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THE OSCAR NOMINATIONS | ART DIRECTION

Yes, fantasy has an edge over reality

January 24, 2007|Sheigh Crabtree | Special to The Times

PRODUCTION designers, like so many craft artists, are well aware of the edge that period and fantasy films have over contemporary films at Oscar time, if only because the work is so much easier to spot.

In the nominations for art direction, the academy's tendency to reward nostalgic and fanciful films recurred again with "Dreamgirls," "The Good Shepherd," "Pan's Labyrinth," "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" and "The Prestige."

"It can be really hard to recognize the work in contemporary films because we all see it, walk through it, live it and breath it every day," said production designer Jeannine Oppewall, a four-time Oscar nominee, up again this year for "The Good Shepherd." "It can be easier -- even for us in the branch -- to see what someone did when you're not living in that environment."

Oppewall built more than 130 sets for Robert DeNiro's examination of the CIA's origins on real and staged locations including blitz-plagued London, Berlin, Guatemala, Cuba and Washington, D.C. She also redressed Bronx Community College to double for Yale University.

Fellow nominee Rick Heinrichs endured a hurricane and severe damage to a number of sets for "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" in the midst of production. His design mandate from "Pirates" director Gore Verbinski was to create the look of the "golden age of piracy" while infusing actual environments with fantasy elements.

The contemporary reality of unseasonably dry weather was the bane of "Pan's Labyrinth" production designer Eugenio Caballero's work when rampant forest fires in Spain cramped the show's ability to work with certain power tools. Green wood and thread doubled for grass and moss on what was designed as an otherwise dank and pungent environment.

"We built all 36 sets from scratch," said first-time nominee Caballero, "which allowed us absolute visual control and enabled us to explore lots of shapes and angles."

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