Mise-en-scène with STIR: The best of film architecture at Oscars 2022

From desert worlds to rustic barns to carnival funhouses and abstract edifices, STIR brings you enticing conversations with four of this year’s Oscar nominated production designers.

by Anmol AhujaPublished on : Mar 29, 2022

While the Oscar ceremony held on March 28, 2022, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles has been making the rounds for all the wrong reasons, Hollywood’s biggest night, though ending in a frenzy, looked at the absolute best of what the film fraternity had to offer in 2021. For people who swear by it, the Academy Awards, held at the herald of spring every year, are more than just a celebration of the films. They are an embodiment of everything Hollywood, and an opportunity for film fans and people alike to revel in a sort of ritualistic candour. The red carpet, celebrity entrances, the gowns and tuxedos, and the exuberant stage scenography are just a part of the associated glitz. And like every year, while the nominations, ceremony, and the wins had their highs and lows, snubs and surprises, there is no denying that the formidable talent on display through the night is not lost on the viewers or the academy. Despite the havoc of coronavirus' second wave last year, the films, and more adulantly, theatres, managed to bounce back and how. The year 2021, though with weaker entries compared to the cinematically meek 2020, was a good one for the movies, and for us to be at the movies. However, the medium of our immersion into these movies - their worlds - were of particularly noteworthy quality this year.

Both in indie darlings and big budget tentpole films, the production design looked at not just creating entire worlds for the film’s characters to populate, but in using subtle motifs to reflect character motives and intentions. Through delving into exquisite detail and propoundation of architectural theory, both for tangible and intangible spaces, this year’s fantastical sets decorated alien worlds, period pieces, musicals, and even entirely implausible spatialities. A mix of uncanny futurism and the kind of abstraction that only the dimensional edifice of cinema can contain, the overt and definitive architectural character of some of this year’s films caught our eye, and in a series of conversations with these Oscar nominated production designers, we attempt to decipher the genesis, the visualisation, and the process of bringing these fantastical worlds to life. Through Mise-en-scène with STIR, take a deep dive into the design of the dusty depths of Arrakis, the uncanny concrete landscape of Inverness, the rustic barns of the West, and a dubious fever-dream disguised as a carnival in stimulating conversations with Oscar winner Patrice Vermette, and his equally deserving fellow nominees Stefan Dechant, Grant Major, and Tamara Deverell.

1. Patrice Vermette, Dune

16 mins watch Oscar winning production designer Patrice Vermette for the film Dune | Mise-en-scène with STIR | Oscar Nominated Production Designers | STIRworld
Oscar winning production designer Patrice Vermette for the film Dune Video: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Dune was, quite simply put, the grandest picture of the year. The experience of watching this epic saga unfold on the biggest screen was an unparalleled joy and a much welcomed return to the cinemas. While the film excelled in nearly all its technical aspects, its production design and world building drew particular notice and acclaim especially owing to the diversity of landscapes, a unique mix of socio-politico-cultural beliefs tangibly manifested in the architecture, the sheer scale of the production, and especially how the film adapts the bulk of the source material’s language to its unique architecture.

  • A set design from Dune on the fictional planet Arrakis | Mise-en-scène with STIR | Oscar Nominated Production Designers | STIRworld
    A set design from Dune on the fictional planet Arrakis Image: Courtesy of Warner Bros.
  • Mural on Paul Atreides’ bedchamber in Dune | Mise-en-scène with STIR | Oscar Nominated Production Designers | STIRworld
    Mural on Paul Atreides’ bedchamber in Dune Image: Courtesy of Warner Bros.
  • Vermette punctuated the walls as glyphs telling a story | Mise-en-scène with STIR | Oscar Nominated Production Designers | STIRworld
    Vermette punctuated the walls as glyphs telling a story Image: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

In his interview with STIR and delving on the nuances of world-building and how he deduced architectural and spatial cues from Frank Herbert's famously “unfilmable” text, Oscar winner Vermette designed the clans in Dune and their strongholds as a message from the past, and as a response to the needs of the people and the region. Vermette’s design skillfully takes into account the lack of AI or computer technology in this world, as opposed to most modern science-fiction. The second part of the film, scheduled for 2023, will see Vermette deep dive into the Fremen architectural typology and the production design of a very different Arrakis.

2. Grant Major, The Power of the Dog

25 mins watch Oscar nominated production designer Grant Major for the film The Power of the Dog | Mise-en-scène with STIR | Oscar Nominated Production Designers | STIRworld
Oscar nominated production designer Grant Major for the film The Power of the Dog Video: Courtesy of Netflix

The Power of the Dog, amongst its fellow nominees, bears the distinction of being an immensely grounded film, with limited items and landscapes of fancy. The spotlight here isn’t on the worlds or structures being created, but on the characters that inhabit these spaces, out there in the wild, wild west. Through Oscar winning director Jane Campion’s microscopic lens on the lives of these characters, Grant Major’s subtle work on the film lives through period details and literary study.

