A Martian landscape. The desolate desert in a post-apocalyptic world. Cold War Berlin. The forbidding frontier wilderness of 1820s America. Atmospheric Copenhagen in the 1920s. These are the tactile and tangible worlds created by this year’s Oscar-nominated production designers: Arthur Max for The Martian, Colin Gibson for Mad Mad: Fury Road, Adam Stockhausen for Bridge of Spies and Eve Stewart for The Danish Girl.
Creating worlds is what production design is all about. An audience believes it can step into the screen and inhabit what’s in the frame. That’s the magic. To achieve those results takes many steps. Production designers start with research, then develop their concepts, through drawings and precise blueprints. Their teams—from art directors to illustrators, to painters and construction workers—turn those ideas into sets, from fantastical to hyper-realistic.
Set decorators, largely unsung for their ingenious and essential work in finding the objects that fill out the sets down to the tiniest details, get their moment in the sun during Academy Awards season. They share the nominations with the production designers and, depending on who wins, also receive their own Oscars.
Here is a rundown of what this year’s Oscar-nominated production designers have achieved to get them the coveted nod.
Colin Gibson, Mad Max: Fury Road
Mad Max: Fury Road, the latest installment in the post-apocalyptic series of action adventure movies that began with the original Mad Max in 1979, went through an extremely long gestation period, as the project languished in development hell for long stretches. Pre-production in Sydney, Australia went through fits and starts for 15 years.
Gibson, the Oscar-nominated production designer along with set decorator Lisa Thompson, joined up with director George Miller in 2003, very early in pre-production. Miller has been the presiding genius and helmer of all four films in the franchise. Gibson began by designing the many tricked-out fantastical vehicles like the armored War Rig, covered with spikes and skeletons, and the Doof Wagon, adorned with a giant red-neon guitar. These vehicles function almost like characters in the high-octane chase and race plot.
When the five-month shoot was finally set to start in 2013 in the barren Namib desert in southwest Africa, the production company had to set about breaking down, packing up, and shipping out all the components of the massive production that had been designed and assembled in Sydney. That included an armada of 150 vehicles designed and built by Gibson and his team.
In Mad Max: Fury Road, Charlize Theron stars as the one-armed Imperator Furioso, injecting a strong woman character into the story, giving it a decided feminist tilt. She flees the Citadel, inhabited by the tyrannical Joe Imortans, and drives off in the War Rig, trying to find refuge in her ancestral home. Along the way, she picks up five women, escaped wives of the tyrant. The group are joined by the iconic wandering road warrior Max Rockastansky, played by Tom Hardy. They hurtle through the desert landscape, with Joe’s War Boys in pursuit.
Describing the characters in a fluid, seamless way was a priority in the creative choices the production designer made. “We were trying to figure out what drove the characters before we decided what they drove,” Gibson noted. “What we were trying to do was tell a story at 100 kilometers an hour. The movie moves at such a breakneck speed, the first half is a chase and the last half is a race, so there wasn’t as much time to linger. We had to build as much story, as much detail as to who the people were and why they were the way they were into flash cards. We sort of approached it as if it’s the end of your life and everything were flashing before your eyes,” he said.
The look of The Martian is more science fact than science fiction. “It’s not a fantasy, it’s all based on current advanced technology being used right now and also being developed for the historic mission to Mars being planned for the not so distant future,” said Arthur Max, the film’s production designer.
The movie, directed by Ridley Scott, is about an astronaut played by Matt Damon who, while on an extended visit to the Red Planet, is left for dead by the rest of his crew when a fierce sandstorm causes them to blast off. Stranded and alone, he uses his scientific training, ingenuity and sense of humor to survive. Ultimately he is able to return when a long-odds rescue mission is sent out to get him.
“It was grueling–24-7 in the art department for 14 weeks–and by far the toughest job I’ve ever done,” said Max, who last week won the Art Directors Guild Cinemagundi prize for best production design on a contemporary feature. His best production design Oscar nomination for The Martian, shared with set decorator Celia Bobak, is his third—the previous two were for Gladiator (2000) and American Gangster (2007), both directed by Scott. For Marx it’s his eleventh collaboration with the visionary director.
