Why “The Hunger Games” should win the Academy Award for Best Production Design

I was finally able to watch The Hunger Games about a week ago and was extremely impressed by the film’s visual design – the locations, costumes, sets, props, makeup, etc.  Immediately I began thinking about writing a post arguing that the film should win the Academy Award for Art Direction.

But then I discovered that, as of just a few weeks ago, the Academy has changed the name of that award to “Academy Award for Production Design.”  The new category will be used starting with the 85th Annual Academy Awards in 2013.  So let me back up and mention a few things about production design.

The term “production design” refers to the creation of a movie’s overall look and aesthetic feel.  Mostly this involves everything that is placed before the camera (also known as the film’s mise-en-scène): sets, costumes, props, lighting, and even acting when a performance somehow contributes to a film’s visual thematic motifs.  Although a production designer obviously must work in collaboration with the director and producer, he/she is pretty much in charge of designing the unified visual experience that best artistically amplifies a film’s theme.

An example of effective production design that comes to mind is the 1974 Roman Polanski film Chinatown.  In this movie about drought and California’s water wars (not to mention murder and incest), the film’s visual aesthetic conveys a sense of oppressive heat and the physical exhaustion that accompanies it.  Scenes shot outdoors all serve to remind you of that theme.  The buildings are blazing white, the grass is scorched brown (with one notable exception), the air is still, the sky is cloudless, and the unrelenting sun is almost always directly overhead.  Watching the film, you can almost feel the parched, suffocating atmosphere.

I’ve also seen some surprisingly comprehensive production design at work in television commercials, notably Lilly’s Cymbalta® ads, in which nearly everything – nearly all building exteriors and interiors, clothing, props (e.g., coffee mugs, books, cars), and even some actors’ hair color – is a shade of blue, green, and red/rust.  Watch for them; these ads usually run during the evening network news broadcasts.

Actually, I just found a couple of these ads on YouTube.  You want to pay attention to the predominance of multi-shaded green, blue, and red/rust/pink hues.  Then also look for the product logo and company name.  It’s interesting to realize that blue and green are the colors of the drug’s logo, and red is the color used for the Lilly company name.

While the older term “art direction” sounds like it’s referring to sets, costumes, props, and makeup, the new term, “production design,” more accurately captures the broader scope of responsibilities.  A film’s visual aesthetic goes beyond traditional art direction to include design elements such as an actor’s performance (in ways that reflect the film’s theme), the “pacing” and juxtaposition of shots set through film editing decisions, and artistic (rather than functional) lighting design.

The Hunger Games’ production design gives viewers a déjà vu feeling of instant familiarity with the far-flung locales of the film’s fictional world.  Instead of just one uniform look for the entire overall film, the movie’s visual design is created by a jigsaw puzzle, or maybe more of an amalgam, of complementary “cues” working together through a brilliant mix of styles to create recognition (“re-cognition” in the literal sense).  The places in this fictional world all feel so real!

Because we’ve seen them before.  Sort of.

Katniss’s home in District 12 has a poverty-stricken, 1930s Appalachian coal-country feel.  Faded, tired, and worn.   At first I thought this look was achieved primarily through post-production color grading, but every time the film’s action returned to District 12, I scrutinized the mise-en-scène  and decided instead that the washed-out color seems more the result of pre-production design decisions about sets, costumes, makeup, etc., than a post-production chemical or digital process.  The actors’ hair color seems relatively uniform in color (mostly brown), as does their clothing (mostly drab shades of gray).  Interior and exterior sets are a dusty gray, as though covered with coal residue.  Everything is weathered, sagging, neglected.

Even decisions about the casting of extras and supporting players who populate the world of District 12 appear to have been made in service to the overall design element.  Every adult face in Katniss’s world seems lined with a pervasive Dorothea Lange quality giving testimony to the hardscrabble subsistence of a life associated with the mines.

Update: Actually, now that I’ve watched this movie like a million times, I can tell you that the same crew of extras used for District 12 is also used for the Capitol. It’s really, really interesting to see how costumes, hair & makeup, and acting (yes, once you start watching for it, you realize that extras do act) can completely transform these background performers!

Beyond District 12, the film has other notable design elements that caught my eye.  One is the smooth, streamlined Art Deco interior of the bullet train that Katniss and Peeta ride to the Capitol of Panem – a stylistic aesthetic especially well chosen here for the way it reflects the frictionless speed of maglev transportation.

