Via Variety

The 88th Academy Awards will be held next weekend in Los Angeles, honoring the best movies of the year. Film is a visual medium, as anyone who’s seen1 a movie probably knows, and so it’s not surprising that many of the Oscars are devoted to various visual and design arts. But if you haven’t worked in Hollywood, you may not know what these awards are for. It’s a good thing I’m here for you. So, let’s begin with the most obvious design category–

Best Production Design

This award used to be called “Best Art Direction,” for a lot of complex historical reasons that I’ll explain now to pad out this blog post. In the earliest days of cinema, there were several key positions with the word “director” in the title: Director of Photography (we’ll get into that position later); Casting Director (in charge of finding the cast); and Art Director. The Art Director oversaw the physical elements that appeared on screen, from props to sets to decoration of said sets.

The title “Production Designer” was coined in 1939 during the production of Gone with the Wind. William Cameron Menzies was the art director tasked with creating a unifying look for a film that had at least three directors (that we know of). He was the final word on everything related to scenic design, set decoration, and even Technicolor (a relatively new process at the time). Menzies felt the title “art director” just didn’t cut it, and thus “production designer” was born. It wasn’t long until others started demanding the title, and “art director” became #2 in the art department.

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 answer to the Production Designer’s vision.


It all begins with a concept design… via Peter Pound


…until someone has to actually build the thing. via Warner Bros Pictures

But there’s more to it than simply creating a background. The production designer sets the mood with color, with architecture, with texture. Where a character lives, even what they drive, can tell you a lot about them, and their place in the story.

You know what else informs characters? What they wear…

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.

Sure, sci-fi movies and period epics 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.

Even designing costumes from the recent past presents its own unique challenges. As one Costume Designer put it:

A lot of the audience was alive then, and they remember what the clothes should look like. They know [an outfit] didn’t come out until 1978, and this episode is supposed to be 1976.

[On the other hand,] the clothes are really just a visual cue to help place the audience in the right time frame. Sometimes ‘realism’ is more distracting than the heightened fiction we create.


Sketch by costume designer Sandy Powell; photo from Carol via StudioCanal

And wardrobes are only half of the character design. There’s also…

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.

Hair and make-up can also help distinguish characters from one another. Have you ever noticed most actors and actresses share a common trait? They’re attractive. That’s no accident; the audience likes looking at attractive people, almost by definition.


via Wikimedia

See? Isn’t that fun?

But you probably don’t want a cast full of blonde bombshells and tall-dark-and-handsomes.  It comes down to the hair and makeup stylists to make sure the characters a recognizable at a glance.2The average shot in a modern movie lasts less than four seconds before cutting away to something else. That’s not much time for the audience to identify a new character, unless the hair and makeup artists do everything in their power to distinguish them.

Pop quiz! Does fingernail polish belong to the makeup or costume department?Answer

Best Cinematography

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 (also known as the Director of Photography (also also known as the D.P.3 in the U.S. or the DoP in the UK)).

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.

And this work isn’t done solely on set. In collaboration with a colorist (DPs collaborate a lot), the cinematographer “grades” the film. This is basically like Photoshop for movies. It’s a difficult process to describe if you’ve never seen it in action. This video does a much better job than I ever could:

That’s how powerful color grading is–it actually makes Man of Steel watchable.

The Land of Make Believe

I’m sure you always knew that movies were fake, but I sincerely hope this post gives you an idea of just how constructed they are, built piece by piece by hundreds of talented artists and craftspeople. Also, maybe these explanations will help you pick the winners in your Oscar pool

1. Notice that we “watch” movies, not “listen” to them, despite all the dialogue in Steve Jobs.

2. Unless, y’know, you want people to be confused.

Answer–Costume. Fun fact: I’ve yet to meet a man who doesn’t work in makeup or costumes who knows this.

3. Don’t laugh. Especially not at the fact that one of the best DPs in the world is named Wally Pfister.