art, History in Films, movies, oscars

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 http://www.cinemamonster.com 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 

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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

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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.

actors, movies, oscars

Films about the Ballet

Let’s go backwards. You’ve probably seen Natalie Portman in 2010 in her academy winning performance, The Black Swan.

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In Swan Lake, Princess Odette is pure and lovely and represented as the white swan. The character Nina is the white swan in life. Her mentor Thomas Leroy, the designing choreographer and creative director of the New York City Ballet, casts Nina as the Swan Princess in his upcoming season. The challenge for Nina is playing the opposite role, Odile, the black swan. Nina cannot turn herself into her evil, dark twin and almost loses the role to another dancer. The great part of Natalie Portman’s performance is Nina’s transformation into the dark side of herself. She hallucinates and experiences dark trips until the audience cannot tell what is real and what is imaginary. Through Darren Aronofsky’s direction, the audience descends with Nina and the journey is disturbing and thrilling. The defensive shields and the survival mechanisms which bring on abnormal behavior are intriguing in books and films. I like the interplay between the human struggle of good and evil and Nina’s grapple with good and evil in herself. Darren Aronofsky takes chances, and I admire that. What was real and what was Nina’s descent into madness? Welcome the unreliable narrator.

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Nina struggles with a stressful career as prima ballerina in the competitive world of ballet. Adding to the nerve-wracking auditions and the self-discipline required to give the best performance of this classic role debilitates Nina. Her mother is an over-controlling, possessive woman who won’t let her daughter grow up. Always referring to Nina as the perfect little girl, Nina twists the concept of perfection into madness. As she internally transforms into her dark side, externally the audience sees this change through the cinematography. Nina plucks black feathers from her shoulders. She sees blood pouring out of her finger tips. The color black surrounds Nina. The scenes are filmed at night or back stage in the wings or in dark subways or in her shadowed makeup room. One of the more disturbing scenes occurs when she runs into her mother’s room and sees paintings of herself talking back to her. The jiggling of the eyes and the mouths laughing at her illustrate her complete mental break down. Finally, she wrestles with herself and kills the good side of her with a stab to the stomach claiming, “It’s my turn now!” It’s one of the best psychological thrillers ever.

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Okay, so The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) may not be exclusively about ballet, but the principal character, Cate Blanchett, plays one. Though she’s not anorexic looking like Portman, almost beefy for a ballerina, I thought her “line” was near-perfect. The film was one of my favorites of the decade, and Blanchett’s performance was exceptional because of her dancing ability. Director David Fincher’s shots were outstanding from the interior period settings (Russian hotel)to the battle scene (boat/bombing) during WWII. The special effects and make up made the film. Thanks to F. Scott Fitzgerald for the original short story for which Eric Roth based his screenplay. It was an original, curious script coming out of Hollywood. The special effects, the acting, and the story line make it a must for any mover goer. I loved watching Pitt go backwards in time while Cate’s character grew up and old. The supporting cast–Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton, Julia Ormond, and Elle Fanning all added depth and originality to the overall production. While it won at the Oscars for Visual Effects, Art Direction, and Makeup,  Brad Pitt and Fincher lost top awards to Sean Penn (Milk) and director/film to Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire).

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The Turning Point, 1977.

This film was up for top film of the year with eleven awards but won none! That was the year Annie Hall won the principal awards. For me, the best part of The Turning Point was Mikhail Baryshnikov. Sorry, Anne and Shirley. I had the BIGGEST crush on the talented, leaping superstar from Russia. I was so upset when he married Jessica Lange and had a baby with her. Ha!

Even if you don’t know much about ballet or why one dancer is better than the other, take a look at the following video from Baryshnikov’s heighday in the late 70s, 80s.  The height of his leaps are legendary, and the difficulty of his turns and his “line” (the vertical center of his body) never veers off. That’s the mark of excellence.

The best film of all about the ballet is the classic The Red Shoes (1948). This is the film that inspired Martin Scorsese to join the film industry as a director and why you see his use of the color red in many of his films.

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Like The Black Swan, this is a story within a story. Written and produced by Michael Powell and Eric Pressburger, The Red Shoes is the story of Victoria, a young ballerina who joins a respected ballet company and becomes the lead dancer in a new ballet called The Red Shoes. The ballet is based upon the fairy tale from Hans Christian Anderson. The film stars ballet dancer/actress, Moira Shearer.

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Shearer as the black swan

The respect for the film centers around the cinematography by Jack Cardiff and his creative use of Technicolor.

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The Plot: Boris the creative designer behind the ballet hires Julian to compose the score. Julian and Victoria fall in love and the controlling Boris won’t tolerate the infidelity. The love triangle tugs and pushes Victoria to mental extremes. When you watch this great classic, enjoy the fifteen minute ballet sequence. If you appreciated American in Paris, you’d like this film.

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I can’t help but notice the similarities between The Black Swan and The Red Shoes. Lovely ladies driven to tragic ends by the strong task-masters who command and “own” their talent.  Makes for good movies, anyway.