Thursday, February 25, 2016

One Category at a Time: Production Design

Without a doubt, the toughest below-the-line awards to call this year are the design categories. The critics, the guilds, and BAFTA have unanimously lined up behind one film in both Costume Design and (today's topic) Production Design. But will the Academy really go there in either design field, let alone both?
Frankly, I can't think of a potential winner that flies more in the face of AMPAS's usual design preferences than Mad Max: Fury Road. It's set largely outdoors, and how many voters are really thinking of vehicles when they think "production design" (vehicle designer Peter Pound wasn't even included on the ballet alongside Colin Gibson)? Nevertheless, the elaborate world-building that went into George Miller's hellish vision of the future is handily the most deserving contender here, and its triumphs with both the British academy and the American guild will give stat followers much hope.

But those precursors are not infallible, even in recent memory. It was just three years ago that Anna Karenina won the ADG and Les Miserables won the BAFTA, only to have the more austere period designs of Lincoln pip them on Oscar night. Could a similar respect for Spielberg's Bridge of Spies put it in serious spoiler position here? Adam Stockhausen's recreations of Cold War era America and Berlin are convincing, featuring numerous interiors brimming with meticulous detail. Will the so-called steak eaters let this Best Picture nominee go home empty-handed? Frankly, it would make a very handsome winner. I'm awfully tempted to go out on a limb for this one, guys.

Or perhaps my upset hunch is misdirected, because surely Eve Stewart's work on The Danish Girl has enough admirers to make it a viable threat. Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener were artists after all, and their Copenhagen studio is full of fetching decor, not to mention that which we see in lavish side trips to Paris. It's all very ornate, though that may be more of an asset in the costume category where voters are traditionally more welcoming of "pretty" films.

I suppose we shouldn't entirely count out The Revenant, seeings as it's clearly in the hunt for Best Picture. But it can't win everything next Sunday, and this feels decidedly like one of those craft nominations that fans won't mind giving to something else. Like Mad Max it features prominently in outdoor locations, but sans the hook of any fantastical elements. If it somehow manages to snag this (and I'd be thrilled for Jack Fisk, who aught to have won for There Will Be Blood), it's probably a sign of things to come in the night's final category.

That leaves us with The Matrian, wisely nominated for Arthur Max's smart, utilitarian sets and near-future tech. As with the nod for Gravity a couple of years ago, this nomination proves that the branch is not blind to the unique challenges of creating realistic space travel infrastructure in a studio setting. There's also the extensive post-production altering of the Jordanian desert to emulate the red planet itself. A win would be a pleasant surprise, but I wouldn't count on it.

Will win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Runner-up: Bridge of Spies

Should win: Mad Max: Fury Road

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