From the tourist haven of Hollywood Boulevard to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, art directors take a look at the nominated films and review the worlds created by their peers.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”
Production Designer: Barbara Ling
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“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus and tribute to the 1960s Los Angeles in which he grew up. The emotional connection that this can bring to a project could be a tall order … and a daunting project for a production designer to meet.
The visual expectations of a director of Tarantino’s caliber, on a picture of this scale, on a tight 12-week prep schedule, with his requisite amount of attention to detail and an alleged edict that no action would be filmed before a green screen, was enthusiastically embraced and realized by veteran production designer Barbara Ling and her A-list crew.
Character and backstory were woven seamlessly throughout the script in such a way that the freeways, hills, streets, the Valley and Hollywood Boulevard all lovingly embraced the scenery comprising western towns and ranches, painted backdrops and facades-on-top-of-facades with era-specific signage of 1969 Hollywood, cool midcentury homes and vintage vehicles.
Barbara’s crew prepped, and the film crew shot, one side of Hollywood Boulevard at a time so as not to interrupt the sacred lifeblood of the financially necessary
The world they brought back to life served as an organic nesting place for the characters that Tarantino created and were realized by the actors. For a brief three hours, that world came back into being and — spoiler alert! — Sharon Tate (with her unborn child), Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Steven Parent and Wojciech Frykowski did not perish — and 1969 Hollywood lived. It’s a Hollywood love story.
Written by Chuck Parker, Local 800 director, whose credits include “Beyond the Trek” and “Under the Dome.”
Production Designer: Charles Wood
From the desolation of a ship adrift in space to the enormous battle for survival of the universe, “Avengers: End Game” provided a broad canvas upon which a production designer could create cinematic art. Bringing together disparate parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Charles Wood also had to generate new worlds and establish a cohesive design, all while visualizing two blockbusters simultaneously, as “Infinity War” and “Endgame” were filmed back-to-back.
To do this, he created one additional world: the Avengers art department. At its home base in Atlanta, Wood assembled a team of skilled artisans representing the best in their crafts. These superheroes, a diverse group of women and men from across the country and around the globe, with a satellite department in England, spent two years realizing the many worlds of the films. Wood is a master of visual design and the result is extraordinary.
Written by dooner, Local 800 national associate executive director, whose credits include “Big Love” and “Maniac.”
Production Designer: Lee Ha-jun
The physical world of “Parasite” realized by Lee Ha Jun creates a riveting visual metaphor for the complex social structure inhabited by upper and foundational classes of modern society, all the while effectively demonstrating how each feeds off the other. Set in South Korea, the story and contemporary visual style translate easily to worldwide audiences as viewers are compelled to pay close attention to the numerous layered clues, and not just read subtitles.
Film design, unlike real-world architecture, is constructed via narrative design, revealing story through crafted images. When scripts such as “Parasite” require a limited number of sets and locations, the design for each must substantively contribute to each scene, as viewers have more time to scrutinize each detail.
The primary setting in “Parasite” — a high-end contemporary home supposedly designed by a famous Korean architect as his primary residence — must facilitate intricate, timed blocking and camera movements, materially contributing to the narrative progression. The beautifully fabricated house is expertly integrated into an existing neighborhood adding to the film’s plausibility. Complexities and proxemics resulting from the deceptively clean design and incredibly clever incorporation of angles, staircases, and sightlines, lead to storytelling and tension at its finest. Bespoke finishes, minimalist decor, and austerity of compartmentalized family member areas stand in stark contrast to the crammed sub-basement apartment of the working-class family nested among each other and their possessions.
Visual representation of social strata not only through material possessions but also through juxtaposition of location and geography reinforces the concept of class, adding to the jeopardy of the characters. The high-end neighborhood is literally at the city’s upper reaches, while the working class is wedged into neighborhoods far below via mazes of roads and stairways, inhabiting sub-basements, nooks and crannies seemingly never intended for habitation.
Written by Nelson Coates, president of Local 800 and production designer on “Crazy Rich Asians” and the upcoming “In the Heights”
Production Designer: Michael Giaimo
Michael Giaimo, production designer on Disney’s animated feature “Frozen 2,” and Lisa Keene, the co-production designer, had two major challenges. The first was to continue a visual design legacy begun in the original smash hit “Frozen.” In the new story they had to visually manifest and harness the power of wind, water, fire and ice. “Frozen 2” carries forward the rich palette of Disney classics. It succeeds, in the words of one its characters, to “Let down our guard, and we were charmed, it was magical.”
