Embarassingly enough, I used to think 'Art Direction' was the special touches added to make a film an 'Art' film. Lame, yes, and nonsensical. I then thought that 'Art Direction' referred to camera work, until I learnt that that was Cinematography (a much more beautiful term for the craft).
I now know that Art Direction covers Set Design & Set Decoration, but I always wonder which factors of the craft award voters look for - is it the level of difficulty, the detail, the period-accuracy, the aesthetic beauty, the scope? What about 'found' sets? Surely, if an Art Director finds a perfect, pre-existing set & makes it look great on film, he has done great job? I suppose I can understand the awards-preference for sets that are actually designed & built but, at the end of the day, it should be about how well the sets contribute to telling the story or communicating the director's vision, and story-telling is not necessarily about flash & flair. As with film scores & film dialogue, the best kind is arguably the kind that you barely notice, but that takes you where you need to go. Then again, the big, sumptuous stuff is hard to dislike and hard to miss.
I have also wondered if sets that are well designed, but not physically built, would qualify for awards? Somehow, it seems that the beautifully designed sets in Wall-E, for example, or the largely digital sets of Tron: Legacy, Alice in Wonderland or even (sacrilege) Speed Racer, wouldn't really stand a chance against 'real' sets, even if their designs are every bit as impressive & effective.
Contemporary sets , like contemporary Costume Design, seem to have the same setback in being taken seriously. They serve the same function, but are usually overlooked in favour of more lavish, period designs - unless they are flashy, super-stylish contemporary designs like The Dark Knight for sets, or Devil Wears Prada for costumes.
The Art Directors Guild takes all these into consideration, with separate categories for Contemporary, Period & Fantasy films, and opens up the field to some nice underdog nominees. But its still the flashiest of the bunch that will go on to the Oscars.
Be it as it may, here are the nominees for:
EXCELLENCE IN PRODUCTION DESIGN FOR A FEATURE FILM IN 2010:
The Social Network
The King’s Speech
Alice in Wonderland
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader