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Crafts Roundup: A Survivor's Journey in Production Design

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood November 21, 2013 at 11:36AM

With the awards season upon us, we're launching a new column, "Crafts Roundup," which examines a different below-the-line category each week. As this particularly striking season is dominated by survival and/or reinvention (both fact-based and fantastical), we're starting off with production design and world building. Here are a few standouts so far:

With the awards season upon us, we're launching a new column, "Crafts Roundup," which examines a different below-the-line category each week. As this particularly striking season is dominated by survival and/or reinvention (both fact-based and fantastical), we're starting off with production design and world building. 

Here are a few standouts so far:

First and foremost is the unconventional and game-changing "Gravity," which is expected to dominate the crafts with its tech innovations and visceral power. For production designer Andrew Nicholson (who will be at USC on Friday showing examples of his extensive online space research), it was all about the front-end synergy with VFX to piece it together. 

Indeed, they were all part of a cinematic jigsaw puzzle in which the entire movie was prevised and then animated by Framestore while cinematographer Emmanuel ("Chivo") Lubezki and VFX supervisor Tim Webber came up with synchronized lighting, LED backgrounds, and poses to shoot Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in simulated zero-g. 

Nicholson, Lubezki, and Framestore had to figure out with Alfonso Cuaron what sets needed to be virtual or practical, and were involved in a circular approval process with the director in which the bulk of everything was designed and modeled in CG and fed into the animation loop.

On the other hand, "All Is Lost," the survival adventure at sea with Robert Redford, had its own unconventional set of design demands. "It was not a high design element, but the boat and life raft were their own characters," suggests production designer John Goldsmith.

And because Redford is portrayed as an Everyman, demystifying his Golden Boy image, the storytelling is very loose. And the boat couldn't be in the viewer's face. "The biggest exploration for us was understanding what the impact areas were going to look like. The container's somehow in the water, the boat's somehow in the water, they collide. It's about Redford and the boat and his bewilderment," Goldsmith adds.

Meanwhile, "12 Years a Slave," so far the Best Picture frontrunner with "Gravity," is a powerful and resonant pre-Civil War biopic told as thriller. Steve McQueen even conjures a Goya-esque depiction of horror and beauty, and production designer Adam Stockhausen contributes an atmospheric and palatable design, in which the opulence of the New Orleans plantations contrasts sharply with the harrowing ordeal of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

Accurate and functional recreations weren't enough, as the sets had to conform to McQueen's 360-degree shooting style. According to his colleagues, Stockhausen created a period epic road movie in only 35 days.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave"
Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave"

"Lee Daniels' The Butler," which uniquely chronicles the African-American experience of the 20th century, takes us both inside and outside the White House. But it wasn't easy making a movie about Washington, D.C. in New Orleans. The challenge for production designer Tim Galvin wasn't so much period accuracy but in pinpointing actual months because changes in White House decor happened frequently. But what fascinated Galvin the most was learning which presidents were into changing the Oval Office and which were indifferent to it. 

One of the most imaginative designs, though, was for Spike Jonze's "Her," about the off-beat romance between the melancholy and poetic Joaquin Phoenix and his artificially intelligent OS (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Production designer K.K. Barrett fashions a futuristic City of the Angels crossed with Shanghai. Ironically, it's a warm, beautiful, and inviting world where people can no longer connect with each other. 

And there's a tug-of-war with technology, bringing humanity closer together and then pulling it apart. To show how organic "Her" is, Phoenix's smartphone was inspired by an antique Deco cigarette lighter.

On the wilder but no less imaginative side is "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," in which production designer Jeff Mann deftly mixes reality, history, and fantasy with New York City, Iceland, and Afghanistan. The landscapes mirror the state of mind of Ben Stiller's daydreaming Mitty, who has a reason to go outside the box to find the missing film negative for "Life Magazine's" final cover photo.

Mitty's an analog guy living in a digital world trying to make connections, another dream come true for a designer.

This article is related to: Crafts Round-up, Gravity, All Is Lost, 12 Years a Slave, Lee Daniels' The Butler , The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Awards Season Roundup, Awards, Awards, Oscars, Thompson on Hollywood, Her

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.