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Entries in Production Design (131)

Monday
Jan152018

The Furniture: Top Hat's Dancing Sets

"The Furniture," by Daniel Walber, is our weekly series on Production Design. You can click on the images to see them in magnified detail.

Only 8 days until Oscar nominations! To mark the occasion, or perhaps to fill the time with something other than anticipation, let’s look back at the 8th Academy Awards. The year was 1935. Bette Davis won a consolation prize, Best Actress for Dangerous after the failure of a write-in campaign for 1934’s Of Human Bondage. John Ford won his first Oscar for The Informer, which beat Mutiny on the Bounty in nearly every category except Best Picture. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the film debut of Olivia de Havilland, won a write-in victory in Best Cinematography.

This was the last year with only three nominees for Best Art Direction. The victory went to The Dark Angel, a drama of romance and World War One. Its biggest competition may have been The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, an imperial adventure set in the British Raj. It apparently promoted European superiority so effectively that Adolf Hitler saw it three times. It received seven nominations, winning for Best Assistant Director.

If this all seems dour, don’t worry...

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Monday
Jan082018

FYC: The Furniture's 2017 Oscar Ballot

"The Furniture," by Daniel Walber, is our weekly series on Production Design. You can click on the images to see them in magnified detail.

Production design can be a tricky thing to award. Like so many other categories, there’s a tendency to simply recognize “most,” rather than “best.” Moreover, great design can hide in plain sight. Brilliantly-conceived sets can seem like ready-made locations, particularly in contemporary films. Transportive design elements sit in the background, working their magic under the radar. It can take both a close eye and a little extra research to identify the year’s best work.

Still, here we are. Oscar voting is open and it’s time to make a last pitch. Below are my ideal nominees for Best Production Design, five films that often press up against detailed realism, while never letting go of their own movie magic...

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Monday
Dec182017

The Furniture: Revisiting the Surreal Spaces of Toys

"The Furniture," by Daniel Walber, is our weekly series on Production Design. You can click on the images to see them in magnified detail.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of Barry Levinson’s Toys, a film you don’t hear about very much anymore. It wasn’t exactly beloved at the time, certainly, and wound up with a Razzie nomination for Worst Director. However, it also showed up at the Oscars, receiving nominations for Best Costume Design and Best Production Design. At the very least, it remains a pleasant reminder that sometimes even flops are given a fair shake by the Academy’s craft branches.

And now, in the dramatically different context of 2017, it deserves some renewed attention. Its critique of militarism and toxic masculinity has aged surprisingly well, as have the more committed of the performances. Joan Cusack’s absurd turn as the eternally childlike Alsatia is at the top of the list.

 

But the best elements are still those that were recognized at the time.The work of production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, art director Edward Richardson and set decorator Linna DeScenna is beyond...

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Monday
Dec112017

The Furniture: Matte Paintings at the End of an Era

"The Furniture," by Daniel Walber, is our weekly series on Production Design. You can click on the images to see them in magnified detail.

Over the course of the past year, I’ve done an informal retrospective series on the Best Production Design nominees of 1967. It isn’t an especially “New Hollywood” lineup, despite being the year of “Pictures at a Revolution.” Four of the nominees are lush period pieces, three of them lengthy musicals. They often feel like extravagantly-designed chaos, whirlwinds of sets and props that spin out of control. This is true of both the hilarious brawls of The Taming of the Shrew and the dated, stereotype-laden adventures of Thoroughly Modern Millie. Camelot, the winner, manages to split the difference between Old Hollywood excess and New Hollywood sexuality.

The final two films, both Best Picture nominees, are a bit less of a thrill. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Doctor Dolittle are, respectively, the most realistic and most fantastical of the five nominees. However, despite their differences, they both underline the inadequate end-point of old-school studio design.

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Monday
Nov272017

The Furniture: Building a Way out of Mudbound

"The Furniture," by Daniel Walber, is our weekly series on Production Design. You can click on the images to see them in magnified detail. 

“I dreamed in brown,” remembers Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan), surveying the near-monochrome dirt of a Mississippi farm. This small pocket of land is owned by her husband, Henry (Jason Clarke), but one doesn’t get much of a sense that she’d call it home. He appears not to like it either, but is motivated by a sour sense of duty. Perhaps this is why his agricultural efforts fail, barely introducing any green into this expanse of brown.

Even more obvious, when it comes to metaphors, is the way Mudbound begins. Dee Rees opens her earthbound epic on Henry in the dirt, digging a grave. The deceased is his Pappy (Jonathan Banks), an acrimonious Klan member who has done his utmost to pass his ideology down to his sons. It’s largely worked on Henry. Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) resists, but still winds up digging in the mud.

 

At the bottom of this new ditch, Henry finds a skull. It’s a “slave’s grave,” he declares; he can tell by the bullet-hole. It’s a hint at an old story, one that Rees knows she needn’t bother put into words...

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Monday
Nov202017

The Furniture: Atomic Blonde's Neon Nihilism

"The Furniture," by Daniel Walber, is our weekly series on Production Design. You can click on the images to see them in magnified detail. 

The design of Atomic Blonde is, well, cool. The colors are cool and the vibe is cool, in a very straightforward way. It’s nothing like the characters, who constantly double-cross each other. The twists and turns of this last-minute Cold War spy movie keep coming until its final moments. Everyone is suspicious, even if it’s not obvious.

Yet the landscape upon which Lorraine (Charlize Theron) and Percival (James McAvoy), the Brits, Americans, French, Russians, West Germans and East Germans play is remarkably uniform. Perhaps this is because the film, directed by David Leitch (John Wick) and written by Kurt Johnstad (300) sees them all as working the same game. It’s a bit like the moral landscape of Sicario, the nihilism of film noir without any of its grand mysteries. The question is no longer “What is evil?” but rather “Why are all these people who signed up for a violent and amoral profession behaving so violently and without morals?”

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