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Immersed in Movies: Assessing the Production Design Oscar Race

Thompson on Hollywood By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood February 8, 2013 at 4:03PM

If there is one word that best describes the five Oscar nominees for production design, it's upheaval. In "Anna Karenina," it's about the crumbling 19th-century Russian aristocracy. In "The Hobbit," Bilbo's comfortable life is turned upside down when Gandalf recruits him to help the dwarves take back their homeland. In "Les Misérables," the gritty adaptation of the celebrated musical evokes more of the political struggle to rid the inequality of 19th century France. In "Life of Pi," a boy endures a perilous spiritual journey alone on the ocean with a mysterious tiger. And in "Lincoln," the legendary 16th President struggles to end slavery and the Civil War and find peace of mind and his place in history.
Lincoln, window

"It's all there and it's so descriptive of the world and the individuals and their struggles," enthuses Stewart, who is now hard at work on the much lighter "The Muppets … Again!" "And so it was exciting to get back down and dirty with what it was really about."

But the ambitious choice to shoot the singing live meant that the set builders had to soundproof everything and had to muffle the sounds of carriages and horses' hooves. They even remade the rosary beads in rubber overnight for the factory scene.

Not surprisingly, the native of London's Camden Town found herself riffing on Dickens' "Oliver Twist" (both the David Lean adaption and the Oscar-winning musical) for its decrepitude. "It had once been full of hope and color and joy, and it had the life and spirit slowly bashed out of it by poverty and hunger. I like the fact that the color has been chipped off and all the buildings are crooked and skinny."

Similarly, production designer David Gropman relied on his theatrical training for "Life of Pi," drawing upon India's interior design style and architecture for the Patel house, the zoo, and the Piscine Molitor Art Deco swimming pool. He also interacted comfortably with the 3-D component.

"The most significant aspect of 3-D has been what Ang [Lee] said to me early on -- about thinking of it as theater," Gropman explains in "The Making of Life of Pi" (Harper Design). He also went back to Yann Martel's novel for design inspiration. The island, for instance, contained the same geometrical arrangement of ponds as well as the twisting roots of banyan trees that appear to extend into infinity, like Pi itself.

For "Lincoln," Oscar-winning production designer Rick Carter went inside out to convey the private and public worlds of Abe. In fact, "Lincoln" was a very personal experience for Carter, representing the culmination of a decade-long encounter with "the nature of conscience and the Goya-esque disasters of war" as part of his multiple collaborations with Steven Spielberg and with James Cameron on "Avatar."

"Production design lends itself to being reflective and, for me, I like having the latitude to come and go, and be specific and right in the moment, and then pull back and analyze," Carter suggests."You get moments that you have never seen before about Lincoln's intimate life with Mary and his sons and his cabinet meetings and the machinations of the Congress itself, let alone the vote getting for the 13th Amendment. It actually weaves a bigger mystery."

Carter says the interior of the White House became a metaphor for Lincoln's mindscape and it allowed him to know how deep the imagery was going to be so he could delve into the territory traversed by Lincoln and his consciousness.

It's a different way of designing, but, like the other four movies, taps into a deep desire to bridge the past and present so we might better understand our precarious times.

This article is related to: Awards, Academy Awards, Art Directors Guild, Anna Karenina, Immersed In Movies

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Thompson on Hollywood

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.