A look at craftswork with an eye on Oscar gold

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The majority of Oscar prognosticators concentrate exclusively on the races for the acting awards and best picture. It seems that, as far as they're concerned, movies might as well light, dress and shoot themselves on unaltered practical locations and then deliver themselves straight from the camera to the theater. But the studios care about the crafts because a high number of Oscar nominations makes for a great marketing tool, and no film can score double-digit nominations without being recognized repeatedly in the below-the-line categories. So handicapping the Oscar crafts race is an exercise that is clearly significant to the film industry at large -- not just the community of artists being honored. It's also relevant to everyday movie fans looking to win the office Oscar pool. With that in mind, here's a look at what names are likely to get called in the crafts categories when the nominations for the 80th Academy Awards are announced on Jan. 22.

Art direction

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' long history of discriminating against contemporary, nonfantasy films in this category is likely to continue for yet another year. Virtually every contender is a period film, save for the work of production designer Dennis Gassner and set decorator Anna Pinnock in New Line's "The Golden Compass," which is set in a parallel world that looks an awful lot like early-20th-century England and Scandinavia. It doesn't hurt to be British, either. Old England is further represented in DreamWorks/Paramount's "Sweeney Todd" (Dante Ferretti, Francesca Lo Schiavo) and Universal's "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" (Guy Dyas, Richard Roberts), along with World War II England in Focus Features' "Atonement" (Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer). Other nods could go to the Old West, in the form of Warner Bros.' "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (Patricia Norris, Janice Blackie-Goodine) and Paramount Vantage's "There Will Be Blood" (Jack Fisk, Jim Erickson), or to World War II China, via Focus Features' "Lust, Caution" (Pan Lai, Hu Zhong Quan).

Dark horses: New Line's "Hairspray" (David Gropman, Gordon Sim), Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" (Stuart Craig, Stephenie McMillan), Fox Searchlight's "Juno" (Michael Diner, Catherine Schroer), Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" (Rick Heinrichs, Cheryl Carasik)

Cinematography

It's a veritable "Attack of the Clones," with a trio of top cinematographers battling against themselves and each other for nominations: Roger Deakins ("The Assassination of Jesse James," Warner Independent's "In the Valley of Elah," Miramax's "No Country for Old Men"), Harris Savides (Universal's "American Gangster," Paramount's "Zodiac") and Dariusz Wolski ("At World's End," "Sweeney Todd"). While each of their works is visually rich, none apart from "Elah" has a particularly strong emotional impact. In the end, the majority of the nomination slots will likely be occupied by a trio of stylish tearjerkers: the tragic love story "Atonement" (Seamus McGarvey); Miramax's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Janusz Kaminski), in which the camera takes the point of view of a man who is almost completely paralyzed, save for one good eye; and Paramount Vantage's "Into the Wild" (Eric Gautier), about doomed spiritual seeker Christopher McCandless.

Dark horses: Paramount Classics/DreamWorks' "The Kite Runner" (Roberto Schaefer), "Lust, Caution" (Rodrigo Prieto), "There Will Be Blood" (Robert Elswit)

Costume design

This year's costume competition is tainted with sadness. Marit Allen, who did standout work in two period films (New Line's "Love in the Time of Cholera," Picturehouse's "La Vie en Rose"), died of a brain aneurysm in Australia in November at the age of 66 while working on Warner Bros.' 2010-slated superhero movie "Justice League of America." As deserving as her work is, artists rarely receive posthumous recognition from the Academy, but it's hard to imagine that at least one of her films won't be nominated. Other strong contenders include two-time winner Colleen Atwood ("Sweeney Todd"), Alexandra Byrne ("Elizabeth: The Golden Age"), Jacqueline Durran ("Atonement"), Pan Lai ("Lust, Caution"), Ruth Myers ("The Golden Compass"), Patricia Norris ("The Assassination of Jesse James") and Rita Ryack ("Hairspray").

Dark horses: The Weinstein Co./MGM's "The Great Debaters" (Sharen Davis), "There Will Be Blood" (Mark Bridges), Warner Bros.' "300" (Michael Wilkinson) and Lionsgate's "3:10 to Yuma" (Arianne Phillips)

Editing

Outside of short subjects and documentaries, this is perhaps the Academy's most inscrutable category for handicappers because editing is at its best when it doesn't call attention to itself. In spite of this fact, the Oscar will probably go to something flashy. The mashup of smash cuts in Universal's "The Bourne Ultimatum" (Christopher Rouse) might annoy voters as much as it impresses them, but the tasteful time manipulations in "American Gangster" (Pietro Scalia), "Atonement" (Paul Tothill), ThinkFilm's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" (Tom Swartwout) and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Juliette Welfling) are likely to fare well. Another top contender, "No Country for Old Men," could be at a slight disadvantage because its editor, Roderick Jaynes, does not exist. The name is a pseudonym for the writing-directing-producing team of Ethan and Joel Coen.

