The best movies have sets with every little detail attended to, every scene dotted with authenticity. The Academy Award category for Best Production Design (known as Best Art Direction until 2012) honors those that make those details happen. And before the Oscars air at the end of March, we’re breaking down a few of the categories that are especially relevant to visual creatives. We’ve already evaluated Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects, and here we’ll take a look at Production Design.
If you read our dive into Best Cinematography, you might think you’re seeing double, but you’re not—the 2021 winner and the 2022 nominees are all exactly the same. (Perhaps it’s just proof that getting great creative people together can make everybody’s work better.) For more context about each of these movies, check out that piece here. Now, Let’s take a look at the year’s best art directors and set decorators.
2021 Winner: Mank (Donald Graham Burt, production designer, & Jan Pascale, set decorator)
The Power of the Dog
The Tragedy of Macbeth
West Side Story
Patrice Vermette (Production Designer); Zsuzsanna Sipos (Set Decorator)
Signature Set: Arrakeen, the fortress stronghold and the seat of the power on the desert planet Arrakis. Production designer Patrice Vermette told Elle Decor that he read the movie’s source material, “but there’s nothing very specific about anything” when it comes to architecture.
Using the clues that Herbert provided (devastatingly hot temperatures, extreme winds that whip sand around the landscape, and of course, the worms), Vermette pieced together what a palace on Arrakis might look like. He positioned the fortress strategically inside a valley of mountains—rather than in the middle of the open desert, because such a location wouldn’t make any sense for a settlement—and designed the bunker-like fortress with thick, sloped walls to protect its inhabitants from the elements.
Key Players: Vermette was first recognized at the Oscars in 2010 for The Young Victoria. This year marks his third nomination, and the second time he’s been nominated for a Villeneuve project—Vermette was also the production designer on Arrival. Set decorator Zsuzsanna Sipos, meanwhile, is a newcomer and first-time nominee. She was previously part of the production design team for Villeneuve on Blade Runner 2049.
Tamara Deverell (Production Designer); Shane Vieau (Set Decorator)
Signature Set: With the exception of some fake snow and CGI bullets, every aspect of director Guillermo del Toro’s film noir was created practically, including the entire carnival. Each piece of carnival equipment is a sight to behold, but the “House of Damnation” takes the cake as the most compelling of the production team’s creations. This fun house is designed to be anything but fun—its dark passageways echo, its machinery creaks, and its characters are downright devilish.
Key Players: Production designer Tarmara Deverell is a first-time nominee in the category, as most of her work has been in TV. She most recently worked on two different series from the Star Trek franchise. Meanwhile, set decorator Shane Vieau is looking for his second win as a sec decorator. He won for del Toro’s The Shape of Water, sharing the award with fellow set decorator Jeff Melvin.
The Power of the Dog
Grant Major (Production Designer); Amber Richards (Set Decorator)
Signature Set: The house of brothers Phil and George Burbank has the power to intimidate all who set foot in it. Designed to look like its finest days were decades earlier, the abode at the center of the Burbanks’ ranching operation now stands in dark, dreary disrepair. It’s an essential part of so many scenes, most notably when Phil taunts Rose as she practices piano.
Key Players: Production designer Grant Major is a five-time nominee with one win under his belt. From 2001 to 2003, he was honored with nominations in three consecutive years, culminating in his victory for Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. This is his first nomination since King Kong in 2006. Meanwhile, set decorator Amber Richards is receiving her first nomination. She was previously the set director on Mulan in 2020.
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Stefan Dechant (Production Designer); Nancy Haigh (Set Decorator)
Signature Set: The central castle, where Macbeth and his wife take residence after betraying the king. From the beginning, Joel Coen (directing without his brother Ethan for the first time) wanted his film to look disconnected from reality, shooting the entire movie on a sound stage in black-and-white. Most of the film’s scenes are noticeably devoid of natural elements.The castle feels cold, empty, unlike any place you’ve ever seen in real life. It serves as the perfect backdrop for the paranoid Macbeth’s descent into madness.
Key Players: Stefan Dechant, a first-time nominee in the category, has spent almost three decades in the film industry, including as an illustrator and storyboarder. He first collaborated with the Coen brothers on True Grit in 2010. Nancy Haigh, meanwhile, is one of the most decorated set directors of the past 30 years. She’s been nominated nine times for this award, including twice in one year in 1991. Her two victories came as part of the crews of Bugsy in 1992, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in 2020.
West Side Story
Adam Stockhausen (Production Designer); Rena DeAngelo (Set Decorator)
Signature Set: The Gimbels department store, featured prominently during the character Maria’s song “I Feel Pretty.” For Stephen Spielberg’s adaptation of one of show biz’s most beloved tales, production designer Adam Stockhausen (whose mother used to work for Gimbels) created a replica retail display inside an old bank building in Newark. Set decorator Rena DeAngelo added some finishing touches authentic to the time period. In all, the department store set was complete with three unique departments: ready-to-wear, bridal, and cosmetics.
Key Players: This is the fourth nomination for Stockhausen, who previously won for The Grand Budapest Hotel in 2014. Like Major, Stockhausen also has a streak of three consecutive noms, from 2013 to 2015. DeAngelo has two Oscar nominations to her name, including one previously shared with Stockhausen (Bridge of Spies in 2015).