On its merits, “Isle of Dogs” should be a strong contender for the Academy Award for production design. Virtually every landscape, background and object in the stop-motion animated film was crafted by the art department — from the endless garbage of Trash Island to a tiny sticker on the back of a TV — transporting audiences to a fanciful, retro-futuristic, alternate history of Japan.
But a stop-motion animated film has never been nominated in the category. And voters traditionally favor historical films, as evidenced by the resume of one the film’s key aesthetic influences, production designer Ken Adam, who did wildly imaginative, trend-setting design work on seven James Bond films, including the Japan-set “You Only Live Twice,” but won his two Oscars for a pair of British costume dramas: 1975’s “Barry Lyndon” and 1994’s “The Madness of King George.”
“[Adam] thought it ironic that after creating all these worlds that the first film he earned an Oscar for was one where he didn’t design a single set, because it was all locations that they used,” says Paul Harrod, who served as the production designer for “Isle of Dogs” alongside Adam Stockhausen.
However, the category’s period film favoritism could become history, thanks to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ rapidly shifting demographics. AMPAS has invited a record number of new members each year for the past four years — 2,707 invitees — expanding its membership to more than 9,200, and simultaneously increasing the number of women and people of color significantly and reducing the median age. So what once were dark horses could now be front-runners.
Some expect the shift to open the door for more populist films, namely comic book adaptations including “Black Panther,” which have only won the award twice (1989’s “Batman” and 1990’s “Dick Tracy”).
“Knowing how they pulled in historical data for research [on ‘Black Panther’], we really respect that,” says production designer David Wasco, who won an Oscar for his work on 2016’s “La La Land” along with his wife, set decorator Sandy Reynolds-Wasco.
But Wasco admits he’s not a big fan of CGI-heavy superhero movies and what really knocked him out was the down-to-earth “A Star Is Born,” with production design by Karen Murphy and set decoration by Ryan Watson. “It’s the kind of movie that we like to do, which is using practical locations and then only building what you need to make it work,” he says.
This year’s batch of contenders also includes a pair of British costume dramas, “The Favourite” and “Mary Queen of Scots,” and the Vincent van Gogh biopic “Eternity’s Gate,” along with some more left-field period films such as the Coen brothers’ Western “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” Disney’s “Mary Poppins Returns,” set in 1930s London, the early-1990s-set “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” set in the 1970s.
Another ’70s period film getting attention for its look is “Roma,” director Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical take on his youth that features original furniture from his family home in Mexico City. But its gritty realism could hurt its chances, as could its black and white photography.
One thing that has remained consistent throughout the history of the Oscars is that that while the production design nominees are picked by the craftspeople from the art department, the final winner is chosen by the entire voting body of the Academy, which is naturally less attuned to the subtleties of the craft and more likely to be impressed by flashy look-at-me sets.
“Designers have their own sort of favorite genres and favorite ideas, and they can look at someone else’s work and see what made it really hard to pull off,” says production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, who was nominated for his work on the 2016 sci-fi epic “Passengers” and is a contender again this year for Disney’s “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.” “I think sometimes, particularly with design, it’s hard to know what [other] people are going to find visually exciting.”
(Pictured above: A craftsman at work on Wes Anderson’s stop-motion film “Isle of Dogs”)