February 28, 2020
From left: Quentin Tarantino and Margot Robbie on the set of “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.” Photo by Andrew Cooper/Sony Pictures Entertainment

Technical Difficulties: The Challenges of Bringing Best Picture Nominees to the Screen

Making movies is never easy, but for the artisans behind this year’s crop of best picture nominees — many of whose films also have been nominated — the challenges were particularly difficult. Here are some of the problems they faced and how they solved them.

“1917”
Even though it appears that way, the journey through the trenches in “1917” was not shot in one take, but filmed in a series of extended, uncut takes that could be connected seamlessly to appear as a continuous shot. Director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins, both Oscar nominees, carefully blocked the scenes to map the movement of the camera. “A lot of the blocking was done in our heads, then Sam would rehearse the scenes,” Deakins said. “Then we drew schematics and had a storyboard artist who gave different options within those basic ideas. It gradually evolved, but then, when we worked with our actors on location, it evolved even further.”

“The dance of the camera and the mechanics all had to be in sync with what the actor was doing. When we achieved that, it was exhilarating. But it took immense planning and immense skill from the operators,” Mendes noted. “Sometimes, we’d have a camera that was carried by an operator, hooked onto a wire. The wire would carry it across more land. It was unhooked again; that operator ran with it, then stepped onto a small Jeep that carried him another 400 yards, and he stepped off it again and raced around the corner.”

Because he could not adjust the light, Deakins prayed for overcast skies. Fortunately, the notoriously gloomy U.K. weather generally cooperated.

From left: Matt Damon, James Mangold and
Christian Bale on the set of “Ford v Ferrari.” Photo by Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox

“Ford v Ferrari”
Capturing the thrilling racing sequences in director James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari” involved camera-mounted tracking cars, stunt drivers and visual effects. However, re-creating the climactic 24-hour Le Mans road race was complex. The course was replicated in rural Georgia, and everything else had to be made from scratch, including racecar replicas, grandstands and service pits, as well as the advertising, banners, race programs, stopwatches, drivers’ helmets, spectator flags and pit tools. For reference, production designer Francois Audouy used archival photos from the era acquired from sources including Le Mans organizers and the Automobile Club of the West in France.

“When you’re telling a story like this, you’re given the ability to re-create the world exactly as it was, to show how the historical events looked at the time,” Audouy said. “We have to be faithful to history in re-creating the signage and details at the same scale, in the same colors, not changing anything.”

“Jojo Rabbit”
To film his World War II satire set in Nazi Germany, Oscar-nominated director Taika Waititi chose locations in small towns in the Czech Republic that were under occupation at the time but never bombed, thereby preserving their prewar look. “Often on a period film, you’re trying to hide signs of the modern world with camera angles and lighting. But here, everything looked so good and authentic, and there was so much detail in every direction, it allowed us so many more options,” director of photography Mihai Malaimire said. “You could barely tell it was the 21st century because there were no wires or air conditioning units or anything that takes you out of time. So we had the beautiful luxury of being able to move freely and shoot in 360 degrees, and it was quite amazing.”

Crew built interior sets on stages at Prague’s Barrandov Studios, where the Nazis once made propaganda films. “It felt like a kind of poetic justice to make ‘Jojo Rabbit’ there,” Oscar-nominated production designer Ra Vincent said, “as well as a kind of blessing of the ground and clearing a new path for anti-racist and anti-fascist beliefs to flourish.”

From left: Joaquin Phoenix and
Todd Phillips on the set of “Joker.” Photo by Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.

“Joker”
Creating the Gotham City of 1981 in the New York of today was a major challenge for Oscar-nominated director Todd Phillips and his team. “The physical world we were trying to depict is not that available, as we’ve slowly been turning our cities into glass skyscrapers and malls,” production designer Mark Friedberg said. He built Gotham Square in Newark, N.J., found other locations in Jersey City and the boroughs, and added trash and signage to project the grimier look of a decaying city.

In addition, “Everything we used to light the set was authentic to the time. None of the modern technology of lights was used,” Oscar-nominated cinematographer Lawrence Sher said. Friedberg sourced vintage TV cameras from Rhode Island’s Museum of Broadcast Technology for the Murray Franklin talk-show set and obtained 1970s period subway cars from the New York City Transit Museum.

But for all the physical transformations needed to create “Joker’s” world, the most dramatic may be the one Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix undertook to play the man behind the clown mask. At Phillips’ suggestion, Phoenix shed 52 pounds, eating little more than an apple per day. “I wanted the character to look hungry and unhealthy,” Phillips said. “Like a malnourished wolf.”

From left: Quentin Tarantino and Margot Robbie on the set of “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” Photo by Andrew Cooper/Sony Pictures Entertainment

“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”
Re-creating 1969 Los Angeles in his alternative-history Hollywood fable, Oscar-nominated director Quentin Tarantino used some iconic locations that existed then, including the Musso & Frank, Casa Vega and El Coyote restaurants, and the notorious Playboy Mansion. He even shot in the actual El Coyote booth Sharon Tate occupied one fateful night in August of that year.

Other locations had to be replicated. The old Western set at Spahn Ranch — the Manson family’s home base — burned down in a wildfire in 1970 and needed to be rebuilt.  A drive-in theater in Paramount stood in for the Van Nuys Drive-In, which was torn down in 1998. It fell to Oscar-nominated production designer Barbara Ling to reproduce iconic signage representing Roy Rogers restaurant, Earl Scheib auto body and Holiday Inn. For the scene in which Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio drive along Hollywood Boulevard at night, crew shut down four blocks, retrofitted storefronts, brought in vintage cars and dressed extras in period style.

