Analysis for Oscar Pools: Visual Categories

For this entry, we are going over who is likely to win in the following categories and why: Best Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, Makeup & Hairstyling, and Visual Effects.

These categories can generally abide by a simple rule: more is more. When most of the voting body doesn't necessarily understand the more subtle aspects of a given craft (the three biggest Academy branches are actors, producers, and executives), then it helps when the craft in a given movie calls a lot of attention to itself.

For a cinematographer, this means shooting a really long take without visible cuts. See… the entirety of 1917 or Birdman. For the others… Generally, go big or go home.

This is part of the reason period pieces often do so well at the Oscars. It’s difficult to make a set look like you put work into it — even if you did — if it's a contemporary apartment. But the interior of an 18th century Palace during a gala? The work is all over the place! BIG sets! BIG hair! BIG outfits! etc.

The Duchess (2008)

Just wanted to lay that out before going into it.

Best Visual Effects

While you occasionally will get a film like Ex Machina (made for a relatively small $15 million), where a creative by relatively inexpensive visual effect gets the win, this award generally goes to well-reviewed films made with big budgets to pay for extensive digital or practical effects.

This category has two clear frontrunners, with the rest of the pack trailing. The leader is…

The Midnight Sky — Matt Kasmir, Chris Lawrence, Dave Watkins, Max Solomon

George Clooney's Science Fiction Drama recently won the Visual Effects Societies Award for top prize for Best Visual Effects in an Effects Driven Film, probably the single biggest bellwether for this Oscar category. Though, it’s not a perfect match every year.

The film is also just in incredibly heavy with cutting-edge effects. CG facial replacements, fully built interiors for space ships, and convincing zero-G.

The team, likely benifiting lot from the experience of Chris Lawrence after his Oscar win for Gravity, are leaning on the very impressive ‘zero gravity death sequence’ to elicit the same response from the Academy as the the 2013 movies legendary space debris seqeunce.

Right on their heels…

Tenet — Andrew Jackson, Andrew Lockley, Scott R. Fisher, Mike Chambers

Inversion

While the film itself is a muddled mess, undercut by all of Christopher Nolans worst tendencies as a writer, his instinct as a director to rely on practical effects for visuals shines through. This movie, according to Nolan, had around 300 VFX shots, meaning there are fewer shots modified with CG than a typical romantic comedy. A lot of the more trippy visuals come down to simple editing tricks, but what works works.

There's also the fantastic detail that instead of using VFX or miniatures, Nolan determined it would be more cost-effective to buy a Boeing 747 and crash it themselves. Delightful.

As to why it’s a contender: first, the previous nominees on the team (all but first-time nominee Chambers) have 4 Oscar nominations and 3 wins between them. Only Midnight Sky has a person whos been previously nominated.

This category probably would have been more competitive if not for Covid-19 pushing back most big-budget films. With the field mostly cleared, it leaves Nolan's $200 million budget and his crack team of VFX artists to potentially snatch the prize.

Now if only Nolan's decision to release it in the middle of the pandemic hadn't been a financial disaster.

The remaining nominees are mainly here because the Academy needed a few more films with substantial visual effects, which where in shorter supply this year. Which isn't to say that there isn't to say there isn't great work on display.

The team for The One and Only Ivan (Nick Davis, Greg Fisher, Ben Jones and Santiago Colomo Martinez) used incredible motion capture on an actual Gorrilla, continuing the incredible innovation in photorealistic animation work done on the otherwise forgettable remake of The Lion King.

The team at Weta Digital (Sean Andrew Faden, Steve Ingram, Anders Langlands and Seth Maury) did extensive research and incredibly detailed modeling for the digitally rendered Imperial City in Mulan.

The artists for Love and Monsters ( Genevieve Camailleri, Brian Cox, Matt Everitt and Matt Sloan) did extensive research into the behavior and movements of various creatures to create exaggerated, giant-mutant versions.

Best Cinematography

Now this is the shit that film bro’s love talking about. Long takes, magic hour, focus pulls, etc. Bitching about Roger Deakins not having an Oscar was a national passtime for white film students until he won twice in his 60s (Bladerunner 2049 and 1917).

