Best Production Designs of the 2010s

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.

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To de-age or not to de-age? The Irishman (2019, dir. Martin Scorcese)

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” lists. So, here goes my list of 10 best production designs of the 2010s.

10. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, Production Designer Colin Gibson)

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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)

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This HBO-produced limited series had to be 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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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“All the world’s a stage…” Roma (dir. Alfonso Cuarón 2018)

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.

Honorary Mentions:

  • 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, 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.
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David Bowie as a tea kettle. Twin Peaks: the Return (dir. David Lynch, 2017)

The mid-European style of American dystopia

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A Mercedes E-class sedan in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Watching the two seasons of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, one thing becomes apparent very early on: Gilead’s ruling class loves Mercs! The commanders and their wives love to be ferried around in luxurious black Mercedes sedans and SUVs. Gilead’s rulers’ fascination with the German brand is such that although the totalitarian regime uses cars of other brands, Mercs are the only cars “allowed” to bear a brand logo! Look closely and you’ll see that all the (blacked-out) Lincolns, Fords and Cadillac SUVs are stripped of their logos, as if these are reviled reminders of an era when their passengers were the happy families of the American Dream.

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Gilead “govenment” SUVs – all branding has been removed.

This choice of car-maker is not just a stylistic preference; like everything else in the show, cars are carefully chosen for their contextual associations. Mercedes is a symbol of wealth and power — it was also Hitler’s luxury car-maker of choice. The German cars are significant even when they are not used: in episode 11 in season 2, when Offred finally finds a vehicle to escape with, it is a shiny 1975 Chevrolet Camaro, carefully hidden in an inconspicuous shed. This proudly American (logos and all) car is obviously a symbol of freedom; it is also the only piece of streamlined, classic American design across all 23 episodes of both seasons.

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Commander Waterfords’s house: an 1893 Victorian mansion in Hamilton, Ontario.

Mercs are not the only European “import” in The Handmaid’s Tale. Julie Berghoff, the production designer of the first 5 episodes and the other designers of the show have carefully “erased” any sign of Americana from the world of Gilead, and replaced it entirely with middle-European influences. Gone are the classic American diners with the chrome-edged counters. Gone are the 1950s and 1960s motel signs and classic American graphics. Architecture is strictly limited to the styles of turn-of-the-century Victorian and Gothic Revival for the houses of the commanders and of Bauhaus-inspired modernist for public spaces. The setting and the filming locations are key in this decision; the story is set in New England, home of some of the oldest, European-influenced housing in the U.S.; the filming locations in and around Toronto, Canada are of similar age and match the mid-European styling perfectly. In fact, when Offred walks across the River Humber you would be forgiven in thinking she is strolling along the banks of the Rhein, somewhere in Cologne or Basel.

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Humber river in Toronto, Canada, as used in The Handmaid’s Tale

In horror films (psychological or otherwise), the use of European aesthetic influences in American settings is not a new thing. From Psycho, to The Exorcist, and more recently to Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, the preferred architectural style for every haunted house, mysterious mansion or cobweb-covered abandoned estate, is resolutely middle-European. In dark fantasy it is the same; Tim Burton, and more recently Guillermo del Toro have built their careers exploring (and exploiting) the European — mainly Gothic — artistic heritage to embellish their dark fairy-tales. Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is the most obvious, recent example; the story unfolds in Baltimore, Maryland but the sets resemble a darker, crumbling version of Amelie’s Paris. It is similar to the “villain with the British accent” fad in action films; if there is a house or other setting where sinister or highly dramatic things are about to happen, it is bound to be old and it is bound to be of European architectural heritage.

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Elisa’s apartment in The Shape of Water.

This approach has now almost become a cliché, but in The Handmaid’s Tale, it works exceptionally well, supported by an appropriately muted, “Nordic” colour palette. The costume design reinforces the concept, with the European element represented by the Amish-inspired handmaids’ uniforms and the black-clad government guards and officials (taken straight from the Nazi uniforms of the SS and the Italian fascist blackshirts). With the third season of The Handmaid’s Tale approaching soon, we can only expect even more European luxury cars and classically decorated, Victorian mansions on show. Hopefully the new episodes will also remain free of villains with British accents!

