The 2010s have been a good decade for production design. Oscar nominations, that antiquated way to measure the quality of our profession’s yearly output, mostly got it right in this category, albeit in predictably Western-biased fashion; there were, as always, some notable omissions from international films.
Trying to make sense of trends and themes in recent filmography is tricky, but I believe in the 2010s we saw a welcome return of the big budget period film, and an overall preoccupation with more “recent” periods – mainly the 1970s and 80s. It’s also marked the rise, and complete domination of streaming as a way to watch films and TV shows.
As the decade ends, everybody is wondering if streaming platforms will be the saviour or executioner of cinema. And technology is pushing the boundaries in terms of what is possible and acceptable in actor de-ageing and even the “resurrection” of late film stars. This all means that our industry enters new, uncharted waters, and new exciting or perhaps challenging times, depending on which way you look at things.
There are a lot of cinematic “best of the decade” lists around at the moment, but not many “best production designs of the decade” list. So, here goes my list of 10 best production designs of the 2010s.
10. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, Production Designer Colin Gibson)
As you can tell by reading the rest of this list, I don’t usually do fantasy (probably watched too much in my younger years) but Mad Max: Fury Road is just so mind-bogglingly impressive! The tremendous number (and size) of bespoke vehicles, the epic scale of the chases, the inventiveness of the hardware just forced me to include it. It won the 2015 Oscar for production design, and although I personally would have given the statuette to The Revenant (further down in this list), Fury Road is a worthy contender.
9. Chernobyl (2019, Production Designer Luke Hull)
This HBO-produced limited series had to included here for the sheer scale and cinematic scope of the production design, but also the historical accuracy with which the events are portrayed. The subject is difficult – the worst nuclear accident in the history of mankind, and the challenge of recreating the Chernobyl nuclear plant and the town of Pripyat was enormous. Luke Hull and his team did a stunning job, working with a patchwork of East-European locations and soundstage builds that merge seamlessly. A thoroughly deserved Primetime Emmy for Hull, and a milestone in historical drama – if you haven’t seen it, do it. Tonight.
8. Nocturnal Animals (2016, Production Designer: Shane Valentino)
Tom Ford has (to date) made only 2 films – and they both look fantastic! Nocturnal Animals, his second feature, has a European air to it, which is no surprise as both Ford and production designer Shane Valentino, reportedly looked at Antonioni’s Red Dessert and Bertolucci’s The Conformist as inspiration for the film’s settings. It also helps that Ford has a huge art collection and is friends with some of the most well-known contemporary artists; so when the walls of the main character –an art gallery owner- had to be filled with contemporary art, all it took was a phone call to get the real article! In every respect, one of the most stylish films of the decade.
7. Birdman (2014, Production Designer: Kevin Thompson)
I am a big fan of cerebral, high concept films and Birdman is one of the very few to come out of Hollywood in recent years (it’s the second Alejandro Inarritu film in this list – probably not a coincidence). Kevin Thompson built the entire labyrinthine backstage of Broadway’s St. James Theatre on the soundstage, complete with movable walls and ceilings so the set can slowly and subtly get smaller and more claustrophobic as the main character’s mental state deteriorates. The film was designed to look like one long take, and the Steadicam shots from soundstage to location are absolutely seamless. Oh and I love the Kubrick/The Shinning reference in the carpets.
6. Anna Karenina (2012, Production Designer: Sarah Greenwood)
In Anna Karenina, director Joe Wright and production designer Sarah Greenwood pulled off an amazing narrative and visual feat; to tell a story set in 19th-century St. Petersburg as if it was filmed entirely in a run-down theatre. Anna Karenina’s scope is by no means diminished by the venue; some of the sets include a train station with a full size, moving steam engine, a skating ring and a horse racing track. It also features some of the best transitions I’ve seen for a long time, using theatrical optical illusions, trompe-l’œil and creative lighting. This is fearless film-making on a grand scale. We need more films like that.
