Tech Support: ‘Budapest,’ ‘Into the Woods,’ ‘Exodus’ highlight Best Production Design

Grandeur often rules the day in Best Production Design, which awards the men and women responsible for a movie's set design and construction. The category typically favors 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.

However, the category is more open to fantasy and contemporary pieces than its cousin Best Costume Design. (Last year was the first year the costume designers had their own branch, but no easily discernible new trends could be observed in my opinion.) Recent years have also suggested openness to CGI-complemented work (“Life of Pi” and “Gravity” immediately jump to mind).

On that note, it's worth mentioning that the Art Directors Guild has implemented a new rule somewhat under the radar for its precursor awards this season. According to the new provision, period films must now have the majority of sets and locations designed to portray a time period at least 20 years prior to the present awards year. Contemporary films, therefore, must have the majority of sets and locations designed to portray places of a realistic nature within 20 years either side of the present awards year. And fantasy films will continue to qualify when the majority of sets and locations are designed to portray places of imaginative and inventive nature. That should do a lot to curtail some of the dubious category classifications we've seen from the guild in recent years.

This Oscar recognizes both production designers and set decorators. There are veterans who regularly appear, but newcomers are also welcomed every year, certainly among the set decorators, but among the production designers as well. So let's dive in and see what's in play…

It is almost incredible that no Wes Anderson film has been nominated in this category to date. But as creative as his designs always are, they have usually been contemporary or fairly minimal in design (as in “Moonrise Kingdom.”) “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a different story as the 1930s/1960s Eastern European hotel became a character in the movie across generations, with its many memorable nooks and crannies, as well as a color palette that will not soon be forgotten. Production designer Adam Stockhausen, fresh off his first nomination for “12 Years a Slave,” and thrice-nominated set decorator Anna Pinnock, will hopefully break the Anderson curse in this category this year.

Pinnock may well find herself a double nominee as she has also served as set decorator for “Into the Woods,” where the great Dennis Gassner (four-time nominee and winner for “Bugsy”) was responsible for the production design. Rob Marshall's films have a great track record in this category, with “Chicago” and “Memoirs of a Geisha” having won and “Nine” earning a nomination. The sets look superbly fantastical. I'll be surprised if Gassner and Pinnock don't make the cut.

Maria Djurkovic, designer of “Billy Elliott,” “The Hours” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” is still waiting for her first nomination. I suspect that may change this year with her historical work on Morten Tyldum's “The Imitation Game.” Though not the showiest or most grandiose work on display this year, Djurkovic's detailed period work on a likely Best Picture frontrunner, particularly a recreation of the Enigma device at the story's center, still strikes me as among the leading candidates in this category.

A bit further back in English history is Mike Leigh's “Mr. Turner.” Though “Topsy-Turvy” is the only Leigh film to score in the crafts categories to date, this detailed period piece may be able to buck that trend. The category tends to like England of the 19th and early 20th centuries and art is front and center in this feature. Production designer Suzie Davies and set decorator Charlotte Watts would be first-time nominees.

Art is also front and center in Tim Burton's “Big Eyes.” Set in ’50s and ’60s California, the production design of Rich Heinrichs (a three-time nominee and winner for “Sleepy Hollow”) may well tickle the branch's fancy. Set decorator Shane Vieau is searching for his first nomination, meanwhile. One thing worth adding: when Burton films are nominated here, they win (“Batman,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and “Alice in Wonderland”).

War films tend not to score in the design categories with the same regularity as in other categories. Perhaps that is due to the fairly minimal/uniform nature of the work. But there are exceptions and “Unbroken” will not just have POW camp sets but Olympics designs of mid-20th Century America. So depending on how the film is received, production designer Jon Hutman and set decorator Lisa Thompson may find themselves in the final five.

On “The Theory of Everything,” production designer John Paul Kelly captured Cambridge of the late 20th Century in a respected portrait of the life of Stephen Hawking. The detailed period work may capture AMPAS' fancy, but I think it might prove too subtle for Kelly and set decorator Claire Nia Richards to earn their first nominations.

Dan Hennah earned three nominations and a win as set decorator for the “Lord of the Rings” features. After another nod for “King Kong,” he graduated to production designer and garnered nomination number five for “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” But “The Desolation of Smaug” was Peter Jackson's first Middle Earth effort not to make the final five in this category. “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is the last chance to fete this extraordinary achievement in production design. The only question, in my mind, is whether it's too much “been there, done that.” This could go either way for Hennah and set decorators Simon Bright and Ra Vincent (who are searching for nominations #3 and #2 respectively).

Also in the realm of fantasy (sci-fi) is Christopher Nolan's “Interstellar.” Nolan films have a good track record here. This is not surprising as he is insistent on building sets where many other directors would prefer CGI. Production designer Nathan Crowley earned nominations for “The Dark Knight” and “The Prestige.” Set decorator Gary Fettis also earned nominations for “Changeling” and “The Godfather Part III.” Paul Healy is searching for his first nod. If the branch recognizes how difficult it was to create the world Nolan wanted us to see, they may well find themselves nominated come January.

A more typical fantasy nominee may be “Maleficent.” Dylan Cole, a visual effects artist by training, took on production design duties for the first time in his career on this feature, and he had a field day. Set decorator Lee Sandales was nominated three years ago for “War Horse” while Gary Freeman would be a first-time nominee. While this category is certainly opening up to CGI, I do wonder if this might be overkill, especially as it didn't set the critical world on fire. But you never know.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings” is undoubtedly going to be complemented by CGI. And it will be grand. And historical. And epic. So shouldn't production designer Arthur Max (nominated for “Gladiator” and “American Gangster”) be poised for nomination #3, with set decorator Celia Bobak (“The Phantom of the Opera”) looking at nod #2? They might – the film will be fresh in the Academy's mind. The big question I have is how it will be received. It could be a very expensive, excessively long miss.

Another biblical epic with CGI playing a significant role is Darren Aronofsky's “Noah.” Production designer Mark Friedberg is a vet still awaiting his first nomination and, like the hotel in “Grand Budapest,” the ark was very much a character in this film. Set decorator Debra Schutt was nominated for “Revolutionary Road” and Nicholas DiBlasio is waiting for his first nomination. But will AMPAS remember this title? It has the disadvantage of “Exodus: Gods and Kings” being the more recent biblical epic in memory. Moreover, Friedberg will have another film in contention…

…and that other film is “Selma,” which went over like gangbusters at AFI Fest and appears to be a potential awards thoroughbred. It may not have the showiest sets in the world, but that may not matter if it's a huge player overall, with its combination of period and prestige. So while Friedberg has two real chances, both are far from a slam dunk.

Those contenders are the top baker's dozen as I see them. Who do you see leading the way? Chime in below!