The 5 Luminous Worlds Created by This Year’s Oscar-Nominated Production Designers

The Oscar-nominated films of 2018 took us places painstakingly real and realms that were gloriously dreamy. Thanks to these professional world-builders, we get to experience a Queen’s court and a King’s homeland that we otherwise would never see. From the African inspired design of Black Panther to a spaceship headed for the moon in First Man, this year’s crop of films gave us breathtaking places and spaces. Here are some of our favorite contributions by the current Oscar-nominated production designers.

Black Panther: Wakanda

We have had our eye on production designer Hannah Beachler since she crafted some of the most stunning backdrops of any music video in Beyonce’s Lemonade. Beachler followed that up by designing the Oscar-winning film Moonlight. It seemed like destiny when we heard she would be dreaming up the first film version of Wakanda. The result was even more stunning than we could imagine. Through extensive research of both the Black Panther comics and African culture, Beachler designed a paradise that is bursting with both technology and history.

Beachler talked with us about how she dreamed up some of the movie’s greatest designs. The attention to detail is immersive. Nature and civilization grow in harmony and the past thrives among the future.

“With the technology, we really used a lot of biomimetic,” she said. “We really looked at what are the things that are really important in nature for certain tribes. How do we take that organic thing from nature, whether it be a plant or an animal, and turn it into some type of technology? What does that plant or that animal offer or how do they defend themselves? Whether it is, in some instances, weaponizing it in some way or whether it is to create nanotechnology.”

Beachler absolutely reached her goal in designing T’Challa’s homeland. “I wanted people to just be in awe of this place and go, ‘I’ll take a ticket to Wakanda!’” she told us. Done and done. We’d be on the next flight out, if only it was possible.

The Favourite: Queen Anne’s Castle

You may not be able to ever visit the kingdom of Wakanda, but this royal locale actually exists. Moving to a lavish time in real-world history, production designer Fiona Crombie created the decadent chambers of Queen Anne’s castle. Several historic British homes were used in The Favourite, but the most indulgent and memorable can actually be toured. Crombie and her team were tasked with transforming the historic Hatfield House that is actually open for tours.

Crombie and her team had to be extremely creative, and careful, during production. Hatfield House is a historic location filled with priceless antiques. Under the supervision of professional art handlers and curators, Crombie’s team removed furniture, curtains, and floor coverings and replaced them with their own designs. Want to live like Queen Anne’s royal guests? Crombie might point you toward an antique market like the one where she picked up Sarah’s bed.

Crombie’s designs are not just passive surroundings in The Favourite. They also help tell the story of obsession and possession. “Sarah was concerned with Anne’s well-being. We showed her influence over Anne by keeping her room neat, her bed made, and her diet healthy,” Crombie revealed. “When Abigail started taking control, the room became unkempt and the food sugary and unhealthy. Abigail was intent on pleasing Anne, not opposing her wishes. We also had a subtle story arc in the floral arrangements. As Abigail took control, the flowers became more frivolous but by the end, they are comparatively somber. We created a document that charted Anne’s health, her state of mind, and the relationship dynamics, etc., and we would change the set-up of the room and details accordingly.”

First Man: Rocket to the Moon

Reaching the moon required limitless human imagination and boundless courage. Capturing the synthesis of a tense domestic life and immense political pressure required a clear vision delivered by production designer Nathan Crowley. From recreating a devastating day during a highly publicized event at the White House to the loneliness of living on the astronaut base with the people you love but have to leave, First Man reaches into the isolating experience of being a space pioneer.

Perhaps the most gripping scenes of the film, however, take place on board the test missions for the ultimately successful Apollo landing. The claustrophobic surroundings that are both cold yet necessary reveal the unthinkable conditions for Neil Armstrong and the other astronauts. A thin metal chamber is meant to keep a human alive, but the system is not infallible. Crowley’s designs remind us of the discomfort and sacrifice the characters endured to propel humanity into space.

Mary Poppins Returns: The Magic of London

Lampposts, bikes, ladders, and fountains. Ordinary objects we may pass every day without appreciating their hidden magic. Mary Poppins can turn anything into an enchanted experience, but perhaps nothing was more breathtaking in Mary Poppins Returns than the show-stopping number “Trip A Little Light Fantastic.”

Production designer John Myhre transformed London’s foggy charm into the biggest dance sequence of the film. Using the ordinary tools of lamplighters, the set became a playground for the performers. Dancing and biking burst from the dark London streets as the lamplighters illuminated the streets.

Myhre’s designs not only look incredible with that idyllic Disney style but were also functional. Dozens of dancers and BMX bikers had to safely jump, ride, and soar through the space transforming the streets into a major musical number. If that isn’t magical, we don’t know what is.

Roma: A Childhood Memory

Roma is a once in a lifetime theatrical experience. From the black and white 65-mm cinematography to the lush and dreamy memories of Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood, the film is a gorgeous and heartbreaking glimpse at Mexico City’s history. Production designer Eugenio Caballero spoke with us previously about mining Cuarón’s past for inspiration.

“In the beginning, we talked about our childhood, about those sensations of childhood, for example, what they’d have for breakfast, what the conversations were around the table, what they did in their free time, like when they sat to watch the television,” Caballero said.

The movie is as authentic as possible, even incorporating family heirlooms. Cuaron chose to cast first-time actors like Oscar-nominated Yalitza Aparicio, which Caballero took into consideration. Rather than throwing the newcomer onto a soundstage, he looked for existing locations that could make the experience more authentic.

“We didn’t want to do this film on a sound stage because of the way we wanted to light it, plus, we have non-actors, so it would be difficult to feel like we were in a house if we were shooting inside of stage,” Caballero said. “Yet we knew we needed a lot of filming flexibility, so we looked for a lot of houses that were about to be demolished. We changed the structure, took out a lot of walls, changed every tile, changed the floors. Basically, we used the house’s bones, but we completely changed everything else.”

By recreating a bygone Mexico City, Caballero’s designs in Roma give us an intimate view into Cuarón’s mind – and what a beautiful and sentimental place it is.

Featured Image: Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER. Black Panther/T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Ph: Film Frame. ©Marvel Studios 2018


Kelle Long

Kelle has written about film and TV for The Credits since 2016. Follow her on Twitter @molaitdc for interviews with really cool film and TV artists and only occasional outbursts about Broadway, tennis, and country music. Please no talking or texting during the movie. Unless it is a musical, then sing along loudly.

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