The action in this year’s crop of awards contenders takes place on stages of all sizes, spanning the spectrum from the vast to the claustrophobic.
On one hand, a number of films deal with giant spaces and big vistas. “The Martian” occupies the surface of Mars and the enormous expanse between Earth and the red planet. “The Revenant” progresses relentlessly through an endless, uncharted wilderness. High-altitude mountains and wide panoramas form the environment for “Everest.” And the crazy vehicles of “Mad Max: Fury Road” roll across a desert without borders in a dystopian future.
On the flip side, the basis for “Room” is a tiny 100-sq.-ft. space — a micro-universe in which a mother raises a child, cut off from the outside world. Much of “The Hateful Eight” unfolds inside a confining stagecoach stop where eight strangers seek shelter from a blizzard.
“Brooklyn,” while it alternates between Ireland and the U.S., reveals itself in small, snug spaces that encourage close interaction among the characters. The same can be said for “The Danish Girl,” set in Denmark, France and Germany but unfolding in highly intimate interiors. As for “Ex Machina,” the story is set in a house from which there’s no easy escape.
The talented artisans who created these and other varied spatial impressions relied on a wide assortment of tools, both new and old, to give audiences a strong sense of place.
Cinematographers traveled far and took risks. To capture “Everest’s” titular mountain, Salvatore Totino trekked to hazardous locations in the Himalayas and the Alps, shooting in cold, thin air. Similarly, d.p. Emmanuel Lubezki braved harsh conditions in northern Canada and southern Argentina to compose the sweeping winterscapes of “The Revenant.”
And “The Martian” d.p. Dariusz Wolski subbed Jordan’s majestic Wadi Rum valley for the landscapes of Mars.
In other cases, technique trumped travel. Cinematographer Danny Cohen devised clever ways for his cameras to peek into the tiny space of “Room,” and “Carol” d.p. Ed Lachman deployed the now rarely used 16mm film format to re-create the kind of images seen in movies from the pic’s 1950s period — pulling viewers into a vanished past.
Production designers were equally vital in this physical formation. Eve Stewart used practical locations in Brussels to create the places that reflect the quiet struggles of Lili Elbe as she’s transformed from a man to a woman in “The Danish Girl.” And in “Cinderella,” Dante Ferretti broadened the magical look of the palace ballroom by decorating it with 5,000 candles and 17 chandeliers.
Visual effects, of course, are the ultimate place-creation tool — especially for imagined environments. “In the Heart of the Sea” vfx supervisor Jody Johnson leads viewers to believe a real whale is out there, thrashing in the endless ocean. And on “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” vfx supervisor Roger Guyett uses the tricks of his trade to transport us, yet again, back to a galaxy far, far away.
And let’s not forget the power of other artisan crafts to transport us elsewhere. Music grounds “Straight Outta Compton” firmly in the L.A. hip-hop scene of the late 1980s-early 1990s, and tense editing contributes to our sense that we’re witnesses to the drug wars along the Mexican border in “Sicario.”
Films take us everywhere, and wouldn’t be able to do so without the powerful contributions of the artisans who help shape their look and feel.