Best Production Design in Film

Production Design in film is the place to where the audience escapes. Creating the visual backdrop and supplying the context that moves the narrative forward, it’s the art behind the film.

Thanks to Joseph at for accepting my “Top 10” list about the history of Production Design in film. Shouldn’t a cardinal rule in films be to offer great artistic design? After all, film is a visual experience that clings to your consciousness; the chance to create an alternate reality is a powerful medium. When I think of beautiful films, the ones that pop into my head are settings which showcase the grandeur of nature. Flawed films are elevated when breathtaking natural settings such as Legends of the Fall or The Last Samurai surround mediocre scripts. Take a strong script and watch the film catapult to near-perfection like Last of the Mohicans. Some criticize directors for providing style over substance like Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, but they get away with it because they create artistic wonderlands.

Originally called “Best Art Design” the category was renamed in 2012. Since 1947, it has shared the award with “Set Decorator”. Looking at the Academy Award winners, I’ve tried to narrow down the ‘Best of the Decade’ from 1920s to the present. Since it’s my list, feel free to disagree. I’m just sticking with Oscar winners. Your favorite film might never have been nominated and unjustly so. Here’s my Top 10 by decade:

One:  1920s 

220px-The-Bridge-of-San-Luis-Rey-El-puente-de-San-Luis-Rey bridge-san-luis

There were only two years to choose from, 1927/28 and 1928/29. I picked The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1929) released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It’s a remake of the Thorton Wilder Pulitzer winning book. A great read.  Have you seen the 2004 version starring Robert DeNiro?

Two:  1930s


In 1938, Warner Brothers released this swashbuckling classic starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Claude Rains, and Basil Rothbone (What a name!) Filmed in Technicolor, the original men in green tights never looked so good.

Three:  1940s

Now it gets harder. Citizen Kane and Rebecca were nominated but did not win. Those that did win, Gaslight, Anna and the King of Siam, and The Yearling had memorable art design. But, I’m going to pick my favorite ballet film, The Red Shoes (1948).

Four:  1950s

Oh, boy. Look at these mighty contenders: Ben-Hur. On the Waterfront. Gigi. A Streetcar Named Desire. Sunset Boulevard. An American in Paris. How can I pick only one?

I’m going to go for my personal favorite. Dr. Nemo’s underwater world mesmerized me. That organ! Remember Bach’s Taccata in D? How perfect for the mysterious journey. My bet goes to the Jules Verne classic, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea starring Kirk Douglas, James Mason, and Peter Lorre.

Five:  1960s

Anthony Masters is the man. 2001: A Space Odyssey was nominated but did not win in 1968. Other winners throughout the decade included Cleopatra, Lawrence of Arabia, and Camelot, but I have to go with my heart and proclaim West Side Story the winner of the decade.

Six:  1970s

With grand choices like Cabaret, The Sting, and Patton to choose from, I opted for my film favorite, Star Wars.

Seven:  1980s

This decade was easy to pick. Dangerous Liaisons was a perfect period piece.

Eight:  1990s

A fabulous decade for film, I suggest a tie for 1993, Schindler’s List and 1997, Titanic.

Nine:  2000s

Okay, I know I’m supposed to pick Avatar, but I don’t want to. I’m not really a fan of the film. With CGI in full swing, worlds are magical places. It makes it harder to pick from Memoirs of a Geisha, Moulin Rouge! Chicago, Lord of the Rings I – 3, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I vote for the stunning world of the 1920s and classic Hollywood, The Aviator. 

Ten:  2010s

This should be easy, right? There’s only four choices: Alice in Wonderland, Hugo, Lincoln, and The Great Gatsby. Since I just picked Leo and the 1920s, I’ll skip it. Though I can do without Johnny Depp in make up, wonderland was a magical place and worthy of the award.

Would you dare to pick an overall winner from the 1920s to the present? CGI seems like cheating to me. It was harder to create colorful, magical places that were believable back in Hollywood’s classic era. That’s why The Red Shoes wins for me.

37 thoughts on “Best Production Design in Film

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  1. Another awesome post Cindy! I always appreciate a great production design in movies, often times they enhance the experience and enrich the story. Oh man, that reminds me I still need to see The Red Shoes, I know that’s something I’d enjoy.


      1. Ha..ha.. yeah I think so Cindy! Btw, I finally saw The Apartment last night for one of my BlindSpot blogathon thing. I LOVE it, review coming tonight 🙂


  2. This article is a nice piece of design all by itself! I liked all your choices and your reasons for lauding them. I’m a big fan of forced perspective, so films like The Red Shoes are favorites. My favorite production designers are William Cameron Menzies (who invented the job title), Henry Bumstead (To Kill a Mockingbird, Vertigo, The Sting) and Ken Adam (Dr. Strangelove, the 007 films 1962-79, The Madness of King George).


    1. Hi Mikey! Thanks, for you nice thoughts and your comments. Henry Bumbstead’s relationship with Hitchcock (Vertigo and The Man Who Knew Too Much 🙂 and Clint Eastwood ( I loved Million Dollar Baby) are great and make the director shine. It’s fascinating the relationship between the designer, the cinematographer, and the director. Costumes, Music–they are all important, but if you don’t have the set, how can you film a movie, right? WCMenzies — how fun his H.G. Wells adaptations were from the 50s. and of course, ‘Gone with the Wind’ who isn’t moved by Tara, the fallen positioned bodies in the town square, and Atlanta burning. 🙂


  3. Interesting. I’ve seen some low budget films with great environments and excellent cinematography that really made an otherwise poor movie at least visually captivating.
    It’s somewhat interesting in that movies went from mainly being made mainly indoors – in studios – to on location – and now with all the CGI stuff, back into the studio. ?? Full circle.
    Loved that sub in 20,000 Leagues – great movie.


