‘Star Wars’, ‘Bridge of Spies’ square off – Oscar race for best production design dominated by ornate period

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A woman dressed as Spiderman uses her mobile phone at the  MCN Comic Con in east London, on Oct 23. The event is the largest of its type in the UK and sees fans and enthusiasts flock to the ExCel Centre to meet their heroes, browse merchandise and see previews of upcoming releases. (AFP)
A woman dressed as Spiderman uses her mobile phone at the MCN Comic Con in east London, on Oct 23. The event is the largest of its type in the UK and sees fans and enthusiasts flock to the ExCel Centre to meet their heroes, browse merchandise and see previews of upcoming releases. (AFP)

This year’s Oscar race for best production design (nee “best art direction”) is once again dominated by ornate period and fantasy flourishes, with some notable contemporary work to boot. Contenders take us from the 1820s American wilderness to Mars to a galaxy far, far away, leaving the designers branch of the Academy with a wide ranging field to narrow down.

Period pieces tend to catch fire with this lot in particular. And in “The Danish Girl”, a film that may or may not become a dominant force in the major categories, Tom Hooper has again teamed with production designer Eve Stewart for a distressed sort of aesthetic that gives the world of the film a unique life. From Gerda Wegener’s painting workspace to the detailed set decoration of era medical wards and more, it’s a robust design film across the board.

A century before the events of “The Danish Girl” came the frontier exploits of Hugh Glass, the subject of “The Revenant”. The great Jack Fisk was tasked with populating a landscape with Native American accouterments and untamed settlements, a great choice given his work on films like “The New World” and “There Will Be Blood” in recent years. The designs may not be as lavish as some others in the category, but this kind of detailing will make it unique in the fray.

A number of films this year use the 1950s/1960s frame as a backdrop. “Brooklyn” and “Carol” in particular convey two very different experiences in 1950s New York. “Brooklyn”, designed by Francois Seguin, tells an immigrant’s blue collar story with striking colors and a lived-in aesthetic (with scenes taking place in Ireland as well). “Carol”, courtesy of Oscar nominee Judy Becker (“American Hustle”), occupies a more well-to-do, old money world with grace.


Meanwhile, “Bridge of Spies” takes the viewer from New York to East Germany at the height of the Cold War during this period. Steven Spielberg tapped Oscar-winner Adam Stockhausen (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) for duties here, fleshing out both the hallowed halls of stateside courtrooms and the chill of weathered Eastern Bloc trappings with equal aplomb.

Then there is the western. Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight”, designed by Yohei Taneda, will be a bit of a bottle episode, if you will, taking place largely in one location. Will it be varied enough to resonate or will the necessary detail for something like this, particularly when captured by the clarity of 65mm stock, really make it stand out? It will at the very least be working in an aesthetic that sets it apart from the rest.

Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak” is an apt point of discussion when transitioning to fantasy, as it deals so heavily in both period specificity and genre flair. The build on this particular project, headed up by two-time nominee Thomas E. Sanders (“Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, “Saving Private Ryan”), made for one of the most ornate on-screen experiences of the year. If the film survives the Oscar gauntlet at all, it will likely be in the design categories.

Another film that mixes period with fantasy is “Cinderella”. Production designer Dante Ferretti is the most Oscar-decorated name in the mix this year, having amassed nine nominations including three wins (“The Aviator”, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, “Hugo”) to date. Again, detail is the embossed quality here, working in tandem with eye-popping costumes that are sure to make mouths water throughout the branch.

On the full-blown fantasy side we have “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”. Each film in the original trilogy was chalked up in the category, with practical effects work surely playing some part in the equation. None of the CGI-heavy prequels were, however. The latest installment is aiming for at least some of that old-school handmade wonder, and particularly with two-time Oscar-winner Rick Carter (“Avatar”, “Lincoln”) steering the ship — along with genre-alum Darren Gilford — it could be the right dose of something different.


Finally, I’ll stick a flag in the ground here for “Mad Max: Fury Road”. Production design is about more than just sets, though certainly George Miller’s film has its share of elaborate ones. What really pops here, though, is the vehicle designs, all part of a visual identity that richly defines the film.

So that’s 10, but there are so many more possibilities. We haven’t even talked about contemporary work, which rarely gets noticed. But three contemporary pieces this year — “Room”, with its claustrophobic first-half setting; “The Martian”, with its NASA gadgetry and whatnot; and “Steve Jobs”, with each act visually telling the story — fit the bill, should voters want to branch out. Other ornate hopefuls on the period side include “Mr Holmes”, “Macbeth” and (another fantasy hybrid) “Pan”.

How will the branch make sense of all this hard work? We’ll know in a few months.


