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Production Designers Create New Worlds, Both Imaginary and Real

From period to prison camp to fantasy, this year's films span a world of looks and textures

For many of the production designers working on this season’s awards contenders, crafting photogenic period-accurate looks was only half the battle. Some of their most daunting challenges involved serving practical production requirements or bolstering emotional themes.

On “Mr. Turner” (pictured), production designer Suzie Davies was able to draw visual inspiration from the works of its title character, 19th century British painter J.M.W. Turner, played by Timothy Spall, as well as the historical record. But since the dialogue in director Mike Leigh’s films is improvised, she didn’t have a script to work from and neither did the actors.

“As much as possible I want to give him a set where, when actors arrive there to rehearse, they don’t have to think, ‘OK if I go through this door, I’m in a set 20 miles away,’” Davies says. “Therefore, the majority of the sets are (practical) locations that have been adapted to facilitate that requirement,” including a house in Southeast London that was rehabbed to portray Turner’s home/gallery on Queen Anne Street.

On Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken,” production designer Jon Hutman had to have three prison camp sets in Australia ready in the order that WWII POW survivor Louis Zamperini experienced them in real life, so actor Jack O’Connell could be shown progressively losing weight on screen.

Hutman tried to embellish the historical reality to accentuate the emotional truth of Zamperini’s plight. For the prison camp on Kwajalein Atoll, he drew inspiration from the jungle-infested ruins of the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia, and made Zamperini’s narrow cell look like it was being swallowed by tree roots.

“What’s emotionally important in this scene is that Louis, having just survived 47 days in a raft at sea, needs to be in a place that is completely alien and also claustrophobic,” Hutman says.

Director Wes Anderson’s decision to use old-fashioned miniatures instead of CGI to portray the exterior of the title structure in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was an aesthetic choice in tune with his sensibilities, but it also served a practical purpose.

“Wes was really clear about wanting the hotel sitting on just the right hillside above the town and reachable by this funicular train,” says the film’s production designer Adam Stockhausen. “Pieces of that exist, but you just can’t find it all put together and stacked exactly like that, so the miniatures were a great way of making that just the way he wanted it.”

Director Rob Marshall wanted a slightly surreal feel for his bigscreen adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical “Into the Woods,” and for the spooky forest at the center of the film. This was accomplished by intercutting shots filmed amid the gnarled oaks at England’s Windsor Great Park, 30 miles west of London, with those captured in an artificial forest built on the largest soundstage at nearby Shepperton Studios.

“The challenge was choreographing it so that you reuse the trees, using every facet, so they weren’t duplicated in some way,” says production designer Dennis Gassner. “The trees we designed had an amazing root system, and each told a story within the story.”

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