Oscars: How 'La La Land' Re-created the Griffith Observatory

8:00 AM 2/13/2017

by Carolyn Giardina

Production designers and set decorators behind contending films — from 'Fantastic Beasts' to 'Arrival' — dish on building everything from a superluxe futuristic hotel suite to a mysterious spacecraft.

'La La Land'
'La La Land'
Courtesy of Lionsgate

  • Passengers

    Production design: Guy Hendrix Dyas | Set decoration: Gene Serdena

    Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

    Passengers' opulent spaceship, the Avalon, was imagined with accommodations and amenities for 5,000 travelers. A first-class ticket will get you the Vienna Suite, which Dyas describes as "a spacious luxury cabin with an enormous private window onto the stars. Fashioned as a futuristic New York City-style loft, the set becomes one of the centerpieces for our characters' blossoming romance, followed by the hell that is their dramatic breakup.

    I used all kinds of visual cues to help move our story along with little need for dialogue. These curvaceous forms came to me by making a connection between the endless journey across space and the iconic Mobius strip — a sort of visual representation of helpless repetition, feelings our characters would have experienced. Warm, arresting colors were used to enhance the slightly unsettling atmosphere. Despite the modern feel of the interior, you are initially at ease with your surroundings."

  • Hail, Caesar!

    Production design: Jess Gonchor | Set decoration: Nancy Haigh

    Courtesy of Universal Pictures

    One of the most elaborate set pieces in Joel and Ethan Coen's 1950s Hollywood-set movie involves a grand song-and-dance number featuring Channing Tatum, in a Gene Kelly-esque salute, as a sailor about to head out to sea with his shipmates. In effect, the challenge was to build a vintage working set on a period-looking soundstage.

    Gonchor's solution was to create "a tavern with a nautical theme. I wanted to do a dingy tavern, in contrast to the white uniforms. And a theatrical look. I didn't want it to look dirty but feel dirty. We also wanted to get the point across that this is how period filmmaking was done, showing the inner workings of the old studios and the craftsmanship of the work that went into a picture. This would have been filmed before the Steadicam was invented, so they would have had to get the camera close to the subject by creating the set in pieces. The floor pulled apart so the camera could get close and low enough, and we could shoot the entire number without cutting."

  • Arrival

    Production design: Patrice Vermette | Set decoration: Paul Hotte

    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

    When Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and her fellow scientists enter Arrival's mysterious spacecraft, hovering over the plains in Montana, they approach what director Denis Villeneuve and the filmmakers dubbed the interview chamber. "This is where the team meets with the heptapods. It was important for Denis and me to give this section the feeling of quiet meditation," says Vermette, who built the set at ADF, an old warehouse in Montreal.

    That's because, during the course of the film, Louise returns for repeat alien encounters. Vermette explains: "We thought of it as a temple but also as a classroom. It was important to use a simple design. We decided to use the same material throughout the whole set and stay away from distracting elements. The wall texture is inspired by sediment rocks, meant to represent the history and the layers of wisdom of this unknown alien civilization. It's also a representation of Louise's life as it reflects her house and workplace. The set has a conceptual link with all the other sets of the film."

  • La La Land

    Production design: David Wasco | Set decoration: Sandy Reynolds-Wasco

    Courtesy of Lionsgate

    When Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) visit the famous Griffith Observatory, with its panoramic views of Hollywood, in Damien Chazelle's musical, they literally become lost in the stars of the observatory's planetarium — a sequence that contains echoes of 1955's Rebel Without a Cause, which also used the location.

    For La La Land, exterior shots and the lobby were filmed on the actual site, but the crew didn't have access to the planetarium. Plus, Chazelle wanted to capture an earlier art deco incarnation (as it appeared in Rebel), so a period reproduction was built at Hollywood Center Studios based on photographic research. Wasco says the team located a projector for the center of the room that was the same vintage as the one seen in Rebel, and they also created copies of the planetarium's doors (bronze with a leather inlay) and "took some liberties with the terrazzo pattern on the floor to make it more art deco, which was a big reference that Damien gave to the art department." The ceiling was blue screen, allowing the filmmakers to use wires to lift Stone and Gosling in that transporting dance sequence.

  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

    Production design: Stuart Craig | Set decoration: Anna Pinnock

    Courtesy of Universal Pictures

    The central concourse of the Magical Congress of the United States of America — it has the Gothic architecture of the Harry Potter movies from which Fantastic Beasts was spun off — was a 250-by-120-foot set built at Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden in the U.K. "It's the seat of government for the magical world, so I wanted it to be big and impressive," says Craig. "Like all key government buildings, it had to have weight and scale."

    The screenplay called for a plaque on the wall memorializing the Salem witches, "but we decided to make them life-sized." Adds Craig: "The phoenixes are about 13 feet tall — they are Dumbledore's favorite creatures and are recurring creatures in the movies, so they were appropriate. The columns were inspired by those at the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens." And the striped walls took their inspiration from an Italian cathedral in that they are "powerful and graphic."

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