5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011, Production Designer: Maria Djurkovic)
Maria Djurkovic was nominated for an Oscar in 2014 for Imitation Game, a beautifully designed recreation of the 1940s story behind the Enigma machine. However this adaptation of a John le Carré cold war spy novel is my favourite, as it treads the line between period-accuracy and creativity with admirable confidence. It is full of beautifully observed period details and Ken Adam-esque, creative touches: sound-proofed conference pods? Check. A monolithic, brutalist MI6 hidden within a Victorian complex? Check. Labyrinthine archive libraries? Check. Hoyte van Hoytema’s camera “hides” big parts of the sets in the shadows of a monochrome twilight – a brave decision that amplifies the film’s sense of mystery. Spy movies have rarely looked better than this.
4. The Revenant (2015, Production Designer: Jack Fisk)
Jack Fisk’s pedigree of collaborations is impressive; David Lynch, Terrence Malick, Paul Thomas Anderson, I mean the guy has worked with some of the greatest auteurs of the modern era, and his designs always hit the nail on the head in terms of the emotional and narrative tone of the film. But The Revenant is something else – the flow of Inarritu’s camera through the 1820s South-Central Dakota landscape is relentless, and every manmade structure we meet along the way looks so naturally integrated, it sets new standards for “organic” design in natural settings. Fisk used only locally sourced materials for a uniform colour palette, and even invented a technique to stand trees by pouring water in the tree’s base to freeze. Production design as an immersive experience – courtesy of Jack Fisk.
3. Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Production Designer: Adam Stockhausen)
Wes Andersons’ films always look great, but the charm of Grand Budapest Hotel by far surpasses all his previous efforts. Andersons’ one-point perspective compositions look like period, photochrom postcards. Annie Atkins’s graphics further accentuate the 2D illustrative look. But the real achievement here is the way the hotel becomes a character that changes right in front of our eyes, ageing as the decades past, shedding its youthful Art Nouveau skin to reveal layers of soviet brutalism. A true delight of colour, texture and patterns, as tasty as a carefully boxed cake from Mendl’s.
2. Hard to be a God (2013, Production Designers: Sergey Kokovkin, Georgiy Kropachyov, Elena Zhukova)
If IMDb’s listed budget of 7 million dollars is even close to the truth, it is hard to think of any other film in recent history that achieves so much with such a tiny budget. Aleksey German’s sci-fi epic from Russia, took 13 years to complete, and its production was apparently fraught with problems (this is perhaps why there is not one, but three designers credited) but the production design is absolutely stellar. At times nauseating, at times exhilarating, it is a mix of mud, rotting hardware, flesh and blood, set against a medieval landscape of perpetual disintegration. It feels like watching a live, black and white version of a Hieronymus Bosch painting – on steroids. Terrific stuff.
1. Roma (2018, Production Designer: Eugenio Caballero)
Eugenio Caballero’s work in Roma shines through tiny, period-perfect details and immaculately dressed, huge urban vistas of 1970s Mexico City. The wide-angle lens of Cuarón’s camera captures every detail with glorious clarity and the nuances of the design (the garage that is too small for the estranged father’s car, the washing line forming a theatrical proscenium over the two protagonists on the rooftop) are a joy to behold. Caballero and Cuarón grew up in the Mexico City suburb of Roma, so this was obviously a labour of love for both director and production designer. Their work resonates with me in a special way as this is the decade I grew up in (in a similarly vibrant suburb of Athens) and remember quite well. This is production design with vision and empathy – and my highlight of the decade.
- Cold War (2018, Production Designers: Marcel Slawinski, Katarzyna Sobanska-Strzalkowska)
One of the most beautiful films of the last few years. Europe and the cultural and political upheaval of the 1950s and 60s have never looked so sensual.
- Phantom Thread (2017, Production Designer: Mark Tildesley) This deservedly won the Oscar for best costumes, but Tildesley’s sparse but razor-sharp interiors deserved at least a nomination.
- Twin Peaks: The Return, Episode 8 (2017, Production Designer: Ruth De Jong)
The episode that features a huge teapot-shaped object with the voice of David Bowie. Any designer who can turn a brief like this into a stunning visual, deserves our respect.