Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Production Design

I'm progressing along at a pretty decent clip having seen a dozen films* since the Academy Award nominations were announced and seven in the past seven days. I've also tracked down the dates to see the animated and live action short films as well as the documentary shorts that are nominated this year. I always love the shorts I get to see and highly recommend finding your own location and making the time to see them. If you're completely unwilling to do that, at least go see Frozen both because it is great as well as for the short Get a Horse! which is itself fantastic and thoroughly deserves to be seen in a theater setting. Honestly, the theater experience is more necessary for the short film than for the feature.

In seeing all these films, I've finally finished off some categories and thus get to talk about them. Today, I start with the production design nominees which are
  • American Hustle
  • Gravity
  • The Great Gatsby
  • Her
  • 12 Years a Slave

I'll preface this with "I don't know what I'm talking about." You should probably know that already, but if you don't, now you do. My closest exposure to film is having a couple friends that live in LA and work with film, going on 1.5 dates** with the production sound mixer on Low Winter Sun, and playing a non-speaking role in Charlie Brown Christmas when I was a wee child. For some reason, you don't care about that and are still reading, so let's get to something "I really don't know what I'm talking about": production design.

I will admit to a pretty influential bias against fashions, sets, themes, and such that borrow heavily from readily recognizable sources. For the same reason that I would dismiss, say, Nebraska from nomination, I feel the need to dismiss American Hustle. While the entire feel of the films feel authentically fresh out of a time capsule, they feel like that time capsule is one of the closets in an old relative's house. It's almost as though I could poke around long enough in my uncle's attic and pull out every thematic element from the film. There's an intimate familiarity there that's valuable. In another field of contenders that might get more recognition from me, but this year the seeming accessibility and short chronological distance really set it below the other films for me.

Then there's Gravity. Gravity is a film which I adored (in no small part because of CuarĂ³n) and will eagerly talk about more later due to its nine nominations which are second only to American Hustle's ten. Again, this is a film that has a lot of roots in accessible reality. A ton of things about this film are gorgeously done, and I am definitely biased toward space films. I'm not going to pretend the sets didn't need to be designed or that the space suits were donated by NASA. I will say that the design elements didn't blow me away simply because, again, they're so easily accessible. There's still value in recreating something very accurately and in creating something to look so exquisitely accurate. It takes a lot of talent to make something that so many of us are at least vaguely familiar with and represent it in an authentic way on film. All told, I didn't feel like Gravity's strengths derived from its production design which, while beautifully precise, didn't offer up anything transcending.

Like Gravity, 12 Years a Slave is also nominated for a total of nine Academy Awards. There is a very rich history prevalent from the very beginning of the film. The plantation homes had to be scouted and found; that relative simplicity is inevitably coupled with a lot of recreation for the outbuildings and ancillary locations. The whole enterprise felt faithful and honest. It was truly beautifully done - sometimes in rich downtown fashion and other times in mud and torn smocks. Like Gravity, the production is extremely on point. There are a lot of themes, though, that feel like retreads. Justifiably so, as it's a historical film, and, well, history is a retread. At no point, though, did I really feel like the sets, locations, wardrobe, et al really presented something that gave me pause. They were strong and extremely well done, but there are better.

Her might well be my favorite film since a friend sat me down to watch Another Earth last year. Yes, I do have a thing for philosophical sci-fi wherein the science takes a back seat to the story of humanity. There are things I fantastically love about the production in this film. There was a beautiful realism to such mundane yet important questions like "what does a futuristic work station look like?" and "what would a walk home through the park in the near future feel like?" The film answers the simple questions about life in the not-so-distant future superbly. Just as importantly, none of the answers takes precedence over the story. This film is, at it's simplest, a love story between two characters. Here, the future is no more than both a conduit to deliver the story and an aid to make the story believable. It's a rich background of freshly realized yet intimately familiar objects. That is what, to me, sets it apart from the previous three films; while it is so familiar, it has a clean freshness to its realization.

Lastly there is The Great Gatsby which is nominated for exactly two Academy Awards: production design and costume design. Here is a film for which the production design is an integral part from the get go. There isn't a single scene which isn't made better by the location scouting, sets, props, wardrobes, hair, et al. The surrounding pieces - the acting, directing, script, sound - were all strong enough to hold things together, but the true strength came from the production. Like Gatsby himself***, the production design itself was the strongest character in the film giving the most subtle and the most bombastic of performances as well as truly guiding the course of where the movie went. There were heaps of reimagination to make the movie feel surreal, but there was enough grounding to let you know exactly where and when you were.

I felt very strongly toward Her, The Great Gatsby and to some extent 12 Years a Slave for this category. Once I'd finished watching all the films nominated, I felt pretty good about Her even though I hadn't watched either Gravity or The Great Gatsby since their theatrical releases months ago. Taking time to comb through those two movies, though, reminded me just how grand Gatsby is. I liked then and now the aforementioned three films the most, and I think they're all worthy contenders for the prize. Gatsby's production design is, however, hands down one of the most brilliant performances of any category in any film this year. It should win, and I think it will win.

*The undated films are American Hustle, Her, 12 Years a Slave, and The Wolf of Wall Street
Because people invariably ask "1.5?". He found out I was trans part way through our second date and called it off between activities.
***Another thing I don't know anything about. I read Wiseblood instead of The Great Gatsby in high school.

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