Oscars! But is it Art? Production Design

NOTE: the following post is a reprint from RagTagMagpie.com where it first appeared on the night of the 90th Academy Awards. reprinted here as it’s Oscar weekend, and I don’t really care enough about this year’s awards. Looking back, who knew?  Black Panther at least got some noms…

I was listening to a podcast earlier today talking about 2019 Oscar front-runners and the whole ‘popular’ award. While it is not going to be coming in this year (or potentially anytime soon), the movie that is constantly referred to in context of it is ‘Black Panther’, with many critics feeling that while it is likely to feature in the Production Design, Costume and similar ‘second tier’ categories it won’t feature in the ‘main’ ones…

This got me to thinking back to a post I wrote for my wife’s blog about memorable production design winners…


So, today is the 90th Academy Awards ceremony. Writing this on Sunday morning, we don’t yet know who’s going to win what, what upsets there might be, and how controversial things are going to get, either in the results, or through protests and support against what has become the year that so many secrets, half-secrets or known but not publicly disclosed stories began to emerge.

This blog looks at all things artistic, and as an ex-film student, I would argue there are all manner of ‘artistic’ elements to the making of a movie- be it cinematography, direction, costume design, makeup and hair styling, visual effects or non-visual elements such as script or music, which, when all come together to contribute to an artistic piece.

This post is going to look at Best Production Design, which recognises achievement for art direction in a film- that is, at its’ simplest level it is awarded to the best interior design in a film. Until 2012 the category was named ‘Best Art Direction’, but was changed at the 85th Awards.

The first Academy Award was won in 1927, by ‘The Dove’ and ‘Tempest’- joint winners as they were both designed by William Cameron Menzies. (Originally the Production Design was called ‘Best Interior Decoration

Between 1940 and 1966 there were two awards presented each year- one for Black and White, one for Colour. The other change that came in in 1940 was that the award was given to two winners- Art Director and Interior Decorator.

Rather than try and give a full history of the awards, here are three of my favourites (which the winners of all these awards will obviously be sweating over- an Oscar is one thing, but a RagTag is something altogether different:

The Hustler (1961)– (Art Director) Alexandre Trauner, (Interior Decorator) Gene Callahan:

An on set scene from 'The Hustler'
A set scene from the filming of ‘The Hustler’

The Hustler, starring Paul Newman as pool  hustler Fast Eddie Felson was shot in and around bars, pool halls, hotels, and homes both flop houses and stately. Shot by Eugen Schufftan who employed mirrors to create background dynamics within many of the pool room scenes.

The film also utilized CinemaScope, a process which was normally reserved for wide open, epic pictures rather than the intimate indoor sets this film centred around.

Ultimately what works so well for me is the sleazy-come-cool look and feel of the movie, so much of which is achieved through the set design, and a dirtying up of the set (and if you want to know what sleazy without the cool looks like, you can check out the movie’s sequel, ‘The Color of Money’- nominated for the same award in 1986: brilliantly staged, but out and out sleazy).

Minnesota Fats and Fast Eddie Lag for Break in 'The Hustler'
Minnesota Fats and Fast Eddie Lag for Break in ‘The Hustler’

Anecdotally, apparently the film’s design was so perfectly put together that one particular dining area built was so realistic that non crew public turned up to order food.

The film also does a great job of using effective, if not typically iconic, locations for interior shots- including the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville (also featured in The Great Gatsby), but its’ the masculine world of bars and halls which dominate the film so effectively.

The majority of the film was shot on location in New York, with the key pool game shot at Ames Pool Hall, near Times Square.


1989 Batman Poster
The 1989 Movie Poster for Batman

Batman (1989): (Art Director) Anton Furst (Interior Decorator) Peter Young.

While Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman no longer seems the edgy, gritty version of the Dark Knight it did back in the day, it was a world away from the 1960’s TV version, and the look and feel of it was a whole lot more Gothic than anything we’d seen  there either.


Whatever else it is in comparison to Batman films that followed, Furst’s Gotham sets remain one of the largest and most incredible sets ever built- when it was built originally it used pretty much the entirety of Pinewood’s sound stages and back lot. While the sequels (and every other big budget action movie) moved increasingly to green screen work, Batman’s sets remain as impressive as ever, even if other aspects don’t hold up quite so well…

Batman- Anton Furst concept art
Anton Furst’s preparation work for ‘Batman’

Furst has been quoted as saying that he pictured Gotham as being made up of the ‘worst aspects of New York’. Sam Hamm, the scriptwriter of the film went further; his script described it as looking as though ‘Hell (had) erupted through the pavement and built a city.’

While the look of the film today may be described as ‘Burtonesque’, it was the first film to fully explore the style (whether due to vision or budget-sure, Beetlejuice had elements of it, but to a limited degree). Typically described as ‘gothic’, that’s something of a simplification in terms of the look and feel of Furst’s Gotham- which is full of art deco and art nouveau buildings, which were built using model buildings and matte paintings around the physical elements of the set and based on works of architects such as Gaudi, Wagner, Takamatsu and Sullivan, purposefully mixing their clashing styles to make Gotham look as misshapen, ugly and dysfunctional as he could. The polar episode of Superman’s bright Metropolis.

Scene from Tim Burton's 1989 Batman
Storyboards brought to life

Tragically, Furst committed suicide just two years after the release of Batman.


Hugo (2011)

Hugo- Ariel shot of Paris Station
Hugo: Ariel Shot of Paris Station

2011’s winners were husband and wife team Dante Ferretti (Art Director), and Francesca Lo Schiavo (Interior Decorator), long time collaborators with Martin Scorsese who freely admitted that the adaptation of Brian Selznick’s 2007 novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret was the hardest thing they had ever worked on, and its’ not difficult to see why- to meld physical scenery with CGI, against a filmed in 3D story which had to capture both the literal and emotive work and imagery of Georges Melies, one of cinema’s true pioneers, while at the same time creating a ‘Paris of the Modernist imagination’ as The New York Times critic Manohla Dargis commented.

Sketch from Hugo Storyboard
Sketch from Hugo Storyboard

Selznick’s novel, is at it’s simplest the story of Hugo, a boy living in the walls of a metropolitan train station who meets a mysterious old man…but it’s so much more than that, the unusualness of the story, echoed by the unusual format of the book which was the first novel to be awarded the Caldecott Medal for illustrations. Feretti commented that the format of the book made it seem like a ready prepared storyboard- see here for a slide show from Selznick’s website which shows the first illustrations in the book. 

Rather than try to describe in detail the complexity of the task, or the amazing results of Feretti and Lo Schiavo’s work, it’s probably easier to leave it to the experts to explain:

Here you will find a short video giving a feel for the art of Hugo: Art Direction from Hugo (2011) – IMDb

And here’s the Oscar being presented: Hugo Wins Art Direction: 2012 Oscars – YouTube

Not long to go to see who wins tonight’s award- will it be Beauty and the Beast, Blade Runner 2049, Darkest Hour, Dunkirk or The Shape of Water? 


Post Script: The Shape of Water won it…

And if you want to read more about Production Design…

5 thoughts on “Oscars! But is it Art? Production Design

Add yours

  1. Wow thank you that was interesting… oscars are always about the actors and the film itself.
    Batman and Superman are great film sets.

    But tonight I reckon the Darkest Hour could be in for some awards but not sure about this particular one as I haven’t actually seen any of them.

    Well see 😊😊

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