With 24 competitive categories, you’d think picking Academy Award winners would be almost as hard as completing a perfect NCAA bracket. But really, most of the top categories are a foregone conclusion. I mean, does anybody not think La La Land is going to walk away with the Best Picture Oscar? If the Academy likes anything more than movies about historical events, it’s movies about movies. (I’m looking at you, The Artist.)
So what’s an amateur Oscar prognosticator to do? Look to the less scrutinized design categories, devoted to the craftsmen-and-women who work behind the scenes. (You know, the people who actually make the movies.)
What to look for in Best Production Design
The job of a production designer is to create the world for the characters to live in. Everything physical—but not also alive—is there by the Production Designer’s say so. A set designer will design the rooms, a set decorator will choose furniture and hanging decorations, a prop master will select or build small objects for the characters to handle—all of these departments are beholden to the Production Designer’s vision.
Production Design is probably the toughest call of these four categories. Sci-Fi movies don’t win as often as you’d think; Academy votes tend to credit the VFX teams for cool spaceships and such. The exceptions, of course, are Avatar and Mad Max: Fury Road, both of which won several technical awards. I don’t really foresee that happening for Passengers or Arrival.
Period pictures and fantasy films tend to fare better. Fantastic Beasts is both, so you’d think they’d win in a walk, but it’s a popular film for children—not exactly the main demo for the Academy.
Which brings us back to movies-about-movies. I’d love it if Hail, Caesar! got some attention, but alas, it wasn’t any more popular in Hollywood than elsewhere in the country.
And so I call La La Land by default. People are already checking off Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone; they might as well tap David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco, too. But if you’re looking for an upset, this might be the place to pick Passengers, a movie renowned for its gorgeous, minimalist look.
Best Costume Design
If you’re like me, you don’t put a lot of thought into your clothes. Costume Designers think about nothing but.
Sci-fi movies and period epics tend to get a lot of attention in this category. The former allow for flights of fancy, and the latter are often referred to as “costume dramas.” But the same attention to detail is paid in even the most contemporary of films. Every detail, from the type of outfit, to the fit, to the colors, inform the audience on a subconscious level as to who they’re looking at.
La La Land is a great example of a heightened color palette in a modern settings. Costume designer Jo Kissack said, “We conceptualized the use of color in the film, decided what colors those colors would be, where they would be used, and that they needed to be choreographed between the costume and art department.“
But as I said, period movies generally have the edge. Allied wasn’t even nominated for a Costume Designers Guild Award, so that’s a big handicap. And Florence Foster Jenkis is… a movie, I guess? It was mostly nominated for who was wearing the clothes rather than the clothes themselves. Due to its whimsical setting, the costumes of Fantastic Beasts could be practically anything, and the audience would accept it.
Jackie, on the other hand, not only evokes a specific time period, but a specific person.
We know what Jackie Kennedy (and her outfits) looked like. Designer Madeline Fontaine had to recreate that famous Camelot style, and she executed it flawlessly.
Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Just like costumes, hairstyles not only place the film in a specific period, but also inform the character. Is she a free spirit? Is he a straight arrow? Look at the back of their head, and I’ll bet you can guess.
But the Oscars don’t tend to go to your average, everyday makeup, glamorous though it may be. They prefer to go for the biggest, most outlandish makeup imaginable. The makeup artists on A Man Called Ove did some fascinating work, subtly aging the characters over a period of years. Perhaps too subtle to win the Oscar.
On the other end of the scale, the Suicide Squad makeup was anything but subtle. I’ll grant that the Killer Croc effects were great, but do we really want to say the words “Academy Award winning film, Suicide Squad?”
No, the award will most likely go to Star Trek Beyond’s Joel Harlow and Richard Alonzo. Harlow already won the Oscar for 2009’s Star Trek, but he outdid himself this time by creating fifty different alien species. Created them in the real world, live, on set. Pretty astounding.
And now we leave the physical the physical world to discuss what John Alton calls “painting with light.” Sets, costumes, and actors are great, but it’s just a play unless there’s a camera to film. And a very dark play at that, without lighting. The one person in charge of alllllll of that is the Cinematographer.
The Cinematographer actually heads up three departments: camera (who actually record the action); electrical or set lighting (who add artificial light); and grip (who shape or remove light through the cunning use of flags). These disparate groups collaborate to control the tone, dynamic range, contrast, and even color (in further collaboration with the Production and Costume Designers) of every scene.
This is a tough one to call. The Academy loves fancy camerawork, like the long takes in Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant. That would give La La Land, with a camera that’s practically a third dance partner in many of the routines, an edge.
However, the best picture winner (which I’m assuming La La Land will be), rarely wins best cinematography. Moonlight and Lion are beautiful films, but they’re more well known for their performances than their look. Silence has some amazing location photography with natural light, but with only one nomination, I don’t the voters were fans.
Arrival, on the other hand, has the best of both worlds: gorgeous location shots and ethereal sci-fi imagery. This is a great place for the Academy to award an amazing film that doesn’t have much chance in other categories.
So who should you vote for?
I’ve given you my picks, but it wouldn’t be the Academy Awards without an upset. And we all like voting for personal faves or dark horses. No matter who you choose, now you know the criteria for the design categories and can choose your winner accordingly. Good luck!