ADG Awards: Production Designers Weigh In on the Work of Their Peers

Members of the Art Directors Guild assess the creative contributions of a nominated colleague in each of the ADG’s 11 categories.

Period Film
The Favourite
Fiona Crombie, Production Designer
What a delicious change of pace to watch an opulent period film in which the setting is not remotely warming and seductive. In Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite,” production designer Fiona Crombie and her team present a view of Queen Anne’s 18th century court life that is morbidly regal and not a little decadent, mostly uncomfortable, resolutely stratified and cold, cold, cold. Working on location, primarily at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, England, Crombie combines a restricted color palette with an extravagant textural menu to create a striking, witty world that is the icy-toned harmonic base of the story’s rather dark and hilariously self-centered leading characters. Even at its most fervid, this is a delightfully frigid satiric tale, one that is enhanced by its pitch-perfect production design.
— Written by Scott Chambliss, production designer on “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” and “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.”

Fantasy Film
Black Panther (pictured above, during production)
Hannah Beachler, Production Designer
Production designers are world builders, cultural anthropologists, problem solvers and, at their center, layered visual storytellers. Creating a strong sense of place is key to successful storytelling. Devising a cinematic culture with a longstanding “history” is challenging — a leap of faith requiring detailed designs to get a green light from a film’s decision-makers. The Afro-futurist fantasy world of “Black Panther’s” fictional country Wakanda presented audiences an idealized pan-African homeland — quite a departure in the superhero design lexicon. Multi-faceted research was required of Hannah Beachler and her team into numerous African cultures. Combinations of Ghanaian fabrics, tribal patterns, evocative landscapes, and futuristic cities with design origins in Africa, not Europe, created a cultural specificity, adding dimension and depth to a film that offers audiences a continuous lineage of black excellence uninterrupted by colonialism, creating not just another superhero film but a unique visual experience.
— Written by Nelson Coates, production designer on “Crazy Rich Asians” and “On the Basis of Sex.” Coates’ own work on “Asians” is also assessed in this feature. He currently serves as president of the Art Directors Guild.

Contemporary Film
Crazy Rich Asians
Nelson CoatesProduction Designer
“Crazy Rich Asians” is pure escapism into the lavish world of Southeast Asia’s Chinese “Peranakan” society referred to as the “Bamboo Network.” Set in Singapore, an ultra-modern maritime center known for its high finance, not its film productions, the film presented production designer Nelson Coates and his impressively resourceful art department with many challenges. The crafting of this savory and sexy contemporary screwball comedy required 86 location sets in eight cities and two countries — all in tropical climates where it rains five out of seven days. Nelson assembled a crew consisting of expats from 12 different countries and mustered their talents, imagination and tenacity, in order to create a world that is both sumptuous and pleasing in its visual distinction and sophisticated flavors — please pass the Wenchang chicken and the pineapple skewers, and don’t forget the Singapore Sling!
– Written by Tom Walsh, production designer on Hulu’s “The Act” and Netflix’s “Longmire.”

Animated Feature Film
Isle of Dogs
Adam Stockhausen and Paul Harrod, Production Designers
Great design has rules. Rules about color. About composition. About architecture. “Isle of Dogs”— Wes Anderson’s exquisite film about packs of misfit dogs quarantined to a garbage-dump island in Japan — is a meditation on the rules of color, composition, architecture and graphic design. Paul Harrod and Adam Stockhausen’s production design is so interweaved with the film’s craftsmanship, cinematography and shot composition that the film itself becomes a sort of graphic design in film form. The fact that it was meticulously hand-crafted and slowly constructed as stop-motion animation enables the production design’s rules to be manifested in every frame. As a result, there’s a sense that the designs were tweaked and tailored to perfectly nest into each shot composition. Within this graphic-design-as-a-film are literally thousands of tiny props and products, all hand-crafted works of art overseen by lead graphic designer Erica Dorn, and all following and informing the rules that make “Isle of Dogs” such an immersive, detailed and imaginative realization of a world.
— Written by François Audouy, production designer on “The Wolverine” and “Logan.”

One-Hour Single Camera Period or Fantasy Series
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: “Simone,” “We’re Going to the Catskills!”
Bill Groom, Production Designer
A designer of exquisite taste and attention to detail, Bill Groom has guided audiences into period worlds ranging from World War II-era baseball in “A League of Their Own,” to his Oscar-nominated 1970s/’80s San Francisco in “Milk,” to 1920s Atlantic City in “Boardwalk Empire,” which won him four Emmys. Unsurprisingly, the warm, velvety aesthetic he and his team have created for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s” 1950s Manhattan does not disappoint. Mixing pastels and neutrals with pops of jewel tones and gloss, Groom has brought to life an era that too often is depicted in postcard idealism. His version certainly has that Americana undertone but does not sacrifice realism or grit. The overall effect is effervescent yet darkly funny, perfectly matching the show’s sharp wit. The alchemy of his architecture, palette, patterns and dressing choices rewards viewers with vintage whimsy and an old-fashioned good time.
— Written by Todd Fjelsted, production designer on “GLOW” and “Mixtape.”

