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Art Direction


By Thomas J. McLean
When it comes to art direction, Oscar�s tastes seem to be quite specific: The greater the spectacle � with fantasy films, musicals and period pieces preferred � 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.
�Perhaps some people will disagree, but I really believe that a production designer�s job is the same whether it�s for a period film, a contemporary thriller or a sci-fi,� says production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, whose credits include last year�s Superman Returns, the current Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and next summer�s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. �We 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.�
Creating � or recreating � 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 Washington�s The Great Debaters. Bomba says he prefers that his contributions to telling the director�s story be largely invisible to the audience, which in reality-based films requires a lot of research. �One of the things I try to do is make the art direction realistic and, hopefully, it kind of goes away,� 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 President�s Men, which was accurate down to the stickers on secretaries� desks. Bomba followed a similar philosophy when he had to recreate NASA�s Mission Control and the interior of the space capsule for Ron Howard�s Apollo 13.
�You have to incorporate reality into the film,� he says. The job �is to make that seamless and to continue to make that believable.�
Production designer Bill Sandell, whose work includes Poseidon and the recent sci-fi film Next, agrees. �Those simple, interesting, contemporary stories are just as complicated to do,� he says. �In 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.�
�I 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,� Dyas says. �Building an appropriate atmosphere is what matters most, the most magnificent sets on earth don�t mean much if they don�t serve the script and the director�s vision.�
But more important than detail is the continuity of vision, Sandell says. �That�s 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.�
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. �I see it all the time, an art department run amok,� Sandell says. �They may be great sets, but there�s no sense of continuity.�
When watching other people�s films, Bomba says he looks for the detail and authenticity of it. �I 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.�
The Academy�s preference to reward certain types of pictures evokes mixed reactions. �It�s been said that science fiction films are usually underemphasized for award recognition, but all I can say is that there have been exceptions,� Dyas says.
Sandell says some films are almost pure exercises in art direction, but they�re 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 �silly,� he says.
�If nobody sees your picture, nobody is going to notice your picture,� Sandell says. �I 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.�
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.
�The art directors are so cutthroat they may not vote the right way either,� he says. �Everyone is looking out for their own professional careers.�
Dyas, however, says awards can�t help but be controversial because they�re always a matter of taste. �I really feel that voters for the most part are following their heart, indiscriminatingly,� he says. �Art is intangible and preference will always be a matter of taste, but awards come from a good place, they�re about trying to reward great work and that can only have a positive effect on our professions as a whole.�

Written by Tom McLean

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