By Thomas J. McLean
When it comes to art direction, OscarÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s tastes seem to be quite specific: The greater the spectacle ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ with fantasy films, musicals and period pieces preferred ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ the more likely a film will be rewarded with a golden statuette.
And while the winning films are all great achievements, the emphasis on spectacle overlooks work that may be less flashy, but is still vital to the success of any movie.
ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½Perhaps some people will disagree, but I really believe that a production designerÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s job is the same whether itÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s for a period film, a contemporary thriller or a sci-fi,ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ says production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, whose credits include last yearÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s Superman Returns, the current Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and next summerÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½We have to think in terms of narrative, composition of a shot, three-dimensional elements, textures and color, and no matter what the historical context we have to bring the emotional and psychological elements of a script to life.ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½
Creating ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ or recreating ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ reality can be just as challenging as manufacturing a look from scratch, says production designer David Bomba, who recreated the look of 1935 Texas for Denzel WashingtonÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s The Great Debaters. Bomba says he prefers that his contributions to telling the directorÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s story be largely invisible to the audience, which in reality-based films requires a lot of research. ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½One of the things I try to do is make the art direction realistic and, hopefully, it kind of goes away,ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ he says.
He cites the Oscar-winning work of one of his mentors, George Jenkins, in recreating The Washington Post newsroom for the film All the PresidentÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s Men, which was accurate down to the stickers on secretariesÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ desks. Bomba followed a similar philosophy when he had to recreate NASAÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s Mission Control and the interior of the space capsule for Ron HowardÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s Apollo 13.
ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½You have to incorporate reality into the film,ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ he says. The job ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½is to make that seamless and to continue to make that believable.ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½
Production designer Bill Sandell, whose work includes Poseidon and the recent sci-fi film Next, agrees. ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½Those simple, interesting, contemporary stories are just as complicated to do,ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ he says. ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½In general, people are sort of enamored of big time spectacle. When I got an Academy nomination for Master & Commander, it was for all this attention to detail.ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½
ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½I think typically people would say that musicals, fantasy or period films offer the most obvious opportunities to create eye-catching designs but the complexity of certain contemporary films is often underestimated,ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ Dyas says. ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½Building an appropriate atmosphere is what matters most, the most magnificent sets on earth donÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½t mean much if they donÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½t serve the script and the directorÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s vision.ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½
But more important than detail is the continuity of vision, Sandell says. ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ThatÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s probably the A-1 priority in good production design these days, is keeping some sort of flow, for better or for worse, of what the thing is, artistically speaking.ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½
That requires someone to bring a singular vision to a film, which is harder than it seems, especially on films that have many talented designers but no defining direction. ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½I see it all the time, an art department run amok,ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ Sandell says. ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½They may be great sets, but thereÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s no sense of continuity.ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½
When watching other peopleÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s films, Bomba says he looks for the detail and authenticity of it. ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½I try to do a lot with the concept of tone and color value in a film and try to follow the themes of the character arcs.ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½
The AcademyÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s preference to reward certain types of pictures evokes mixed reactions. ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ItÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½s been said that science fiction films are usually underemphasized for award recognition, but all I can say is that there have been exceptions,ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ Dyas says.
Sandell says some films are almost pure exercises in art direction, but theyÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½re disqualified by their content. That was the case when he worked on The Flintstones, for which everything had to be manufactured to a very specific look, though it was never considered for an award because the film itself was ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½silly,ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ he says.
ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½If nobody sees your picture, nobody is going to notice your picture,ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ Sandell says. ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½I look at some pictures that were done for $4 million that could stand up, art direction wise, to a $140 million picture because they made wonderful choices.ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½
Sandell says that the common perception of the academy as being full of out-of-touch old-timers is false, and a lot of decisions are made for simple reasons such as personal preference or career advancement.
ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½The art directors are so cutthroat they may not vote the right way either,ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ he says. ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½Everyone is looking out for their own professional careers.ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½
Dyas, however, says awards canÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½t help but be controversial because theyÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½re always a matter of taste. ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½I really feel that voters for the most part are following their heart, indiscriminatingly,ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½ he says. ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½Art is intangible and preference will always be a matter of taste, but awards come from a good place, theyÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½re about trying to reward great work and that can only have a positive effect on our professions as a whole.ÃƒÂ¯Ã‚Â¿Ã‚Â½
Written by Tom McLean