Dark horses: "3:10 to Yuma" (Michael McCusker), "Sweeney Todd" (Chris Lebenzon)

Makeup

Rick Baker's trio of Eddie Murphy transformations (the obese man-eater Rasputia, a Chinese man and the timid title character) in Paramount's "Norbit" are impressive enough to make it a favorite. But the Academy might not be in the mood to give the makeup meister yet another Oscar (he has six, including one for similar work in 1996's "The Nutty Professor") for a film that was so loathed in some circles that many believe it cost Murphy the best supporting actor Oscar for "Dreamgirls" last year. Conversely, good feelings about "Hairspray" could give a chubby leg up to Tony Gardner's similarly expansive makeover of John Travolta as Baltimore hausfrau Edna Turnblad in the film. The relatively more subtle stylings in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" (Jenny Shircore) and "Sweeney Todd" (Peter Owen, Ivana Primorac) will likely battle it out for the last of the three nomination slots.

Dark horses: Warner Bros.' "Fred Claus" (Lisa Westcott), "The Golden Compass" (Peter King, Janine Schneider-Marsan)

Sound editing

Action and animation are usually favored in this category, which honors the talents of those who create and assemble the sounds that boom from behind the screen and fill the surrounds. Paramount's "Beowulf" (Dennis Leonard) is both, so it should be seen as a likely nominee, along with "At World's End" (Christopher Boyes, George Watters II), Disney/Pixar's "Ratatouille" (Michael Silvers, Randy Thom), Sony's "Spider-Man 3" (Paul Ottosson), DreamWorks/Paramount's "Transformers" (Mike Hopkins, Ethan Van der Ryn) -- and perhaps even DreamWorks/Paramount's "Bee Movie" (Will Files, Michael Silvers).

Dark horses: "The Bourne Ultimatum" (Karen Baker Landers, Per Hallberg), "300" (Scott Hecker)

Sound mixing

This is the Soap Opera Digest Awards category, and sound rerecording mixer Kevin O'Connell is its Susan Lucci, with an Oscar record 19 nominations and no wins. After Mike Minkler picked up Oscar No. 3 for "Dreamgirls" last year, he told reporters that O'Connell (who was nominated for "Apocalypto") "should take up another line of work." O'Connell was unable to respond at the time -- he had rushed from the ceremony to be with his ailing mother, who died in his arms later that night. This year, O'Connell and mixing partner Greg P. Russell (11 nominations, no wins) are in contention for the slam-bang actioners "Spider-Man 3" (with Joseph Geisinger) and "Transformers," while Minkler and partner Bob Beemer (four Oscars) could get a nod for their work on "American Gangster." Advantage to O'Connell and company, for sympathy and sonic impact. As for the rest of the field, chances are it will be filled by musicals -- Sony's "Across the Universe" (Lee Dichter, Tod A. Maitland), "Hairspray" (Ron Bartlett, D.M. Hemphill, Rick Kline) and "Sweeney Todd" (Tom Johnson, Michael Semanick).

Dark horses: "Atonement" (Paul Hamblin, Martin Jensen), "Beowulf" (Tom Johnson, William Kaplan, Dennis Sands), "Ratatouille" (Vince Caro, Doc Kane, Michael Semanick, Randy Thom)

Visual effects

Some might deem "At World's End" (John Frazier, Charles Gibson, Hal Hickel, John Knoll) to be one voyage too many for the "Pirates" crew after it took home an Oscar for last year's "Dead Man's Chest," but it will be hard to beat their latest work, with its wealth of impressive VFX set pieces, including a climactic maelstrom sequence featuring swirling masses of difficult-to-pull-off CGI water. "The Golden Compass" (Michael Fink, Bill Westenhofer) and Fox's "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" (Kevin Tod Haug) both have wall-to-wall effects, but they look cheap by comparison, although the former does boast an impressive virtual polar bear fight. The only serious competition is likely to come from "300" (Grant Freckelton, Daniel Leduc, Chris Watts, Derek Wentworth), "Transformers" (Scott Farrar, John Frazier, Richard Kidd) and two other sequels, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" (Tim Burke, Greg Butler, Paul Franklin, John Richardson) and "Spider-Man 3" (Spencer Cook, John Frazier, Peter Nofz, Scott Stokdyk).

Dark horses: Warner Bros.' "I Am Legend" (Jim Berney, David Schaub, Janek Sirrs, David A. Smith), Fox Searchlight's "Sunshine" (Tom Wood)
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