Earlier this year, “Black Panther” pulled off a rare feat, becoming only the third comic-book adaptation (after 1989’s “Batman” and 1990’s “Dick Tracy”) to win the Oscar for production design. Even more notable was the fact that its production designer, Hannah Beachler, was the first African American to win the award, or even be nominated in the category.
Although this year’s field of production-design contenders is more diverse than usual, particularly in regards to gender, it is dominated — as it has been throughout Oscar history — by period films such as “1917,” “The Irishman,” “Downton Abbey” and “Jojo Rabbit.”
“The respect and the awards tend to go to period shows, but I think now with ‘Black Panther’ winning, it’s going to be interesting to see if the landscape starts to shift a little bit more,” says production designer Beth Mickle.
Mickle is a contender for her work with set decorator Kara Zeigon on writer-director-star Edward Norton’s crime drama “Motherless Brooklyn,” on which they used practical sets augmented with CGI to meticulously re-create 1950s New York, from a hospital and a Harlem jazz club to the original Penn Station, which was torn down in the 1960s.
For “Joker,” production designer Mark Friedberg and set decorator Kris Moran didn’t exactly re-create period New York City, but instead fashioned a rough equivalent of its down and dirty environs circa 1981 for the film’s fictional Gotham City setting.
For Gotham Square, Friedberg transformed the corner of Market and Broad streets in Newark, N.J., adding low-rent store fronts, porno theater marquees and graffiti, along with truckloads of fake garbage.
“One of the things that I loved about ‘Joker’ is, as gritty as it is, the walls of the city are actually places where feelings, thoughts, art and politics are expressed through graffiti,” says Friedberg.
Production designer Warren Alan Young was able to locate a surprising number of practical locations in Virginia to portray the pre-Civil War settings for “Harriet,” about freed slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman, including the Berkeley Plantation and a 1726 Georgian mansion where presidents Benjamin and William Henry Harrison were born, but he still had to repaint and redress them for the film, as well as construct slave quarters dressed in part with authentic period furniture sourced by set decorator Marthe Pineau.
“We were able to find a tremendous amount of furniture that you could also consider artifacts, including a couple of beds that had survived from the era, as well as linens and pottery,” says Young.
As impressive as these other films are, they’re going to have trouble beating “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” which effectively treats its 1969 Los Angeles setting as a lead character.
The period makeovers of various locations, most notably several blocks of Hollywood Boulevard, were accomplished practically, without CGI, and not just because director Quentin Tarantino felt that it would make them look better on-screen.
“It was very important for Quentin to be able to walk on that street and feel like he was there,” says production designer Barbara Ling, who worked on the film with set decorator Nancy Haigh.