Second, the production design balances the fine line between visual textures and patterns: from subtle wallpapers in the palace to the rusticated brickwork on bridges and buildings in the rural storybook village of Arendelle. There are visually defining motifs and symbols that land the film in Norse decoration, such as stenciled patterns on doors and walls and period-correct furniture. Those details, replete with weeping willows (whose branches are tinged in glowing dewdrops) and fogbanks that are powerful barriers (with internal lightning flashes), enhance the visual weight of the film.
One of the more charming design moments is in an early scene where our two heroines’ new young daughters are playing with what appears to be a frozen dollhouse version of the enchanted forest. A little later, there is a moment where snow hail crystals are frozen midair, signifying the elements of fire and ice captured in diamond-shaped packets. Many of these astonishing design moments prove the power of production design to tell the story and to move it forward.
All bets are off when the citizens of our sleepy hamlet are forced to flee the town as it is wracked by the extreme forces of nature caused by our main heroine Elsa’s awakening that something is not quite on balance between nature and mankind. It is not difficult to figure out that these are the effects of climate change, and this movie brings it home in subtle and not so subtle ways.
The transition of the color palette from beyond the fog barrier to the enchanted forest is sublime. The color palette in the early scenes in the village and castle was warm and sweet, but now, in the enchanted forest, the palette is mature with colors that paint the forest as decayed and dying. Our two sisters are thrown apart in an epic struggle to save the planet from man-made destruction.
Written by John Iacovelli, whose credits include “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” and “Peter Pan.”
ONE-HOUR PERIOD OR FANTASY SINGLE-CAMERA SERIES
“The Mandalorian: Chapter One”
Production Designer: Andrew L. Jones
Andrew Jones and the creative team behind “The Mandalorian” had the epic task of bringing the iconic “Star Wars” universe to the small screen. They created bold new agglomeration of worlds that we have come to know over the 40 years of the franchise. The production design is one of our few links to defining where and when we are in the history of the known timeline.
From the vehicle designs to architectural links, Jones and his team define our place in the “Star Wars” universe and deliver on the promise of creating the scope of a feature film. Pushing the boundaries of filmmaking with their “stagecraft” technology, they are able to create realistic alien worlds in a way never seen before on television. The unique blending of ground-breaking technology, old-school puppetry, and the immersive production design combine to bring the saga of a not so heartless bounty hunter to life.
Written by Dave Blass, whose credits include “The Boys” and “Preacher.”
ONE-HOUR CONTEMPORARY SINGLE-CAMERA SERIES
“Big Little Lies: What Have They Done?” “The Bad Mother,” “I Want to Know”
Production Designer: John Paino
The production design for “Big Little Lies” is an example of visual storytelling at the highest level. John Paino seamlessly integrates the feelings, textures and breadth of each character into his design. Especially striking is the visual connection to the ocean that breathes a visceral sense of life and urgency into the unfolding events.
Every moment of each episode is an immersion into the world of Monterey Bay and the lives of six women and their gradual but steady de-evolution after a life-altering event. From the uniquely beautiful driftwood styled coffee shop to the specific use of texture, light and color in every scene, one gets a sense of being swept along with the tide of the story as the show progresses.
Written by Allison Schenker, whose credits include “Oceans Rising” and “Zoombies.”
TELEVISION MOVIE OR LIMITED SERIES
Production Designer: Luke Hull
The miniseries ”Chernobyl,” with production design by Luke Hull, blew its way through peak TV season in five episodes to capture a large audience of riveted viewers who would have watched even more. Hull and his team captured a well-deserved Emmy for their work, bringing to the camera a brilliant visual recreation of the 1986 nuclear disaster at the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
The production design for the industrial setting of the series was carried off with a believable and at times haunting effect. This world, through locations and sets, gives the viewer an emotional and authentic insight to a 1970s Soviet Union. This Soviet world is well behind the West’s achievements in technology, science, commercial and domestic architecture, but this fact is what made it interesting to observe and helped sharpen and develop the visual storytelling.
