The LAMB Devours the Oscars – Best Art Direction

by Dylan · January 28, 2008 · LAMB Devours the Oscars · 18 Comments

Editor’s note: Welcome to the first of a multi-part series dissecting the 2008 Academy Awards, brought to you by the Large Association of Movie Blogs and its assorted members. Every weekday for the next couple weeks, a new post written by a different LAMB will be published, each covering a different category (or more) of the Oscars (there are 24 in all). To read any other posts regarding this event, please just click on the tag following the post. Thank you, and enjoy!

By Nick from Boomstick Reviews

What in the heck is Art Direction, and what does an Art Director do? Those are the questions I had to ask myself when I was assigned Best Art Direction for the LAMB Oscar Nomination Massive Writing Project Thing. The Oscar homepage obviously doesn’t have descriptions of what each category looks into, so I went to my good friend Google, who directed me to our mutual friend Wikipedia, and I found an answer. Notice I said an answer, and not the answer. What I got basically said that an Art Director works below a Production Designer, but above a Set Designer and Set Decorator. They are responsible for keeping budget and scheduling, assigning tasks, and act as a liaison between other art-like departments. So how did all this help me in figuring out how to judge what movie had the best art direction? It didn’t, really.

So from what I figure, Best Art Direction looks at the overall package: The costumes, the sets, the props, the drawings of how things look before it goes to CGI, and everything that makes a movie pretty or gritty. In other words, it’s kind of like Best Picture, where a good movie is only as good as the actors, actresses, script, etc., and each of those get their individual awards; likewise, the costumes and sets and all that good stuff get their own awards, as well, but it all ends up falling under Art Direction. If you aren’t confused by now and still know what the heck I’m talking about, that’s awesome, and we can finally get into the good stuff.

This year, the following five movies have been nominated for Best Art Direction: American Gangster, Atonement, The Golden Compass, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and There Will Be Blood. Unfortunately, for those of you who regularly read my own blog, you’ll know how bad my small town is about getting Oscar-y movies here. In other words, the only movie on this list that I’ve actually seen is The Golden Compass. But this might be a good thing, because I can do just like the normal Oscar people and only watch a small clip (I’ll be watching each movie’s trailers) and base my entire opinion solely on that… with the exception of The Golden Compass, as I’ve actually seen it. So without further ado, here are the nominations for Best Art Direction:

First I’ll start with American Gangster. This movie’s pretty or gritty (as a noun), as I’ll call it, looks relatively boring. Sure, they’re wearing some… black/tan suits and collared shirts… and the diner looks like a diner… and that’s about it, really. From what I saw, I’m not exactly sure how this made it in Best Art Direction. Weren’t there any other more stylish movies out there? What about Juno with those hamburger phones and knee-high running socks? It really just looked like your everyday cop/detective movie or TV show, but with a bigger budget. I have to admit that this one did come to my town when it first came out, but I didn’t go see it because, frankly, it looked boring. And if it looks boring or unappealing, that’s probably a fault with the Art Director, wouldn’t you think? I can’t see American Gangster winning this one.

Next is Atonement. I really hadn’t heard much of anything about this movie until maybe about a month or two before it came out. And, of course, it didn’t come out here. From the trailers, I still have no idea what it’s about, but that’s not important for this category. What is important is how it looks, the pretty or gritty. And from what I saw, it had both. The costumes looked great for the time period, and the settings and locations and such look wonderful and appealing to the eye. Everything just seemed to work together nicely to make it look both pretty and gritty when the respective moments arose.

Now for The Golden Compass. This is the biggest contender, I think. And I’m not saying this because it’s the only movie on the list I’ve actually seen. I honestly think it has the most eye-candy and is the most appealing. From everything about Jordan College to the ice lands to the dresses and outfits to the alethiometer (Golden Compass) itself—and everything in between—this movie is by far the best to look at. It’s going to be a tough contender with the other four.

