Art Directors Guild Awards: Production Designers Appraise the Nominees

Eleven artisans discuss the shortlisted work of their colleagues

Bridge of Spies
Courtesy of Disney

Ahead of the Art Director Guild’s annual awards ceremony, production designers weigh in on the current work of some of their shortlisted colleagues.

BRIDGE OF SPIES (Touchstone)

Period film
Production Designer: Adam Stockhausen

By John Iacovelli

Production designer Adam Stockhausen employs exacting period details, enhancing every scene and environment in this tale of Cold War espionage from Stephen Spielberg, pictured above. The expertly detailed milieu created by set decorator Renata Di Angelo makes us believe we are in 1961 when the Berlin Wall went up. Filmed in New York, Poland and in Germany on the actual Glienicke Bridge where the real spy exchange took place, the film has a gritty and nicotine-infused palette with coffee-stained textures and emotional veritas. The high-contrast look of the art direction transports us the from the cozy warmth of domestic interiors to the bone-freezing colors of communist East Germany. Stockhausen has designed a period film that rings true in every detail: from the U-2 training hangar to the halls of the Supreme Court, its extreme contrasts mirror the shift in ideology during the Cold War. Production design through character storytelling has no equal this season as Stockhausen and his team inform us through advertising billboards and the careful re-creation of period newspapers and typewritten documents.

Iacovelli’s credits include “The Americans”

CINDERELLA (Walt Disney)

Fantasy film
Production Designer: Dante Ferretti

By Dave Blass

The classic Disney tale of Cinderella is brought to life in all its visual splendor by the three-time Oscar-winning team of production designer Dante Ferretti and set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo-Ferretti. Never has the magical journey of the girl and the glass slipper been layered in such lavish detail. Every tableau has a vivid attention to historic detail that is never weighted so heavy as to take away from the imagination. The baroque period settings are blended together with a lighthearted sense of opulence. The glistening fountains, marble towers and the overall grandeur are awe-inspiring. It’s the perfect blend of historic realism and fairytale architecture. Ferretti and his team inject playful tones with whimsical wallpaper and flowing fabrics to blend the historical and fantasy elements. The moments from our childhood memories are brought to life exactly as our imagination could have hoped for. When Cinderella appears in her blue gown framed against the golden opulence of the ball with its crystal chandeliers and flowing staircases, we all yearn for to be invited to the ball, if only till midnight.

Blass’ credits include “Secrets and Lies”


Contemporary film
Production Designer: Arthur Max

By Thomas A. Walsh

“The Martian” is a love letter to science and adventure, making science and math both exciting and sexy without resorting to tired sci-fi cliches and dumb-downs. This required a great story, a smart screenplay and the talents of director Ridley Scott, production designer Arthur Max, d.p. Dariusz Wolski, costume designer Janty Yates and many other artisans. A man vs. nature story shaped into a MacGyver-on-Mars tale, it portrays with intelligence the state of the art in aerospace technologies, keeping it believable while achieving a sense of place. The story’s characters and set pieces are not driven by B-movie drama beats, but rather by plausible science originating out of the story’s desperate circumstances. Combining careful research and superior craft for the realization of its settings, locations, miniatures, graphics, props and computer imagery, this team of filmmakers has adeptly and bravely made “The Martian’s” every moment exciting and real, following in the footsteps of this genre’s best Big Daddy, Stanley Kubrick.

Walsh’s credits include “Longmire”

THE KNICK Episodes: “Ten Knots,” “The Best With the Best to Get the Best,” “Wonderful Surprises” (Cinemax)

One-hour period or fantasy single-camera TV series
Production Designer: Howard Cummings

