling sets for an extended battle scene. “We were building a ruin from the ground up,” he says. And for this film, he and visual effects supervisor Tim Burke opted to create a full digital model of the school, rather than using miniatures.
Still, if he gets his fourth Oscar, Craig says he will accept it as recognition for all the “Potter” films. “I can’t help but regard it as a body of work,” he says.
But Craig’s “Potter” work is not done — next up is helping build the Harry Potter theme park at Florida’s Universal Studio. “In a very real sense it hasn’t ended,” he says. “It may never end.”
— Randee Dawn
“Hugo” marks the legendary Italian designer’s ninth nom (he won for “The Aviator” and “Sweeney Todd” with longtime set decorator, collaborator and wife, Francesca Lo Schiavo, who’s nommed with him again this year).
“Over the years I’ve done some big movies (with Martin Scorsese) such as ‘Kundun’ and ‘Gangs of New York,’ but this was the biggest,” he says. “I worked on it for over a year, with a team of 12, designing and building everything from scratch, from the train station and clock tower to Georges Melies’ studio and apartment.”
To bring the 3D homage to the magic of movies to life, the filmmakers shot at the Sorbonne in Paris for a few days, and then moved to the U.K., where Ferretti’s massive sets commandeered six stages at Pinewood and Shepperton, as well as space at Longcross Studios. “Creating the train station was the biggest challenge, as we had to divide it between three different stages, and we also used a real train that we were able to bring onto the set where we’d built the tracks and platform,” he says.
But building the clock tower meant the most to Ferretti. “As a kid in this small Italian town, my friend’s father had the same job as Hugo’s, looking after the town clock. I did it many times with him, so when Marty gave me the book, I felt it was about me.”
— Iain Blair
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
Anne Seibel, production design; Helene Dubreuil, set decorations
A relatively low budget presented no problem to writer-director Woody Allen, who avoids expensive soundstages. He shot “Midnight in Paris” entirely on practical locations, but that didn’t mean cinematographer Darius Khondji just pointed the camera at pre-existing postcard views of the City of Light.
Production designer Anne Seibel and set decorator Helene Dubreuil had to transform many of the locations for Gil’s (Owen Wilson) nighttime sojourns into the past. Most challenging was a scene set in the Moulin Rouge cabaret in the 1890s. They chose 125-year-old theater La Cigale to serve as a concert venue, and took it back in time by installing a false wooden floor, mirrors, balustrades, drapes, pillars with period lamps and a large chandelier with a garland of bulbs.
Seibel even inspired Allen to change the script when she suggested he use the Musee des Arts Forains (the Museum of Fairground Art), which features vintage carousels and other amusement park artifacts, for a 1920s party scene originally set in an apartment.
“Most unique about Woody was the trust he put in us,” says Seibel, who has reteamed with Khondji and “Paris” costume designer Sonia Grande for Allen’s next film “Nero Fiddled.” “He didn’t say much, but when he did, you could tell he was really happy (with the work).”
— Todd Longwell
Digital set extensions are par for the course in modern Hollywood films re-creating historic settings, but you won’t find them in director Steven Spielberg’s World War I epic “War Horse.”
“We did it the old-fashioned way,” says the film’s production designer Rick Carter, who won an Oscar for 2009’s CGI-heavy “Avatar.” “We built it.”
And it wasn’t just the rustic European towns, farmhouses and army barracks they constructed on various locations outside London. They also made significant alterations to the landscape, building a rocky field for the titular horse to plow atop protected parkland in Devon County, and creating a picturesque sea of wheat for a cavalry charge by mounting cut stalks on Styrofoam.
The film’s most ambitious set was a 300-by-600-yard battle-ravaged no-man’s land built on derelict Wisley Airfield in Surrey, England, with trench systems, branchless trees, barbed wire, ponds and ruts constructed atop a hidden steel substructure to support the actors, equipment and galloping equines.
The practical sets are key to Spielberg’s spontaneous shooting style. While he was famous for meticulously storyboarding his shots early in his career, these days, “he’s actually coming on to the set creating,” says Carter, who recently completed his seventh film with the filmmaker, the upcoming biopic “Lincoln.” “When he’s got things that are physically there, it challenges him to do some things he never thought of.”
— Todd Longwell
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