The Unbearable Lightness of (period) Detail

A favourite scene from Philip Kauffman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being came up on my YouTube feed the other day. So I clicked play and watched Thomas tell his lover Sabina that “her hat is the detail that makes her totally different from all other women”. Sabina then explains how this bowler hat is very, very old because it belonged to her great, great grandfather. At that point, my mind drifted to something completely different. I thought: “This hat looks way too new. Surely it cannot be a hundred years old.”

Therein lies the curse of the designer obsessed with period-accurate detail. Being able to freely revisit scenes from your favourite films on YouTube means that you get to discover previously unnoticed flaws (in this case, a minor flaw — it was the right hat; it maybe needed a bit of ageing down).

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). The bowler hat.

In my career, I have been lucky to have worked with designers and directors who took historical accuracy seriously. I can still remember the late Antony Minghella visiting the props department of Cold Mountain, in our offices in an abandoned office block just outside Prague, to check the hand-sewn Confederate and Union military flags we had made locally. He said to us: “We have a duty to all the people that died in the battle of Petersburg to get these right”.

For Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, I was once sent from London on a day trip to the University of Sussex’s archive in Brighton, with the sole purpose of photographing Virginia Woolf’s original letters, so they could be accurately reproduced for the film, using period-accurate fountain pens, ink and paper.

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The Hours (2002). Virginia Woolf’s letter.

No such dedication seems to exist in a lot of recent shows, where periods seem to blend, 50s electric wall clocks have no cords, and Victorian newspapers feature inkjet-printed photos. I am not talking about small, no-budget productions here. Even big, expensive shows like Amazon’s recent adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock seem to take liberties with period styling, mixing fashion and architectural styles and infusing the visuals with modern touches, producing results that in some cases resemble pastiche. It is not always the art department’s fault. More often than not, these are “strategic” choices of the director and the producers, in an effort to repackage the show for a modern audience. The art department is just following instructions.

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Sleeveless Victorian frock? Tinted specs? Early 1900s Australia looks very Lagerfeld. Picnic at Hanging Rock (2018)

What is even more irritating, is that even respectable film and TV critics don’t seem to notice this lapse in historical accuracy. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw hailed Call Me By Your Name as a “ravishingly beautiful film”. I guess any film shot in the summertime Italian countryside and starring handsome actors can be called “ravishingly beautiful”, but I’m afraid the recreation of early 80s Italy is questionable. Shirts are too baggy, shorts are too long, every motorbike is a shiny Vespa, the family seems to own the entire back catalogue of Lacoste polo shirts, and so on. It looks more like a fashion editorial, than an attempt to recreate a period. And don’t even get me started on props. I still can’t get over the shiny, modern Illy coffee tins.

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Call Me By Your Name (2017). Shinny modern Illy coffee tins in 80s Italy.

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Timeline of Illy coffee tin designs.

Of course, this is not a new problem. And sure, there are still examples out there of films and film-makers who respect historical accuracy — check Tom Ford’s A Single Man if you want to get a dose of impeccable 50s styling. I just feel that in the age of Netflix and Amazon Video, the examples are few and far between.

This might sound like a rant about things that are really not that important, but I feel that Antony Minghella was right. As professionals charged with the task of recreating past periods, we do have a duty to get things right — or at least as right as possible. Otherwise, we are at risk of producing work that is homogenised, and with no contextual bearing in reality. And when we get things right, it does make a difference. Look at Barry Lyndon, and the amazing set and costume work that looks like it jumped out of a Constable landscape or a Gainsborough social scene. In 50 years from now, every film school in the world will still hold it as the golden standard of period styling. Who is going to remember Amazon’s adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock?

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Barry Lyndon (1974) Period styling, done properly.

