Oscar voters love movies fueled by big themes, and this year’s Academy Award contenders deliver by taking on everything from slavery and terrorism to mental illness, religion, and social injustice. While auteur vision statements and actors’ performance may drive 2012's grandest motion pictures, it’s the production designers, costumers, sound technicians, and visual effects artists who make epic drama feel real by obsessing over the tiniest of particulars.
Joe Letteri, Oscar nominated for his visual effect contributions to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, told Co.Create, "Getting the details right is important because it’s like the idea of the weakest link in the chain: If something, no matter how small, feels wrong to an audience, it can take you out of the film."
Audiences may not consciously know, for example, that they’re hearing the tick of Abraham Lincoln’s actual pocket watch midway through Steven Spielberg’s 12-time nominated biopic. They may not realize that Keira Knightley’s undergarments in Anna Karenina are structured for metaphorical import to resemble a bird cage, or that the crack of the bullwhip heard in Django Unchained gained deep impact thanks to recordings done in the Rocky Mountains.
But that attention to detail pays off when it comes to building imaginary on-screen worlds that seem entirely believable. Here’s a look at how a few of this year’s Oscar-nominated perfectionists enriched high-end spectacle by micro-managing the small stuff.
2012's most extravagantly detailed fantasy epic, Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit movie deployed Oscar-nominated production design, makeup and visual effects to surround Bilbo Baggins’ Middle Earth quest with photo-realistic dwarves, goblins, and trolls.
The Goblin King proved to be the most astonishing of the freaks. VFX supervisor Letteri recalls, "Peter Jackson wanted the Goblin King to be the most disgusting character we could imagine," he laughs. "It’s what we live for."
Using medical literature as reference material, Letteri and his team slathered digital blubber on top of actor Barry Humphries’ core motion capture performance. "The Troll King’s body had fat pouring out of every bulge we could think of including this big ugly goiter on his neck that’s been growing there for God knows how long," Letteri says. "Then we covered the skin with decay and pus and boils. All the components on the Goblin King are derived from human biology, which are just put together in new and weird ways."
Hobbit artisans also revived creepy Gollum performance-captured by Andy Serkis, paying special attention to the creature’s eye and mouth movement. "That’s really what makes it come alive," says Letteri. "For Gollum, the emotion really comes through the facial expression and body posture. We’re born to pick up these subtle cues, so if something feels wrong about the eyes when your characters are trying to smile, or the lips move in a funny way when they’re speaking, that can easily take you out of the movie."
Oscar-nominated production designer Rick Carter and his team built a replica of Lincoln’s office one handmade detail at a time, then rounded up historically authenticated books and maps to furnish the the president’s library. "While Lincoln is a big story, it’s also a very intimate one," Carter said in a statement.
Sound designer Ben Burtt took the quest for authenticity a step further. In a SoundworksCollection.com video, Burtt recalls wondering, "Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could put into the film actual sounds that Lincoln may have heard during his lifetime?"
To that end, Burtt tracked down Lincoln’s pocket watch, which remains in perfect mechanical working order, at the Kentucky Historical Society. He then arranged for the watch to be freshly wound so his team could record the tiny gears. End result: Daniel Day Lewis—and the audience—listen to the same ticking clock that Lincoln himself would have heard In 1865.
For 11-time nominee Life of Pi, director Ang Lee used a real tiger for about 15% of the shots that took place inside a stranded lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. The rest of the scenes featured a computer-generated animal. Lee said, "By bringing the real animal (into the movie), you set a standard: This is what you have to match."
To conjure a convincing beast from zeroes and ones, Life of Pi's Oscar-nominated visual effects team tasked 15 artists to concentrate entirely on the animal’s fur. Supervisor Bill Westenhofer said in a Life of Pi video, "Somebody had to comb and place more than 10 million hairs that are on the body. Knowing we were going to intercut between a real tiger and a digital one—that hadn’t been done in the past. It required the advancement of technology and required computes to get fast enough to match the 3-D."
Westenhofer’s team spent countless hours watching video to allowing them to also zero in on the tiniest details of the way a tiger moves, such as what happens when a tiger puts paw to ground. "The inside finger lands first, then does a quick roll to the side," Westenhofer told Co.Create earlier this year. "There’s a rebound shake of the fingers and that vibrates up the paw."
Besides his penchant for hand-picking soundtrack music cues, Quentin Tarantino demonstrates an equally persnickety passion for sound effects in seven-time nominated Best Picture contender Django Unchained.
To make sure the whip cracks and gun blasts featured in Tarantino’s antebellum slave narrative landed with maximum sonic impact, Oscar-nominated sound editor Wylie Stateman slept in a truck in Death Valley for a week gathering sounds. He then recorded gunfire and whips at Utah’s Zion National Park but remained unsatisfied. Finally, Stateman trekked to Monument Valley, where John Ford shot The Searchers and other classic Westerns. "Because of the sheer rock vertical faces of 1,000 feet or more, we could get multiple echoes," Stateman told the Los Angeles Times. "Monument Valley produced the most interesting acoustic recordings that we made."
Nominated for seven Oscars, Argo's account of a 1979 Iranian hostage rescue depended on a genuine sense of claustrophobia from the actors playing American civilians hiding out for months in the Canadian embassy. That’s no accident. Before production began, Oscar-nominated costume designer Jacqueline Wes outfitted cast members in period-perfect outfits. Then, director/star Ben Affleck sequestered the cast members for a week in a Los Angeles house.
Affleck said in a statement, "We took away everything contemporary and gave them music, games, books, magazines, and newspapers from that period. They didn’t have the Internet and couldn’t watch outside TV. Without those things to fall back on, they had to actually talk to each other. I wanted them to get comfortable with one another in a way that felt natural. It’s much harder to ‘act’ familiarity. It’s more of a chemical thing; your body relaxes and you adopt a certain posture and talk to people differently. It definitely paid off in cementing the vibe of the group mentality."
Vying with Best Picture nominee Les Miserables as 2012's most sumptuous 19th-century period drama, Anna Karenina earned four Academy Award nominations including a nod for costume designer Jacqueline Durran. Having already demonstrated her genius for eye-popping bonnets in Pride & Prejudice, she found ample opportunity to showcase spectacular hats in Joe Wright’s adaptation of the Tolstoy classic.
Durran also designed subtle wardrobe touches that inform Keira Knightley’s tragic title character. Since Anna is expected by society to play the role of a beautiful creature trapped on display even in the privacy of her palatial boudoir, Durran designed petticoats in the shape of a birdcage.
Durran borrowed from mid-century designers Dior and Balenciaga to define the film’s anti-heroine as a Russian aristocrat who favors French fashion. Durran said in a statement, "We associate 1950s couture with chic elegance…With Anna, I did keep an 1870s skirt shape all the way through while pushing the bodices in the direction of the 1950s. There is also a 1950s feel to Anna’s gray silk jacket—it’s very much a 1950s jacket shape, with buttons down the front, although even this is paired with an 1870s skirt."