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Assessing the Year in Shape Language


It’s a good year for production designer Mark Ricker to suss out award finalists in that category (and it’s kissin’ cousin, art direction), since he may find himself in the thick of the awards hunt—on the Academy and guild sides—for his own work channeling both ’60’s-era Paris and the present-day US in Julie & Julia.

Ricker—whose credits also include Fierce People and The Nanny Diaries, among others—says he looks for “a tactical world you can move through.” As a viewer, he states, you generally “go in expecting things to be digitized and rendered,” but finds an “additional level of appreciation” when they aren’t—when there’s the “added texture” to real world surfaces, materials and palettes. Though as he acknowledges, “I’ll be the first to admit—sometimes you can’t even tell.”

Justin Thompson: “[Star Trek is]one of the most beautiful science-fiction films I’ve seen—the shapes, tone and color were all gorgeous. It was retro, without being kitschy or nostalgic.”

What he can tell is what films jumped out at him, from a production design standpoint, this past year. Among those, he lists Where the Wild Things Are, Public Enemies, the historical drama Amelia, and—for an earlier period—Jane Campion’s John Keats’ romance, Bright Star.

He also likes the Fellini-reworking Nine, as exemplary of work which takes viewers “to another realm.”

Working in another realm himself—animation—is Justin Thompson, who was the production designer on the surprise CG hit Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Of live-action films, he liked the work in the latest Harry Potter installment, FX-favorites District 9 and Star Trek, and R-rated superhero deconstruction Watchmen.

The latter film, he maintains, is “just phenomenal” from a technical standpoint. He says he’s “studied frames” of the Alex McDowell-designed film, and calls its art direction—supervised by Francois Audouy—”flawless.”

The film, he continues “retains humor” from its origin in Dave Gibbons’ artwork in the graphic novel, yet was “dark enough” that it allowed the filmmakers “to explore” the edge-of-apocalypse world created by writer Alan Moore.

As for District 9, he likes the job PD Philip Ivey did in “maintaining the grittiness” of what you see in the initially documentary-like exploration of the “shantytowns” the close-encoutering aliens are restricted to. The look “allowed things to feel sort of dirty—you could believe this was happening in the real world.”

Of Star Trek, and designer Scott Chambliss’ work, he says it was “one of the most beautiful science-fiction films I’ve seen—the shapes, tone and color were all gorgeous. It was retro, without being kitschy or nostalgic.”
He speaks of the “shape language” of the original series, and how that visual language was brought forward into the film, without being slavishly imitated.

Of his own “shape language,” he notes that design in animation is “approached from the overall look. We don’t get into details as much as live-action designers do.”

Cloudy itself was taken from a renowned picture book, and Thompson says he also wanted the world of Cloudy to be “believable,” while creating a look for a “kids’ disaster film. I wanted it to be a comedy first, and an action film second.”

Thus, background explosions were made to seem “less dangerous,” and he made sure the world—though different from the “cross-hatching” style of the original illustrations—was one that remained visually plausible on its own terms.

Of the year’s other animated films, he says it’s an “honor to compete” against such offerings as Up and Coraline. Of the latter, he says the stop-motion animation was “treated with a sense of whimsy,” and the design of the characters was “unique.”

That is due to choices by Coraline’s director Henry Selick, who found himself production designing his film when changes during a long pre-production process caused an amicable parting between him and the original PD. Of the work he liked during the year, Selick in turn mentions the Iraq war drama/character study The Hurt Locker, along with Pixar’s Up, and Thompson’s work on Cloudy, saying he liked the “Muppet-y choices” for the film’s look, with the characters “bleeding over” into the world of the story at large, underscoring its themes.

On the live-action front, one late dark horse entry also features the inner lives of characters “bleeding over” into the design at large. The British film Creation tells of Charles Darwin’s struggles to finish his book The Origin of the Species while grieving for a lost child. The BBC-financed biopic proved a lightning rod for larger American distributors, who were scared off from picking up the film by imagining the wrath of American fundamentalists.

However, plucky Newmarket Films stepped into the breach, and the film will be getting a limited Dec. 25 release, qualifying it for this year’s award season.

Laurence Dorman’s production design takes its “shape language” from Darwin’s original stomping grounds, some ingenious doubling (parts of England doubled for the tropics during flashbacks of the biologist’s epic sea voyage), contemporaneous Victoriana, and the inner emotional lives of its characters.

Whether the film has enough time to develop momentum remains to be seen. After all, as Darwin noted, all of life is in competition with itself. How much more would the theory have been underscored if he knew about award season?

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