  • Visualisation of the Burbank Ranch family house | Mise-en-scène with STIR | Oscar Nominated Production Designers | STIRworld
    Visualisation of the Burbank Ranch family house Image: Courtesy of Netflix
  • Constructing the Burbank ranch involved getting a number of functional details for cattle ranching right, including the stables and picket fencing | Mise-en-scène with STIR | Oscar Nominated Production Designers | STIRworld
    Constructing the Burbank ranch involved getting a number of functional details for cattle ranching right, including the stables and picket fencing Image: Courtesy of Netflix
  • The red mill restaurant acts as a centrestage for a pivotal sequence in the film | Mise-en-scène with STIR | Oscar Nominated Production Designers | STIRworld
    The red mill restaurant acts as a centrestage for a pivotal sequence in the film Image: Courtesy of Netflix

Delving into the film’s world, Major designed the film to subvert the notions of the traditional western, setting Jane Campion's electrically charged drama found in a rural ranch in New Zealand, doubling up as Montana, 1925. Backed by extensive research on the typology of regional barns and farm structures, Major and his team sought to let the architecture and set design willfully subsume backstage, placing the human drama and the film’s examination of the themes of toxic masculinity and its deconstruction of the male psyche front and centre.

3. Stefan Dechant, The Tragedy of Macbeth

27 mins watch Oscar nominated production designer Stefan Dechant for the film The Tragedy of Macbeth | Mise-en-scène with STIR | Oscar Nominated Production Designers | STIRworld
Oscar nominated production designer Stefan Dechant for the film The Tragedy of Macbeth Video: Courtesy of Stefan Dechant and Apple TV

Working with an entirely monochromatic palette and a square aspect ratio, Dechant’s work focused on abstracting imagery on classic architectural iconography for Joel Coen’s adaptation of the profound Shakespearean tragedy. Designed as a ‘cinematic’ version of a theatrical play, Dechant’s edifices in the film are stark and minimal, and yet bold in their conception of harbouring human deceit and ambition, deriving from a number of rich references including The Night of the Hunter by Charles Laughton, and Universal’s Classic Monster universe. It is the result of these influences that renders Dechant’s work on the film truly unique, creating edifices that are both increasingly humane yet abstract, revelling in their stark linearity, and rendering Coen’s intended no-place.

  • An image of the Apparition room set from The Tragedy of Macbeth | Mise-en-scène with STIR | Oscar Nominated Production Designers | STIRworld
    An image of the Apparition room set from The Tragedy of Macbeth Image: Courtesy of Stefan Dechant
  • The throne room with the isle of columns foreshadowing the perspective lined trees of Birnam Wood | Mise-en-scène with STIR | Oscar Nominated Production Designers | STIRworld
    The throne room with the isle of columns foreshadowing the perspective lined trees of Birnam Wood Image: Courtesy of Stefan Dechant
  • Matte study for Lady Macbeth's chambers | Mise-en-scène with STIR | Oscar Nominated Production Designers | STIRworld
    Matte study for Lady Macbeth's chambers Image: Courtesy of Stefan Dechant

Describing his work on the film as a truly collaborative venture, Dechant opined on the contribution of the film’s cinematographer, Bruno Delboness, in bringing the sets of the film alive. “These sets, as much as you can say, are constructed out of wood, or plaster and paint. But they are also constructed out of light and shadow”, he stated. 

4. Tamara Deverell, Nightmare Alley

21 mins watch Oscar nominated production designer Tamara Deverell for the film Nightmare Alley | Mise-en-scène with STIR | Oscar Nominated Production Designers | STIRworld
Oscar nominated production designer Tamara Deverell for the film Nightmare Alley Video: Courtesy of Tamara Deverell and Searchlight Pictures

Working with signature Guillermo Del Toro themes of sin and the fall of man, Deverell’s design on the film's world aims to strike a balance between the film’s settings of a macabre carnival in the first half, and swanky art-deco locales in the second half. Surreal, gloomy, and exquisitely moody, especially when playing with light, Deverell’s work attempts to delve into the human psyche through the motif of craftsmanship, with the Oscar-nominated production designer pondering how building and sculpting by hand were supposed to evoke dream-like imagery. Tinged heavily in amber and emerald, signifying a tussle between the film's two leads, Deverell's design on the neo-noir period film propels the narrative forward in unexpected directions, constituting visions more than realities.

  • Oscar nominated production designer Tamara Deverell for the film Nightmare Alley | Mise-en-scène with STIR | Oscar Nominated Production Designers | STIRworld
    The film’s first half takes place in a gypsy carnival setting Image: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
  • Oscar nominated production designer Tamara Deverell for the film Nightmare Alley | Mise-en-scène with STIR | Oscar Nominated Production Designers | STIRworld
    The film’s second half moves to Buffalo, where an Art Deco setting and motifs reign heavy over the proceedings Image: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
  • The circle emerges as a recurrent motif in the film’s production design in both interior and exterior shots | Mise-en-scène with STIR | Oscar Nominated Production Designers | STIRworld
    The circle emerges as a recurrent motif in the film’s production design in both interior and exterior shots Image: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

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