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.”

More Artisans

  • Chile's Production Incentives Include New 30%

    Chile Incentives Pilot Program Aims to Draw Producers With 30% Rebate

    With over 2,500 miles of Pacific Ocean coastline, the long and narrow South American country of Chile encompasses a remarkable variety of weather patterns and landscapes. Filmmakers traveling there will discover that the Chilean Economic Development Agency in alliance with nation’s film commission recently launched what it calls a Pilot Program for High-Impact Audiovisual Investment [...]

  • Set di "Gomorra 3", regia di

    'My Brilliant Friend,' 'Gomorrah' Show Different Sides of Naples

    When Saverio Costanzo, the director of HBO and RAI’s “My Brilliant Friend,” started to plan how he would depict the grand but gritty city of Naples — one that’s so vivid in the imaginations of millions of Elena Ferrante readers, he quickly decided that the working-class neighborhood at the core of her four Neapolitan novels [...]


    How a Costume Designer Brightened M. Night Shyamalan's 'Glass'

    Paco Delgado’s costumes are as varied as his films. Contrast the drama “The Danish Girl,” the futuristic fantasy “A Wrinkle in Time” and the period musical “Les Misérables.” Now he’s in comic-book territory with M. Night Shyamalan’s newest superhero/supervillain thriller, “Glass,” which Universal releases Jan. 17. The costume designer’s career began in Barcelona and London, [...]

  • Bird Box

    Los Angeles On-Location Feature Filming Surges 12.2% in 2018

    On-location feature filming in Greater Los Angeles expanded impressively in 2018, gaining 12.2% to 4,377 shooting days, according to FilmL.A. Production activity for feature films rose 15.5% to 1,078 shooting days during the fourth quarter, with 146 days coming from projects receiving California tax credits — including Netflix’s “Bird Box,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a [...]


    How Writer-Crew Collaborations Are Changing the Script for the Creative Process

    In traditional filmmaking, once a script is written, the director and department heads break it down and figure out the costs and logistics of production. But if the screenwriter collaborates during the creative process with key crew members, the entire production can benefit.  Such collaboration offers the prospect of help on many fronts. For example, [...]

  • avengers infinity war

    'Avengers,' 'Lost in Space,' 'Ready Player One' Lead Visual Effects Society Nominations

    The Visual Effects Society announced nominees for the organization’s 17th annual awards on Tuesday. Leading the way in the film and TV fields, respectively, were Marvel’s “Avengers: Infinity War” and Netflix’s “Lost in Space.” Each picked up six nominations. Pixar’s “Incredibles 2” received the most nominations among animated feature contenders with five. “Ready Player One” [...]

  • Dynasties BBC Vundu Pack

    Bush Guides, Night Cameras Help BBC America’s ‘Dynasties’ Catch Unique Moments

    Just getting to one of the locations of BBC America wildlife documentary series “Dynasties” — presented by David Attenborough and following the lives of endangered animals — requires an 11-hour flight from London to Johannesburg, a two-hour connection to Harare, Zimbabwe, an hourlong chartered Cessna 206 trip to Mana Pools National Park airstrip and an [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content