Production designers, as they craft the world where directors lay their scenes, often start a project by hitting the books. It’s a job that requires solid research skills (especially for the period lms that garner the most awards attention in the category) as well as massive amounts of imagination.
“You have to do your research and know your history, but at one point you also need to know when to close the books and be creative,” says production designer Patrice Vermette, recalling the extensive research required for The Young Victoria, which earned him an Oscar nomination in 2010.
Vermette is back in contention this year, for sci-fi drama Arrival. He and two other production designers—Rules Don’t Apply’s Jeannine Oppewall and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’s Stuart Craig—shared with Deadline how both research and creativity were key to their films.
Arrival had Vermette spending less time with the Royal Archives and more studying photos of spaceships and sea creatures. Real-world squids partially inspired the look of the film’s massive, seven-legged aliens, called heptapods, but Vermette strove to make their ship look nothing like any spacecraft ever seen before.
“I started looking at a number of science fiction movies,” he says, “and I realized very quickly that since 2001: A Space Odyssey, except some very rare occasions, most of these spaceships all look very similar. Everybody has a very specific idea now how a spaceship and how alien spaceships should look. And I wanted to get out of that.”
After director Denis Villeneuve told Vermette about an oval-shaped exoplanet, the Canadian production designer decided to make the heptapods’ ship—dubbed the Shell—oblong and “like a stone, all black, no windows, no little antennas”.
A crucial part of Vermette’s work on the film was designing the heptapods’ written language. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer included an early version of the language in his screenplay, and then Villeneuve tasked his production designer with creating a less techy-looking version of the language and determining its mechanics; what each blot, curl, and squiggle meant. He built a dictionary of about 100 logograms—circular coffee stain-esque inscriptions produced with the heptapods’ ink.
It was Heisserer who determined that the heptapods’ language must have circular logograms. And circles subtly permeated other parts of the production design—Vermette found a location for the hospital at the beginning of the film that has a circular corridor, and for Amy Adams’ character’s classroom, he made sure to secure a lecture hall with curved rows of desks.
Oppewall comes to this awards season after having spent nine years on the Academy’s Board of Governors, where she got to know Annette Bening. Warren Beatty ran Oppewall’s name by his wife when he was searching for a production designer for Rules Don’t Apply, and Bening “vouched for my ability to stand up to people”, says Oppewall, whose credits include Pleasantville, L.A. Confidential, and Catch Me If You Can.
For a production designer, speaking up for your own ideas is just as important as dutifully realizing a director’s vision, Oppewell contends. “You have to try your best to protect directors from going off the rails. When you see that they’re headed for the cliff, you have to be able to say ‘No, no, no, boss, don’t go over there—it’s dangerous.’”
On Rules Don’t Apply (starring, written, and directed by Beatty), about Howard Hughes and a young aspiring actress new to Hollywood, one area where Oppewell pushed back was Beatty’s initial idea to have the many hotels Hughes occupies all be part of the same hotel chain with the same furniture.
“That wasn’t really going to work because you can’t confuse the audience by making them think that they are always staying in the same place,” she says. “Plus, the design of a hotel in Acapulco is gonna be different from the design of a hotel in Las Vegas, or one in London, because they’re all different climates with different history and different types of construction.” The Acapulco hotel suite that bookends the film particularly stands out, with its aqua blue and lime yellow, a “fun-in-the-sun avor,” as Oppewell describes it.
Beatty’s mysterious Hughes prefers to conduct business in darkened rooms. But the minimal amount of lighting on much of Oppewell’s work didn’t keep her from paying attention to period-accurate detail inspired by research online and in books.
“It’s not just about what the camera sees. It’s about what the actors see,” she says. “It’s an acting space, and the actors have to get in there, into the nest, make it their own, and respond physically and emotionally to the environment that we create for them.”
For Fantastic Beasts, Craig returned to the magical world he’d crafted in all eight Harry Potter films, though this time, to a different continent of that world, in a story set seven decades before Harry defeats Lord Voldemort.
Craig set out to distinguish the home base for the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) from the British Ministry of Magic headquarters located
deep underground. J.K. Rowling determined MACUSA would be housed within the Woolworth Building, and Craig designed a multi-level, glimmering, art deco atrium for Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander to walk into in awe.
The look of the titular beasts began in the art department, with drawings by concept artists, before being turned over to visual effects houses. The most challenging beast to get right, Craig recalls, was the Occamy, a feathered, two-legged creature with a serpentine body that expands to fill the space it occupies.
“It’s the most exotic creature because of its vivid colors and its extraordinary part snake-, part bird-like movement and behavior,” Craig says.
The Fantastic Beasts art department’s collective imagination ran wild with the design of magical creatures and buildings, but they had to also create, “a very authentic-looking, very credible New York,” Craig explains, “ because we learned on the Potter films that the magic works really well when it’s born out of something that seems completely real; something you accept and believe.”
Craig stayed committed to a realistic look for the Big Apple by not miniaturizing the street sets built at Leavesden Studios. It’s a typical practice to reduce the size of streets and buildings on backlots to t more in frame. “We stuck to wide streets and wide sidewalks,” Craig says. Though Craig was tasked with crafting the Wizarding World of 1926, Fantastic Beasts oddly felt more modern to him than the eight Harry Potter films. “Because it’s set in New York with skyscrapers, it feels more like a contemporary film than Harry Potter because they’re going to school in this medieval castle. It feels period because the setting is period. So there’s a strange contradiction there.”
Fantastic Beasts, Rules Don’t Apply and Arrival are vying for the attention of Oscar voters who have long favored period films in the Best Production Design category. Wins for Avatar, Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars are notable otherworldly exceptions, while All the President’s Men managed to capture attention for its contemporary D.C. By contrast, the Art Directors Guild Awards have separate categories for Contemporary, Fantasy, and Period.
Craig—whose three Oscars are for period films The English Patient, Dangerous Liaisons and Gandhi—says, “It’s perceived, I suppose, as if [period films] were more work and required a bigger effort, and I think that absolutely is not true. Contemporary films are more difficult because the choices are endless. In a period film, you’re restricted by the period, the clothes available, the detail that you discover in research. There are fewer choices. Contemporary films—the fact that there’s a profusion of choices makes it harder.”
Come Feb. 26, 2017, we’ll know whether the Academy has again awarded a production designer’s recreation of the past, or imagined present or future.