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What makes a movie's production design worthy of an Academy Award?

A story's setting is what really brings an audience into its world, and that's exactly what designers are aiming for when making a film.
Posted at 9:11 PM, Mar 06, 2023

Films tell stories not just through dialogue and performance, but also through the worlds they build on-screen — through settings that feel familiar, wondrous or historical.

That “world-building” is the job of production designers.

“Imagine that the actors weren't even there. Imagine if there was no dialogue," said Jordan Ninkovich, a production designer. "I look at it as: Can the environments tell the story for the audience?"

Ninkovich has worked as a production designer for movies like “The Holiday Sitter” and film franchises like “Seven Deadly Sins.” As a former actor, he approaches production design with the rest of the cast and crew in mind, but he pulls inspiration from the script and story itself.

“They give us a little bit of description dialogue, and I get to build this world from it," Ninkovich said. "So from there, I start researching different locations that we may be shooting at, pulling different natural color palettes from that, creating mood boards and color palettes that suit either motifs or contrasts the actors to tell the story.”

This year’s Academy Award nominees for best production design celebrate the maximalist historical environments of “Babylon” and “Elvis,” the storybook nostalgia of “The Fabelmans,” the war-torn destruction of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and the fantastical fictional world of Pandora from “Avatar: The Way of Water.”

Ninkovich says it’s the little details of each world that make them worthy of their nominations.

“There's a difference between seeing a staged home and a lived-in home, you know, and I think those are the details that really take a pretty set to like an Oscar worthy set," Ninkovich said.

This year’s Oscar winner for best production design will be announced during the 95th Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, March 12.

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