This year is particularly exciting for its fresh blood. The nominated cinematographers are Joshua James Richards (Nomadland) against Erik Messerschmidt (Mank), Phedon Papamichael (The Trial of the Chicago 7), Dariusz Wolski (News of the World), and Sean Bobbitt (Judas and the Black Messiah). Of the five, only Papamichael has been previously nominated for Alexander Paynes Nebraska and no one has won. Whoever wins, it will be their first time.

But which ‘cameraman’ is the frontrunner to take home gold?

Nomadland — Joshua James Richards

F*** this movie is pretty. Richards has had the wind at his sails since he won the prestigious Golden Frog Award at the Cinematography focused Camerimage Film Festival. In this post-reccesion road trip movie, Richards captures shots that are beautiful in their naturalism tinged with a borderline surreal color palette. Evoking Terrence Malick — whos name that elicits cries of worship from cinematogrophers —Richards makes good use of Magic Hour and the Arri Alexa Mini.

Richards has been working with director Chloé Zhao for years and the partnership looks like its going to pay off for both of them, as they are the undisputed favorite in their respective categories.

From left to right: Frances McDormand, Richards, and director Chloé Zhao.

As obvious as the frontrunner, is the most likely upset.

Mank — Erik Messerschmidt

Heres a deep cut: Messerschmidt used the RED Ranger Helium Monochrome‘s the Cinefade variable depth of field tool to emulate Gregg Toland’s iconic “Deep Focus” technique he used to keep distant subjects in focus in the same shot in Citizen Kane.

That may all sound like gibberish to you. Suffice it to say, that Fincher wanted to visually evoke Citizen Kane — the “greatest film of all time”, which was written by the titula Mank— as much possible and Messerschmidt delivered in spades.

The obvious downside of leaning into homage is that you arent exactly reinventing the wheel. But, so meticulously evoking the style of one of the most well shot movies ever is no small feat and it will certainly play to the nostalgia of older Academy voters as well as American cinefiles of all ages.

Monochrome films winning the Oscar is obviously pretty rare, as black and white long ago went from standard to an artsy aesthetic choice, but Alfonso Cuarón won it for Roma, so its definitely possible.

Erik Messerschmidt

The News of the World is a classically shot western, seeming to give homage to classics like The Searchers. Director Paul Greengrass’ movies always look great, and Dariusz Wolski’s work is no exception, even if it is a departure from Greengrass usual inclination towards purposefully shaky camera work.

Dariusz Wolski

For Judas and the Black Messiah, Sean Bobbit, who was snubbed for a nomination for the Best Picture winning 12 Years a Slave, employed high color saturation with a focus on the greensto evoke film stock commonly used in the sixties, the time period the film takes place.

Director Shaka King (left) and Sean Bobbit (right)

Phedon Papamichael’s work in Aaron Sorkins The Trial of the Chiacgo 7 is workmanlike. Straigtforward. It’s clear that a lot of footage had to be shot for both wides and closeups to provide the editor with enough good footage to cut to the rythem of Sorkins signature dialogue.

Phedon Papamichael

Production Design

Frontrunner:

Mank — Production Design: Donald Graham Burt; Set Decoration: Jan Pascale

Mank

This is the only category of the 12 nominations for Mank that I fully expect the film to win. It’s showy, elaborate and emulates old Hollywood that will make the older Academy voters yearn for the good old days before Marvel movies and make younger cinefiles jump for joy at the chance to point out references to Citizen Kane. Period pieces about old Hollywood shot for monochrome is going to be a tough one to beat.

Second most likely:

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — Production Design: Mark Ricker; Set Decoration: Karen O’Hara and Diana Sroughton

Production designer Mark Ricker discovered an old mil to convert into a a 1920’s studio. This film is adapted from August Wilsons classic play, and thusly takes place almost entirely at this one location. No detail was overlooked for period detail and the only thing that could make that dedication to a period vibe better for the Academy is… if it was old Hollywood.

The Father — Production Design: Peter Francis; Set Decoration: Cathy Featherstone

Anthony Hopkins in The Father

If I may editorialize; THIS is who should win.

