On February 24th the great and good of Hollywood will descend on the Dolby Theatre for the 91st annual Academy Awards, honouring the best films from the past 12 months. As ever, the competition is fierce – none more so than in the Best Production Design category, which this year sees high-spec superhero epics pitted against lavish period romps. Here’s our guide to the five contenders, plus one we think deserves a special mention.
Alfonso Cuarón and production designer Eugenio Caballero went to extraordinary lengths to accurately reconstruct early 1970s Mexico City, the setting for this miraculous monochrome drama. Drawing from photographs and personal memories, they rebuilt the director’s childhood home – complete with furniture borrowed from Cuarón’s family – from scratch, resulting in a richly detailed and immersive viewing experience.
One of First Man’s most impressive feats is the way it contrasts the transcendent thrill of space flight with the everyday drabness of midcentury America. Director Damien Chazelle not only tasked production designer Nathan Crowley with transporting viewers to the surface of the moon but also 1960s suburban Houston, emphasising the cosy middle-class domesticity which astronaut Neil Armstrong is so desperate to escape.
It’s rare for a comic book movie to be praised for its production design – so ubiquitous and uniform are the Marvel and DC aesthetics. But Wakanda, the fictional, technologically-advanced African country featured in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, is among the most visually striking settings in recent memory. According to production designer Hannah Beachler, the film’s sleek Afrofuturist look was inspired by British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid.
Filled with period-accurate costumes, sets and props, The Favourite authentically depicts the court of Queen Anne in the early 1700s and was filmed at Hampton Court and Hatfield House. Yet director Yorgos Lanthimos – renowned for his pitch-black humour and stark visual style – and production designer Fiona Crombie also took inspiration from less obvious historic sources, such as Italian Mannerist painter Parmigianino’s ‘Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror’, to give the film its disorienting wide-angle perspective.
Mary Poppins Returns
With six nominations and two wins (for 2002’s Chicago and 2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha) to his name, production designer John Myhre knows a thing or two about impressing Academy voters. For Mary Poppins Returns, he built a replica of Cherry Tree Lane on the largest soundstage at Shepperton Studios. Crucially, Myhre updated the famous Banks’ residence to make it feel more homely than before while ensuring the film remained faithful to Disney’s Technicolor original.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Despite not being nominated for any technical awards, If Beale Street Could Talk boasts arguably the most evocative interiors of any film from this year’s Oscars crop. Set in 1970s New York, Barry Jenkins’ bittersweet tale of burgeoning romance and racial injustice sees production designer Mark Friedberg meticulously recreate the crumbling Harlem of James Baldwin’s source novel, distilling the essence of this distinct period and place into each scene.