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HomeAwardsAcademy 2007 StandAlone - Art Direction

Academy 2007 StandAlone – Art Direction

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During the production of Gone With the Wind, producer David O. Selznick conferred a singular honor on William Cameron Menzies. In Selznick’s view, Menzies’ contributions to the epic production deserved some special merit beyond the customary credit of art direction or set design. He coined the term production designer and for many years after it was a title conferred sparingly and with special distinction.The Academy’s award for those that toil to give physicality to images spawned from the page and in the minds of filmmakers is still called “best art direction.” Only two names can be on the ballot and they are usually the credited production designer and set decorator. (Within the Art Directors Guild, a more inclusive group receives honors.)Regardless of who or what films receive recognition, a consensus among some guild members is that often the selections are narrow in focus. Jeannine Oppewall, a three-time nominee and an Academy board member, says the “obvious” has the advantage and period recreations offer the seemingly easiest method of determining work.”People ought to know better,” says Michael Riva, who was nominated for The Color Purple. “It’s not necessarily harder to do a period film than an intimate drama or a broad comedy. We tend to overlook the nuanced and subtle, so it’s amazing when really good people like Dick Sylbert win an Oscar. Usually it’s for a body of work and not a single achievement anyway.” Sylbert, an Art Directors Guild lifetime achievement award-winner, won art direction Oscars for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1967) and Dick Tracy (1991).Lilly Kilvert, a nominee for Legends of the Fall and The Last Samurai, says it’s not uncommon for people to misjudge achievement. While she refuses to cite specific instances, it would be difficult to argue that the line between production and costume design and cinematography can be pretty thin.”It’s very difficult to unknit the sweater,” notes Oppewall. “There are other factors like computer graphics that cloud the issue as well. You’re not likely to phone around as you’re filling out your ballot to find out what the challenges of a production were and who did what. More often than not what evolves is a ‘herd’ rather than a ‘heard’ perspective.”Riva points out that it’s unusual for a film to receive a single nomination in craft categories and the “clustering” effect favors certain pictures. Others point out the obvious fact that the work has to be seen and if one is working, you’re selective about what pictures to view. It doesn’t help the situation that the most acclaimed movies tend to be released in November and December.There also seems to be a bias toward non-Americans that Kilvert jokes has put thoughts in her head of changing her name to Lila Kilvero. Oppewall adds that Americans don’t make many period films and that a European passport is more flexible in securing jobs.”There are basically no fixed standards on which to judge the work,” insists Riva. “Early on in my career I got up at a union meeting and said that if we were going to give awards we ought to know what standards to apply. There was a lot of jaw flapping that ensued but no one answered my question.”The experience of a nomination itself can be gratifying, confusing and bizarre, all at the same time. Kilvert said she had no inkling about her first nomination, while her second appeared to be a foregone conclusion. Riva says he liked the nominee’s luncheon best because it had a quality of camaraderie rather than competition. He points out that his grandmother—Marlene Dietrich—never received a single Oscar nomination.”Going to the Oscars for the first time is an experience that cannot be repeated,” says Oppewall. “When the limo pulled up to the red carpet and I got out, the first thing I saw was a sign that read: Repent Hollywood Scum. I learned later that they’re always there but the cameras avoid them. Anyway, I realized they were talking about me and that was initially upsetting. The next thing that happened was that my agent didn’t recognize me dressed up. It was all very surreal.”In addition to the fitful nature of nominations, all agree that any sort of recognition in the field is something members crave desperately. They see so much of the credit going to other disciplines as well as above-the-liners and their genuine contributions accorded to others.”You have to put things in perspective,” says Oppewall. “There are reasons, not always good, why something is recognized and other things are not. I started my professional career working for Charles Eames and he once told me a story that applies to just about everything. His collaborations with architect Eero Saarinen weren’t always easy, and during one disagreement Saarinen became very frustrated and said, ‘the average doctor is not better than the average architect.’ There was more to the quote but he was trying to get across a couple of things like the fact that in any field there are more average people than extraordinary ones. And if you have a special situation, you’re probably going to defeat yourself if you go to someone average to solve it.”

Written by Len Klady

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