During the 95th Academy Awards on Sunday, the stars and creators of this year’s Oscar nominated movies will convene in the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles once again. Unlike last year, when eight categories—including best production design—were relegated to a preshow, winners in all 23 categories will be announced during the ceremony this year, which begins at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT on ABC.
The films nominated for best production design this year represent a wide variety of stories and world-building techniques. With a full range of ingenuity and creativity, these movies transport the viewer through design. Below, we explore the movie magic used to create these five special films.
All Quiet on the Western Front
Nominees: Production designer Christian M. Goldbeck and set decorator Ernestine Hipper
Main filming locations: An old Soviet airfield in Milovice, Czech Republic; other various locations around Prague; and Barrandov Studios in Prague
Overall production budget: $20 million
For this World War I drama centering around a young German soldier fighting against the French, hundreds of meters of trenches were dug on an airfield in the Czech Republic. Though around 15 machines were used to dig the initial holes, a grounds crew of 60, a carpentry crew of 160, and about 30 scenic painters were brought in to make the battlefield look as authentic as possible. “The problem with diggers is that they can only dig square holes,” Goldbeck, a first time Oscar nominee, jokes. “There was a beautiful greens department we had, but they weren’t doing much green, so I called it the mud crew.”
The trenches also featured a drainage system, as plenty of water had to be used to make the scene look as damp and uncomfortable as it would have been in real life. “We thought that the audience should not only be able to see the sets, they should also be able to smell them,” Goldbeck says. On a different field, the soldiers’ barracks were built entirely from the ground up, a process that Goldbeck estimates took two and a half months. And when filming wrapped, restoring the airfield to its original state was a feat in and of itself. “I have some beautiful photographs of people gardening the new lawn,” Goldbeck adds. “It looks now like we had never been there.”
Avatar: The Way of Water
Nominees: Production designers Dylan Cole and Ben Procter and set decorator Vanessa Cole
Main filming locations: Stone Street Studios in Wellington, New Zealand, and Manhattan Beach Studios in Manhattan Beach, California
Overall production budget: $400 million (estimated)
Director James Cameron’s long awaited big-budget sequel to the 2009 film Avatar explores even more of the moon Pandora and, although visual effects technology is integral to this story, “there was a monstrous amount of set building,” Cole says. He was responsible for designing the world of Pandora and its inhabitants, the Na’vi, while Procter worked on the surroundings of the human characters. Most of the filming, which included live action shots as well as “performance capture” shots, which are later enhanced digitally, was done at a studio in Wellington, New Zealand. “I emphasize that every single bit of motion of any character you see in the film is all captured,” Procter says—meaning that the actors are not merely providing voice-overs like they would in an animated film.
A new challenge this time around was underwater filming, which took place at Manhattan Beach Studios in a 250,000 gallon tank of water measuring 120 feet long, 60 feet wide, and 30 feet deep, with a propeller system to create a 10-knot current. The cast studied free diving in preparation, and Kate Winslet even held her breath for an astounding seven minutes and 47 seconds during filming. Another hurdle? The fact that this crew was filming the third installment of Avatar at the same time as Way of Water.
Nominees: Production designer Rick Carter and set decorator Karen O’Hara
Main filming locations: Locations in the greater Los Angeles area, including a cul-de-sac of midcentury-style homes, a ranch-style home, and a craftsman-style home; The Orpheum Theater and The El Rancho Theater; movie ranches Golden Oak and Club Ed; Malibu’s Zuma Beach; Susan Miller Dorsey High School; and soundstages in Santa Clarita, California
Overall production budget: $40 million
Inspired by cowriter and director Steven Spielberg’s life, The Fabelmans is perhaps the most lo-fi of the best production design nominees, but that just goes to show the importance of home in a story about something all humans experience—growing up. This was Carter’s eleventh time working with Spielberg, and three homes from different chapters in the filmmaker’s life were recreated for this uniquely personal project, but accuracy was much less important than transporting the viewer to a different time period and emotional state. “All the props were items that Steven and his three sisters told Karen O’Hara, the set decorator, and myself that they remembered having in their life,” Carter says.
Nominees: Production designers Catherine Martin and Karen Murphy and set decorator Beverley Dunn
Main filming locations: The soundstages and backlot at Village Roadshow Studios in Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia
Overall production budget: $85 million
There’s only one place to start when you’re designing the sets of an Elvis Presley biopic: Graceland. Martin, Murphy, and art director Chris Tangney traveled to Elvis’s legendary Memphis mansion before production began, also making a stop at his birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi. “We were given unfettered access to Graceland and its archives,” Murphy says. Notes and pictures from this visit, as well as other archival photography, were then used as the team custom-made nearly every piece of furniture in the film, down to the carpet in the International Hotel set, which they had printed.
They built their very own Graceland in Australia, the decor inside changing slightly throughout the film as years pass. One room which posed a particular challenge was Elvis’s bedroom, as visitors are not permitted inside and there are no photographs of it. “It is at the family’s request that no one visits that bedroom. It was where he passed away and it was his inner sanctum,” Murphy says. The Presley family made an exception, however, for director Baz Luhrmann, who was allowed to see the room without taking any pictures. “He told us how he saw it, and Baz is very descriptive, very eloquent, and he also speaks in a way that you understand in design terms. He talked about the technology in the room from the ’70s and how there were intercoms and radios and stereo systems on his bedside table that had been built in, and TVs built into the ceiling, and the textures. He described all of that to us, and we went to work designing something from a verbal description,” Murphy says.
Nominees: Production designer Florencia Martin and set decorator Anthony Carlino
Main filming locations: Historic mansions and homes across California, including Shea Castle, Castle Green, Hummingbird Ranch, Busby Berkley’s former Beaux Arts Mansion, the Wattles Mansion, and more; 1920s-era theaters, including The United Artists Theatre at the Ace Hotel Los Angeles, The Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, and The Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro, California; and Paramount studios
Overall production budget: $80 million
With a three-hour-and-nine-minute runtime, this tale of excess and debauchery in 1920s Hollywood is filled with gorgeous examples of architecture from that time period. During the silent film era, Los Angeles was just being developed, and there were none of the boxy modern glass houses of today. These early film industry pioneers “were building Tudor Revival and Gothic Revival and Spanish Revival because they were just trying to emulate the things that they thought were great and beautiful,” says Martin.
To furnish these properties, Carlino and prop master Gay Perello pulled from LA’s wealth of prop houses, including Warner Brothers’s own supply. “Warner Brothers has their collection of antiques from Jack Warner’s wife when the studio was built in the ’20s and ’30s,” says Martin. “So it’s pretty amazing because you can get pieces that were used since silent-film era.”