Those Oscar Missed: Best Production Design


Best Production Design is one of my favorite Oscar categories.  This is the category where artists can shine the most.  There’s been so much great work over the years that was thankfully nominated (and most of them deservedly won, including Anton Furst’s work for 1989’s Batman and Dante Ferretti’s work for 2011’s Hugo).  That’s what made it so difficult to find which films were snubbed in this category, and then to whittle that list down to a small number of major snubs.  Nevertheless, I managed to find some major snubs (some are outright shocking when compared to those that were nominated).

I would have to say that one of the biggest snubs in this category would definitely be 1980’s The Shining.  Production designer Roy Walker and art director Leslie Tomkins did an outstanding job in bringing the Overlook Hotel to life (pun intended), with all the eerily creepy rooms and halls that just evoked the terror that awaited the Torrance family.  And that maze…  Never have I seen a more terrifying maze in a movie.  Never.  If I had to pick my favorite room, it would be the one that Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) was in when he was in Florida (the scene where he’s watching TV in bed and above him on the wall is a painting of a naked black woman; such a striking yet unassuming scene).  It’s a shame it didn’t occupy the slot that was given to Coal Miner’s Daughter.  Walker himself is a three-time nominee (2 nods for 1983’s Yentl and 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, one win for 1975’s Barry Lyndon).  Tomkins’ sole nomination was for 1983’s Yentl.

The Shining (1980). Directed by Stanley Kubrick, Production design by Roy Walker.

The actual nominees at the 53rd Academy Awards were:
Tess– Pierre Guffroy & Jack Stephens (*Winner)
Coal Miner’s Daughter– John W. Corso & John M. Dwyer (set decorator)
The Elephant Man– Stuart Craig & Robert Cartwright, & Hugh Scaife (set decorator)
The Empire Strikes Back– Norman Reynolds, Leslie Dilley, Harry Lange, & Alan Tomkins, & Michael D. Ford (set decorator)
Kagemusha– Yoshiro Muraki

Another major snub would be 1982’s The Dark Crystal.  Brian Froud (a man I’ve had the honor to meet in person) created so many wonderful conceptual designs that Harry Lange had the incredible challenge of bringing them all to life in order to fulfill Jim Henson’s vision.  The home of the Mystics, the castle of the dark crystal, Aughra’s observatory, the various environments, etc. were all great technical challenges that were fully realized thanks to Lange and art directors Brian and Terry Ackland-Snow, Charles Bishop, Malcolm Stone, and set decorator Peter Young.  My favorite set would be Aughra’s observatory (I loved how Jim Henson shot its reveal, especially when combined with Trevor Jones’ music).  I can’t believe that Annie got nominated instead of this film.  Lange is a two-time nominee (for 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back) and has never won.  Brian Ackland-Snow only has one nod (which he won for 1985’s A Room With A View).  Terry Ackland-Snow, Charles Bishop, and Malcolm Stone have never been nominated.  Young is a two-time nominee (he won both times for 1989’s Batman and 1999’s Sleepy Hollow).

The actual nominees at the 55th Academy Awards were:
Gandhi– Stuart Craig & Robert W. Laing, & Michael Seirton (set decorator) (*Winner)
Annie– Dale Hennesy & Marvin March (set decorator)
Blade Runner– Lawrence G. Paull & David L. Snyder, & Linda DeScenna (set decorator)
La Traviata– Franco Zeffirelli & Gianni Quaranta
Victor Victoria– Roger Maus, Tim Hutchinson, & William Craig Smith, & Harry Cordwell (set decorator)

If I had to immediately name one film to describe as a triumph of production design, it would be 1985’s Legend.  Every scene was shot on a sound stage, and yet the environments feel authentic and real.  Leslie Dilley and Assheton Gorton, along with art director Norman Dorme and set decorator Ann Mollo, did an outstanding job in bringing Ridley Scott’s vision to life.  The different parts of the forest, all of the various rooms and halls of Darkness’ lair, etc.; it’s just so hard to believe that they were built on a sound stage rather than being the real thing.  My favorite set is the area of the forest that had a flowing stream of water (particularly for the scene where Lily sings to the unicorns).  I still can’t believe that Hannah and Her Sisters got nominated over this film (NOTE: Legend was released in the United States in a butchered form in 1986, hence the reason it wasn’t considered for 1985).  Dilley is a five-time nominee (3 nods for 1979’s Alien, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, and 1989’s The Abyss, 2 wins for 1977’s Star Wars and 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark).  Gorton and Mollo were both nominated once (for 1981’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman).  Dorme has never been nominated.

