Sure, you enjoyed the movie. But did you pay attention to that house in the background? Did you notice the artwork on its walls? What about the design of the shops on that street? Did you really see how the movie looked? Most people don’t, but a visually creative person will. That type of design takes months, sometimes years, of painstaking work. And those who do it are honored with Oscars for Best Production Design.
Last week, we took a look at the nominees for Best Cinematography. Up next: the 2020 Oscar nominees for Best Production Design. Here are this year’s honored art directors and set decorators.
Best Production Design
2019 Winner: Black Panther (Hannah Beachler and Jay Hart)
– The Irishman
– Jojo Rabbit
– Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Bob Shaw (Production Design); Regina Graves (Set Decoration)
Set primarily in Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago across multiple decades in the 20th century, The Irishman tells the story of mob hitman Frank Sheeran and his relationships with the Bufalino crime family and Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa.
Production designer Bob Shaw and set decorator Regina Graves were tasked by director Martin Scorsese with recreating a number of real-life locations, because filming didn’t actually occur at most of the locations where the movie is set. In fact, a number of locations for the film are notable historical sites, still in operation, or both, so there was increased pressure on Shaw and Graves to get the sets right. Some of these sites include South Philly Italian joint Villa di Roma, which is still popular, and New York’s Umberto’s Clam House, which closed its original location in the ’90s but reopened down the street four years later.
This art direction duo has collaborated a number of times before. In fact, they share an upcoming project—The Many Saints of Newark, the Sopranos spin-off due in theaters later this year. Although both Shaw and Graves have each won Primetime Emmys (independent of each other), this is the first Academy Award nomination for each designer.
Ra Vincent (Production Design); Nora Sopková (Set Decoration)
Replicating war-torn Nazi Germany is no easy feat, but it was the one charged to Ra Vincent and Nora Sopková in Jojo Rabbit. The satirical story follows a blindly-nationalist Hitler Youth (and his imaginary friend, a cartoonish and buffoonish Adolf Hitler) who discovers that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in the attic of their home.
Vincent, Sopková, and director Taika Waititi made a point to decorate the world in a brighter, more optimistic fashion than most other war movies. “The world wasn’t just a black-and-white, dusty, old place,” Vincent said in a recent interview. “It was actually a really strong time to be involved in the arts and culture in Germany. The German aesthetic, with the Bauhaus movement, was at its sort of zenith, in terms of self-expression and arts and culture, so we really wanted to look after that.”
Jojo Rabbit is Vincent’s first nomination as a production designer—he was previously nominated in this category for his work as a set decorator on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. This marks Sopková’s first Academy Award nomination.
Dennis Gassner (Production Design); Lee Sandales (Set Decoration)
1917 transports the viewer back to, well, 1917—three years into the devastating war that ravaged Europe. Filming took place in England and Scotland; in redesigning those open fields, Dennis Gassner and Lee Sandales dropped the audience directly into England’s trenches in World War I. There’s tremendous attention to detail in recreating scenes of battle, but also to the most gory elements of war—for example, the decomposing bodies strewn about No Man’s Land, the unoccupied area between opposing trenches.
This behind-the-scenes featurette is a powerful, in-depth look at the work that went into building the sets—Gassner and Sandales oversaw the digging a mile of trenches and the construction of a replica of a bombed French village. 1917 marks Gassner’s seventh Oscar nomination, but he’s seeking his first win since 1991’s Bugsy. Sandales, meanwhile, has been nominated once before, for War Horse in 2012.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Barbara Ling (Production Design); Nancy Haigh (Set Decoration)
Quentin Tarantino’s passion project, an ode to free-love-era Hollywood, serves as a counterbalance to The Irishman’s northeast-centric story. Production designer Barbara Ling created several replicas of iconic L.A. restaurants, like Casa Vega, El Coyote, and Musso & Frank Grill, circa 1969. But she didn’t just have to recreate them—she had to create them perfectly, because these restaurants are some of Tarantino’s favorite haunts. Since Ling was a teenager in ’60s Los Angeles, her memories were key for reconstructing that world.
“We both knew the city,” Ling said. “The visuals of what we could find now, and visuals of what we should be trying to grab memories [of].”
While this is Ling’s first Oscar nom, set decorator Nancy Haigh has been nominated for eight. She has one win: 1991’s Bugsy, which she shared with 1917’s Gassner. In fact, Gassner and Haigh have been nominated together in this category three times, most recently for Road to Perdition in 2002.
Lee Ha Jun (Production Design); Cho Won Woo (Set Decoration)
Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite finds the lower-class Kim family slowly but systematically infiltrating the employ of the affluent Park family, with unforeseen and dangerous consequences. The film is one of the favorites for Best Picture—if it wins, it would mark the first foreign-language film to earn the Academy’s highest honor.
Period production design dominates this category, but Parasite stands alone as the sole movie set in modern times. And more than any of the other nominated films, the homes in Parasite are the stars of the story. Most of the film centers around action within the Park family’s sleek, modern, minimalistic mansion, or the Kim family’s cramped basement dwelling beneath a busy, noisy street. The Park home, supposedly designed by fictional architect Namgoong Hyeonj, is not actually a real home—it’s a set designed by Lee Ha Jun. The same goes for the Kims’ humble residence. Both “houses” were constructed for the film on outdoor lots.
Parasite marks Lee’s third collaboration and Cho’s second collaboration with director Bong. The film is the first time any of the three have been nominated for an Academy Award. If it was up to us, they’d earn their first Oscar victories for Parasite, too.