×

Oscar-Nominated Production Designers Infused Their Films With Elements of Fantasy

The films up for this year’s Oscar for production design are set in specific times and places, but a lot of invention — and inventiveness — went into creating their physical surroundings.

We all know that the African kingdom of Wakanda in “Black Panther” is mythical, but it’s not the only example of fabrication among the nominees. In each of the films, the production designer and set decorator had to interpret and tweak reality and create environments from scratch.

At first glance, “The Favourite” appears to be a faithful recreation of the court of Queen Anne of England circa 1708. But it contains a wealth of playful inaccuracies, from occasional contemporary phrasings to fanciful and sadistic amusements (duck races, pelting naked jesters with blood oranges).

“The decision was made to use the things that felt right for the story, rather than being historically accurate,” says the film’s production designer Fiona Crombie, who’s nominated alongside set decorator Alice Felton. For instance, “they didn’t have wheelchairs, so we had to create versions of wheelchairs that felt right for the period and our story.”

Mary Poppins Returns” director Rob Marshall made use of real London locations to ground the film’s storybook 1930s-set narrative in reality. But the art department also crafted numerous sets at Shepperton Studios, including a park featuring a functioning fountain and gas lamps and a very unreal upside-down room for a musical number set in the workshop of Cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep).

“Designing the set architecturally was easy because you could draw it straight up and spin it,” says production designer John Myhre, who is nominated along with set decorator Gordon Sim. “But it had piles of art and statues and things that needed to be in the right place upside-down to be safe for the [child actors] and work for a musical number.”

For “Roma,” a starkly realistic look at the life of a maid working for a middle-class family in Mexico City in 1970, inspired by director Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood, the art department (led by Oscar-nominated production designer Eugenio Caballero and set decorator Barbara Enriquez) sourced handmade floor tiles similar to those from Cuaron’s family home and used some of the actual furniture now in the possession of relatives. But while the primary location was a real house, they didn’t just paint and dress it, then roll camera. They gutted its interior and added wild walls on a pulley system that could be lifted to accommodate various camera angles.

Oscar-nominated production designer Nathan Crowley and set decorator Kathy Lucas were tasked with a much larger-scale historical reproduction in “First Man,” which shows the NASA space program in the ’60s through the eyes of astronaut Neil Armstrong. And they did it old school with miniatures and practical (non-CGI) sets, most notably a full-scale reproduction of the Gemini capsule filmed against giant LED screens showing real space footage.

Crowley exaggerated the aging of Gemini slightly to evoke the grainy Super 16mm footage shot by the astronauts on their missions and accentuate the capsule’s piecemeal construction.

“Every cockpit was an alteration of what they did in the previous version, so the contents look messy, almost taped together,” says Crowley. “It represented the danger of what these people were putting themselves through.”

The workload for production designer Hannah Beachler and set decorator Jay Hart was arguably even more daunting on “Black Panther,” with sets that spanned more than a dozen soundstages at EUE/Screen Gems and Pinewood Studios in Atlanta and various locations throughout the city.

“Once you get going, you realize all that goes into it and all the work the designer does and how design-heavy these [Marvel] films are, whether you’re creating a world that’s going to be VFX or building real sets,” says Beachler.

 

(Pictured above: Crew on “Mary Poppins Returns” makes contemporary London look old.)

More Artisans

  • Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong'o, Michael B.

    Armani, Variety Salute Beauty Innovators in Makeup Styling

    On Feb. 20, Variety and Armani Beauty will team up for the 2019 Make-Up Artistry Dinner to toast four of the most sought-after celebrity make-up artists in Hollywood: Nick Barose, Molly Greenwald, Beau Nelson and Patrick Ta. Held at Sunset Tower Restaurant Terrace, this A-list-studded event, featuring such dazzling stars as Olivia Munn and Constance [...]

  • Black Panther

    'Black Panther,' 'Crazy Rich Asians,' 'Westworld' Among Costume Designers Guild Winners

    “Crazy Rich Asians,” “The Favourite” and “Black Panther” walked away with top honors at the 21st annual Costume Designers Guild Awards Tuesday night, the final industry guild show before the Oscars on Feb. 24. “The Favourite” and “Black Panther” are up for the Oscar this year, along with “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “Mary Poppins [...]

  • DF-10193 – L-R: Ben Hardy (Roger Taylor),

    'Bohemian Rhapsody' Leads MPSE Golden Reel Awards for Sound Editing

    “Bohemian Rhapsody” followed up love from Cinema Audio Society sound mixers with a pair of honors at the Motion Picture Sound Editors’ 66th annual Golden Reel Awards Sunday night. The musical biopic scored wins for dialogue and ADR as well as sound editing in a musical. The film is nominated for sound editing at the Oscars [...]

  • Bohemian Rhapsody

    'Bohemian Rhapsody,' 'Marvelous Mrs. Maisel' Among Cinema Audio Society Winners

    Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” won the Cinema Audio Society’s top prize for sound mixing at Saturday night’s 55th annual CAS Awards. The film is Oscar-nominated for sound mixing this year along with “Black Panther,” “First Man,” “Roma” and “A Star Is Born.” In a surprise over heavy-hitters “Incredibles 2” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” Wes [...]

  • Marvelous Mrs Maisel Vice

    'Vice,' 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel' Lead Make-Up and Hair Stylists Guild Awards Winners

    Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney biopic “Vice,” starring Oscar nominees Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Sam Rockwell, won two awards at the sixth annual Make-Up and Hair Stylists Guild Awards Saturday night. The film won for best period and/or character makeup as well as special makeup effects. “Mary Queen of Scots” received the prize for period [...]

  • ILM John Kroll Star Wars VFX

    Sci-Tech Awards Honored After Effects, Photoshop Developers' Major Impact on VFX

    On Feb. 9, two weeks and a day before the Oscars, the Motion Picture Academy held its annual Scientific and Technical Achievement Awards — sometimes referred to as the nerd Academy Awards — honoring achievements in motion picture technology.  The ceremony included no surprise winners — Sci-Tech kudos are announced in advance, and the achievements [...]

  • Steven Spielberg Lee Orloff Mary Jo

    Cinema Audio Society Honors Steven Spielberg, Lee Orloff and Mary Jo Lang

    At the Cinema Audio Society Awards on Feb. 16, CAS is honoring a trio of artists. The event take place at the InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown hotel.   Steven Spielberg, Filmmaker Award It’s hard to overestimate the influence of the three-time Oscar winner, a towering figure in Hollywood for decades. A prolific director-producer-screenwriter, who also co-founded [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content