    1. Ha! Great insight. You are right. I know that alternate realities aren’t “real” but become them when we watch films on the screen, but it seems very strange to stand in front of a green screen and deliver lines like you mean them. 20,000 Leagues is a fun, isn’t it? Thanks, JC


    1. You’re a peach. Now, which are some of your favorites? I’m curious what you consider exemplary “sets” and artistically made films. I assume from the classic era? 😉


  4. Oh I love this post Cindy! Such a great spotlight on one of the ingredients that can truly make or break a movie. So many of the films you mentioned fit in perfectly. I love what you say about The Last of the Mohicans! It’s truly one of my favorite movies of all time. And as you point out, throughout the years there have been shining examples of amazing production design elevating movies.


  5. 10’s Intolerance / Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
    20’s Passion of Joan of Arc/ Napoleon
    30’s Modern Times / Wizard of Oz
    40’s Citizen Kane / Children of Paradise
    50’s Imitation of Life / Seventh Seal
    60’s The Leopard / Fellini Satyricon / Dr. Strangelove / Blow Up / Far From the Madding Crowd
    70’s Solaris / The Conformist / The Holy Mountain / The Devils /Cries and Whispers
    80’s One from the Heart / The Cook, the Thief the Wife, the Lover / Blade Runner
    90’s Three Colors / Prospero’s Books / The Garden / The Thin Red Line
    00’s In the Mood for Love / 2046


    1. LOL. I’m glad you contributed. Hhmmm. How to respond. IN retrospect, The Wizard of Oz, is the perfect film in many ways, including production design. It was only because it aired on TV after 1956 that it rose to such an iconic stature. I sure appreciate it more than Gone with the Wind. I’m embarassed to admit I’ve not sat down and watched the 1945 classic by Marcel Carné even though I have heard how fantastic Children of Paradise is. I love Dr. Strangeglove–anything Kubrick–The Conformist is esoteric and modern and wonderful. Yes, yes, to Bladerunner. The Thin Red Line is my least favorite of Oliver Stone and this trilogy in particular. Zhang Ziyi can do no wrong in my eyes–2046 is a beautiful film. Bill, I can’t tell you enough how glad I am you pop round and share your thoughts. Thanks!


      1. Cindy, The Thin Red Line is Terrence malick’s version of excellent james Jones WWII novel. Oliver Stone? methinks you are mistaking it for something the way, i enjoy reading all your posts, but only comment if i think I have something to add. Here is an anusing anecdote about Wizard of Oz. I was telling my wife about how the whole nation watched it on tv once a year and her response was, “if they wanted to see it so badly, why didnt they just rent it?” It seems the video generation knows nothing of the days when we were limited to television broadvasts and theatrical revivals to see oldmovies.


        1. LOL. Remember Heidi, all of Ray Harryhausen films, Ben Hur, Mary Poppins, and The Sound of Music? Remember when cartoons only came on TV on Saturdays? Sigh. oh, and oops, I was thinking of Heaven and Earth for Stone. 🙂


  6. Hi, Cindy:

    Good stuff!

    Can’t argue ‘Barry Lyndon’, ‘Citizen Kane’ or ‘Star Wars’. All exemplary examples of detailing and setting mood.

    Personal Honorary Mentions would include ‘Dark City’, ‘Dr. Strangelove…’ and the ‘Nero Wolfe Mystery’ series.


    1. Hiya, Kevin! 🙂
      Dark City….1998, stellar cast. Why haven’t I seen it? Shame on me. I love a good gothic film. Dr. Strangeglove deserves ultimate respect. How original showcasing the genius of Kubrick and Peter Sellers. He was multi-talented and made it all look so easy. Thanks, Kevin.


  7. What a great post Cindy, it really got me thinking. We just rewatched ‘Billy Elliot’ and were really taken with the production values: beautiful photography, juxtaposition of dancing/mining, soft/grit etc and of course fantastic music. SD


  8. That’s a great selection with West Side Story Cindy. I remember seeing it in high school and at the time really not enjoying it because our instructor was one of those types who literally enjoyed scraping his nails down the chalkboard and then forced us into filling out these sheets of paper with info about the movie. It distracted so much from the film itself. But I do remember liking it. It was one class the exposed me to this, and The Music Man.


    1. Hi Tom. Eegads, what a horrible experience with WWS. I hope you will consider a revisit for I bet you would be amazed how gorgeous the film is. The choreography just blew me away and still does after seeing probably thirty times. Music Man has a great set,too, and while it’s hokey, I still love it. The songs were sacharine sweet and I don’t care. I loved Shirley Jones and little Ron Howard.


  9. The amazing thing about Barry Lyndon are the scenes shot in pure candle-light, an astonishing achievement. Even today with all the tech we have it is a very difficult trick to pull off, then again it is Kubrick


    1. I marvel at him. I read where he invented a certain lens in order to film in natural light. I don’t think most people appreciate Barry Lyndon nor the genius of Kubrick.


  10. He didn’t invent it, what he did was take the lens from a spy satellite and used that as it absorbed huge amounts of light. I believe to this day the only way to shoot in 100% candlelight is to use the very same camera he used.


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