Films Lure Oscar With Slick Looks, Sharp Design

Costumes, cinematography and production design boost the appeal of this year's awards contenders

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

In any film, words are just the starting point. As the project moves along, cinematographers, production and costume designers, visual-effects artists and other below-the-line artisans contribute immeasurably to the storytelling, and to the lasting impact of the film on the emotions of the audience.

Costumes, for example, conjure authenticity and place both the film’s actors and its viewers in the right frame of mind to suspend their disbelief.

Costume designer Ruth Carter faced a major challenge in creating accurate looks for “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (pictured). Despite her experience (30 films) and acclaim for her work (Oscar noms for “Malcolm X” and “Amistad”), she says the film spanned so many eras and included so many characters that the work was intimidating. She ended up designing more than 500 costumes — “Oprah alone had 60 changes.”

The designer, a longtime lover of research, began online with image library Scurlock. “They have photos of 90 years of D.C. history, starting in 1904, documenting the black community, and all that material was profoundly enlightening for this film,” Carter says. She also relied on her own extensive library of photos and books, and consulted numerous books on the White House along with doing research at the Smithsonian Institution and Library of Congress websites.

“The costume designer is the re-creator of history in this film,” adds Carter, who had a staff of 20 helping her mix vintage clothes with re-creations.

On “Saving Mr. Banks,” costume designer Daniel Orlandi, whose credits include “The Blind Side” and “The Da Vinci Code,” also faced an era-spanning challenge.

“It was like doing two separate movies — the first set in 1906 Australia and the second set in 1961 L.A.,” he says. “You have the 1906 Australian county fair, and then Disneyland in ’61.”

To research the eras, Orlandi read several biographies of Walt Disney and “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers “to get their back stories and be as accurate as possible,” he says. “There’s an added responsibility when you’re dealing with real people and their lives.”

With a team of 20 he designed more than 200 costumes for all the principals, “plus all the Disney characters who looked very different back in 1961, and then all the extras for the ‘Mary Poppins’ premiere.”

Another way of advancing the storytelling is through the use of light, shadow and color — or its absence. This is the art of the cinematographer.

Lenser Rachel Morrison has always gravitated toward “gritty dramas and indie projects,” and the true crime drama “Fruitvale Station” presented the usual challenges, including “lack of time and money,” she says. Morrison shot “99% of the film” handheld on Super 16 “to keep it raw and help put the audience right in Oscar’s shoes,” she says, referring to Oscar Grant, played by Michael B. Jordan, who is killed by police at a Bay Area subway station.

Filming at the real-life locations — including the store where he worked, the hospital where he died and the morgue — Morrison had a very tight 20-day shooting schedule — “and just 12 hours total over three nights on the actual BART platform where he was shot, but it was a key location and we wanted to be as faithful to the real events as possible.”

To this end, the filmmakers also seamlessly blended cellphone footage taken at the original incident. “Everything we did in terms of the imagery and our approach was to try and honor his memory and do justice to his story.”

In contrast to the urban grit of “Fruitvale,” Alexander Payne’s drama “Nebraska” plays out against austere and largely rural Midwest landscapes, shot in black and white by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael.

“When Alexander first discussed it with me over a decade ago, it was as a black and white film,” he recalls. “He felt it suited the lonely characters, the vast, empty spaces, the emotional arc of the story. Yes, it’s a stylized choice, but black and white gives it a stronger graphic quality and sense of realism.”

Papamichael cites Bruce Dern’s white hair “glowing like a ghost’s” along with the “ravaged textures” of his face as examples of the format’s power: “There’s none of the distraction of color.” Shot entirely on location — and in sequence — over just 40 days, the father-son road trip used “no sets or set dressing” and also relied heavily on locals (all non-actors) for smaller parts, contributing to the film’s “authenticity and honesty.”

Like costumes and cinematography, production design is also able to overtly and subliminally confer certain conscious and subconscious feelings as a film unspools.

When “Green Zone” production designer Paul Kirby re-teamed with director Paul Greengrass on “Captain Phillips,” a ripped-from-the-headlines Somali pirate hostage drama, his brief was “to once again keep it as real as possible,” he recalls. “Paul shoots in a very linear way, and it’s all about the journeys of the characters.”

For early scenes of the impoverished Somali coastal village, Greengrass and Kirby dispensed with a visual match found in Malta, “because it didn’t look desperate enough,” reports Kirby. Instead, they chose a Moroccan beach “with the raw power of the ocean.” That canvas soon expanded to the limitless ocean itself, where they shot “for over 60 days at sea on this huge container vessel, the actual sister ship of the one that was hijacked.”

Kirby then designed and built an 18-foot lifeboat that could come apart “for shooting all the cramped, claustrophobic scenes at the end,” he says. “But we never took it apart. Actors and crew just squeezed into this tiny space, which paralleled the movie’s scale, focusing down to Tom Hanks’ eyes as he fears for his life.”

For “Gravity” production designer Andy Nicholson, creating “the totally immersive” experience of being stranded in space required a year of prep “and more research than I’ve ever done for any other film,” he says. “Fortunately there’s a lot of NASA imagery available.” To convey a sense of peril and “the sheer fragility of the spaceships and spacesuits,” Nicholson included as much detail as possible, including the personal effects left behind in the Soyuz capsule.

One major goal was to “emphasize the distance of Sandra Bullock’s character from her home, and the emotional journey she’s going through.”