The actual nominees at the 59th Academy Awards were:
A Room With A View– Brian Ackland-Snow & Gianni Quaranta, & Brian Savegar & Elio Altamura (set decorator) (*Winner)
Aliens– Peter Lamont & Crispian Sallis (set decorator)
The Color of Money– Boris Leven & Karen O’Hara (set decorator)
Hannah and Her Sisters– Stuart Wurtzel & Carol Joffe (set decorator)
The Mission– Stuart Craig & Jack Stephens (set decorator)

Perhaps Steven Spielberg’s most misunderstood film, 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence was definitely a major snub for production design.  Rick Carter had the difficult task of designing a world based on concept drawings Stanley Kubrick had made in the ’90s.  With the help of art directors Richard L. Johnson, William James Teegarden, Thomas Valentine, and set decorator Nancy Haigh, Carter created sets that included the Flesh Fair, Rouge City (quite an impressive feat), a Manhattan half-submerged under water, along with the home of the Swinton family and the seedy hotel that Gigolo Joe usually rents a room in.  The outstanding results made for one of the most visually stunning films of the decade.  It’s such a shame that Gosford Park got nominated over this film; I would’ve thought that seeing that bridge going into Rouge City (the one that had a giant woman’s head with her mouth wide open would seal the deal.  Oh well.  Carter himself is a three-time nominee (2 nods for 1994’s Forrest Gump and 2011’s War Horse, 1 win for 2009’s Avatar).  Johnson, Teegarden, and Valentine have never been nominated.  Haigh is a six-time nominee (5 nods for 1991’s Barton Fink, 1994’s Forrest Gump, 2002’s Road To Perdition, 2006’s Dreamgirls, and 2010’s True Grit, 1 win for 1991’s Bugsy).

The actual nominees at the 74th Academy Awards were:
Moulin Rouge– Catherine Martin & Brigitte Broch (set decorator) (*Winner)
Amelie– Aline Bonetto & Marie-Laure Valla (set decorator)
Gosford Park– Stephen Altman & Anna Pinnock (set decorator)
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone– Stuart Craig & Stephanie McMillan (set decorator)
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring– Grant Major & Dan Hennah (set decorator)

One of the most impressive things about 2009’s Watchmen was its incredible production design.  While Alex McDowell did have the graphic novel as source material, that doesn’t mean it made his job any easier.  With the help of art directors Francois Audouy, Helen Jarvis, James Steuart, and set decorator Jim Erikson, he still had to create an alternate 1985 New York City, as well as Vietnam, Mars, and Ozymandias’ Arctic pyramid among other things.  Even the prison that Rorschach is sent to briefly sent to was well done.  My favorite set is the Arctic pyramid.  Its grandioseness captures Ozymandias’ arrogance perfectly (the steps, the statues, the multiple TV sets, etc.).  It’s too bad that Nine got nominated over this film; I would say that the power of Weinstein screwed over the Watchmen.  McDowell, Audouy, Jarvis, and Steuart have never been nominated.  Erikson has one nod for 2007’s There Will Be Blood.

Watchmen movie glass clockwork building on Mars.jpg

The actual nominees at the 82nd Academy Awards were:
Avatar– Rick Carter & Robert Stromberg, & Kim Sinclair (set decorator) (*Winner)
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus– Dave Warren & Anastasia Masaro, & Caroline Smith (set decorator)
Nine– John Myhre & Gordon Sim (set decorator)
Sherlock Holmes– Sarah Greenwood & Katie Spencer (set decorator)
The Young Victoria– Patrice Vermette & Maggie Gray (set decorator)

Other films that were considered include 1979’s The Tin Drum (production designers Piotr Dudzinski & Zeljko Senecic, art director Nicos Perakis, set decorators Marijan Marcius, Edouard Pezzoli, & Paul Weber), 1985’s Return To Oz (production designer Norman Reynolds, art directors Charles Bishop & Fred Hole, set decorator Michael Ford), and 2004’s Troy (production designer Nigel Phelps, set decorators Peter Young & Anna Pinnock).

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3 Responses to Those Oscar Missed: Best Production Design

  1. I’m not in a position to check if I’m correct, but I would include “Hero” w/ Jet Li as a film that should have been nominated for production design.

    • Definitely one of the major snubs of the decade. I believe it would qualify for 2004 since that was the year of its regular U.S. release (it still has that nod for Best Foreign Language Film 2002). Tingxiao Huo and Zhenzhou Yi did excellent work on this film.

  2. Pingback: Those Oscar Missed Volume 1: Best Production Design | THE CINEMATIC FRONTIER

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