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.