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‘Black Panther,’ ‘The Favourite’ Artisans Explain ‘Mystery’ of Their Work

Variety’s fifth annual Artisan Awards Feb. 4 featured nine behind-the-camera artists trying to explain how complicated their work is, but all admitted that it isn’t easy.

“Even my children don’t understand what I do,” deadpanned “The Favourite” production designer Fiona Crombie.

“BlacKkKlansman” editor Barry Alexander Brown agreed that it’s often hard to describe, but he saluted his fellow honorees by saying, “You’re creating a world, with minute details. There are an endless amount of choices you have to make; yet what you do, whether it’s in sound or visual effects — it’s a mystery to most people.”

The event, held at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, Calif., was part of the 34th Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

The format was the same as in past years: A clip was shown from each of the films, then each honoree took part in a brief Q&A about their work. At the wrap, all of them huddled for a group discussion of mutual challenges and rewards.

Asked whether her work methods have changed over the years, Ruth E. Carter, costume designer for “Black Panther,” said, “The technology has changed. But you still have to make decisions about color, texture, composition. That’s the core of your work as an artist. And that hasn’t changed.”

David Shirk, accepting the trophy on behalf of his “Ready Player One” visual effects team, said Industrial Light & Magic created 900 VFX shots, but it was actually even more complicated than that seems; he personally spent two and a half years on the film, and added that working with Steven Spielberg was “incredibly rewarding.”

Marc Shaiman, who’s a double nominee this year, for song (with Scott Wittman) and for his score on “Mary Poppins Returns,” said he marveled at Meryl Streep’s tireless work ethic on her brief role in the movie. Asked about it, she said dryly, “Well, dear, fear is a great motivator.”

Skip Lievsay is also a double nominee, for for sound editing with Sergio Diaz, and for sound mixing with Craig Henighan and Jose Antonio Garcia on “Roma.” Lievsay and Diaz accepted the Artisan Awards, with Lievsay explaining the multiple layers of sound behind even the simplest scenes: “Birds, crickets, dogs, cars, doors, none of that is recorded during production. Sometimes that takes weeks to layer that in.” He paused, and added, “In ‘Roma,’ it took longer.”

Patricia DeHaney, nominated as part of the hair/make-up workers on “Vice,” directed by Adam McKay, spoke about the attention to detail and accuracy involved, while Lukasz Zal (cinematography for “Cold War”) talked about creative choices, such as the decision to shoot the film in B&W rather than color.

All of the honorees are Academy Awards contenders this year. The evening was moderated by Variety senior VP Tim Gray, who pointed out in opening remarks that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences was planning to present some below-the-line Oscars, including cinematography, during commercial breaks — the implication being that these are less important and interesting than “money categories.” The mention of the AMPAS-ABC proposal drew boos from the movie fans and industry workers in the audience.

The awards began five years ago as part of Variety’s commitment to cover industry people below the line, and show that their work is more creative than the “tech categories” description that’s often assigned to them.

Variety has covered the Santa Barbara Film Festival regularly since the event was first in the planning stages in 1985. The festival this year runs Jan. 30 to Feb. 9 and there is always a strong Oscar element to the fest. Among those saluted at other festival events: Glenn Close, Rami Malek, Melissa McCarthy, and Viggo Mortensen.

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