Costume designer Arianne Phillips, also an Oscar nominee, researched the era by watching movies popular in ’69, including “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Easy Rider,” “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” and the TV series “Hullabaloo” and “Lancer.” Extras wore vintage pieces but principal actors’ wardrobes were handmade, including Pitt’s Hawaiian shirt and the 22 outfits DiCaprio wore as Rick Dalton, including the initial “R” belt buckle and medallion he sported. In dressing Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, Phillips not only had photos of Tate for reference, but her actual clothes and jewelry. Throughout the movie, Robbie wears rings and earrings lent by Tate’s sister, who served as a consultant on the film.

“The Irishman”
Martin Scorsese’s mob epic takes place from 1949 to 2000, and it was clear to the Oscar-nominated director that veteran stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci couldn’t play their characters in their early years. Casting younger actors wasn’t an option; neither was the motion-capture system that would require the stars to act with reference dots on their faces, as Scorsese didn’t want to impede their performances in any way.

In 2015, Industrial Light & Magic’s (ILM) Pablo Helman, who worked with Scorsese on “Silence,” proposed a novel solution: building a new system to digitally de-age the actors without those interferences. The ILM team spent two
years devising a three-camera rig with infrared capability that eliminated shadows, and a facial-expression-capturing software called FLUX, tested with
De Niro re-creating a scene from “Goodfellas.” The test’s success “greenlit the movie,” the visual effects nominee said. “It sounds complicated and it is, but it takes the burden away from the actors and the director. It’s visual effects on a whole different level.”

“Little Women”
To create her adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel set in the Civil War era, writer-director Greta Gerwig and her creative team did copious research on the period, taking inspiration from paintings, architecture, photographs and clothing of the time. “The 1860s was the very beginning of photography, and both European and American Impressionist painters were a big influence on the film,” Oscar-nominated costume designer Jacqueline Durran said. She used those iconic images to create wardrobes for the March women, using a different color palette for each, according to distinct personalities: red for Jo; lilac and green for Meg; pink for Beth; and light blue for Amy.

Production designer Jess Gonchor found several existing buildings to use as locations, but others had to be built from scratch. Using Orchard House, Alcott’s home-turned-museum, as a reference, the exteriors of the March and Laurence houses were erected by hand on a property in Concord, Mass., over a period of 12 weeks. The March home’s interiors were shot in a warehouse, but Gonchor was lucky enough to find a 50-room mansion “that had just the right feeling” required for the Laurence place.

He re-created downtown Concord in the town of Harvard, bringing in 60 tons of snow for a Christmastime scene. Locations in Boston and Lawrence, Mass., stood in for locations in New York City. Boston’s Arnold Arboretum and other Massachusetts locales served as 19th-century Paris. “We couldn’t go to Europe, so we found this opulent castle in Ipswich, where the gardens are rich, it’s on the ocean, and the scale is amazing,” Gonchor said.

Noah Baumbach; Photo by Wilson Webb/Netflix

“Marriage Story”
Even though it’s about the unraveling of a relationship, “I wanted a big, warm, romantic score for the movie,” director Noah Baumbach said. He turned to composer Randy Newman, with whom he worked on “The Meyerowitz Stories,” to get it. The Oscar-nominated orchestral score Newman composed for the eight-minute montage early in the film sets the scene for what follows.

“It’s celebratory. It’s compassionate. It’s human,” Baumbach said. “It’s not romanticizing them, but it is loving, I think. The visuals that are accompanying it in the beginning are mostly images of domesticity, or coupledom, or individual characteristics that makes us unique. Ordinary moments. And I felt like the score could sort of celebrate it; make these ordinary moments extraordinary. But then, the movie shifts and suddenly, the same music means something else. It gave us a foundation for the rest of the movie.”

“Parasite”
A struggling family of con artists insinuates itself into a rich family’s life in Bong Joon Ho’s biting tragicomedy “Parasite,” in which the production design by Oscar nominee Lee Ha Jun underscores the chasm between the haves and have-nots. Lee and his team built two very different locations: a lavish, spacious, hilltop designer home and the squalid, cramped basement hovel in a slum below.

To create the vision Bong described in detail in his screenplay, Lee scavenged existing poor neighborhoods in Seoul for doors, signage and artwork to dress the basement neighborhood set. He also consulted architect friends in designing the rich family’s home. “I had to make it believable as something an architect would have built while satisfying all the demands of the screenplay,” Lee said.

Lee also used color and water to define and separate the two spaces visually, as well as staircases. “In the rich family’s home, they’re angular and perpendicular, and in the poor neighborhood, they become topsy-turvy,” he said. “There is a lot of top-to-bottom motion in the film, and as you move from top to bottom, a lot of things change. In the rich family’s home, things are spacious and peaceful, and when you go to the poor family’s neighborhood, things become tight and claustrophobic.”

The latter set had to be built in a water tank to accommodate the flooding scene near the end of the film. “We poured muddy water into the set for the sequence,” Bong said. “The water looks dirty, but for the sake of the actors, we actually added a facial mud mask to the water. It was very safe.”

The Academy Awards ceremony will be broadcast live on ABC on Feb. 9 from the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.