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Oscars 2021: Best Production Design Predictions

The varied visual delights of "Mank," "The Midnight Sky," "Tenet," and "Mulan" lead the way in production design.

Mank Netflix

“Mank” costume party


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This season’s Oscar race for production design features the ’30s recreation of LA in black-and-white for David Fincher’s “Mank,” the forward-thinking futuristic designs for George Clooney’s “The Midnight Sky,” the brutalist worldbuilding for Christopher Nolan’s time-inverting “Tenet,” and the opulent, Tang dynasty-era sets for “Mulan.”

“Mank” has the inside track, though, for meticulously resurrecting the world of washed up alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), who’s struggling to churn out a first draft of “Citizen Kane.” Oscar-winning production designer Don Burt (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) had to think in terms of monochromatic design to authentically return to Hollywood’s Golden Age. Fortunately, set decorator Jan Pascale used the monochromatic filter on her iPhone for shooting set dressing tests, and that helped shape the palette of warm earth tones. Unable to shoot at the real Hearst Castle in San Simeon (for Louis B. Mayer’s birthday party and the pivotal costume ball), they instead used an LA stage, where walls were rearranged and fireplaces, columns, and paneling were switched to accommodate separate sets. And Burt and Pascale created a Gothic vibe with the interior design and extravagant objects collected from around the world.

In “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” production designer Mark Ricker discovered an old mill in Pittsburgh to serve as the ’20s era Chicago recording studio, which was the primary set for the film adaptation of the award-winning August Wilson play about legendary blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). The design and set dressing were authenticated through research, but the brick and wood work and layout of the rooms worked well.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020): (L to R) Chadwick Boseman as Levee, Glynn Turman as Toldeo, Michael Potts as Slow Drag, Colman Domingo as Cutler. Cr. David Lee / Netflix

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

David Lee/Netflix

For “The Midnight Sky,” which drifts between isolated scientist Clooney in an Arctic outpost, and the astronauts returning home to an environmental disaster, Oscar-nominated production designer Jim Bissell (“Goodnight, and Good Luck”) focused on The Aether space probe and the Barbeau Observatory, the film’s two central environments. For the probe, he created a baton design with individual units of inflatable material held together by an exoskeleton. In addition, he utilized topological optimization for an organic way of engineering the material layout and performance of the probe. For the cold-looking observatory, he designed it like a brain to symbolize the troubled mindscape of Clooney.

For “Tenet,” Nolan’s five-time Oscar-nominated production designer, Nathan Crowley, utilized a series of iconic buildings, locations, and sets as a brutal backdrop for a war between past and present. The opening opera house heist was shot in a sprawling venue in Tallinn, Estonia, overlooking the Baltic Sea; the luxury superyacht of baddie Kenneth Branagh was transformed into an industrial-looking lair, which sat off the coast of Italy; and the climactic, synchronized attack with two teams moving through time in opposite directions was shot primarily at an old iron ore mine in the Southern California desert, with existing structures piled next to several full-size constructions and large-scale models to enhance the already immense set.

And, for “Mulan,” Oscar-winning production designer Grant Major (“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”) recreated the vast Emperor’s Throne Room of Jet Li to scale (based on the few surviving buildings from 618 to 907 AD), as well as the large circular hut (yurt) of Jason Scott Lee’s Böri Khan. Everything in the Throne Room, apart from the hanging lanterns made in China, was crafted in the art department workshops, including the sculpted dragons. The yurt, which was built at Kumeu Film Studios in New Zealand, was modeled on a hut from 700 AD and filled with appropriate wolf motifs and plundered treasures.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
“The Midnight Sky”
“The Trial of the Chicago 7”

“Da 5 Bloods”
“News of the World”
“The Prom”

Long Shots
“Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn”
“Promising Young Woman”

Key Oscar Indicators

The Academy’s production design branch currently has 445 members, of which 384 are active and 61 are retired. The last black-and-white Oscar winner was “Schindler’s List” in 1993. But the most recent monochromatic nominees include “The Artist” (2011), “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005), and  “Pleasantville” (1998). The Academy, unlike the Art Directors Guild, doesn’t distinguish between contemporary, period, and fantasy, which makes it difficult to gauge comparisons among winners. However, with Netflix is in a leading position with its seven ADG nominations, including “Mank,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “The Midnight Sky,” “Da 5 Bloods,” and “The Prom.”

Key Dates

Monday, February 1, 2021
Preliminary Oscar voting begins; ADG online voting begins

Wednesday, February 24, 2021
ADG Online voting closes 5:00 pm PT

Thursday, February 25, 2021
ADG nominations announced

Sunday, February 28, 2021
Submission deadline for the Oscars

Friday, March 5, 2021
Oscar nominations voting begins

Wednesday, March 10, 2021
Oscar nominations voting ends 5:00 PM PT

Thursday, March 11, 2021
Final ADG online voting begins

Monday, March 15, 2021
Oscar nominations announced

Wednesday, April 7, 2021
Final ADG online voting ends 5:00 pm PT

Saturday, April 10, 2021
Winners announced at 25th ADG Awards Gala (presented online and streamed worldwide)

Thursday, April 15, 2021
Oscar Nominees Luncheon
Final Oscar voting begins

Tuesday, April 20, 2021
Final Oscar voting ends

Sunday, April 25, 2021
Winners announced at the 93rd Academy Awards (Oscars)

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