This year’s Oscar race for best production design (née “best art direction”) is once again dominated by ornate period and fantasy flourishes, with some notable contemporary work to boot. Contenders take us from the 1820s American wilderness to Mars to a galaxy far, far away, leaving the designers branch of the Academy with a wide ranging field to narrow down.
Period pieces tend to catch fire with this lot in particular. And in “The Danish Girl,” a film that may or may not become a dominant force in the major categories, Tom Hooper has again teamed with production designer Eve Stewart for a distressed sort of aesthetic that gives the world of the film a unique life. From Gerda Wegener’s painting workspace to the detailed set decoration of era medical wards and more, it’s a robust design film across the board.
A century before the events of “The Danish Girl” came the frontier exploits of Hugh Glass, the subject of “The Revenant.” The great Jack Fisk was tasked with populating a landscape with Native American accouterments and untamed settlements, a great choice given his work on films like “The New World” and “There Will Be Blood” in recent years. The designs may not be as lavish as some others in the category, but this kind of detailing will make it unique in the fray.
A number of films this year use the 1950s/1960s frame as a backdrop. “Brooklyn” and “Carol” in particular convey two very different experiences in 1950s New York. “Brooklyn,” designed by François Séguin, tells an immigrant’s blue collar story with striking colors and a lived-in aesthetic (with scenes taking place in Ireland as well). “Carol,” courtesy of Oscar nominee Judy Becker (“American Hustle”), occupies a more well-to-do, old money world with grace.
Meanwhile, “Bridge of Spies” takes the viewer from New York to East Germany at the height of the Cold War during this period. Steven Spielberg tapped Oscar-winner Adam Stockhausen (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) for duties here, fleshing out both the hallowed halls of stateside courtrooms and the chill of weathered Eastern Bloc trappings with equal aplomb.
Then there is the western. Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” designed by Yohei Taneda, will be a bit of a bottle episode, if you will, taking place largely in one location. Will it be varied enough to resonate or will the necessary detail for something like this, particularly when captured by the clarity of 65mm stock, really make it stand out? It will at the very least be working in an aesthetic that sets it apart from the rest.
Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak” is an apt point of discussion when transitioning to fantasy, as it deals so heavily in both period specificity and genre flair. The build on this particular project, headed up by two-time nominee Thomas E. Sanders (“Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” “Saving Private Ryan”), made for one of the most ornate on-screen experiences of the year. If the film survives the Oscar gauntlet at all, it will likely be in the design categories.
Another film that mixes period with fantasy is “Cinderella.” Production designer Dante Ferretti is the most Oscar-decorated name in the mix this year, having amassed nine nominations including three wins (“The Aviator,” “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” “Hugo”) to date. Again, detail is the embossed quality here, working in tandem with eye-popping costumes that are sure to make mouths water throughout the branch.
On the full-blown fantasy side we have “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Each film in the original trilogy was chalked up in the category, with practical effects work surely playing some part in the equation. None of the CGI-heavy prequels were, however. The latest installment is aiming for at least some of that old-school handmade wonder, and particularly with two-time Oscar-winner Rick Carter (“Avatar,” “Lincoln”) steering the ship — along with genre-alum Darren Gilford — it could be the right dose of something different.
Finally, I’ll stick a flag in the ground here for “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Production design is about more than just sets, though certainly George Miller’s film has its share of elaborate ones. What really pops here, though, is the vehicle designs, all part of a visual identity that richly defines the film.
So that’s 10, but there are so many more possibilities. We haven’t even talked about contemporary work, which rarely gets noticed. But three contemporary pieces this year — “Room,” with its claustrophobic first-half setting; “The Martian,” with its NASA gadgetry and whatnot; and “Steve Jobs,” with each act visually telling the story — fit the bill, should voters want to branch out. Other ornate hopefuls on the period side include “Mr. Holmes,” “Macbeth” and (another fantasy hybrid) “Pan.”
How will the branch make sense of all this hard work? We’ll know in a few months.