The Father is adapted from director Florian Zellers play, Le Père (same words in French), and likewise takes place entirely in the same apartment… Kind of…

One of three configurations of the set for The Father

The film depicts a man detiorating from dementia and, and presents the world to the audience from the mans deteriorating perspective. This includes switching out actors to play the same role, and — this is whats relevant here — drastically changing the decor in the apartment. This included the set designers using the same location for two different apartment, which the film switches between without telling the audience.

They changed color scheme

The disorienting set communicates the breaking down functions of Hopkins’ mind incredibly well and is a big factor in what makes this movie so special.

This set is as meticulously designed as any period piece, and its use elevates the production design beyond being a mere setting. It is a psychological projection of the internal drama of our POV character.

My reason for putting it at number 3 is my fear that the Academy will not recognize this work. Films with contemporary, real world settings arent often recognized in this category because its not immediately obvious how much work went into any given detail. The Designers Branch (roughly 300 members of the 6000+ Academy) definitely appreciates this work. They nominated it. But the larger Academy votes on the winner. It‘s difficult to convey with single images what makes this set work so special and there's a possibility that it gets overlooked by voters who dont have the time to see every movie.

I have some hope that I will be surprised and The Father will be recognized for it’s unique contribution to the craft of production design, but its more likely that the Academy remains conventional on this one.

News of the World — Production Design: David Crank; Set Decoration: Elizabeth Keenan

A lovingly designed old-school western flick. I’d give this one more of a shot if it had been nominated for major awards, but without that there's nothing here that stands out enough to force it to the head of the pack.

Tenet — Production Design: Nathan Crowley; Set Decoration: Kathy Lucas

Nathan Crowley (Far Left) Nolan and his team planning the elaborate, climactic battle of Tenet

I have no idea what Tenet is doing here. Nathan Crowely has been nominated 6 times. He’s one of the best in his field and he’s done great stuff with Nolan. This is not his best work.

Da 5 Bloods. The Midnight Sky. Pinnochio. Hell, as far as I can tell there's no rules against an animated film being nominated. Can you seriously tell me that Tenet is a better desinened movie than Soul or Wolfwalkers?

In the wise words of a President: “C’mon man!”

Costume Design

I’ll just point out that all of the nominees can be considered period films. The incredible costumes in Promising Young Woman are apparently not good enough because the film takes place in this century.

Not nominated

Anyway, now that I have aired my grievences…

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — Ann Roth

On her 4th nomination — she won for 96’s forgotten Best Picture winner The English Patient — Anne Roth is the clear frontrunner to get an Oscar at the ripe age of 89. She already won in the Period Costumes category the Costume Designer Guild Awards, and has been cleaning up costuming awards at BAFTA and Critics Choice Awards.

Emma — Alexandra Byrne

However, you can never count out the Jane Austen adaptation in this category. Emma is set during the Regency Era (before the Victorian Era), when British fashion, particularly on women, underwent radical changes. Alexandra Byrne takes full advantage by devising elaborate gowns with bold colors that you often don’t see in movies like this.

Mank — Trish Summerville

As pointed out repeatedly: Fincher wanted this film, through it’s cinematography, production, sound, etc. to evoke Citizen Kane and 1930’s Hollywood in general. So, Summerville’s task was basically to work off reference material, with the hardest task being to make sure this all looks good in black and white. She apparently used the monochrome setting on her iPhone to help this along.

Some of the costumes are very vibrant in color, relying heavily on pastels, with lots of lavenders, greens, purples, and burgundies.

The old Hollywood flare is bound to catch the eye of the Academys older voters and anyone with a taste for a dedicated homage. However, this movie has not picked up even one award for it’s costumes. Even at smaller Award circles. It cant be counted out, but its very unlikely.

Mulan — Bina Daigeler

Daigelers costumes are one of the few things in this wrongheaded remake that actually works. Taking more inspiration from the historical Tang dynasty than the animated film its supposedly remaking, the costumes make great use of color and were comfortable as well as nimble for the stunts.

The costumes did win the Fantasy/Sci-fi category at the Costume Designers Guild Awards, but it will still be hard to overtake the more traditionally ‘Oscar Bait’ films listed above, which more critical acclaim and momentum.

