“Brooklyn” and “Carol” Seek to Bring 1950s New York to the Top of the Oscar Race for Best Visual Effects

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Last week, I wrote about how visual effects can help an audience escape into another world in a film. A movie’s sets can do the same thing, convincing the audience that it is in the same world as the characters, regardless of that world’s time period or geographic location. Indeed, sets can help build a world that does not even exist on earth.

The Academy Award for Best Production Design (previously known as Best Art Direction) awards a film’s production designer, responsible for the overall sets, and its set decorator, responsible for filling up those sets with props, among other things. The category tends to reward a combination of period and fantasy films. But while period films certainly predominate, at least one fantasy title, sometimes more, scores every year.

Contemporary nominees are rare. But what this category tends to value more than anything else is grandeur. Like most crafts categories, a film’s being a Best Picture nominee, or having previously nominated production designers/set decorators on board, also helps in its earning a nomination here.

Leading the way this year may well be last year’s winner Adam Stockhausen for Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies.” Creating many classes in both Berlin and New York in the 1950s/1960s, the film has the combination of history, grandeur, prestige, and a past winner in Stockhausen (set decorators Rena DeAngelo and Bernhard Heinrich would be first-time nominees) going for it. This will almost certainly lead to a nomination.

“The Danish Girl” also features period, prestige and a three-time nominee in Eve Stewart. Tom Hooper’s latest may not have the respect or grandeur of “Bridge of Spies,” but it does have another advantage in this category – prominently featuring art itself in the story. I’d be surprised if Stewart and set decorator Michael Standish don’t make the final five.

Judy Becker and Heather Loeffer were nominated for “American Hustle” and are seeking to return to the fold for creating Todd Haynes’s 1950s New York in “Carol.” Period, glamor, Best Picture contention, and past nominees all point in the direction of a nomination. Becker and Loeffer also have “Joy” in the running. Though that title seems less glamorous than “Carol,” it is possible it will end up a bigger player overall, so we’ll have to wait and see how the year shakes out for these two.

“Brooklyn” is also set in 1950s New York. Production designer Francois Seguin and set decorator Suzanne Cloutier created 1950s Ireland as well. The film is doing very well in limited release, and their detailed work could lead to their first nominations.

“Mr. Holmes” featured several decades in the early-to-mid-20th Century, in both England and Japan. Martin Childs and Charlotte Watts are past nominees. If this title were a bigger contender overall, I’d firmly say they would be in the running. But I have some doubts as to whether the Academy will really embrace this film, which was only a modest critical/box office success.

Perhaps this branch’s favorite production designer/set decorator couple is real life couple Dante Feretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo. The three-time winners are responsible for the grand historical/fantastical sets of “Cinderella” this year. Their names and the nature of this work would appear to almost certainly lead to nominations. The fact that the film is a March Disney release does not, however.

Also straddling the period/fantasy line is Guillermo Del Toro’s “Crimson Peak.” The film has the added advantage of the set literally being a character in the film. On top of that, production designer Thomas E. Sanders is a two-time nominee. (Set decorators Jeffrey A. Melvin and Shane Vieau are seeking their first nominations.) My doubts result from questioning whether the Academy will embrace this film at all. The Production Designers’ branch is not the Makeup & Hairstylists’ branch in terms of open-mindedness.

Moving into the realm of purer fantasy, we have Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” which created Matt Damon’s life on Mars, as well as Jessica Chastain’s spaceship. Arthur Max has two nominations for his collaborations with Ridley Scott – “Gladiator” and “American Gangster” – but given the number of historical epics these two have worked on together, I would almost have expected Max to have more nods to date. In light of the likely large number of crafts nominations headed towards this film, I expect Max to have a good shot at nomination #3, but it’s not a slam dunk. Set decorator Celia Bobak is seeking her second nomination, while set decorator Zoltán Horváth is going for nomination #1.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” will undoubtedly feature cool sets creating the galaxy far far away for a new generation. The franchise hasn’t been nominated since the original trilogy but if this revitalization starts a new “Star Wars” frenzy, watch out. Production designer Rick Carter is a past winner, set decorator Lee Sandales is a past nominee, and production designer Darren Gilford is seeking his first nomination.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” was a demented run through the desert that excited critics to no end. I don’t want to rule it out of any crafts category. Having said that, the exterior-heavy nature of this film, as well as the fact that I can’t see it ultimately being a nominations sweeper, leads me to question its chances here. The crew members, consisting of Colin Gibson, Nicki Gardiner, Katie Sharrock, and Lisa Thompson, are all seeking their first nominations.

I’ll end my discussion of this category by analyzing two period contenders from 19th Century America – “The Hateful Eight” and “The Revenant.” Quentin Tarantino’s latest film may be largely confined to a single set, but his films are always designed meticulously to build the story and Tarantino’s world in a truly Tarantino manner. Yoheia Taneda and Rosemary Branenburg are seeking first nominations, but that isn’t my primary reservation. Rather, my primary reservation results from the fact that no Tarantino film has ever been nominated here. Does the branch simply not go for his style?

“The Revenant” will primarily be set outdoors, but Native American villages and trappers’ lodgings will play a role as well. The film could also be an across-the-board player. Production designer Jack Fisk is a very respected veteran, known mostly for designing films (such as those of Terence Malick) that feature extensive exteriors. But throughout his long career (over 40 years), he has but a single nomination to his name, for “There Will Be Blood.” Will he really be able to garner a second? We’ll see but I have some doubts.

So there are a lucky thirteen contenders. And if I had to predict the ultimate nominees from this vantage point, I think I’d go with “Bridge of Spies,” “Brooklyn,” “Carol,” “The Danish Girl,” and “The Martian.” We’ll see in only seven weeks the result in this race.

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