This season’s Oscar race for production design pits David Fincher’s mighty black-and-white “Mank” (the ADG period winner) against Florian Zeller’s mind-bending “The Father,” Christopher Nolan’s time-inverted “Tenet” (the ADG fantasy winner), Paul Greengrass’ first western, “News of the World,” and the sweltering Chicago period trappings of George C. Wolfe’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
“Mank” is the favorite for meticulously recreating the world of washed up, alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), who struggles to churn out a first draft of “Citizen Kane.” Oscar-winning production designer Don Burt (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) had to think in terms of black-and-white design to authentically return to Hollywood’s Golden Age in the ’30s. Fortunately, set decorator Jan Pascale used the monochromatic filter on her iPhone for shooting set dressing tests, and that helped shape the palette of warm earth tones. Unable to shoot at the real Hearst Castle in San Simeon (for Louis B. Mayer’s birthday party and the pivotal costume ball), they instead created their own sets, where walls were rearranged and fireplaces, columns, and paneling were switched. And Burt and Pascale created a Gothic vibe with the interior design and extravagant objects that William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) collected or reassembled from Europe.
In “The Father,” Zeller’s adaptation of his play about a man (Anthony Hopkins) coping with dementia in his London apartment, production designer Peter Francis had a field day creating the disorienting set as a glimpse into Hopkins’ dysfunctional mind. It totally distorts reality. Most often, his apartment turns into the apartment of his daughter (Olivia Coleman), and eventually it becomes a nursing home. The world building opportunity for Francis was to construct an interlocking network of sets as an intricate box to place the character in. It was the most imaginative and integral piece of world building on display this awards season.
One of three configurations of the set for “The Father”
With “Tenet,” Nolan’s six-time Oscar-nominated production designer, Nathan Crowley, utilized a series of iconic buildings, locations, and sets as a brutal backdrop for a war between past and present. The opening opera house heist was shot in a sprawling venue in Tallinn, Estonia, overlooking the Baltic Sea; the luxury superyacht of baddie Kenneth Branagh was transformed into an industrial-looking lair, which sat off the coast of Italy; and the climactic, synchronized attack with two teams moving through time in opposite directions was shot primarily at an old iron ore mine in the Southern California desert, with existing structures piled next to several full-size constructions and large-scale models to enhance the already immense set
In “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” production designer Mark Ricker discovered an old mill in Pittsburgh to serve as the ’20s era Chicago recording studio, which was the primary set for the film adaptation of the award-winning August Wilson play about legendary blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). The design and set dressing were authenticated through research, but the brick and wood work and layout of the rooms worked well in creating a factory-like setting for the studio, where tempers flare during the long, drawn out recording session in the sweltering heat.
For “News of the World,” production designer David Crank recreated the volatile state of Texas five years after the Civil War, in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the road trip of healing between Tom Hanks’ ex-Confederate, Captain Kidd, and Helena Zengel’s 10-year-old orphan. Each distinct stop on their journey (Kidd reading newspaper stories to the townspeople) is imbued with its own character and storyline, juxtaposed against remote and wild stretches of countryside. Environments were spare, often austere. The Bonanza Creek Ranch offered the most useful location with sprawling grounds, a 24-building town, and five interior sets, surrounded by an unobstructed 360-degree vista.
Key Oscar Indicators
The Academy’s production design branch currently has 445 members, of which 384 are active and 61 are retired. The last black-and-white Oscar winner was “Schindler’s List” in 1993. But the most recent monochromatic nominees include “The Artist” (2011), “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005), and “Pleasantville” (1998). The Academy, unlike the Art Directors Guild, doesn’t distinguish between contemporary, period, and fantasy, which makes it difficult to gauge comparisons among winners.
Thursday, March 11, 2021
Final ADG online voting begins
Monday, March 15, 2021
Oscar nominations announced
Wednesday, April 7, 2021
Final ADG online voting ends 5:00 pm PT
Saturday, April 10, 2021
Winners announced at 25th ADG Awards Gala (presented online and streamed worldwide)
Thursday, April 15, 2021
Final Oscar voting begins
Tuesday, April 20, 2021
Final Oscar voting ends
Sunday, April 25, 2021
Winners announced at the 93rd Academy Awards (Oscars)
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
“News of the World”