The Lamb Devours the Oscars 2021 – Best Production Design

by Rob · April 20, 2021 · LAMB Devours the Oscars, Periodic Features · 1 Comment

Every day until the Oscars ceremony we’ll be highlighting a different category or movie here on the LAMB! Here’s a link to all the posts written so far:

Today, Jeanette Ward of The Mundane Adventures Of A Fangirl is back to look at the nominees for Best Production Design.

Thanks Jeanette!

Production design and set decoration combine to create the overall look of a movie. The Academy Award for Production Design recognizes achievement for art direction in film and combines both production design and set decoration, which are two different jobs that work hand in hand on any film or TV set.  The production designer is the head of the art department and begins work during pre-production with the writer and director to work on the locations, sets, costumes, lights and bring them together to create the world of the film.  This can add to the cohesiveness of the story and enhance the character development. The production designer is responsible for taking all the visual elements and crafting them together to complete the director’s vision. 

The set decorator is a member of the art department, but the head of the set decoration department. They are responsible for the ‘set dressing’, which includes curating the environment by creating the sets and filling them with all the items that give them life. These can also be critical character development, tone exposition, setting mood, or filling in backstory in a completely visual manner.  This year, there are five nominees for the Production Design Academy Award.

Mank (Donald Graham Burt for production design and Jan Pascale for set decoration)

Mank could end up being a bit of a surprise winner at this year’s Oscars. The David Fincher directed movie tells the story of Herman J. Makiewicz as he writes Citizen Kane.  It has the most nominations and while it has not won many of the other big awards this season, it is a movie about movies in old-time Hollywood, which the Academy tends to favor. The movie is in black and white and the team had to recreate classic Hollywood looks and scenes to create the feel for the film. It has won the production design BAFTA and Critics Choice awards and feels like the front runner here.

The teams did have actual pictures of real locations to use in recreating the Hearst Castle for the Hollywood parties in the movie. Studio backlots were dressed and adapted to look like backlots from the 30s. The Academy loves rewarding those that recreate actual locations in period-pieces and this movie recreates those lavish settings at a very high level.

News of the World (David Crank for production design and Elizabeth Keenan for set decoration)

Westerns are another strong favorite for production design nominations. Recreating the look of the wild west takes careful consideration and detailed work. Paul Greengrass directed the movie which covers traveling through post- Civil War Texas.  This involved creating western towns filled with people and time-authentic newspapers where Tom Hanks’s character gets the ‘news of the world’.

The team did research to keep the look and feel authentic to real 1870s America rather than recreating other 19th century Western cinema tropes. Making the best use of a tight budget, they created several different towns in one shooting area.

Photos from various Texas historical societies helped to provide the starting point for the team as they build sets and locations to round out the feeling of the film.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Mark Ricker for production design and Karen O’Hara & Diana Stoughton for set decoration)

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is based on the 1982 August Wilson play and tells the story of Ma Rainey, a blues star working in the 1920s through Jim Crow era racism. Adapting the play to a movie meant dressing city blocks to look like 1920s Chicago. It also requires creating sets that fit the time and scene without distracting from the actors, which is a challenge with adapting any play to film.

While the interior sets and dressing are simple and stunning, the external sets dressed with billboards, awnings, and signs help to convey the times to the area.  Visual effects were used to extend through the skyline, but the immediate area was created by the art department.

As with any well-designed period-piece, good production design can be overlooked. It fades into the background and completes the vision of the film and would really only be noticeable if it was bad or ‘off’ in some way, taking the audience out of the film.

Tenet (Nathan Crowley for production design and Kathy Lucas for set decoration)

Director Christopher Nolan’s movie tells the story of agents working with technology that can invert time to save the world from an attack.  The production design here was used to create large-scale action sequences through practical sets and effects.  The highway car chase involved driving some forward and some backward.

The airport sequence involved perfectly timing the Boeing 747 as they drove it into a building. The team built a set that would allow the plane to crash into it with perfect control.

The team scouted and shot locations in seven different countries, trying to get the most for their budget and create a huge sense of scale. That type of design allowed the action sequences to shine in a movie where the stunning action is the true focus. 

The Father (Peter Francis for production design and Cathy Featherstone for set decoration)

Florian Zeller’s movie tells the story of a man who refuses help from his daughter as he ages and starts to lose his sense of reality. The production design of this movie is a true example of how the sets and scenes can enhance the story. As the character begins to suffer through dementia, he wanders through his apartment. The apartment shifts from his apartment to his daughter’s apartment and eventually to a nursing home, where he may have been the whole time.

The story and set work to bring the viewer into the confusing mind of the central character. The sets evolve and enhance the disorientation as the story progresses. The team build a hallway and rooms and worked to move pictures and lamps to shift the look of the sets during the movie.

This is a great example of the detailed work production design teams do and the effect they can have on the story.

Will Win: Mank

The Academy loves movies about movies, especially classic movies in the heyday of classic cinema. The lush black and white look of Mank should all but guarantee the win here.

Should Win: Tenet

While small detailed work is incredible to enhance the story in The Father, I personally am more won over by the large set pieces put together in Tenet to create the huge actions sequences that had to run flawlessly both forwards and backwards.