Fourth will be a movie I was really upset about not being able to see, Sweeney Todd. There’s really only one thing to say about this movie: Tim Burton. He has a style, and it’s a very beautiful and unique style. He uses color contrasts. There are the bleak blacks and whites and grays, and then there are the incredibly bright reds and yellows and such in contrast to really make them pop out. It’s like forced beauty, but it works. This is in a similar fashion, from what it seems, to Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow, both also starring Johnny Depp. The sets are dark and gloomy, and the outfits rightfully match the gloom. If any movie would give The Golden Compass a run for its money, it would be Sweeney Todd.

Finally, we are left with There Will Be Blood. This is another movie I hadn’t really heard of until right before it came out. From what I’ve seen, much like Sweeney Todd, it leans more toward the gritty than the pretty. But it works, too. There wasn’t much to see from the trailer, but the costumes looked good for the period, the barren location/set was nice to look at, empty though it may be. Even the houses looked good. However, this movie might get a load of Oscars in other areas, but I don’t think Art Direction will be one of them. It was good, but not as good as the previous two.

All that said, I believe it’ll be a close race between The Golden Compass and Sweeney Todd. I honestly don’t know which one might win over the other. The Golden Compass has the pretty, while Sweeney Todd has the gritty, so their Art Direction is good, but in different ways. If it were up to me, I would say The Golden Compass for a few different reasons. First would be that Sweeney Todd looks like a bunch of other Burton films, and those haven’t really won in the past, so why would one win now? Plus, The Golden Compass has a lot more to offer. It has numerous different locales and props and outfits and this and that, while Sweeney Todd mainly seems to stick with the really dank colors or the really bright colors. As such, my vote goes to The Golden Compass. But who will actually win? I’m not sure, but I feel it will be one of these two.

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18 Responses to The LAMB Devours the Oscars – Best Art Direction

  1. Mrs. Fletch says:

    Nick – congrats on being the first Oscar LAMB blogger… yours also happens to be my favorite category. I like your picks for the win.

  2. Foy says:

    I’m surprised that Pirates of the Caribbean III did not make the nominations. That had costumes and sets up the wazoo.

  3. Derrick says:

    Maybe There Will Be Blood was nominated for it’s authentic recreation of oil drilling structures. Is that Art Direction? I have no idea.

  4. Pat says:

    I love how you summed it all up as being about “the pretty” and “the gritty.” I’m no art direction expert, but that’s exactly what it always seems to come down to.

  5. Cool post Nick!

    I used to be an art director, back when i worked as a graphics designer. It’s basically what the name say. The Director of art. Art however is the tough one to design. I’d say you were spot on! I have a sneaky feeling Sweeney Todd might grab this. I haven’t seen it yet though, only the trailer and the cool posters.

  6. Daniel G. says:

    Nice write-up for the first entry, Nick – but, I think I have different understanding of art direction. I’ve always understood it to be how well a film recreates the setting in which its taking place, not necessarily how pretty or gritty it looks (which are good words to use). That could be a time period (like 4 of the 5) or it could be an imaginary place from a novel (like The Golden Compass). Generally it’s a period piece that walks away with it, I think. Also, there are individual Oscars for both costume and makeup, so I don’t think those factor in AS much.

    Having seen all five of these, I think Atonement and TWBB are the contenders. American Gangster was impressive, just not as impressive. Golden Compass was a little dependent on CGI (though the best I saw all year, as I note in my review) and will probably win for visual effects. Sweeney Todd makes good use of colors and lighting, like you said, but I just don’t think it rises above.

    Between TWBB and Atonement, I think it goes to TWBB. If Atonement wins, it will be because of the insanely long beach scene. TWBB, on the other hand, is from start to finish a wonder to see. You’re literally, believably there, and that’s hard to experience when you can only see the trailers! Here’s an article that convinced me of its chances: (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/06/movies/awardsseason/06denn.html?_r=2&sq=there%20will%20be%20blood%20production%20design&oref=slogin&scp=1&pagewanted=all&oref=slogin).

    Don’t know if that worked. Anyway, I’m no expert, but I just notice the trend always seems to be period pieces.

  7. Nick says:

    Like I said, I had no idea what art direction is… though soundtrackgeek said he was one, and I was spot on… so I dunno. And like I said in my really confusing explanation… just as Actors and Scripts and all that work together to make a ‘Best Picture’, and they all get their own individual awards, too… costume and set design, etc., work together to make ‘Art Direction’, and they have their individual awards, as well. But that’s just how I saw it.