The Capitol of Panem itself is excessively grand in scale, a somewhat cold city with colossal classical elements that remind me of ancient Rome in some ways and the “White City” of the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in others.  You can search Google Images for “1893 Chicago World’s Fair” or “World’s Columbian Exposition” to see photos that show what I mean.  Also, here and here are two really nice YouTube video/slide shows showing the White City in its glory.  (Nearly all of which lay in ruin just a year after the fair’s end.)

Adding to the eclectic mix of styles in this film are the clean, curved, elegant lines of Art Nouveau and Empire Style which are seen in some interiors and in the table at film’s end bearing the bowl of nightlock (an allusion to Socrates’ demise?).

Empire Style table (via Wikipedia)

Interestingly, the Empire Style was itself was a reinterpretation of the Ancient Roman Republic’s style during the rule of Napoleon I during the First French Empire, so there’s another throwback to the Ancient Rome motif.

Katniss’s Mockingjay pin, a symbol of her district, looks to me like a mix of Art Nouveau and socialist realism.  And, actually, once you start thinking about socialist realism, the logical next thing to consider is the huge scale of official government spaces in the Capitol, which exhibit a totalitarian pagentry worthy of a Soviet military parade or a 1930s Nuremberg rally of the Nazi party faithful.  It’s also worth mentioning that the huge, heavy concrete structures of the Training Center and the City Circle (site of the Tributes Parade) are examples of “Brutalism,” a mid-20th-century architectural style often associated with totalitarianism and the Soviet Union.

Inside the Hunger Games control room, where Tributes are virtually monitored and manipulated, the environment is a stark white, high-tech, sci-fi space reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  In the scenes where Tributes are getting their finishing-touch makeovers, the interiors remind me of The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy and her friends receive Emerald City makeovers of their own.  Remember the Tin Man getting buffed by the giant powder-puff wheel and the Cowardly Lion having his mane styled?  (“Snip, snip here / snip, snip there . . .”)

President Snow’s garden reminds me of the Red Queen’s garden in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass.  Effie Trinket, who comes to District 12 to select the Tributes and accompany them to the Capitol, is a kaleidoscopic mix of 1940s fashion, Betty Boop lips, and the strange bleached-eyebrow trend of recent years (Lady Gaga and Kelly Osbourne).

And, finally, though it received just a thin sliver of film time, District 11 deserves mention.  When little Rue is killed, riots ensue in her home district.  Not until I saw that footage did I make a connection with South Africa.  Although I have not followed the political history of that nation closely, whenever I have heard the words “riot” and “district” together, they have always been in connection with South Africa.  And usually those riots, like the rioting in The Hunger Games, have been associated with mining districts, factory districts . . . poor districts that are as racially segregated as District 11 appears to be.  While many countries contain segregated areas where poor workers toil in miserable conditions for the benefit of the elite classes, South Africa actually codified this reality in official policy.

Did Suzanne Collins intentionally set up the political geography of her novel to resemble South Africa’s?  Or was this a design decision by the film’s creative team?

In any case, it is brilliant.

The District 11 rioting is a tiny, tiny piece of the overall film.  Yet, like all the other tiny pieces of design in The Hunger Games, the footage of this rioting works almost at the level of “code” – the type of signifier described in the post-structural technique of literary analysis created and demonstrated by Roland Barthes in S/Z  (1970).

All we see is a snippet of District 11 rioting, with black men pulling things over and everything going up in flames.  But because these shots are so similar to real-life news footage and because we already know that these District 11 men are workers in a poor mining district (note: actually an agricultural district, but impoverished nonetheless), movie audiences will most likely recognize the “code” references to South Africa and automatically invent an entire fictional backstory that is never actually articulated in the film itself.

Whether the District 11 rioting accurately or inaccurately reflects actual events in South Africa is almost beside the point.  What really matters to the experience of the film is the way production design in The Hunger Games triggers viewers’ associations, through response to these “coded” visual images, with the archetypal idea of apartheid in South Africa.

So to wrap up this rather long post, let me just say that not only should The Hunger Games receive the Academy Award for Production Design, but the film also deserves to be nominated in multiple categories and win the statuette in several.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
This entry was posted in Movies and film, Popular culture, WPLongform (posts of 1000 words or longer) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Why “The Hunger Games” should win the Academy Award for Best Production Design

  1. You make me look at movies in an entirely different way!! I’ll have to start watching once for enjoyment, and then watch it again to see how they did it!! Thanks for opening my eyes!!


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