One-Hour Contemporary Single-Camera Series
Better Call Saul: “Piñata,” “Coushatta”
Judy Rhee, Production Designer
With its dusty, wrong-side-of-the-tracks, road-weary look, “Better Call Saul” is a fan-favorite prequel to “Breaking Bad.” Bill Odenkirk’s endearing portrayal of former scam artist Jimmy McGill breathes life into the beleaguered anti-hero. The series is set in the lesser-known environs of Albuquerque during the early 2000s. The episode “Piñata” offers a smorgasbord of visual delights, including Howard’s executive office at HHM, with its corner windows, purple-blue columns and midcentury lounge chairs, contrasting with the drug trafficking headquarters; a warehouse converted into a frat house of sorts, replete with a bar, gym, theater and two fully stocked trailer homes. For the episode “Coushatta,” the show opens with Jimmy traveling via bus from New Mexico to Louisiana. The camera skips across divey bars, strip clubs, Jimmy and Kim’s suburban home, back to Jimmy’s back “office,” lit through a glass block wall, all deftly guided by the hand of production designer Judy Rhee.
— Written by Dawn Snyder, production designer on “Rush Hour” and “Best. Worst. Weekend. Ever.”

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story
CREDIT: Courtesy of FX

Television Movie or Limited Series
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story
Judy Becker, Production Designer
As production designers we all yearn for the projects that appeal to our senses and stretch our creativity. We especially love those that challenge us to re-create different time periods. Judy Becker’s resume is filled with many such films and TV shows — projects that have reflected a time and place with subtlety and attention to the smallest detail. Creating worlds that are immediately familiar to us on a nearly cellular level. “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” is one of her latest achievements in a long line of exemplary work. She was tasked with re-creating the opulent worlds that Gianni Versace inhabited along with the sometimes rich and sometimes poor worlds that Versace’s killer, Andrew Cunanan, moved in. Her historical re-creations on TV projects like “Versace,” “Feud” and “Pose,” and her film projects “Hitchcock,” “I’m Not There” and “Battle of the Sexes” use artistic license in a way that creates realism and scope for a contemporary audience.
— Written by Denny Dugally, production designer on “The Kominsky Method” and “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.

Half-Hour Single-Camera Series
Atlanta: “Teddy Perkins”
Timothy O’Brien, Production Designer
How do you take a concept like a derelict mansion forgotten in time and make it visually interesting? Timothy O’Brien weaves an intriguing tableau at the centerfold of “Teddy Perkins” in the series “Atlanta.” The viewer travels through each room while the story unfolds, revealing more and more about unsettling characters and spaces. Our senses are filled with dread and anticipation. Each new room revealed leaves a question. A front door with an elaborate wrought-iron grille reminds you of a birdcage, a beautiful prison. A sumptuous parlor where once there was comfort and wealth, now just decay. Rooms fully furnished with no one to live in them. A creepy elevator that goes to a creepy basement with a creepy masked man. The designs are as thought-provoking as the episode.
— Written by Oana B. Miller, art director on “Castle Rock” and “Underground.”

Photo: Show # 4817 - "The Counting Counting Error" Season 48; Sesame Street Production; Director: Ken; television production photographed: Wednesday, March 1, 2017; 9:00 AM at Kaufman-Astoria Studios; Astoria, New York; Photograph: © 2017 Richard Termine. PHOTO CREDIT - Richard Termine
CREDIT: Photo by Richard Termine

Multi-Camera Series
Sesame Street: “Book Worming,” “The Count’s Counting Error,” “Street Food”
David Gallo, Production Designer
Excellence in production design is not limited to big Hollywood blockbusters or edgy new television shows. It can also be found in designs for the iconic and the whimsical, including productions of classic shows we all know and love. David Gallo seamlessly creates the design of Sesame Street with a modern and yet classic feel. The sets pay homage to the original show, but also bring a truly refreshing sense of wonder and whimsy to the eye. From bright colors everywhere to swirls in the paved garden pathways to a bright sun spilling rays across the floor, you feel a genuine sense of warmth and welcome while watching every episode. The “Sesame Street” that David has created is a delightful world of bright color and vivid imagination that leaves me wondering if you can tell me how to get to Sesame Street.
— Written by Allison Schenker, production designer on “Unusual Suspects” and “Hacker.”