    Though from what I’ve heard about Atonement (especially from Shea’s review), it was a beautiful looking movie… so I dunno still. I just worked with what I had and what I knew, which wasn’t much in either regard.

  8. Fletch says:

    You did a bang-up job – not only in explaining it, but picking a winner based on limited theatrical availability (and going first is never easy).

    Can’t wait to read the rest!

  9. mikemachacon says:

    nick, you’re a tough act to follow, but the rest of us will surely try!

    nice job, man!

  10. Nick says:

    ha, wow… thanks, mike!

    (And Fletch, and everybody else).

  11. Don Quixote says:

    Nick
    Nice article, however, on behalf of my associates, we would like to help you and your readers understand the craft of Set Decoration.
    The Set Decorator does not work for the Art Director. Set Decoration is its own department, with its own budget, schedule and crew. Set Decorators attend production meetings, do their own break downs and create the appropriate environment for the characters in a film or TV show. It is important for the Set Decorator to work well with the Art Director and Production Designer.
    For more information on Set Decoration please visit
    http://www.setdecorators.org

  12. Daniel G. says:

    Just to clarify, Nick, I definitely didn’t mean to say you didn’t know what you were talking about. I was just trying to add my predictions and an explanation of how I understood art direction.

  13. GOOD write-up, Nick. I saw all five, and I’m still not sure I could have done much better. You were right about American Gangster… it WAS boring. And I agree: Juno was much more interesting to look at. In reading Diablo Cody’s blog, I learned that Juno’s room alone was meticulously designed, with all kinds of funny/cool collages, etc.

    Wizard.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I don’t wanna be the sour quince in this fruit basket but I’d like to point out that ‘Batman’ (1989) and ‘Sleepy Hollow’ both won Academy Awards for Art Direction, so to slough it off that Buton’s movies aren’t recognized is a little premature. Plus his films have also gotten other oscar nominations and wins, including Make-up (Scissorhands and Batman Returns were nominees and Beetlejuice and Ed Wood both won this one), Best Visual Effects (Batman Returns again), Best Cinematography (Sleepy Hollow), Costume Design (Sleepy Hollow again and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Original Score (Danny Elfman, longtime collaborator of Burton, for Big Fish), and Animated Feature (Corpse Bride a far more worthy film of an Oscar than Wallace and Gromit [they already have 4! Share the wealth!]). And the great shiny feather for a Burton film none should forget is that the amazing Martin Landau received his ACTING Oscar for a role in a Burton movie – Best Supporting Actor for ‘Ed Wood’. So I think we should really go with our guts and trust that the Academy will continue to honour the visual style of Tim Burton and honour Sweeney Todd as it should be.

  15. Anonymous says:

    This was by far the worst worst worst piece of writing I have ever encountered. I mean for gods sake the only movie that was nominated this guys has seen was The Golden Compass.. and Im supposed to listen to this guy go. “well from the trailer” or this was “just a regular cop movie” (referring to American Gangster a film the writer had not seen). Ive never been so physically angry reading something on the internet/

  16. Matt says:

    Thanks for the write up Nick!

    I’m like you in that I didn’t have the opportunity to check out all the movies in my category before writing up my analysis but I think you did a good job of establishing and following through on your own criteria.

    Tim Burton films definitely have their own distinct flavor so I can see Sweeney Todd getting the nod, but I get the feeling that Burton’s reputation might actually hurt him since the academy folk might want to reward somebody new.

    Thanks again for the post Nick! And also you Fletch for putting this together!

  17. Nick says:

    anonymous 1: I stand corrected. Thanks for the input.

    anonymous 2: That’s so laughably awesome. It’s always great to know you can make some guy over the internet literally tremble with rage because of something you wrote. That just means either the world is one step closer to being doomed, or I’m just one step closer to infamy.

    For the record, it’s not the worst piece of writing you’ve ever encountered. It’s the worst movie review article you’ve ever encountered, seeing as how your complaints dealt with the fact I hadn’t actually seen the majority of the movies at the time I wrote this, not that it was so grammatically and structurally horrible that it was unreadable.

    *thumbs up*

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