 

Carlo Simi: Framing the Action

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You may or may not be a fan of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, but there is no escaping the fact that they have an enduring influence; Quentin Tarantino, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese are self-confessed fans, and Clint Eastwood dedicated his Oscar for Unforgiven to Leone. I grew up with spaghetti westerns — there was a time in the ’80s that they were a staple on Greek television, and not just Leone’s well-known ones, but also obscure ones by Sergio Corbucci, Enzo Barboni and others. Some of these were real gems — I still think Corbucci’s The Great Silence is one of the best revisionist westerns to come from either side of the Atlantic. The main reason I liked spaghetti westerns was the iconography: the low-angle shots of larger-than-life characters, the stylised action and the comic-book sensibility that was so different from anything coming from the United States. They were also great fun to watch.

Instrumental in the creation of that iconography was the work of production designer Carlo Simi, Leone’s collaborator and designer of films like For a Fistful of Dollars, Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Looking at Leone’s films again, one can identify the visual devices and the carefully structured staging that Simi and Leone used to establish this highly stylised world. One of these visual devices was the way they used the architecture, the locations and the landscape to frame the action. A good example is the famous shootout in Sad Hill, the cemetery in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Setting this climactic scene within the big circular centre of the cemetery elevates the characters from mere combatants to high-drama actors on stage in an ancient tragedy. This action framing is found everywhere in Simi’s work; every whitewash archway, every telegraph pole or wooden fence frames or complements a dramatic moment.

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Above: Ancient Roman Amphitheatre in Fiesole, Italy. Below: Sad Hill cemetery.

Highly stylised staging can be risky in cinema. In the hands of a less talented director, actors can become parodies of themselves, and in the hands of a less talented designer, stylised settings can lose their grounding in reality. Leone and Simi were clever enough to infuse their stylised settings with a great deal of historically accurate detail, thus making them believable. The Spanish location builds, like the famous town of ‘El Paso’ built in the desert of Tabernas in Almeria, look more real than the real thing. They easily compare with or surpass the detail in the best films of Ford or Peckinpah. But Simi did not just create the sets. He also designed the costumes, and is credited with the creation of the iconic poncho-caped look of Eastwood’s “man with no name” character.

A testament to Simi’s influence is how much his costume and set designs have been imitated throughout the years, not just in westerns, but also in commercials, music videos and indeed in the work of postmodernist directors like Tarantino. Carlo Simi’s work in realising Sergio Leone’s vision of the Wild West illustrates perfectly how a production designer’s influence can occasionally define and characterise an entire genre, but also reach beyond that.

For more information about Carlo Simi, check out a Facebook page dedicated to his life and work here.

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Carlo Simi (left) with Sergio Leone (right)

 

The symbolism of rocks

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I am a big fan of Antonioni but watching L’Avventura left me with mixed feelings. There are scenes of profound sincerity and poignancy. There are also scenes of awkward, mundane action – which is one of Antonioni’s hallmarks and works perfectly in films like La Notte, but here I just do not feel it serves any purpose. There is also some clumsy acting – Monica Vitti as the devoted but gullible Claudia is as radiant as ever, but occasionally she is out of her depth. Gabriele Ferzetti, as the handsome and capricious Sandro, is experienced and confident, but seems miscast – I can’t help but wonder what Marcello Mastroianni could have done with this role.

Whatever the shortfalls, this is a film of breathtaking beauty. The choice of locations is impeccable, and architecture is as important as in all of Antonioni’s films. Sandro (a failed architect) even has a brief monologue where he marvels at the beauty of Italian renaissance architecture and laments its demise. He concludes: “Who needs beautiful things anymore?”; in reality, he is citing modernism and mass production as an excuse for his own failings. Piero Poletto, Antonioni’s regular production designer, creates lavish interiors for the functions of the film’s privileged socialites, and juxtaposes them with harsh, unforgiving natural landscapes. The rocks of the Aeolian islets where Anna disappears is where the existential adventure begins. Poletto’s work on this film might not be as impressive as the hand-painted locations of Red Desert, but is equally evocative and perhaps even more functional on a symbolic level; the stark contrast of the settings perfectly illustrates and amplifies the emotional conflicts of the film’s characters.

For me, this is the kind of film that the term “flawed masterpiece” was coined for. But regardless of its strengths and weaknesses, it was great to watch another film from a director who does not feel the need (or the producer’s pressure) to explain what happens in the end. In a time of easy solutions and happy endings, it was a refreshing experience.