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Oscar Race 2018: Best Production Design Pits the Past Against the Future

For production design, will "Blade Runner 2049" triumph over"The Shape of Water," "Dunkirk," "Darkest Hour," and "Beauty and the Beast"?

"Blade Runner 2049"

“Blade Runner 2049”

Warner Bros


It’s a collision of war, biopic, sci-fi, and fairy tales among the five nominees for production design: the brutalistic dystopia of favorite “Blade Runner 2049”; the recreation of the heroic evacuation in “Dunkirk” by land, by air, and by sea; the overlapping political warfare waged by Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour”; the fantastical, aquatic atmosphere of “The Shape of Water”; and the fairy tale magic of “Beauty and the Beast.”

It’s noteworthy that these same production designers are also competing for the ADG Awards on Saturday at Hollywood and Highland, and that six-time Oscar nominee Sarah Greenwood is in contention for both “Beauty and the Beast” and “Darkest Hour.”

“Blade Runner 2049” (Dennis Gassner)

Gassner’s pattern language was defined by the brutalism defined by Denis Villeneuve. This was inspired by the angular, concrete buildings in Budapest, where they shot the movie. But the first priority was to redesign the flying Spinner as part of this pattern language, and so Gassner made it more angular, robust, and brutal.

“Blade Runner 2049”

Warner Bros

Significantly, there was a brutal scale that played against the harshness of the environment. This was nowhere more evident than in the grand building of Replicant builder Wallace (Jared Leto). And Wallace’s office became a giant temple of caustic light gently beating against the wooden walls and floors (ingeniously provided by cinematographer Roger Deakins, eyeing his first Oscar win after 14 nominations).

In the red desert of Vegas, though, Gassner created an uber shrine to lust with Romanesque gods of sex in the Sculpture Garden. Meanwhile, the hotel/casino where Harrison Ford’s Deckard lives were very much old-fashioned throwbacks. A fitting retro-futuristic tribute.

“The Shape of Water” (Paul Austerberry)

Best Director frontrunner Guillermo del Toro wanted a noir look to his Cold War-era fairy tale about a mute custodian Elisa (Oscar-nominated Sally Hawkins) and Amphibian Man (Doug Jones). And Austerberry obliged the Best Picture frontrunner with a brutalistic pattern language for the lab and a more fanciful environment for Elisa’s apartment.

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in the film THE SHAPE OF WATER. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

“The Shape of Water”

Fox Searchlight

The color teal denotes the future and the lab is drenched in it. But it’s more industrial than sterile. However, the area where the Amphibian Man is held captive in a large glass tank becomes a place of blossoming romance for the two leads. Austerberry even created a setting sun effect like a grand temple with stylized rust piping behind the tank,

The production designer also transformed the look of Toronto’s iconic Massey Hall into a movie theater, where Elisa resides above in adjoining apartments with her gay friend, Giles (Oscar-nominated Richard Jenkins). While her apartment contains a cool green vibe, Giles’ world is infused with warm browns and golds. But the idea was to join the disparate-looking apartments. But the idea was to join the disparate-looking apartments through the love of cinema.

“Beauty and the Beast” and “Darkest Hour” (Sarah Greenwood)

For the live-action re-imagining of “Beauty and the Beast,” Greenwood had a real target to research and play with: France in 1740, when Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Deaumont wrote her famous fairy tale. She based the village of Villeneuve on various towns in Southern France, which was built on the backlot of Shepperton. There were bits of Conques and the fountain was inspired by one she saw in Rothenburg, Germany.

Beauty And The Beast

“Beauty and the Beast”

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

For the Beast’s castle, Greenwood dabbled in Rococo styles, lending a dark heart to the lair of the Beast (Dan Stevens). And while each room had its own personality, the ballroom contained several, from the opulent opening to the frozen dead place, to the reawakening by Belle (Emma Watson) for the iconic dance. However, translating the animated household objects presented the biggest challenge in terms of reflecting their personalities along with the period. The best new wrinkle: Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was transformed into a flying feather duster.

“Darkest Hour” was obviously the far end of the dramatic spectrum. It offered a dance of dark and light, as Churchill is forced to come out of the shadows to become prime minister and to combat Hitler. 1940 London looked authentic but contained stylistic flourishes.

4106_D015_00585_R_CROPGary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill and Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI in director Joe Wright's DARKEST HOUR, a Focus Features release.Credit: Jack English / Focus Features

“Darkest Hour”

Jack English

For Buckingham Palace, Greenwood wanted a fresh location and chose a derelict house in Yorkshire that was refashioned to dramatize the tension between Churchill and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn).

It was also about showing a secret, ad-hoc side to London, via the underground bunker used to plot the war. Instead of recreating the actual linear space of the War Room, they went for more of a maze, which served as a great metaphor.

“Dunkirk” (Nathan Crowley)

For Christopher Nolan’s experiment with time, danger, and heroism, Crowley was able to utilize a great deal of Dunkirk’s unique location. The biggest challenge was building a complete “mole”: the narrow pier extending more than a mile out to sea, where Allied troops were bombed. They had to add 500 feet. But to withstand the ocean, the art department constructed 14×14-inch timbers for legs, using a crane barge to slowly build it out to sea.


Melinda Sue Gordon

Ships were often creatively repurposed. The minesweepers were made to look like destroyers in background shots. And an old Coast Guard ship was dressed to look like a destroyer with scaled-down guns and towers. They also built gimbals on Stage 16 at Warner Bros. for use of the large water tanks for ship interiors and for the the sinking of a 120,000-pound ship.

The greatest asset was acquiring three Spitfires and a Spanish HA-1112 Buchón to double for the German Messerschmitts for the thrillingly realistic aerial dogfights. And the IMAX action, shot by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, was truly groundbreaking, requiring new periscope lenses and lightweight mounts from Panavision. Additionally, for close-ups of pilots not shot in real planes, they set up cockpits on a gimbal in the cliffs of south L.A. It was all part of a new kind of gritty, immersive, war experience at the movies.

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