Tech Support: The production designers go it alone this year

For the second year of “Best Production Design” (the category previously known as Best Art Direction), we have a slightly different system of choosing the nominees. That’s because the costume designers have split off from the designers branch to form their own branch. It’ll be interesting to see how this long overdue development affects the race in both categories.

The production design field in the past has favored period pieces, though at least one fantasy title tends to find a home every year. It is rare for truly contemporary films to be nominated.

The category, despite its name, awards set decorators as well as production designers. Being a veteran certainly doesn’t hurt one’s chances. But this is far from the Academy’s most insular branch. Last year was, I believe, the first time since 1984 with no first-time nominees.

I don’t expect that to happen again this year because, among other reasons, Adam Stockhausen looks reasonably assured of a nomination for Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.” Having done top-notch work last year on Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” his recreation of 1800s America in meticulous detail on this leading Best Picture contender seems exactly what this branch is likely to embrace, even if a lot of the setting is exterior. Set decorator Alice Baker would also be a first-time nominee.

Michael Corenblith was previously nominated for two Ron Howard films: “Apollo 13” and “Dr. Suess’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” This year he gets to recreate both 1960s Hollywood and early 20th Century Australia on John Lee Hancock’s “Saving Mr. Banks.” The ability to show off two different historical periods on a likely Best Picture contender leads, in my view, to a likely nomination.

Another extremely likely nominee is Catherine Martin for Baz Lurhmann’s “The Great Gatsby.” Lurhmann’s longtime production (and costume) designer is also his wife. She has won this Oscar for “Moulin Rouge!” and been nominated for “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.” (She has also won Best Costume Design for “Moulin Rouge!” and been nominated for “Australia.”) Even detractors of this film could not dispute its outstanding design work. I expect a strong push in the visual categories and would be quite surprised if this meticulously detailed work (featuring superb set decoration from Beverley Dunn) does not end up in the final five.

While Martin is a consistent nominee for her collaborations with Lurhmann, Dan Hennah is a consistent nominee for his collaborations with Peter Jackson, having earned five nominations and a win over the past dozen years, first as a set decorator and then as a production designer. He and set decorator Ra Vincent were nominated last year for “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” This year’s sequel “The Desolation of Smaug” will add new parts of Middle Earth, notably the dragon’s lair. While I think the novelty will eventually wear off here, I still think that among the competition this year, they are likely in solid shape.

Space movies can be hit-or-miss here. But “Gravity” is clearly heading for a massive tally of nominations. And the branch has recently warmed up more and more to CGI-aided production design (“Avatar,” “Life of Pi”). But this film also meticulously recreates interiors of the International Space Station and Soyuz spacecraft. Given those factors, Andy Nicholson must be considered a leading contender for Alfonso Cuarón’s latest. But the built sets were not plentiful and it can’t score everywhere, can it?

Far more subtle would be Jess Gonchor’s recreation of early 1960s Greenwich Village on “Inside Llewyn Davis.” This longtime collaborator of the Coen brothers and Bennett Miller was finally nominated for “True Grit” in 2010. Has that alerted the branch to his serious talents? I hope so. And this is certainly a film we will see more of this awards season. Set decorator Susan Bode was nominated 19 years ago for “Bullets Over Broadway.”

A film that still needs to be seen is David O. Russell’s “American Hustle.” I’m not entirely sure what to make of this feature. The costume design is already a topic of great conversation and that may take all attention away from other design elements. But Judy Becker has been doing good work (much of it with set decorator Heather Loeffler) for years, frequently with Russell. If this late 1970s/early 1980s recreation tickles the Academy’s fancy, nominations could follow in many places.

“Oz the Great and Powerful” may be forgotten by many, but it was, objectively, a spectacle of epic proportions. Robert Stromberg won this category back-to-back for “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland” in 2009 and 2010, meaning his digitally-enhanced work clearly registers. Set decorator Nancy Haigh has six nominations, including one win, so her involvement cannot hurt the film’s chances.

Haigh also worked on “August: Osage County” this year. Though contemporary, this is the sort of claustrophobic film with detailed Americana sets that I wouldn’t rule out, especially as production designer David Gropman earned two previous nominations for films that didn’t necessarily appear obvious contenders from a distance (“The Cider House Rules” and “Life of Pi”).

In the realm of straight-up period work, Maria Djurkovic has designed 18th Century England (a favorite of this branch) on Ralph Fiennes’ “The Invisible Woman.” I am not sure whether this film will catch on to any real extent but if it scores anywhere, the design categories would seem its best chances. With a relatively weak group of contenders, I’d say those chances are not bad. Djurkovic is overdue for a first nomination.

Another production designer ludicrously overdue for a first nomination is Alex McDowell. I felt the vision of Krypton on “Man of Steel” was superb. The real question…will his fellow production designers notice?

Another film that I am not entirely sure how to read is “The Book Thief.” But a World War II era film about the Holocaust always must be at least considered. From this vantage point, the sets seem to be impressive so Simon Elliott and Mark Rosinski ought to be on peoples’ radars.

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is an interesting contender. It seems assured of a Best Supporting Actress nomination and it seems in good shape for a Best Picture nod, too. But beyond that, it’s not altogether clear where the film is destined. I wouldn’t discount Tim Galvin’s chances for his first nomination.

So those are the top dozen contenders as I see them. Though to be totally honest, I view this as a category with a few very strong contenders (“12 Years a Slave,” “Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Great Gatsby”), a few solid contenders (“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” “Gravity,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “American Hustle”) and then a very open race should anyone farther up falter. And while I may not have mentioned titles such as “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (too forgotten?), “The Wolf of Wall Street” (too contemporary?), “Labor Day” (too subtle?) and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (too shaky?), I also wouldn’t totally rule them out.

Who do you think could prove to be a somewhat unexpected nominee? Who do you expect to see in the final five? Who are you rooting for? Tell us in the comments section and/or chalk up your own predictions via HitFix’s Oscar Picks section.