Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Oscars 2013: Best Production Design

Note: This is my personal ranking, listed in order from best to worst, with #1 being my favorite. Prediction for the actual winner is in orange.








Missing: A Royal Affair

The line between digital effects and production design is way too blurry for vibrantly-conceived Life of Pi to have much of a shot here; folks’ll show it some love in Visual Effects category instead. Sorry, David Gropman.

The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey is highly digital as well, but Dan Hennah was charged with creating an entire fantastical universe, and the result is quite beautiful: Hobbit halls nestled into rolling green hills of the shire and surrounded by fanciful gardens and pathways are outfitted like cheery English pubs with oak floors and woven rugs; the Elven outpost Rivendell is massive and ornate, with vine-covered statues and towering columns, an amalgamation of Art Nouveau and ethereal whimsy. But though this Middle Earth is sixty years younger than that depicted in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, with a more playful and vibrant tone, Hennah has thrice been nominated for his continued work in this Tolkien world, and voters will feel he’s already been rewarded for his efforts with his win for Return of the King.

Quite possibly the most challenging design of the nominees, the highly conceptual — and some (me) would say overwrought — Anna Karenina is set almost entirely in a theatre boasting 100 distinct sets across 240 scenes. Of course, it wasn’t necessarily planned that way: the $50 million dollar film simply didn’t have the money (!) to shoot on location in Russia, so director Joe Wright devised the (rather nonsensical) idea of the story taking place inside a dilapidated Russian theatre. Whether or not it worked, the director’s vision allowed for an extraordinary fluidity between scenes: from a lavish ballroom sparkling with extravagant crystal chandeliers, elegant chairs and candelabra trimmed in gold and walls adorned with lavish scarlet draping dripping with gold tassels (so much gold); to an ice rink and railway station; to an oppressively blue bedroom Anna that occupies in her final, most paranoid and desperate days — and all the details are exquisite. As with Anna costumer Jacqueline Durran, production designer Sarah Greenwood has been a long-time collaborator with Wright, and she’s set to spoil this category. Unless…

Les Misérables wins, which it probably will. What isn’t computer-generated is obviously (laughably) filmed on sound stages, but third-time nominee Eve Stewart, who was also nominated for that other Tom Hooper-directed mess, re-created the dark slums, crumbling docks and rotting sewers of 19th century France, achieving an at-times operatic realization (that giant plaster elephant Gavroche rides through the square at film’s end) and, much more frequently, the intimacy of character (the dilapidated inn owned by the pickpocketing Thénardiers). Stewart has said, hilariously, “We were trying to achieve the views that you could never get in the theatre. One being the great big long shot” (Has she seen the invasively-closeup film she designed for?), and that she used more color in her designs than the bleak stage adaptation (color me crazy if she didn’t use the same amount of drab grays and blues). Regardless of what I think, musicals are extraordinarily popular in this category; most recent winners include Chicago and Moulin Rouge, but tuneful takers have gone as far back as Cabaret; Hello, Dolly!; My Fair Lady; West Side Story… even All That Jazz. Essentially, if it’s got songs and at least a few sets, it’s a shoe-in. Sorry, Anna, but perhaps if you sang more in that theatre of yours…

Then there’s Lincoln. Rick Carter, Oscar winner for Avatar (could you think of two more dissimilar films?), created beautifully dense, historically accurate renditions of the House of Representatives and the White House. Each interior chamber of the president’s grand residence is like a glimpse inside his whirring, overtaxed mind brimming over with thoughts flowing one on top of the other as each room opens into another to reveal heavy ruby-red drapes that mask the sun; sturdy oak tables cluttered with parchment papers, leather-bound books and flickering gas lamps; and long, desolate hallways echoing one man’s journey with his own troubled thoughts. A design that is as moody and precise as the 16th president himself, it’s the least showy of the nominees, but it’s by far the most thoughtful. If only voters would see that.

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