Never Leave LA

Behind the Oscar Worthy Movie Set

Getting ready for the Oscars is a full scale production in and of itself; from industry parties up in the hills, to the final fittings of custom designed gowns, to panel discussions that reveal the backstory of the collaborations, creative processes and people involved in the hit movies of late. The later is what I partook in today, on this rainy afternoon.

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The Art of Production Design panel of 2013 Oscar Nominees for Achievement in Production Design, hosted by The Art Directors Guild at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood (photo credit: Melissa Curtin)

The Art Directors Guild presented The Art of Production Design to a full house at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, steps away from where the Oscars will be held tomorrow. Moderated by ADG production designer, Thomas A. Walsh, and SDSA set decorator, Rosemary Brandenburg, the audience was able to soak in the musings of the stunning collection of nominees for 2013 Academy Award for Achievement in Production Design.

American Hustle production designer, Judy Becker and set decorator, Heather Loeffler, have worked 11 films together so far and clearly appreciate the way in which they work together. Shot miles outside of Boston to incite a 70’s New York feel, these two resourceful and talented women scoured and shopped for, decorated, and manufactured every inch of American Hustle. From the perfect hotel lobbies, apartment interiors, offices, skylines, to the quintessential custom wallpaper, and family inspired window extending drapes, they most certainly brought the era to life in a very real palpable manner.

her production designer, K.K. Barrett, and set decorator, Gene Serdena, are no strangers to one another either, nor to director, Spike Jones. Both began their education as fine artists and interestingly spoke about how they created the nebulous future-age of her by “smoothing the world out and taking things away.” In the words of K.K. “To make sure it wasn’t advanced too far, we stripped away any type of pronouncing what we would have in the future that don’t have now. So we ended up with variations of what we have now, with the exception of an operating system that is very charming and rapidly growing in intelligence and learning about the human condition.  And we realized that was such a focus that we shouldn’t do anything else about futurisms because it was really a distraction.” Thomas Walsh made a brilliant observation about K.K. and Genes’ process, “You really used the eraser as your brush in creating the future.” Found objects also inspired the sensibility of the environment and technical devices in the film, through the materials, design and manner in which they were held and interacted with. Gene made the point that “everything is subjected to character,” And I love the story he relayed about how in collaboration they worked as a team to tether out the character of Theodore. Gene had laid down a couple of rugs in the apartment, when Joaquin and Spike came in and went off to huddle in a private conference in the corner. When they came back Spike said something like, “We don’t know if Theodore would be willing to commit to a carpet.” So, I immediately say, “Let’s get this carpet out of here.” And, K.K. gives a master stroke and says, “What if we just rolled it up and kept it against the wall?” “It was such a great way to develop to a banal situation, and have it happen in a very collaborative way, and have the actor involved.” This level of thought and collaboration brings forth the brilliance of the film. The details don’t just matter visually, they matter conceptually.

The Great Gatsby's Oscar Nominated Production Designer, Catherine Martin, and Set Decorator, Beverley Dunn, at the Egyptian Theature for The Art of Production Design panel with Art Directors Guild (photo credit: Melissa Curtin)

The Great Gatsby’s Oscar Nominated Production Designer, Catherine Martin, and Set Decorator, Beverley Dunn, at the Egyptian Theater for The Art of Production Design panel with Art Directors Guild (photo credit: Melissa Curtin)

The Great Gatsby is magnificently gouache in every possible way, set within a very specific time period reality between 1922-1929. “You have to be able to prove everything,” production designer, Catherine Dunn. Along with set decorator, Beverley Dunn, the team went to grand lengths to find, manufacture and dress an incredible amount of places and interiors, all shot in Sydney, Australia. Seductively flowing drapes, elongated couches, a room asphyxiated with orchids, limitless pools, the list goes on for the intricate spaces these two created. This production was one in a life-time. It was satiated with details upon details upon details. It might just beg the ad-libbed question posed in the orchid room by Leonardo Dicaprio, “Do you think I’ve gone to far?” Nope! It was just perfectly spectacularly heightened.

Gravity production designer, Andy Nicholson, set decorator, Rosie Goodwin took to the virtual world for a large portion of their process, in combination with 3-D renderings and manufacturing. The helmet alone had to be designed, not only to meet specifications of an actual astronaut’s helmet, but also be adept to filming multiple angles of Sandra Bullock’s face. So, it was designed and redesigned and configured until it worked, and then was given the addition of a digital shield throughout the movie, which disabled any necessity of working around potential glare and reflection. The helmet is indicative of the enormous visual undertaking of the film.

Shooting in Louisiana in the drenching heat of June and July, and up against parallel filming in the area, production designer, Adam Stockhausen and set decorator, Alice Baker, had many elements to work around as they developed the pallet, identified, assembled and manufactured interiors and structures within multiple landscapes. But together they captured the magnificent beauty of the South as a seamless background for the horrors of the time period of 12 Years a Slave.

What I was particularly blown away by during this afternoon of discussion is the magnitude of thought, process, collaboration and detail that goes into each piece of each film in order to create a believable and sensual whole. Listening to each of the artists talk about the elements of their creative processes in light of the incredible films that were represented was undeniably inspiring. How incredible it would be to be part of such a team of thinkers and creators?

(photo: courtesy of Art Directors Guild)

(photo: courtesy of Art Directors Guild)

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