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Production Designers Bring to Life Past and Future Worlds

Art direction on this year's major films nails the past with accuracy and predicts a frightening future

Historical accuracy is vital to a period film, but invariably reality must be bent to serve not just narrative expediency and budgetary limitations, but also the artists’ personal vision, as a sampling of this year’s awards contenders demonstrates.

For director Christopher Nolan’s World War II drama “Dunkirk” (pictured above), production designer Nathan Crowley went to great lengths to be true to the historical record.

He used the very French beach where 300,000 British and other Allied troops were trapped by the Germans, along with authentic Spitfire fighter planes, a vintage French destroyer and some of the small boats that came to the soldiers’ aid back in 1940.

He even rebuilt the long narrow pier where the many of Brits gathered to wait for their rescuers.

But when it came time to flesh out the Allied forces on the beach, he used cutouts of soldiers and vehicles.
It may have been a more organic solution than CGI, of which Nolan is famously not a fan, but it’s hard to argue that it’s more realistic.

“You have to decide as a designer and a group of filmmakers what your rules are,” says Crowley, who has made seven films with Nolan.

Those rules can be loose when it comes to period accuracy. “I don’t believe you have to have the exact month that lampshade was made,” says Crowley. “I think that doesn’t allow you to be creatively free with your thinking.”

A case in point is Crowley’s other awards season contender, “The Greatest Showman,” directed by Michael Gracey.

It’s a musical about how P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) came to found the Barnum & Bailey Circus in the 19th century. The historic backdrop Crowley fashioned includes Chicago’s iconic “L,” even though the elevated transit system didn’t debut until 1892, the year after Barnum died.

“I’m not going to miss an opportunity to add texture because it’s a couple of years away,” Crowley says. “In a musical, you need to take artistic license.”

But even a musical needs some grounding in reality. Production designer Sarah Greenwood felt that with its wealth of CGI characters, Disney’s live-action adaptation of its animated musical “Beauty and the Beast,” directed by Bill Condon, shouldn’t be shot against green screens with images to be added later. So, after considering using a real French village, she constructed multiple physical sets creating an 18th century milieu across seven stages at London’s Shepperton Studios, including a 28,000 sq.-ft. village square.

“If we also had done the sets with CGI, it would be, what’s live action about that?” says Greenwood. “So everything was very tangible.”

In contrast, Greenwood’s other recent project, Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour,” which gives another perspective on Dunkirk by exploring British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s political maneuverings to rescue the troops, was firmly rooted in historical reality.

But she did engage in a bit of fantasy by including the long-rumored but never-confirmed subterranean tunnel that Churchill (Gary Oldman) walks through to get from his Downing Street residence to an underground war-room bunker.

For Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck,” which tells a pair of interlocking New York stories set in 1927 and 1977, production designer Mark Friedberg went beyond the historical record and referenced his own Manhattan youth in the ’70s portion of the film.

“The neighborhood around the bookstore in the film was about 10 blocks from where I grew up and exactly where I used to go multiple times a week,” says Friedberg. “I actually re-created businesses, like where I got my shoes, the cleaners my parents used and the bodega on the corner.”

On Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049,” production designer Dennis Gassner had to be mindful that world they were creating was in line with the original 1982 “Blade Runner.”

Set in 2019, the first film presented a dystopian vision of Los Angeles unlikely, fortunately, to be realized in two years’ time, peppered with electronic signage for companies that have long since gone out of business.

Although Gassner eschewed the original’s neon for LED lights, for the most part he slyly adopted many of its elements, including outdoor advertisements for defunct entities ranging from airline Pan Am to the Soviet Union and building miniatures for wide shots of the city, just as they did for the original, but supplemented with CGI.

The miniatures are not just an aesthetic link to the original film, they’re part and parcel of the techniques Gassner and cinematographer Roger Deakins have been employing over the course of eight films, beginning with 1991’s “Barton Fink.”

“The opening of [1994’s] ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ was all miniatures,” Gassner points out.
“It ultimately comes down to the tone of the practical lighting that Roger and I have been doing for a long time.”

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