If there is one word that best describes the five Oscar nominees for production design, it’s upheaval. In “Anna Karenina,” it’s about the crumbling 19th-century Russian aristocracy. In “The Hobbit,” Bilbo’s comfortable life is turned upside down when Gandalf recruits him to help the dwarves take back their homeland. In “Les Misérables,” the gritty adaptation of the celebrated musical evokes more of the political struggle to rid the inequality of 19th century France. In “Life of Pi,” a boy endures a perilous spiritual journey alone on the ocean with a mysterious tiger. And in “Lincoln,” the legendary 16th President struggles to end slavery and the Civil War and find peace of mind and his place in history.
But even though “Anna” and “Pi” have both won Art Directors Guild awards, “Anna” is the frontrunner as a period piece because it delivers such a gutsy theatrical vision. While Joe Wright’s subtractive approach was borne out of budgetary necessity, it doesn’t minimize the achievement.
“You sit back and say you couldn’t have done it any other way,” admits production designer Sarah Greenwood. “What we would’ve ended up with is something that was a tired, lackluster version of ‘Anna Karenina’ that we’ve seen before. But it took a bit of formulating and getting together. Not only did we have to reconfigure everything but we also had to build this derelict theater from scratch, which was a challenge in itself. We were spread out across four stages at Shepperton and it was very involved on many levels, not just creatively and aesthetically.”
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One of the hardest sets was the transformation of Oblonsky’s office into the Angleterre restaurant because it was such a tricky maneuver that had to happen in camera. “There was no logic when we set out; it was a very instinctive process and I think it does generally work, which is an achievement.”
For “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” production designer Dan Hennah brought Middle-earth back to life in a more idyllic and whimsical fashion per Peter Jackson’s vision. “It allowed us to approach concepts and palettes in a different mood,” Hennah suggests. “We were starting the journey in mid-summer so used the summer holiday colors of Hobbit on fairground to set the tone.
Over the 10 or so years since ‘Lord of the Rings,’ the world of production design has undergone some dramatic changes. 3D modeling of sets and props has come a long way. Our digital set models were able to be used by Previs and VFX for action and extensions. Our physical set models were able to be scanned so accurate set design drawings could be provided to construction. Our molding techniques and products improved to where we were able to mould and reproduce textures for rocks, trees, and animate objects with enough detail to sustain the closest examination.”
Jackson additionally shot “The Hobbit” in 3-D and at a higher frame rate of 48 fps, which turned out to be a contentious aesthetic choice. However, Hennah embraced them both and made the proper adjustments.
“The high frame rate and 3-D gave the film more resolution and greater depth of field,” Hennah adds. “It also became apparent in our tests that color was being washed out in some lighting conditions. The greater res and depth of field meant more detail was needed in sets and props. Colors on sets were saturated to counter the color washout. The sets were all quite diverse and no components were really interchangeable. Our design requirements were inflexible and the detail and finish on all sets was extreme to accommodate the HFR and 3-D.”
Meanwhile, Tom Hooper’s vision of “Les Mis” is decidedly much darker and more expansive than the musical, which allowed production designer Eve Stewart to retrace French architectural history. Harkening back to her theatrical training, she soaked up lots of research and particularly enjoyed going to Le Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and combing Victor Hugo for descriptive clues.
“It’s all there and it’s so descriptive of the world and the individuals and their struggles,” enthuses Stewart, who is now hard at work on the much lighter “The Muppets … Again!” “And so it was exciting to get back down and dirty with what it was really about.”
But the ambitious choice to shoot the singing live meant that the set builders had to soundproof everything and had to muffle the sounds of carriages and horses’ hooves. They even remade the rosary beads in rubber overnight for the factory scene.
Not surprisingly, the native of London’s Camden Town found herself riffing on Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” (both the David Lean adaption and the Oscar-winning musical) for its decrepitude. “It had once been full of hope and color and joy, and it had the life and spirit slowly bashed out of it by poverty and hunger. I like the fact that the color has been chipped off and all the buildings are crooked and skinny.”
Similarly, production designer David Gropman relied on his theatrical training for “Life of Pi,” drawing upon India’s interior design style and architecture for the Patel house, the zoo, and the Piscine Molitor Art Deco swimming pool. He also interacted comfortably with the 3-D component.
“The most significant aspect of 3-D has been what Ang [Lee] said to me early on — about thinking of it as theater,” Gropman explains in “The Making of Life of Pi” (Harper Design). He also went back to Yann Martel’s novel for design inspiration. The island, for instance, contained the same geometrical arrangement of ponds as well as the twisting roots of banyan trees that appear to extend into infinity, like Pi itself.
For “Lincoln,” Oscar-winning production designer Rick Carter went inside out to convey the private and public worlds of Abe. In fact, “Lincoln” was a very personal experience for Carter, representing the culmination of a decade-long encounter with “the nature of conscience and the Goya-esque disasters of war” as part of his multiple collaborations with Steven Spielberg and with James Cameron on “Avatar.”
“Production design lends itself to being reflective and, for me, I like having the latitude to come and go, and be specific and right in the moment, and then pull back and analyze,” Carter suggests.”You get moments that you have never seen before about Lincoln’s intimate life with Mary and his sons and his cabinet meetings and the machinations of the Congress itself, let alone the vote getting for the 13th Amendment. It actually weaves a bigger mystery.”
Carter says the interior of the White House became a metaphor for Lincoln’s mindscape and it allowed him to know how deep the imagery was going to be so he could delve into the territory traversed by Lincoln and his consciousness.
It’s a different way of designing, but, like the other four movies, taps into a deep desire to bridge the past and present so we might better understand our precarious times.