1. “Room”: How do you make a 10 x 10 foot space actor- and camera-friendly for Lenny Abrahamson’s harrowing drama about a mother (Brie Larson) and son (Jacob Tremblay) held captive in a shed for seven years? You ingeniously make it modular to fit the crew and cameras, sliding pieces in and out. It was end result of a unique challenge for production designer Ethan Tobman. He studied prisons and tiny Hong Kong apartments and personalized the space down to every detail. He experimented with doors, surfaces, and the skylight, altering orientation in different ways until every object became a character. Tobman also tested cork, dirtying it, bleaching it, and drying it, trying to create a tapestry of browns and ochres that might approximate seven years of cooking and breathing and living. Except for the boy, who’s never been outside the confines of Room, it’s a comfortable, joyous, fairy tale-like place.
2. “Steve Jobs”: In this inventive backstage conceit, scripted by Aaron Sorkin, the late Apple co-founder (Michael Fassbender) confronts his public and private failings while plotting his grand tech vision during three product launches. And production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas crucially helps director Danny Boyle shoot in actual locations in sequence: the unveiling of the Macintosh in ’84 at Flint Center, De Anza College; NeXT in ’88 at War Memorial Opera House; and the iMac in ’98 at Davies Symphony Hall. Each launch has special psychological significance: the Macintosh was the first computer that Jobs made his own (while at the same time he denied paternity of his five-year-old daughter, Lisa); he plotted his revenge against Apple in the more operatic setting; and he achieved game-changing success while owning up to his failures at the Symphony Hall.
3. “The Martian”: Production designer Arthur Max calls Ridley Scott’s surprise Best Picture contender “NASA-meets-‘2001: A Space Odyssey.'” Matt Damon’s special expertise as a botanist proves the key to his survival and colonization of Mars. Confined to the artificial habitat, he makes a makeshift organic potato farm using the central room. However, Max’s grand design for the magnificent Hermes spaceship is a triumph of the collaboration between art direction and VFX (courtesy of Framestore). It faithfully followed NASA’s design philosophy: modular with interconnecting segments, a gravity wheel that creates artificial gravity in rotation, and powered by an ion plasma nuclear propulsion engine.
4. “Spotlight”: Thomas McCarthy’s Oscar buzzy journo thriller revolves around the special Boston Globe investigative unit’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Catholic sex abuse scandal. The iconic Globe building becomes the central location for the inner workings of the small “Spotlight” team, supervised by “player/coach” Michael Keaton. Production designer Stephen Carter and set designers William Cheng and John MacNeil built the entire newsroom set (circa 2001) in Toronto, with the bullpen, meeting rooms, reception area, and spiral staircase leading to the dim basement where they find the church directories. While the layout is different, the vibe is accurate, especially the distinctive lighting: they shot light up onto the ceiling, which bounced back down to create a soft, even glow rather than the harsh light you get from normal fluorescent tubes.
5. “Black Mass”: The blue-collar Irish-Catholic neighborhood of South Boston, meanwhile, is crucial to this operatic biopic about Southie crime lord Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) at the height of his menacing powers in the ’70s and ’80s. Director Scott Cooper was adamant about shooting on location in Boston, and despite the fact that Southie has become gentrified, production designer Stefania Cella fastidiously researched the gritty look and feel of the period and found alternative locations with minor alterations. It’s a movie about Bulger’s control of his domain—like a child who’s never grown up and is still engaging in neighborhood brawls with the rival Italians. Space, therefore, is key, from the Waterfront, to the Triple O’s bar, to Bulger’s house, where he buried people in the basement (the stone walls are still splattered with blood). The Hateful Eight”: Quentin Tarantino’s post-Civil War western might mark the return of Ultra Panavision 70 for a special roadshow engagement, yet this is a very claustrophobic drama. A blizzard forces two bounty hunters (Kurt Rusell and Samuel L. Jackson), a sheriff (Walton Goggins) and a prisoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to take shelter at a stagecoach passover called Minnie’s Haberdashery (conceived by production designer Yohei Taneda), where they encounter four more strangers (Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Bruce Dern). But because it’s such a wide frame, you’re seeing two-thirds or more of the room, and so choreographing characters in the frame was the key adjustment in a clever game of hide-and-seek. Tarantino deliberately frames them to reveal or conceal crucial information. Still, there’s a lot of interior landscape to play with and the actors purportedly enjoyed it.