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In the Production Design Oscars Category, a Race Between 4 Period Pieces and ‘Avatar’

Best Production Design nominees are “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Babylon,” “Elvis,” and “The Fabelmans."

ELVIS, Austin Butler as Elvis Presley, 2022. © Warner Bros. / courtesy Everett Collection


Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

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This article contains IndieWire’s preliminary Best Production Design predictions for the 2023 Oscars. We regularly update our predictions throughout awards season, and republish previous versions (like this one) for readers to track changes in how the Oscar race has changed. For the latest update on the frontrunners for the 95th Academy Awards, see our 2023 Oscars predictions hub.

See our initial thoughts for what to expect at the 95th Academy Awards here.

The State of the Race

“Avatar: The Way of Water,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Babylon,” “Elvis,” and “The Fabelmans” were nominated for the Best Production Design Oscar on Tuesday. All were also nominated for the 27th ADG Awards (to be held February 18th at the InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown Hotel).

Overlooked were ADG nominees “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths,” “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” production designed, respectively, by Oscar winners Hannah Beachler, Eugenio Caballero, and Rick Heinrichs. Best Picture favorite and ADG nominee “Everything Everywhere All at Once” also failed to make the Academy’s cut.

Now it’s a race between four period pieces and James Cameron’s water-centric, sci-fi sequel. The “Elvis” and “The Fabelmans” nominees — Catherine Martin and Rick Carter — are two-time winners. Martin, who is the frontrunner with co-production designer Karen Murphy, won for “The Great Gatsby and “Moulin Rouge!” and Carter won for “Lincoln” and “Avatar.”

For Baz Luhrmann’s delirious “Elvis,” Martin and Murphy recreated historical locations — Graceland mansion, the Memphis blues hub of Beale Street, the carnival where Tom Hanks’ Colonel Parker met Austin Butler’s Presley, and Las Vegas’ International Hotel — and transformed them into a hyper-real thrill ride. What appealed to Martin was visually conveying the historical context amidst the explosion of youth culture during a very prosperous yet segregated ’50s America.

Carter recreated Steven Spielberg’s childhood for his semi-autobiographical “The Fabelmans.” Carter cracked “the Spielberg code” of recurring themes and motifs from his movies, turning this into a classic migration tale. The three Fabelman houses in New Jersey, Arizona, and Northern California became chambers of Sammy’s (Gabriel LaBelle) psychological development, based on Spielberg’s memories and photo reference material from his family archives. The recreations, thus, captured the emotional spirit of the spaces.

For Damien Chazelle’s epic “Babylon,” the comedy-drama about hedonistic Hollywood during the Roaring Twenties, production designer Florencia Martin (“Blonde,” “Licorice Pizza”) and the art department highlighted the parallels between the formation of L.A. and the constant state of construction and dismantlement in the film industry. The team of 150 crafts people created a world of lavish, jewel-toned fabricated environments set against the hot, barren, and inhospitable desert of early L.A. They scouted throughout Southern California for period-accurate locations and designed sets showcasing the era’s popular revival style architecture — Mission, Gothic, Spanish, and Tudor. For each character, the architectural style represents a manifestation of the world they want to be in.

Edward Berger’s anti-war epic, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” is an immersive POV movie that relied on long tracking shots to take us through the battlefield and trenches of World War I. Production designer Christian Goldbeck strategically built them outside Prague in a way that aided the oppressive atmosphere. The trenches were claustrophobic and moving around the battlefield during filming (against the light) was psychologically and physically challenging and depressing, especially since it was cold, wet, and muddy.

“Avatar” won the Oscar for its game-changing production design but can it repeat? Co-production designers Dylan Cole and Ben Procter and the art department have so much more world-building to work with as far as environments and creatures. The oceans are preeminent and the islands — where the Metkayina reef clan reside in their intricately woven village — exotic. These reef people are water-adapted with stronger, wider tails, strakes on their arms and legs, and nictitating membranes on their eyes to see underwater. In addition, the art department had to populate an entire ocean, from the sea floor up, from many species of coral and water plants (many bioluminescent) to dozens of fish designs, including the intelligent, whale-like tulkun.

Below are the nominees ranked in order of likelihood to win:

“Elvis” (Warner Bros.)
“Babylon” (Paramount)
“All Quiet on the Western Front” (Netflix)
“The Fabelmans” (Universal)
“Avatar: The Way of Water” (20th Century Studios/Disney)

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