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When movies make the most of their budgets, it shows

Michael Phillips

Talking Pictures

4:04 PM EDT, October 24, 2013

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Right now "Gravity" is sucking up all the conversational oxygen, especially when the opinions concern production design you notice. In the case of "Gravity" the film's seamless look is so striking and technologically new, so clever in its melding of traditional design elements and digital trickery, credit surely must be shared by all concerned — by everyone from director/co-writer Alfonso Cuaron on down to the last effects designer hired for Cuaron's mighty team of innovators.

Up against "Gravity" (budget estimates range from $80 million to $120 million) smaller mainstream movies of equal design assurance, the ones outside the realm of digital-intensive effects magic and science-fiction showmanship, have a hard time getting noticed. So let us now praise a couple of them, one in theaters, one due just before Christmas.

Director Steve McQueen's stern, lean, remarkable "12 Years a Slave" re-creates a time (the 1840s and 1850s) and a place (pre-Civil War America, both North and South) without a blockbuster amount of money. (Budget rumors for "12 Years" hover in the low $20 millions). McQueen and production designer Adam Stockhausen have no interest in conventional spectacle. In the realm of the historical biopic, too much "scenery," whether actual or digital, has a way of reducing the characters it's supposed to be supporting.

One of the indelible images in "12 Years a Slave" is that of a paddlewheel photographed, in churning motion, from inside the boat carrying abducted northerner Solomon Northup to Louisiana. It's a miracle worker of a shot: For one thing, it stands in for the usual, more expensive depiction (which does not occur here) of a long shot of the steamer exterior. The predictable establishing shot, in other words, goes missing and is not missed.

This is the right production design married to the right directorial instincts.

Or take "Inside Llewyn Davis," the forthcoming Coen brothers movie, a sullen, pungent comedy set in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s. The Coens' longtime production designer Jess Gonchor goes to town on this one (coming to theaters Dec. 20), but in incremental, subtle and witty ways. Small ones, adding up to something larger, all inside a reported production budget of $11 million.

We come to know Davis, played by Oscar Isaac, by the rooms containing the couches on which he crashes. Whether it was Gonchor, or the Coens' art director on the picture (Deborah Jensen), or the set decorator (Susan Bode), whoever found the wallpaper adorning Davis' nephew's bedroom deserves a Nobel, or at least an Oscar. It's '61-perfect, as well as firmly in sync with the overall muted, olive-toned color scheme, extending from coffeehouse to crash pad, weighing down on the protagonist like a smudgy winter day.

Designers have an infinite variety of ways to express character and story through physical objects. Directors with a true eye learn when to deliver what the audience expects, but in their own way, as well as when to disregard what is expected. No single design detail, or shot, can sink a movie. A hundred or a thousand of them, in concert, create a cinematic personality where one may not have existed otherwise. And presto: You're watching a movie ushering you into a collective vision of the past, a past that lives and breathes in the present.

mjphillips@tribune.com

Twitter: @phillipstribune