The two were prepping another movie that got postponed when The Martian arrived on the scene. “It was a fantastic project with a page-turning script, a great big adventure story based in rocket science,” said Max. He grew up in the Sputnik era during the intense space race between the U.S. and the USSR, and had a childhood obsession with science and was a member of the school rocketry club. “The Martian was a chance to rekindle my interest in space exploration while being part of the telling of a classic adventure story about a trip into the unknown.”
The challenge was to “make things really work in terms of the storytelling,” he noted. “How does the astronaut get out of trouble? How does he make water? How does he communicate back to Earth? How does he get off the planet? It’s all driven by authentic botany, organic chemistry, rocket technology and engineering. It really has to be credible,” Max explained.
NASA was a key collaborator, consultant and advisor on The Martian and also permitted its official logo to prominently appear throughout the film. Max and his team designed the massive space station Hermes, the surface of the Red Planet, and much else in the outer space adventure using input from the government space agency. “I combined some of the elements we saw at NASA and then pushed out into the future with the design” said the production designer. “NASA was remarkably helpful because they wanted us to get it exactly right so they not only gave us great resources and input, but approved all of our designs.”
The film was primarily shot in Budapest at the Korda Studios because it offered the biggest soundstage in the world–big enough to create a section of the film’s Martian landscape, including the astronaut’s habitat. Damon also had space to drive the rover around. The fierce sandstorm at the beginning of the movie was shot on the gargantuan Stage 6 at the studio. The sequence was filmed over a period of three days, using giant fans to blow thick dust and lots of dirt around. Exterior shooting took place in Wadi Rum in Jordan to supplement the Mars set.
For The Revenant, an immersive tale of one man’s epic struggle to survive in the brutal frontier wilderness of 1820s America, production designer Jack Fisk had a two-fold task: to find scores of wilderness locations that would be appropriate settings for the natural-light camerawork by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki; and to build a handful of structures including a rudimentary fort and a Pawnee Indian village in the primitive style of the period.
“The biggest element of the design for this film was the locations,” said Fisk. And the biggest challenge, wasn’t merely to find wilderness areas to film in, but landscapes, in particular, where “men look small in relation to the environment,” all to fit the scale of the story that Oscar-winning director Alejandro Iñárritu wanted to tell.
The production designer traveled thousands of miles by car and worked closely with location manager Robin Mounsey, whom he called a “kind of a genius.” Mounsey already had a good idea of what Iñárritu wanted in terms of locations, having spent several years consulting with the director before the shooting started in Alberta, Canada. A hitch developed during shooting when it turned into an unusually warm winter and the snow started disappearing. That necessitated a sudden switch to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America for the final scenes, requiring a new round of scouting by Fisk and the location manager.
Though the director wanted areas that looked pristine, that didn’t mean nature went unaltered by Fisk and his team. Some trees and rocks were painted black to heighten contrast, and in one case a 50-foot tree was moved and replanted.
There were also structures to be built. Fisk’s most notable design was for the extensive Fort Kiowa set, hand-crafted in an old gravel pit near Canmore, Alberta. Aiming for total authenticity Fisk’s team built the Fort using actual materials and designs from the 1820s. Then the sets were aged. “One building was just too square so I had them pick it up a couple of times with a forklift and drop it just to shake it into a bit more dilapidated shape,” the production designer recalled. “We spent as much time aging as building.” To accommodate the need for natural light, Fisk even built two mirror-image fort buildings – one facing east for morning shoots and one facing west to take advantage of the afternoon sun.
Fisk built the Pawnee village on a Los Angeles soundstage using authentic materials and techniques from their culture. “We simplified some of the steps for the winter village but the small houses are all out of wood and mud and straw as they would have been,” he said.
Fisk’s Oscar nomination for best production design on The Revenant—shared with set decorator Hamish Purdy—is his second. The first was for There Will Be Blood (2007) directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Other directors with whom he has collaborated include David Lynch (Mulholland Drive), Brian De Palma (Carrie), and most frequently, Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life). He initially worked with Malick on the director’s first film, Badlands, starring Sissy Spacek, who Fisk married.
Fisk’s take on working with Iñárritu for the first time: ‘He’s a crazy passionate director and also a wonderful artist. He never asks for less, he always asks for more.”
The Danish Girl, directed by Tom Hooper, tells the true story of Danish artist Einar Wegener, played by Eddie Redmayne, who in the 1920s became Lili Elbe, through the pioneering first transgender operation.
