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Oscar Contenders in Production Design Evoke Past, Present and Future

Vintage L.A., 1930s Korea, grungy Miami, and a spaceship thrill audiences this season

Production designers working on this season’s awards contenders drew on some unlikely sources to create eye-catching sets that not only provided a stage for the action, but also subtly reinforced the narrative.

For “Passengers’” production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, it was the sight of wing-shaped sycamore tree seeds helicoptering to the earth outside the building he was staying in while working on the biopic “Steve Jobs” in San Francisco. It sparked an idea for his initial concept sketch of the mammoth space ship in “Passengers,” depicting three curved hulls rotating around a central propulsion unit, creating gravitational pull. He showed the sketch to “Passengers” director Morten Tyldum in their initial meeting, and it won him the job.

“I was looking for something that would give us kinetic energy, so whenever we cut to the ship, we wouldn’t end up with just a stagnant lump moving through space,” says Dyas, who was Oscar-nominated for his work on 2011’s “Inception.”

Production designer Seong-hie Ryu also drew on nature for “The Handmaiden.” The film is set on a country estate in 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea, where its owner, enemy collaborator Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), forces his niece Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) to perform readings from his collection of antique erotica in his library, which features a mix of Japanese, European, and Korean styles.

While doing a location scout on a Japanese garden for the exterior of the estate (realized through a combination of practical locations, sets, and CGI), she got the idea to incorporate it into the library in the form of tatami mats that Kouzuki lays out during the readings, with white pebbles, stones and water.

“Korean gardens are humble, organic, close to nature. Japanese artificially design their gardens, and consider it a miniature of the world,” explains Ryu in an email translated from Korean. “By showing the process of him making the big effort to create this indoor garden on the stage area and then dismantling it each time as if he’s performing a ceremony, I thought I could show his twisted and disturbed mind through this obsession.”

The $5 million budget for “Moonlight” didn’t allow for much in the way of set construction, so to reinforce the life arc of a young black man named Chiron living in Miami’s Liberty Square housing projects from the early ‘90s to the mid-2000s, production designer Hannah Beachler used a lot of paint, along with period-correct set dressing.

Beachler chose classic Miami shades of yellow and teal as the film’s base colors. In the first section of the narrative, which depicts a relatively optimistic time in Chiron’s life, they’re accompanied by pastels and popping greens.

By the final third of the film, “when we’re in [Chiron’s] apartment and he’s in the sort of in the abyss, all of that color is sort of gone,” Beachler says. “We painted a mute cream palette and his room is steely blue gray, which is a play on the teal.”

For writer-director Damien Chazelle’s love letter to Los Angeles, “La La Land” production designer David Wasco sought out pockets of the city previously unexplored by filmmakers, from the 110-105 freeway interchange to Ferndell Trail in Griffith Park, both of which were used as settings for musical numbers.

To portray a coffee shop frequented by jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), Wasco used an old drive-up grocery store on Magnolia Boulevard in Burbank across the street from an Art Deco movie theater that, in the film, is supposed to be a studio where jazz greats Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk recorded.

It turned out to be a case of art imitating life. Sort of. “We discovered it was actually a recording studio that was Barbra Streisand’s called Evergreen,” said Wasco, who previously explored L.A.’s underbelly in such films as Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “Jackie Brown,” as well as Michael Mann’s “Collateral.”

It was more difficult for production designer Jeannine Oppewall to have Los Angeles to play itself in director-star Warren Beatty’s “Rules Don’t Apply,” due to the film’s 1958 setting. She found much had changed since her previous retro-L.A. films, 1997’s “L.A. Confidential” (set in 1953) and 2002’s “Catch Me if You Can” (set in 1963), so much of the film’s vintage settings had to be built on soundstages, including non-L.A. sets in depicting hotels in Acapulco, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C.

But when it came to a scene involving a drive down Hollywood Boulevard in the 1950s, building was out of the question. So Oppewall tracked down stock footage of the street from the era, then worked backward, procuring a vintage car for Frank (Alden Ehrenreich) to drive that matched the one in the shot. “We were able to turn up things that had enough pixels in them to work for us,” says Oppewall, “but the footage needed a significant amount of cleaning up.”

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