Pinocchio — Massimo Cantini Parrini

Parrini missed out on the Fantasy/Sci-fi category at the CDGA to Mulan, making Pinocchio an even longer shot for the Oscar. The faithful adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s original children's story has received far better critical reviews than Mulan on the whole, but that probably wont be enough for a foreign language movie to overcome it’s Dark Horse status.

Makeup & Hair Styling

The Makeup and Hairstyling Category has been following a very consistent pattern the past few years:

Using prosthetics to transform well known actors into well known real life people that don't look much like them.

The last three winners won for turning Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, turning Christian Bale into Dick Cheney in Vice, and turning Charlize Theron into Megyn Kelly in Bombshell.

All impressive work to be sure, and it fits the Academy proven model of winning Oscars: good work that is noticeable. It’s also worth noting that all three of these actors where nominated for their work, with Oldman winning for the most Oscar bait role imaginable.

I expect this trend to continue, and two nominees would benefit from that.

The frontrunner is Ma Raineys Black Bottom.

Hair department head Mia Neal and Davis’ personal hair stylist Jamika Wilson (who are nominated alongside makeup artist Sergio Lopez-Rivera) are the first Black women to be nominated in this category. Which is, as these things tend to be, a bitter sweet milestone.

With only two weeks of prep time before filming (you bet your a$$ that harrowing fact is being shared widely in the Oscar campaign), the team worked closely with Davis and did extensive research to divide multiple extensive makeovers for different scenes, incoporating personal details about Ma Rainey, including her disregard for maintaining a ‘clean’ personal appearance, gold teeth, and her tendency to sweat profusely.

Planning sketches for the makeup for different shooting days.

Viola’s excellent performance is appropriately augmented by the suit, horse hair wigs, sweaty skin texture and the excessively applied facial makeup. And that's what a good cosmetics team does.

Next up is Hillbilly Elegy.

While Ron Hoawrds film was, on the whole, poorly received, Glen Closes performance as memior author JD Vance’s grandmother, Bonnie “Mamaw” Vance, was acclaimed. As was her cosmetic transformation into the rural matriarch.

The Ma Rainey team gets the edge here because their work was a bit more innovative. That, and unlike Ma Rainey, Dick Cheney, Winston Chruchill and Megyn Kelly; Bonnie Vance is not a recognizable celebrity/hisorical figure that Academy voters can compare to the spitting-image work of the cosmetics team.

Still, the Hillbilly Elegey team’s (Patricia Dehaney, Eryn Krueger Mekash and Matthew W. Mungle) work is quite noticeable, with Close being borderline unrecognizable, and it does its job: augmenting a good performance.

If the trend of uncanny impressions of real people does not continue, the most likely upset would be Matteo Garrone’s Pinochio (Dalia Colli, Mark Coulier and Francesco Pegoretti), which used every prosthetic teqnique in the book to capture a “wooden peopl” look that captures the illustrations by Enrico Mazzanti and Carlo Chiostri from the original book quite well.

I found the acting to be a bit wooden. I won’t apologize.

Emma (Marese Langan, Laura Allen, and Claudia Stolze) benefits from some of the most elaborate hair design you will see on film, and it all syncs up nicely with Alexandra Byrne’s nominated costumes, but doesn't necessarily ad anything new to the kind of Regency/Victorian era period pieces the Oscars haven't given this award to since 1998’s Elizabeth.

Emma

Finally, we’ve got Mank (Colleen LaBaff, Kimberley Spiteri and Gigi Williams), the most nominated film of the year that will probably go home with 1 Oscar (Production Design) or less.

Her hair is fabulous. He just looks like Gary Oldman.

The while there are plenty of ladies with well done period hair styles, the makeup work on Mank himself is relatively minimal. Oldman, who wore a fat suit and heavy makeup for Darkest Hour, actually gained the weight for this movie. Oldman apparently wanted to wear heavy prosthetics so he would more closely resemble Herman J. Mankiewicz but Fincher opted to keep the makeup to a minimum, making what is there pretty subtle. May have been the right decision for the movie, but it isn’t going to help them win an Oscar.

Tune in tomorrow for the last entry. Major Categories:

Best Picture

Best Original Screenplay

Best Adapted Screenplay

Best Editing