This year, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival chose to commemorate its midway point with a dazzling cinematic coup, offering up no less than nine 2018 Academy Award nominees on a blustery Monday evening at the Lobero Theatre. That these seasoned artists also happened to be card-carrying members of Hollywood’s “Unsung Heroes Club” made it all the more gratifying.
Now in its fourth year, the Variety Artisans Award pays tribute to the production designers, make-up artists, musical composers, costume designers, and sound editors who quite literally bring a film to life, balancing science, technology, and artistry on a carefully financed shoestring. “Otherwise,” joked Matthew Wood, sound editor for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, “it’s just a bunch of very expensive voices on a blank screen.”
The evening, moderated by senior vice president for Variety magazine Tim Gray, kicked off with production designer Paul D. Austerberry (The Shape of Water), who described in eloquent detail his use of a series of director Guillermo del Toro’s mood sketches to construct “voluptuously curved and romantic” sets from which the whimsical love story between a woman and a rare, amphibious creature could flourish. Sound mixer Julian Slater (Baby Driver) dazzled the crowd with a laundry list of sounds painstakingly syncopated to the rock songs used to add texture to the movie’s white knuckle-inducing car chases (like wide-eyed kids in a candy store, Slater and Wood both agreed that they might just have the coolest jobs in the world). Costume designer Mark Bridges (Phantom Thread) mused over his obsessive research of 1950s London high fashion to design nearly 40 stunning gowns and suits, noting his flattery over the knowledge that leading actor Daniel Day-Lewis had contractually requested keeping his wardrobe at film’s wrap.
Artists are prone to peppering their conversations with flourishing descriptions, and nowhere was that more apparent than with musical composer Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water), who, when asked to describe his underlying inspiration, launched into a soliloquy about love “in all of its melancholy glory.” “I’m French, maybe you noticed,” he laughed. “I’m not ashamed to admit I am very emotionally attached to my work.” In striking contrast, Editor Tatiana S. Riegel’s (I, Tonya) work required a healthy distance from the actors and set. “If I’m wrestling with what’s going to make the cutting room floor, I don’t want to know that you’ve spent 12 straight hours working through this scene,” she emphasized.
The two most prolific expressions of art and science’s synergy came in the forms of visual effects artist John Nelson (Blade Runner 2049), and special effects make-up artist Arjen Tuiten (Wonder), both injecting palpable humanity into their encyclopedic knowledge of up-to-the-minute technology. “I’m constantly concerned about mobility so that each character can be expressed in full range,” said Tuiten. “People are incredibly difficult to get right,” added Nelson, “but human effects are the holy grail of our industry.”
When cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Mudbound) hit the stage, the crowd roared with approval (Morrison is the first female cinematographer ever to be nominated for an Oscar.) Citing sculpture and fine art as inspiration for her tonal approach to capturing a warm Mississippi Delta palette, Morrison marveled over the significance her work will have on the next generation of female filmmakers: “What a symbol of hope for the future,” she stressed.
Continuing on the thread of equanimity in filmmaking, Gray pulled no punches when he roped the group into a discussion over the industry’s glaring gender gap, pointing to the panel’s seven-man/two-woman ratio as indicative of a much larger issue that has become something of an international subject in recent months. Dressed in art school black (save for Slater’s sleek navy suit and shimmering tan oxfords) each one nodded their heads thoughtfully and paused to consider their words. Desplat broke the silence: “This should be an everyday conversation. The subject of equanimity should be everyone’s concern right now.” The group agreed, describing the hiring process as “Hollywood secret voodoo” in need of a major overhaul.
As the evening came to a close, the nearly 400 attendees lingered around the Lobero promenade, exchanging superlatives over the nine award recipients and their obvious dedication to their intricate craft. “Now I feel like I have to see all of those movies over again,” remarked one woman. Her companion zipped up his windbreaker, glancing up at the Santa Barbara sky before responding. “Movie-watching will never be the same, huh?”