Short Format: Web Series, Music Video or Commerical
Kendrick Lamar: “All the Stars”
Ethan Tobman, Production Designer
Imagine: three days’ prep to fill five soundstages with practical, custom-fabricated scenery. [According to production designer Ethan Tobman] “we were finishing the sets as the dolly rolled up” and to complete this “we employed every trick we’d ever learned.” The project, referencing themes from “Black Panther,” was an enormous responsibility for Kendrick Lamar. It speaks to people “exploring the history of the black experience, both in America and Africa, through almost abstract art installations.” From day one, director Dave Myers and Tobman were completing each other’s sentences. “We were entirely simpatico. A lot of people would be scared to take on a project like this. I just didn’t have time to be scared.” Congratulations to ADG Excellence in Production Design Award nominee Ethan Tobman for his outstanding production design on “All the Stars.”
— Written by Mimi Gramatky, production designer on “Secrets of a Hollywood Nurse” and “Frankenhood.”

Drunk History
CREDIT: Courtesy of Comedy Central

Variety, Reality or Event Special
Drunk History: “Halloween”
Chloe Arbiture, Production Designer
Chloe Arbiture’s production design for “Drunk History: Halloween” is the perfect wink, letting the viewer in on the fun of telling history in this nutty but engaging fashion. The visuals are in tune with the anachronisms, playfulness and zaniness in the writing. The two-dimensional outhouse set on fire says it all, as does the model castle for Dracula. Palms and candelabras, painted backdrops, fake rocks all play their parts in the seemingly seamless rollout of the visual story. It’s a delicious pastiche. Arbiture’s selection of locations to dress, sets to build and realities to play with can only be the result of a real knowledge of visual. The home base of our friends telling the stories is the perfectly relaxed hang-out apartment where putting your feet up and taking a drink to sloppy drunk is perfectly sloppy!
— Written by John Shaffner, production designer on “The Big Bang Theory” and “Mom.”


Popular on Variety

More Artisans

  • Alita: Battle Angel VFX

    How Previsualization Helps Create Pitches for Projects Like 'Alita: Battle Angel'

    Filmmakers are increasingly using previsualization, a now-standard technique for planning highly technical shots and sequences, as a tool for pitching a project to production companies, investors and studio executives — before a single full scene has actually been shot. More creatives are relying on the technique, dubbed “pitchvis,” to fashion a compelling and engaging presentation [...]

  • A Quiet Place

    Production Growth Stretches Crafts Talent Pool, but Experience Is Still Needed

    The growing number of outlets for movies and television means that demand for qualified artisans is at an all-time high. But while job opportunities have multiplied, the path to success — and potential elite status — is still a difficult one that requires on-the-job training, experience and skill development to deliver top-notch results. Some of [...]

  • Queen and Adam Lambert Live

    How the Queen + Adam Lambert Tour Brought the Opera to Arenas

    Just as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the biopic of late Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, wowed moviegoers last year, stage design firm Stufish Entertainment Architects has helped Queen + Adam Lambert’s current U.S. tour deliver a screen spectacular of its own. The tour, which plays New Orleans on Aug. 20 and Atlanta on Aug. 22, touched down at [...]

  • Mark Damon, CEO & Chairman, Foresight

    Mark Damon's DCR Finance Receives $150 Million for Financing Georgia Films (EXCLUSIVE)

    Mark Damon’s DCR Finance Corp., co-headed with financer Adi Cohen, has received a $150 million investment from Go Media Productions for Georgia projects, Variety has learned exclusively. Damon, whose credits include “2 Guns” and “Lone Survivor,” made the announcement Monday with Cohen. The deal calls for Atlanta-based Go Media Productions to join a private placement as [...]

  • The Handmaid's Tale -- "Household" -

    ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Crew on Why the Lincoln Memorial Shoot Was Worth the Effort

    Shooting on location at a national monument may seem glamorous, but it often involves extensive prep to comply with strict regulations, restrictions and crowds — all for a short on-screen moment. For the cast and crew of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the seven months of planning and negotiations required for a one-day shoot at the [...]

  • Producer and crew on set. Twelve

    'Driven' Kept Shoot in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria to Help Locals

    Behind-the-scenes featurettes have long enumerated the many obstacles any movie or TV show has had to overcome to reach the theater or TV screen. But few films faced hardships as severe as those overcome by “Driven,” the real-life hero-to-zero story of automaker John DeLorean (played by Lee Pace) and his misadventures with ex-con pilot-turned-FBI informant [...]

  • The Righteous GemstonesAdam Devine, Danny McBride,

    How Televangelists, Elvis Inspired Costumes for HBO's 'The Righteous Gemstones'

    HBO’s new comedy series “The Righteous Gemstones,” about a famous family of televangelists whose dysfunction runs far deeper than its Christianity, seems to exist in its own time and place. Set in present-day Texas, the inspiration for the Gemstone family — played by John Goodman, series creator Danny McBride, Edi Patterson and Adam Devine — [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content