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This story first appeared in the Jan. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Though no animated feature ever has been nominated for the best production design Oscar, there’s nothing in the rule book to prevent that from happening. Animation filmmakers argue it’s time that their production design teams get their due. After all, everything they create is built entirely from scratch.
Big Hero 6
Set in the fictitious city of San Fransokyo, the movie challenged production designer Paul Felix to create a whimsical blend of Tokyo and San Francisco that convincingly references the look of both cities. Felix juxtaposed the “neighborhood feel” of San Francisco’s Marina District with Tokyo-specific elements. “The scale feels like San Francisco, but the details have changed,” says Felix, among them Japanese-language billboards and commuter trains based on Tokyo’s.
As a stop-motion movie, The Boxtrolls was created not through computer animation but by constructing actual character models and painstakingly manipulating them by hand, one frame at a time. The same went for the hand-built miniature sets. The title characters live in a cavern decorated with junk that they collect. The set took nearly three months to build, using wood, metal, foam and other materials. Strings of lights, the “stars” in the sky, “give it a magical quality,” says art director Curt Enderle, noting that the Boxtrolls use found objects in unexpected ways. Enderle fashioned a clock made of hundreds of other clocks to make the point — as impressive as it looks, “it doesn’t tell time.”
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Given the movie’s Scandinavian setting, production designer Pierre-Olivier Vincent wanted to give dramatic contrast to a hidden dragon sanctuary so that the audience could “come in from the cold — it’s a lush oasis and a microclimate with growing plants and running water,” says Vincent. The computer-generated movie needed “to stay in the realm of reality,” he says. “We wanted it to look exotic and lush but not go with a full-on jungle. So for the plants, we used ferns, because if you go to a cold location, you see some ferns. The main concept is the real world, and the element of fantasy is the dragons.”
The Lego Movie
“It needs to look impressive but dumb!” was the brief from directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller to production designer Grant Freckelton. Freckelton conjured the Puppy Palace, an assembly hall for Master Builders, that evokes an ancient Greek amphitheater — except that it is rendered in candy-colored Lego blocks instead of marble.”With so many colorful characters in a colorful environment, we needed to be strategic about our placement of light and color,” says Freckelton. “The tiered seats were left neutral to allow the minifigures to stand out. The majority of the interior was lit with indirect light, allowing us to pop [the movie’s hero] Emmet with direct sunlight while playing down the background.”
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Sterling K. Brown