Diane Haithman is a contributor to AwardsLine

Alongside collaborators Robert Stromberg and Kim Sinclair, Rick Carter won a best art direction Oscar for his work on Jim Cameron’s fantastical Avatar. He calls serving as production designer on Steven Spielberg’s War Horse the polar opposite of that project — or, for that matter, the type of design work called for by a movie such as Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, which inhabits a world for the most part built on soundstages or created with CGI. In War Horse, Carter says, the job was not to create a new reality, but rather to take a living landscape and make it as much a character in the film as any human being. Or horse.

1. In the story, this location (above) is the Narracott family farm in Dartmoor, Devon. In reality, the home is part of a national park in Devon where some 50 square miles has been preserved as it was pre-World War I. One element particularly important to the location choice is its vast, flat skyline. “In a sense, this is a movie that is in the tradition of being about a landscape, meaning it’s horizontal,” Carter says. “It’s not like an urban movie with a vertical format.”

Carter took his inspiration from filmmakers John Ford and David Lean. “John Ford set the standard of how you compose landscapes in movies,” he explains. “He would put the horizon very low in the frame and then have a lot of sky. That means you need a big country; you are going to hit types of mountains and trees that will block that if you don’t have 360 degrees at least of horizon.”

2: Some portions of the existing structure that would become the family’s stone house had been preserved; the rest had to be restored with Styrofoam, carved and painted to look like real stone. The thatched roof was also Styrofoam. Rocks are not only a historically accurate building material, says Carter: they speak to the reality of a hardscrabble life where rock had to be plowed up to create arable farmland. “The intent was to contrast this idyllic scenery with the way WWI changed the landscape of the world, especially Europe, degrading the landscape until it becomes a place where no one could live, it’s like the moon.”

3. Another reality of shooting on location was unforgiving weather. “The weather just rolls in from the coast, and the rains can be torrential, it can last one day, or three days. You see it coming, but it shows no mercy,” Carter says. “The roof blew off twice — and while we were filming, we always had to touch it up. And the wind would knock big chunks of painted stone away and you’d see these big white marks.” The weather could be bad — but was not quite as bad as it needed to be for a later scene in which Joey the horse must test his mettle by plowing a rocky field in violent downpour. That required both real and artificial rain, as well as some fake cloud action.

4. The bright green window trim makes it part of a green landscape. The red of the fabric, Carter says, serves as its complementary color. “It stands out against the green, but it is sort of reddish, still of the earth,” he explains. “The horse’s color is also slightly reddish, and the boy is wearing something along those lines.”

5. “What you do have in that shot is the sense that the horse is not just wild, it is in a manmade area and about to be trained and about to have a relationship with that boy,” Carter says. “If the boy wasn’t in the shot, it would just be about the house and the horse. The boy’s point of view is our point of view.”

6: It’s a real horse, no motion capture — but the white feet and head markings are painted on. “There were like 19 different Joeys, and they all had to match, and at the end he had to be recognizable because of that combination of the four feet and the forehead. There was one horse, Finder, that was truly the Joey. That one horse was a very special horse.”