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.)