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Crafts Roundup: Talking Production Design with the Five Oscar Nominees

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood February 6, 2014 at 2:28PM

The five Oscar nominees for production design ("American Hustle," "Gravity," "The Great Gatsby," "Her," and "12 Years a Slave") certainly capture the zeitgeist of the season in a variety of creative ways. They're about survival, self-invention, reinvention, and rebirth, and we reflect on this with all the nominees.

That's exactly what "Gravity's" Andy Nicholson was after at the behest of director Alfonso Cuaron. Nothing progressed until it was believable, and only then were Cuaron and his crafts people able to immerse us in Sandra Bullock's extraordinary space adventure without breaking the spell.

As far as Nicholson is concerned, his fellow nominees never broke their storytelling spell either. "It's good that they stretched the nominations to 'Gravity' and 'Her' because traditionally production design goes to the more flamboyant and obvious examples of the craft," he suggests. "People seem to be appreciating what it is that we do and it's not just fancy sets and period pieces. It's sometimes much more subtle than that and there's a good spread of stuff. 'American Hustle' is a great ensemble in terms of the cast, in terms of the costume, in terms of the set design design, in terms of the whole setting of the period and the mood. It's a very interesting type of film. It's a performance piece with these different parts. It's sort of a comedy; it's a great fun experience."

'The Great Gatsby'
'The Great Gatsby'

For two-time Oscar winner Catherine Martin ("Moulin Rouge!"), the biggest privilege in making "Gatsby" was studying the source material and immersing herself in Fitzgerald's glam world. "I have a lot more understanding of that history and how it relates to us now. You had this whole technological revolution that happened during the Great War where you have men going into battle with bayonets and they're mowed down with machine guns that are strapped to airplanes. And within the space of four years you have women basically shedding the voluminous skirts of the 19th century and walking down the streets in their underwear. They have jobs, they have disposable income. The movies are an enormous business, popular culture is being shared internationally in a way that it never had been before. The silent movie is was life changing."

Indeed, Martin concurs that the production design nominees are all about life changing stories: "'Gravity' is such an extraordinary acting tour de force but people were obviously stuck in a netherworld that none of us can really even hope to imagine or experience. And how beautiful and what a revolutionary use of 3-D. And what a revolutionary mixture of production design and CGI. I think that's very interesting how no longer are these separate fields but they're fields that feed each other continuously. You need to be able to create the world not only in a physical way so that the filmmaker and the actor can interact with it, but you also need to be able to imagine beyond. 

"And 'American Hustle' was a really interesting way of getting a contemporary audience to reconnect with I think what we all believe -- a bit like the '20s in a way -- was a golden period. Now we look back at the '70s as the age of Afros and free love and suburban hate parties. Another interesting thing about the this period is that even though there was a psychedelic revolution and an obsession with the future, there was also a nostalgia for the past. The whole Diva look was re-imagined. And there was a love of vintage. And in 'Her' how interesting it is to imagine just that little bit into the future."

'American Hustle'
'American Hustle'

"Her's" K.K. Barrett, who designed an inviting, playful, and timeless LA for people to reconnect with emotionally, likes the clash of social strata in "American Hustle," "Gatsby," and "12 Years," as well as steering clear of technological advancement in "Gravity," which would've been a distraction. On the other hand, "'Gatsby' is more of what you expect from a nominee: extremely playful, riots of color, and layers of detail and textures."

Finally, what "12 Years'" Adam Stockhausen found most fascinating was building the lives of these people from an architectural point of view. In fact, Martin believes that he utilizes design that's so beautifully observed that you're never taken out of Solomon Northup's extraordinary story.

Meanwhile, Stockhausen echoes that it's been a wonderful mix for production design: "The incredible technical, beautiful achievement in 'Gravity' to the little fine grain historical stuff that we did in '12 Years' to the glamour in 'Gatsby.' The spread of it is really wide."

Or, as Barrett says, "It's definitely mini to maxi this year."

This article is related to: Crafts Round-up, American Hustle, Her, Gravity, The Great Gatsby, 12 Years a Slave, Oscars, Awards, Awards Season Roundup, Thompson on Hollywood

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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.