By Mark Worthington

We are experiencing a golden age of television, though the term television seems inaccurate when content is being viewed on such a variety of technologies. You can stream “Gravity” on a smartphone or attend a screening of “Game of Thrones” in an Imax theater. Traditional distinctions between film and TV are disappearing. “The Knick” exemplifies this trend and Howard Cummings’ production design is at the heart of why it does. It is large where cinematic scale is essential — it shows a 1900 Manhattan that bustles with a muscular, rapacious restlessness — and small in ways that only detail can express — the squalor and pathos of Dr. John Thackery’s tiny metal cocaine syringe. Cummings’ design is at once rich yet spare, running the gamut of a world of great poverty and despair as well as boundless energy, inventiveness and hope .
Worthington’s credits include “American Horror Story”

EMPIRE Episode: “Pilot” (Fox)

One-hour contemporary single-camera TV seriesL
Production Designer: Steve Saklad

By Raf Lydon

Production designer Steve Saklad and set decorator Caroline Perzan shape the soapy, hip-hop world of “Empire” with the stuff of American dreams, updating the Hollywood Regency style with contemporary realism to convey an overarching theme of retro-cool luxury. Rich neutrals and darks juxtaposed with metallic accents and vintage textiles in the home and offices of patriarch Lucious Lyon establish the dynastic ambition and flamboyance of this gangsta-turned-capitalist mogul. Saklad and Perzan also bring out the personalities of the brothers competing for the throne: while firstborn Andre’s chic home with its pared-down elegance reflects his rigidly organized persona, middle child Jamal stages his mild rebellion through the bohemian lifestyle of his posh Chelsea loft. Spoiled youngest son Hakeem fills his sunny bachelor pad with bold colors. Saklad’s attention to detail and materials brings the vitality of the world of “Empire” to life and each set complements the passion and energy of the music.

Lydon’s credits include “The Biggest Loser”

WOLF HALL Episode: “Three Card Trick” (Masterpiece Theatre)

Television Movie or Limited Series
Production Designer: Pat Campbell

By Denny Dugally

Campbell was given an immense challenge with “Wolf Hall”: How do you create a new interpretation of a 500-year-old story that has been told numerous times in film and television? “Wolf Hall” is an adaptation of the Booker Prize-winning novels by Hilary Mantel that center on the world of Henry VIII, but in this version the focus is on Thomas Cromwell and his impact on the king and his court. Parts of the story were filmed in many of
the Tudor properties that Henry visited in the south of England, and Ms. Campbell and her team created a look that is stunningly realistic without being an overt costume drama. From the rather merchant class home of Cromwell to the lavish court of Henry, the minute details were endless and exquisite. It was a Holbein court painting come to life. The entire series was shot hand-held, the meals and banquets prepared from authentic period recipes and all interior night scenes were lit only by candlelight — tallow not wax! The end result was a tremendous palette of rich colors, completely naturalistic and brilliantly painterly. Bravo Ms. Campbell!

Dugally’s credits include “Sleepy Hollow”

TRANSPARENT Episodes: “Kina Hora,” “The Book of Life,”

“Oscillate” (Amazon)

Half-hour single-camera series
Production Designer: Cat Smith

By Dawn Snyder

As TV strives to address diversity, no show does it better, as far as gender is concerned, than “Transparent.” The Amazon original series has a quirky cast whose diversity is not only evident in their look, but also in the spaces they inhabit. Creator Jill Soloway has a vested interest in every aspect of her characters, including the design of their environments. Production designer Cat Smith created the Pfefferman house with enough depth, nuances and idiosyncrasies so it could hold its own as an additional character. Syd’s industrial loft, with its contrasting shiny surfaces and rough edges, supports both the masculine and feminine aspects of her character. The series’ varied swing sets include flashbacks to the 1930s and stylized dream sequences that include stage sets and selected locations. This series embraces the diversity, ugliness and random messiness of L.A. that is usually not a focus of network television.