Eve Stewart, the film’s production designer has been nominated for the best production design Oscar, shared with set decorator Michael Standish. It’s her fourth nod. Previous noms were for two previous collaborations with Hooper–The King’s Speech and Les Miserables. She also was nominated for Topsy Turvy, directed by Mike Lee.
The production designer jumped at the chance to work on a film set in 1920s Europe when society and social norms were changing. Copenhagen was still restrictive and quite traditional, while Paris had an exploding literary and art scene.
“The story for me is always the most important thing,” said Stewart. “I love to tell real people stories and try to show how they affect other people.” Stewart did character-based research before moving on to the architecture of the time. She looked at the paintings of different contemporary artists to see how they rendered architecture.
The color palette she used was also inspired by paintings by Wegner which retained a more traditional style. “They were often landscapes, so we took the colors from them to express the world he and his artist wife (played by Alicia Vikander) are living in,” Stewart said. As Einar progressed in the emotional transformation to Lili, the movie exploded into pinks, apricots and golds.
There were a couple of settings that Stewart felt especially noteworthy. “I really loved working on the harbor in Copenhagen,” she said, and felt a real joy when the Danish fishermen in their period boats sailed into the harbor at the same time. “It took a long time to pull off, but it was really exciting to get all that together,” she pointed out. Another inspiration was to place ballet tutus on the ceiling in a backstage theatrical setting, something she had seen in Paris. “I got really excited about the idea of shooting through the tutus,” she enthused.
Adam Stockhausen, Bridge of Spies
Bridge of Spies was a big gear change for production designer Adam Stockhausen, who last year won the Oscar for The Grand Budapest Hotel, a wry satire a la Ernst Lubitsch about the adventures of a concierge at a baroque European hostel, directed by Wes Anderson.
Working with director Steven Spielberg for the first time, Stockhausen in Bridge of Spies was tasked with re-creating the period look and feel of New York and Berlin during the late 1950s and early 1960 when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were playing espionage games at the height of the Cold War. “We watched documentary footage, we looked through photographic research archives both from the U.S. as well as Germany,” Stockhausen said.
Stockhausen’s best production design Oscar nomination is his third, shared with set decorators Rena DeAngelo and Bernhard Henrich. He was nominated for Twelve Years A Slave and as mentioned won for The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Spies recounts the true events surrounding a headline-grabbing prisoner swap negotiated by James Donovan, a recruited lawyer in private practice, played by Tom Hanks. It culminates on a bridge between then hostile East and West Berlin where Soviet espionage agent Rudolf Abel was swapped for American pilot Gary Powers whose U-2 spy plane had been brought shot down by the Russians.
The film was shot on location in New York, Germany and Poland. Stockhausen used existing places and transformed them to appear as they looked in that bygone period. Shooting took place on the New York subway, at Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport and on the still-standing Glienicke Bridge where the tense exchange occurred.
Manhattan’s Metro station at Broad Street, temporarily cleared by the authorities, was the setting for scenes when Abel is being tailed by the FBI and of Donovan on his way to work. “We had to work fast in ‘blitz-style,’ which meant swapping out posters and signage, changing lighting fixtures and redressing everything from top to bottom. And then, of course, everything had to be put back in place as quickly as possible.”
Since modern-day Berlin bears little resemblance to what the divided city looked like during the Post-World War II years, Wroclaw (formerly Breslau) in Poland served as an excellent substitute. Stockhausen and his department built approximately 300 yards of the Berlin Wall at different phases of its construction with the same materials and dimensions as the original.
Scenes featuring actual U-2 planes, both on the ground and in aerial segments were shot at Beale Air Force Base in Yuba County, California. The crash of Powers’ spy plane was shot via a large screen at Tempelhof, where Stockhausen and his team built a replica of the U-2’s cockpit for all the close-ups of Powers in his aircraft.
The film has a distinct color palette designed to bolster the narrative. The New York section of the film consists of warmer colors and the world gets cooler and bluer as the story moves into often rainy and snowy Berlin. Stockhausen balanced the two color schemes. “We drained all the color out of Berlin, and tilted it so it was much cooler and we did the opposite when we were in the New York portion of the story with the yellows and the warmth of Donovan’ home and also with the greens that we see in the park and the red curtains in the Supreme Court,” he explained.
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