From mid-century to maximalism: go behind the scenes of Babylon, Elvis, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Fabelmans and Avatar: The Way of the Water – the 2023 Oscar nominees for Best Production Design
The heady days of Hollywood in the Roaring Twenties. The claustrophobic trenches of World War I. The childhood homes of an aspiring young filmmaker. A sci-fi sequel revisits the Sully family as they flee their homeland. And a southern antebellum-turned mid-century house fit for a King. This year’s 95th Academy Awards feature the most varied group of Best Production Design nominees to date – Babylon, The Fabelmans, Avatar: The Way of the Water, Elvis, and All Quiet on the Western Front – and on Sunday, March 12th, a talented production designer and set decorator will take home the coveted trophy. In the meantime, take a tour of this year’s best-in-show:
Set in the tumultuous, hedonistic, and often glamorous days of the Golden Age of Hollywood, director-writer Damien Chazelle’s story chronicles the rise and fall of a silent film matinee idol facing the challenges of the “talkies” (Brad Pitt as Jack Conrad), a powerful Hedda Hopper-esque gossip columnist (Jean Smart as Elinor St. John) a rising studio player (Diego Calva as Manny Torres) and a not so innocent ingenue (Margot Robbie as Nellie LaRoy).
We were recreating each of the fictional movie’s sets, so you’re talking about sets within sets within sets.Damien Chazelle, director and writer, Babylon
While Los Angeles is the real character of the movie, production designer Florencia Martin’s spectacular sets vie for screen time with the Art Deco designs of a film titan’s castle and a Spanish Revival house for the character Jack Conrad. Filmed in Simi Valley, the house is decorated with art, antiques, bronze sculptures, tapestries, and wrought iron lighting set against a jewel-toned color palette.
The other design styles encompass Mission, Spanish Tudor, and Gothic, prompting set decorator Anthony Carlino to shop antiques, lighting, and props from the Warner Brothers and Omega Cinema Prop houses in Los Angeles to crystal candelabras and Louis XIV furniture in Belgium. Other design-worthy sets include St. John’s opulent Gilded Age-inspired burgundy and red-toned interiors that reflect her worldly sensibilities and travels. The early days of the Hollywood backlot, particularly the stages set in the middle of a desert, contribute to the success of the film’s designs. “Florencia had this sort of insane challenge with this movie of not just recreating Los Angeles of that time but also recreating each studio experience,” says Chazelle. “And within that, we were recreating each of the fictional movie’s sets, so you’re talking about sets within sets within sets.”
Steven Spielberg’s coming-of-age semi-biographical drama The Fabelmans tells the tale of an a young boy named Al with a penchant for filmmaking who discovers the power of imagination and storytelling. The film stars Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy Fabelman, and Michelle Williams and Judd Hirsch as his parents.
Channeling the time of the director’s adolescence fell to long-time collaborator (11 films to be exact) and two-time Oscar-winning production designer Rick Carter and three-time Oscar-winning set decorator Karen O’Hara who created both the biographical and fictional family homes in New Jersey, Arizona, and California.
The starting point for the design process began when the famous director gave the designers access to his archive of personal photos, home movies, and childhood memories. “We were able to get a sense of what the journey was and make each one of the houses reflective of, in a sense of a three-act structure, for the development of his life and career,” notes Carter. The goal was not to design carbon copies of the homes but create residences that resonated with the director.
Spielberg and his sisters drew upon memories of beloved childhood items, ranging from books and records to toys and even kitchenware, references that were a treasure map of his past. They also worked from the director’s sketches of floor plans of the three houses and research from a Life Magazine story on where Spielberg grew up (the house sets were built on a soundstage). Eero Saarinen’s Tulip Table and Tulip chair in white are just a few of the period furnishings.
The result is a walk-down-memory-lane portrait of life in the 50s and 60s which earned seven Oscar nominations (including a Golden Globe for Best Picture).
All Quiet on the Western Front
Production designer Christian Goldbeck and set decorator Ernestine Hipper’s battlefield designs for the harrowing epic All Quiet on the Western Front transport the viewer to the ravages of World War I. Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel, the film follows an army of a young German battalion in the final days of the war as seen through the eyes of an idealistic young soldier.
Filmed in Prague’s historic buildings, with battlefield and trench scenes shot at a former Soviet-era airport in the Czech Republic, the film’s tension owes much to the ominous and muddy trenches where most of the warfare takes place.
Fittingly for a depiction of war, the designs are not glamorous, and the backdrop involved digging several hundred meters of trenches with accompanying barbed wire, corpses, and horse carcasses.
Challenges abound as mud had to be delivered (the production was filmed in March and April, when the earth was cold and hard), and light and depressing weather were also factors. Historical castles doubling as private German command centers were also filmed in the Czech Republic.
Australia may seem like an unlikely place to recreate director Baz Luhrmann’s world of Elvis in Memphis, Tennessee, but Covid had other plans. Designed by Luhrmann’s wife Catherine Martin (who served as both production and costume designer), the life of the “King of Rock n’ Roll” is depicted in 50s Tupelo, Mississippi, his Graceland home and the smoky nightclubs of Beale Street in Memphis, Hollywood in the 60s (where he starred in 33 films) and his later years in Las Vegas where Elvis performed nightly to sold-out audiences.
We wanted to recreate Graceland in certain periods as much as possible…. For us, Graceland was very much the symbol and expression of Elvis’s success.Catherine Martin, production and costume designer, Elvis
“We made a number of visits to Memphis and tried to replicate what it would feel like being Elvis on tour in the early part of his career. We wanted to recreate Graceland in certain periods as much as possible,” says Martin. Given the go-ahead from the late singer’s ex-wife, Priscilla, she explains, “All of our architectural details were based on blueprints that we were fortunate to access from the Graceland estate. For us, Graceland was very much the symbol and expression of Elvis’s success.”
Working with fellow production designer Karen Murphy and set decorator Bev Dunn, the designs are as true to the tourist mecca as possible, particularly during the eras of the 60s and 70s. A pair of concrete lions placed at the entrance, wall-to-wall carpeting, swag, jabot, and fringe window treatments, gilt stairway spindles, floral wallpaper, and velvet upholstery are just a few of the set décor. Attention to detail was paramount, as Elvis’ love for peacocks (and a nod to NBC network’s trademark symbol) make an appearance in the stained-glass window dividers in the Graceland living room.
Avatar: The Way of the Water
A task so herculean, Director James Cameron hired not one but two production designers for his long-awaited sequel Avatar: The Way of the Water. Debuting in theaters 13 years ago, Avatar wowed audiences and critics alike with its use of performance capture that placed the characters into colorful landscapes and oceanic terrains, and the audience in an immersive experience of a sci-fi universe.
Production designers Dylan Cole (who won an Oscar for the original) and Ben Procter (who served as Concept Art Director on the original) and set decorator Vanessa Cole were responsible for translating Cameron’s fantasies into two worlds, the Sully family as they explore the regions of Pandora and the humans who engage in war. Cameron divided up the duties with Cole creating the world of a natural Pandora with Procter focusing on the vehicles and weapons of the humans. Standout sets include Procter’s Sea Dragon, a 400-foot-long vehicle used to hunt whales. Cole’s reef and village set of Metkayina is filled with a village of round woven structures and a system of walkways.
Read more: Interior Designers I Interiors | Design | Mid-Century | Art Deco | Los Angeles