"Avatar" is the newly crowned all-time boxoffice champion and the odds-on Oscar favorite to take home statuettes for everything from best picture to visual effects.
But, if history is any indication, director James Cameron's otherworldly epic won't grab the award for art direction. That category has only been won by three science-fiction films (1977's "Star Wars," 1967's "Fantastic Voyage" and 1954's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea") since the inception of the Academy Awards in 1929. By Todd Longwell
This trivial tidbit is hardly reassuring to production designer Dave Warren, who's nominated for director Terry Gilliam's hallucinogenic fantasy "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus."
"I'm still dumbfounded that we got this far," says Warren, who shares the nomination with fellow production designer Anastasia Masaro and set designer Caroline Smith.
"There's a little bit of controversy, especially from Terry's end, on how publicized ("Imaginarium") has been in the States. So I'm trying to think, who the hell voted for us?"
The simple answer is the members of the art directors branch of the Academy nominated the film. The final vote will be cast by the entire membership, which, unfortunately for Warren, tends to favor historical films. Since 1968, films set primarily in the present day have only won five times for art direction (1976's "All The President's Men," 1978's "Heaven Can Wait," 1979's "All That Jazz," 1989's "Batman" and 1994's "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert").
This year, three of the five nominated films -- "Nine," "Sherlock Holmes" and "The Young Victoria" -- have historical settings. Of course, it's unlikely voters will be thinking about historical precedent while casting their ballots. They vote for what they like here and now. They could look at the sets in "Victoria" -- about the early reign of Britain's Queen Victoria (Emily Blunt), circa 1840 -- and simply view them as bunch of old castles tarted up with set dressing, not realizing the artistry that went into fitting them into the narrative, both logistically and aesthetically.
"We would take a studio set at Shepperton Studios and link it to a room in a real castle, three and a half hours away, then (cut) it to a room in another castle," explains the film's production designer Patrice Vermette, who shares the nomination with set decorator Maggie Gray. "In the period in the film, Windsor Castle should've been very Regency-style, but we decided to make it the classic gothic castle, because it would keep the splash of colors and that Regency look for Victoria's entrance into Buckingham Palace."
Historical films have an even greater leg up in costume design, where only two films set primarily in the present day ("All That Jazz" and "Priscilla") have won since 1968. But this year the advantage is shared by four nominees, "Bright Star," "Coco Before Chanel," "Nine" and "Victoria," leaving "Imaginarium" as the odd film out.
Historical films like "The Young Victoria" have fared well in the Academy's costume design category
If one applies previous Oscar recognition to the costume equation, it favors Sandy Powell ("The Young Victoria") and Colleen Atwood ("Nine"), both whom have seven previous nominations and two wins. Janet Patterson ("Bright Star") has three previous nominations, while Monique Prudhomme ("Imaginarium") and Catherine Leterrier ("Coco Before Chanel") are both first-timers.
One could make the argument that familiarity breeds contempt and voters might be in the mood to bestow the statuette on a first-time nominee. If this is the case, "Coco" might have an extra hook for voters in that it tells the story of a seminal fashion icon. Leterrier also put a twist in the historical fabric, creating period correct clothing with fabrics and silhouettes that foreshadow Coco Chanel's signature work.
"The period of the film is before (Chanel) was a fashion designer," Leterrier says. "She started in fashion as a milliner, so I thought she was making her own clothes. I made them different from what ladies were, showing how modern she was for that period. I used all the cloths that she will develop later, like the jersey, tweed, lace chiffon and silk satin, and all the colors she will use later, such as black and white, navy and white and beige." In essence, Leterrier was making Chanel clothes, "but with the spirit of that period."
When it comes to the makeup category, the rule has been the more outlandish, labor-intensive prosthetics, the better, even if the film in question is a critically lambasted dud like 2008 winner "Norbit." This would seem to favor "Star Trek,"
Eric Bana gets prepped for his role as the Romulan villain Nero in "Star Trek"
which was not only well-liked by audiences and critics alike, but also had starships full of Romulans, Vulcans and other interstellar species, including the proverbial green chick bedded by James T. Kirk (Chris Pine).
"We had a full-time staff of anywhere from 20-25 and for any given large scene we had 45 makeup artists in two shifts," says "Trek" makeup department head Mindy Hall, who shares the nomination with prosthetic makeup designer Barney Burman and prosthetic makeup supervisor Joel Harlow. "When we did the Vulcans, one person would do the face and the other would do the eyebrows, so there's two people per Vulcan."
While the Academy clearly loves extraterrestrials and other extreme transformations, in recent years it has shown a soft spot for more subtle transformations in serious biopics made outside the Hollywood studio system, including 2002's "Frida" and 2007's "La Vie en Rose." This year, two of the three makeup nominees are biopics -- "Young Victoria" and the little-seen "Il Divo," in which actor Toni Servillo is aged more than 20 years to portray former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. The former could be seen as having an advantage given the fact that its makeup supervisor Jenny Shircore (who shares the nomination with hairstylist Jon Henry Gordon) won previously for 1998's "Elizabeth," a biopic about the early reign of Queen Elizabeth I.