“Chernobyl” was not directed or designed as a disaster movie, but nonetheless was gripping and created memorable images that you could not help but find seared into your memory. From the massive control room to the flooded underground tunnels and the smoking, destroyed nuclear power plant, the scale and complexity of the design work was formidable. The smaller interior sets of the offices, the hallways, the hospital rooms, where the valiant first responders were treated, were crafted with a high level of verisimilitude.
The series is a must-watch to understand the critical effect humankind has on our environment and how important researched information in a long format can be, to grasping the truth behind the daily reporting of a historical event. The design team and the series director, Johan Renck, did a tremendous job shocking and enthralling us with bold, simple images, and finely detailed sets in this trip back to an important and tragic event that we must never forget.
Written by Thomas Wilkins, whose credits include “Hawaii Five-0” and “Fargo.”
HALF-HOUR single-CAMERA SERIES
“Russian Doll: Nothing in This World Is Easy”
Production Designer: Michael Bricker
What’s up with that door? In the opening sequence, we see Nadia staring at herself down across a circular mirror, water running, in a bathroom of black subway tile, black walls, a bronze sculpture above the toilet and classic New York hexagon-shaped tile floor. These are our first clues to the circular events running through Nadia’s life. Then you see the door. Its gothic arch has a strong architectural impact, and the floating blue light? What is it?
“Russian Doll” invites us to the party through the portal of this amazing bathroom. Production designer Michael Bricker creates a visual poem to New York City. The lush sets are key players in the story. Maxine’s loft party is rich with friends, books, art, textures. The never-ending spaces of the floor plan are a reference to a nested Russian doll, opulent with color, dark and mysterious as the story itself.
Written by Michelle Milosh, whose credits include “The Keeper, the Legend of Omar Khayyam” and “Significant Others.”
“The Big Bang Theory: The Stockholm Syndrome,” “The Conference Valuation,” “The Propagation Proposition”
Production Designer: John Shaffner
If you started watching “The Big Bang Theory” in its farewell season, you might not know the design team has spent all 13 seasons delivering character-charged sets. Through a telescope you might take one boat, plane, baby room, hotel room or Nobel Peace Prize ceremony individually and see that John Shaffner and his team were committed to the design signatures established by the whimsical, lovable nerds (and Penny) from day one. Or you can take a step back to see the feat of all the seasons and watch a legacy of design that trails behind the final seasons like the tail of a comet. They are all strung together with a distinctive look that was continuously lively, fresh, funny and charming.
Written by Adam Rowe, whose credits include “The Good Place” and “American Crime Story.”
SHORT FORMAT: WEB SERIES, MUSIC VIDEO OR COMMERCIAL
Taylor Swift: “Lover” Music Video
Production Designer: Kurt Gefke
It’s not every day you get asked to make a life-size dollhouse for Taylor Swift. Kurt Gefke received that honor this year and his rendition is still crushing it after nearly 100 million views. The fabulous stacked set is fun and fresh from room to room. Kurt’s design beautifully takes the audience on the colorful emotional journey that one finds in life alongside their lover(s).
My favorite aspect to Kurt’s design is how well it transports the audience from space to space — from the wonderful fishbowl bathtub, to everyone’s attic of memories and all the way back to a romantic dinner for two in the glamorous blue dining room. Kurt’s design is a cozy carousel playhouse that complements the song triumphantly.
Written by Spencer Brennan, whose credits include “In Vino” and “I’ll Be Watching.”
VARIETY, REALITY OR EVENT SPECIAL
“Drunk History: Are You Afraid of the Drunk?”
Production Designer: Monica Sotto
The scenery is the straight man in this Victorian gothic anecdotal tale-within-a-tale about the inspiration behind Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” Episode 1, season 6 of “Drunk History” is told around a campfire. We are quickly transported to a period Parisian street created with theatrical flair using stylized backdrops and minimal props. All scenes are shot in and around historic Castle Green in Pasadena. Architectural elements wisely incorporated provide interesting details that move the story forward: a cellar door to Frankenstein’s morgue; a wrought iron railing in an Italian mansion; rooms dramatically embellished with furniture, fabrics and signage evocative of the period.
Sotto’s improvisational approach works well, since Castle Green serves as background for several other “Drunk History” episodes this season. Delivering this clever range of designs prove Monica Sotto very worthy of her nomination.
Written by Judy Cosgrove, whose credits include “Superstore” and “Cougar Town.”
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