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Rachel Morrison, Alexandre Desplat Among Honorees at Variety Artisan Awards

Rachel Morrison, the first woman ever to receive an Oscar nomination for cinematography, was one of nine behind-the-camera creatives saluted at the Variety Artisan Awards Feb. 5 at the Lobero Theatre, with the crowd lapping up the film clips and the group’s insights into the individual yet collaborative nature of their work.

The event was part of the 33rd annual Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival.

The nine Artisan winners, previously announced, were Paul D. Austerberry, production design, “The Shape of Water”; Mark Bridges, costume design, “Phantom Thread”; Alexandre Desplat, music score, “The Shape of Water”; Morrison, cinematography, “Mudbound”; John Nelson, visual effects, “Blade Runner 2049”; Tatiana Riegel, editor, “I, Tonya”; Julian Slater, sound mixing, “Baby Driver”; Arjen Tuiten, makeup, “Wonder”; and Matthew Wood, sound editing, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” All of them are Oscar nominees this year.

The format was the same as in the three previous years: A film clip highlighted the work of each honoree, then they each participated in a one-on-one Q&A with moderator Tim Gray of Variety, followed by a group discussion with all nine. The event concluded with presentation of the trophies by two-time Oscar-winning editor Arthur Schmidt (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Forrest Gump”).

Morrison (in photo above, flanked by John Nelson and Julian Slater) said the goal in “Mudbound” was to show the contrast between the American dream and the American reality. When preparing, she presented director Dee Rees with a huge stack of photos from the era of the film, which spans several WWII years in Mississippi. Morrison said it’s the first film she’s worked on where they didn’t use earlier films as a frame of reference, with one exception: Les Blank’s documentary “The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins.”

Desplat talked about the difficulty of writing music for “Shape of Water” because of its complexity. “The music needs to convey a lot of emotions, I knew it was a challenge.” But he feels a personal affection for the movie, “for many reasons — for the love of cinema, my love of love — I’m French! — and also the actors in this film give everything, they go right to your heart. I wanted the music to be right there with them, not removed.”

Austerberry said he was worried by Guillermo del Toro’s original proposal to make the movie in black and white and was happy when it was decided to film in color, “because the colors are such an important element in the design.” He also said it was a tricky assignment for a number of reasons, including the multiple set requirements, and the need to create Eliza’s bathroom and then submerge it in water.

For “Phantom Thread,” his eighth film with Paul Thomas Anderson, Bridges created 50 gowns to depict the work of the fashion company in 1950s London. In a scene where women hand-stitch a wedding gown, Anderson told the costume-shop seamstresses, “You’re all going to be in the movie.” So, Bridges added, “Their beautiful work is in the film and they are too.”

Nelson said he worked on “Blade Runner” for 20 months, helping to create 1,190 visual effects. For the entire time, fans of the original 1982 film would poke him in the chest saying “This better be good!” Nelson said the toughest sequence was “the merge,” when Joi (the lead character’s virtual girlfriend) merges with the body of a prostitute.

Riegel said the average film features 160 scenes, but “I, Tonya” had 265, and the film required a balance of tone. She generally doesn’t like to go to the film set, so she can look at footage with fresh eyes: “I like to say I’m the only audience member of the crew.” She said she creates scenes to make sure the action is clear because if it confuses her, it will confuse the audience.

Slater said with “Baby Driver,” he needed to gauge the timing and levels of sound effects with the songs, since writer-director Edgar Wright conceived of the film as centered around rock songs. Slater also talked about the impact of the Oscar nominations. His father lives in rural England, and when he went to pick up prescription glasses, a receptionist asked if he were related to the Oscar nominee. After 25 years of sound work, “I think it’s the first time he realized the scale of what’s happening!”

Tuiten paid tribute to actor Jacob Tremblay, saying “he is an old soul.” Tremblay, who was 9 when shooting the film, sat patiently for the multiple makeup tests that were required, as well as the 90 minutes it took to apply the makeup each day on “Wonder.” Tuiten, whose credits include “Maleficent,” “Unbroken” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” said he loves doing effects makeup, with no interest in doing “normal” makeup.

Wood, honored for his sound editing, talked about combining pigeon coos, chicken clucks and turkey calls for porg sounds in “Last Jedi.” He has worked on every “Star Wars” film since “Phantom Menace,” and re-mastered episodes four-six, meaning he’s done sound on every edition. He said there is a big library of classic sounds, including lightsaber noises from 1977, but every film adds new creatures, weapons and vehicles, concluding, “It’s a really fun job!”

All gathered onstage for a brief group session. Asked if the Oscar discussions should always include topics like inclusion, gender and equality, Desplat got big applause when he said, “I think these things should be discussed every day!”

According to the festival, the awards celebrate individuals who are “essential to the filmmaking process and who have exhibited the most exciting and innovative work of the year in their respective fields.”

The honorees were chosen by a panel from Variety and the festival. The Santa Barbara Fest runs Jan. 31-Feb. 10.

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