LOS ANGELES: With less than two months to go before the theatrical debut of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, Disney and Lucasfilm trumpeted the record-busting pre-sales and the huge viewership of the latest trailer for the film, which premiered during halftime on “Monday Night Football”.

An announcement last Friday deemed the “Star Wars” creators at Lucasfilm “totally overwhelmed by the enthusiasm we’ve seen from fans this week and throughout the lead-up to this film”. That included a monstrous 112 million views of the new trailer online in just the first 24 hrs, building on top of the nearly 16 million viewers who had access to the preview via the football broadcast on ESPN, another part of the Disney family.

“Thank you all for making the ‘Star Wars’ universe what it is, for keeping it alive and growing and meaningful”, said a statement from the company. “‘Star Wars’ is back and beginning an exciting new journey, and it’s because of you”.

“Episode VII” of the “Star Wars” series had set new presales records by Tuesday, bypassing “The Hunger Games” in first-day ticket sales, according to Fandango. The J.J. Abrams-directed picture obliterated the “Games” mark by more than eight times and traffic on Fandango’s site surged to seven times above its peak level in less than 24 hrs.

Lucasfilm said the fervor for tickets was worldwide. It reported that in the United Kingdom, more than 200,000 tickets were purchased on day one. Fans in Norway reportedly went out in sub-zero temperatures to get early tickets. Even with the record-setting sales, the company said tickets remain available for the opening weekend, following the Dec 18 debut.

Lucasfilm and Disney rhapsodized about the sales, and reaction to Monday’s new trailer. “But more than numbers, there was discussion, there were reaction videos, there were fun memes”, said a statement. “There were cheers and there were tears from fans young and old. We saw and loved it all, and it meant the world to creators of the film. And we were equally blown away by the advance ticket sales”.

LOS ANGELES: David S. Goyer talked about the film and TV industry’s obsession with telling reimagined origin stories while promoting Starz’ “Da Vinci’s Demons”, a pseudo-historical origin story in its own right.

“I think we kind of started the trend with ‘Batman Begins’”, said Goyer, who wrote the Christopher Nolan Batman films as well as the upcoming “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”. “They sort of did it again with ‘Casino Royale’. I can’t tell you how many times people have said ‘we want you to do a ‘Batman Begins’ version of X”.

Goyer said that the “‘Batman Begins’ version of X” was the pitch for “Da Vinci’s Demons”.

“It’s the story before the story”, Goyer said. “How these iconic characters became the people they are — when you’re dealing with these iconic characters, that is fun territory to mine”.

The multi-hyphenate’s next project is arguably the “Batman Begins” version of the Superman mythos — Goyer is currently working on a prequel series called “Krypton”, which will take place 200 years before the destruction of the Man of Steel’s home planet and follow Superman’s grandfather.

“It involves more of the mythology than I think people realize”, Goyer teased. “A lot more”.

The comic book medium is a well that has been significantly tapped by the movie and TV industry in the last 10 years. Goyer, who has arguably been at the center of that trend, thinks that the industry had just been waiting for the technology to match their imaginations.

“Part of it is the technology has caught up”, Goyer said. “You can do shows like ‘The Flash’ on CW and have it look good and be economically viable, whereas you couldn’t do that in the John Wesley Shipp era”.

The “Man of Steel” scribe also attributes the genre trend to creators like himself, Sam Raimi, Guillermo del Toro, Zack Snyder and Damon Lindelof who grew up and entered the industry wanting to adapt the heroes from their youth.

“A lot of us grew up during the Marvel Age and now these are the people actually making film and TV”, he said. “It’s natural that we’d want to bring some of those characters that we grew up with into our work”.

Goyer certainly plans to keep himself busy with comic-related series after “Da Vinci’s Demons” concludes its final season and “Batman v Superman” premieres in March; in addition to “Krypton”, Goyer is working on an adaptation for USA based on IDW comic “Brooklyn Animal Control”, a thriller anchored in the world of New York’s organised crime families.

Rhys Ifans and Ed Skrein are to star in science-fiction thriller “Gateway 6”. Altitude Film Sales will handle worldwide sales and introduce the project to buyers at the American Film Market, which runs Nov 4-11 in Santa Monica.

Malachi Smyth’s screenplay topped the most recent Brit List, which is a compendium of stellar unproduced scripts by non-US writers, set up to complement the US Black List. Scripts that have made the Brit List in previous years include “The King’s Speech”, “My Week with Marilyn” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”.

The project is the feature debut of director Tanel Toom, whose short “The Confession” was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011.

The movie “combines the solitary abandonment of ‘Moon’ with the claustrophobic atmosphere of ‘Das Boot,’ and the fight to survive instincts of ‘Alien’”, according to Altitude. (Agencies)

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