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‘La La Land,’ ‘Moonlight’ Honored at Variety Artisans Awards in Santa Barbara

Trusting your instincts and your coworkers were the recurring themes at the Variety Artisans Awards Feb. 6, as film creatives were saluted for their behind-the-camera work in 2016.

This was the third annual event, once again part of the Santa Barbara Film Festival.

On hand to accept their awards at the Lobero Theatre were Alessandro Bertolazzi (makeup and hair for “Suicide Squad”), Jess Gonchor (production design, “Hail Caesar”), Justin Hurwitz (a double winner, for score and song “City of Stars” from “La La Land”); James Laxton (cinematography, “Moonlight”); Robert Legato (visual effects, “Jungle Book”); Alan Robert Murray (sound editing, “Sully”);  Kevin O’Connell (sound mixing, “Hacksaw Ridge”), Joe Walker (editing, “Arrival”); Mary Zophres (costume design, “La La Land”) and Benj Pasek (lyricist for “La La Land” song “City of Stars”; Pasek’s writing partner Justin Paul was the only honoree unable to attend, since he was on the east coast working on their Hugh Jackman starrer “The Greatest Showman”).

The format was similar to the previous Artisan events: A clip was shown of each person’s work, followed by one-on-one conversations with Variety‘s Tim Gray; then a group discussion.

Each offered insights into their work on the film, and several offered the idea that their work was the result of trusting instincts. Told that a few of her dresses in “La La Land” are already iconic, Zophres said, “But you can’t think about that; I didn’t set out to design anything iconic,” but she, Emma Stone and director-writer Damien Chazelle liked the yellow dress, for example, simply because it worked.

Laxton pointed out that “Moonlight” had a tricky shooting schedule, with a small budget ($1.5 million) and moody Miami weather. Despite the challenges, he and writer-director Barry Jenkins “trust one another. That’s the most important thing on any film shoot, trusting the people you work with.”

College friendships were present in many of the honorees’ stories; aside from Laxton and Jenkins, that also includes Pasek and Paul, and Hurwitz and Chazelle. Pasek said he and Paul learned that “La La Land” was seeking lyricists; two days later, they flew on their own dime to Los Angeles to casually say “We’re in town, let’s meet.” They wrote the lyrics to “City of Stars” on that plane ride, and Hurwitz said there were only minor changes to their original words.

Legato said some of the best advice he got was early in his career. He was working on a rocket-launch sequence for “Apollo 13” and Ron Howard said, “What would it look like if Martin Scorsese directed this?”

A variation of that story came from Walker, about editing. On his first job, he had a complicated scene involving three people at a table and kept experimenting with shots of each. His boss said, “Why don’t we just go with the shot of the three together? That tells the story.” Legato’s story involved thinking outside the box and Walker’s was about not overlooking the obvious, but in each case, it was a matter of trying something unusual and trusting their instincts.

Bertolazzi got big laughs with his tales of “Suicide Squad” makeup, with his insistence on doing the key characters himself and the long hours required (sometimes three hours) for the elaborate work. Gonchor, who has done six films with the Coen brothers, said he doesn’t normally like to watch old films for inspiration, but this tale of Hollywood in the 1950s required some homework. The budget was a small $20 million but looks much larger, thanks to the re-creation of old movie moments.

Each honoree was asked how they define excellence in their field in other films, and many expressed the idea that great work does not draw attention to itself. As O’Connell said of sound mixing, “If you believe that the Titanic just split in two or that a big rig could transform into Optimus Prime without questioning it,” then the film team (including the sound people) did a good job.

The evening concluded with Oscar-winning editor Artie Schmidt presenting the trophies to the winners.

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