Snyder’s credits include “Family Tools”

MOM Episodes: “Mashed Potatoes and a Little Nitrous,” “Six Popes and Red Ferrari,” “Fun Girl Stuff and Eternal Salvation” (CBS)

Multi-camera series
Production Designer: John Shaffner

By Scott Moses

John Shaffner continues his legacy of nominations with his work on “Mom.” A comedy about a mother and daughter’s struggle with addiction that makes the viewer laugh, it remains honest about the subject matter. The apartment of
Bonnie (Allison Janney) and her daughter, Christy (Anna Faris), is appropriately small, enhancing the feeling that the duo are encroaching on each other’s space. The layout of the home provides the actors with plenty of obstacles for playful banter, yet it also feels comfortable during larger settings when fellow sober members of their AA group show up for support. Each episode includes several sets used only for that episode. These swing (temporary) sets for “Mom” feel tightly related to the main scenery and feel equally part of the world John has created. Sometimes raw and understated, the set decoration perfectly fits the economic status of the characters and playful nature of this show.

Moses’ credits include “Ellen: The Ellen DeGeneres Show”


Awards or Event Special
Production Designer: Derek McLane

By Adam Rowe

McLane and his team overcame big challenges in designing “The Wiz Live.” Derek previously designed for “The Sound of Music Live” and “Peter Pan Live,” in addition to Broadway musicals and the Oscars. Take the knowledge from those previous productions and fuse it with the trend in live musical theater events and you have an experienced artist ready to tackle the diverse locations, timeline, budget, space constraints — and still give
the audience a new, dynamic, super-saturated world that celebrates the whimsical nostalgia of the Diana Ross movie and the original “Wizard of Oz.” The production design’s strongest feature is the use of hard scenery combined with digital imagery.

Rowe’s credits include “Rizzoli & Isles”

KEY & PEELE Episodes: “Ya’ll Ready for This?” “The End” (Comedy Central)

Variety, reality or competition series
Production Designer: Gary Kordan

By Cat Smith

The world of “Key & Peele” can be as varied as a pirate tavern to a desert highway and everything in between. Designing for it requires a master of many styles and periods as well as ultimate adaptability. Improvisation is the name of the game, which means changes are constant. Production designer Gary Kordan manages to convey a grounded reality that many sketch comedies don’t even attempt. The worlds are created with detail and finesse. The references are fast and furious. With “Key & Peele,” you have to be on your toes, and Mr. Kordan does not disappoint.

Smith’s credits include “Transparent”

APPLE MUSIC “The History Of Sound”

Short format: webseries, music video or commercial
Production Designer: Jess Gonchor

By Oana Bogdan

In this 90-second commercial, designer Gonchor takes us through highlights of recorded music evolution and how we listen to it from its birth to 2015. A series of visually rich snapshots hit all the right notes — the phonograph, broadcast radio, reel-to-reel, vinyl, ghetto blasters, 8-track, CDs, on into digital music on iPod . A Tower Records Store is “going out of business” as a youth strolls by, oblivious to the meaning of these long-term changes in
how we consume the music
and sounds we love hearing. The commercial culminates with the image of a DJ on stage, the epitome of digital sound, and Apple Music brings it to you. Well done, Jess.

Bogdan’s credits include “Justified”


Continuing a tradition begun last year, the ADG will honor design pioneers with lifetime achievement awards in each of the guild’s four craft areas: art directors; scenic, title and graphic artists; illustrators and matte artists; and set designers and model makers.

Patrizia Von Brandenstein (pictured above) will receive the award in the first category. With a career that began in 1972, Von Brandenstein has served as set decorator and production designer on such films as “Saturday Night Fever,” “Breaking Away” and “Silkwood.” She garnered Oscar noms for “Ragtime” and “The Untouchables” and won the statuette for “Amadeus.”

Bill Anderson, created mural artistry seen in such films as “Cleopatra” and “The Sound of Music.”
Harrison Ellenshaw is not only a matte artist but also the first visual-effects supervisor to be credited in a film (“Tron”).

William J. Newmon II became the first African-American set designer in Hollywood when he joined IATSE Local 847 (Set Designers and Model Makers) in 1975. He served three terms as the org’s VP. His credits include work on “The Apple Dumpling Gang,” “Poltergeist,” “Starsky and Hutch,” “Little House on the Prairie,” “Murder, She Wrote” and “7th Heaven.”