Oscar-nominated designer sets the stage
Richmonder David Crank was nominated by his peers for an Oscar and attended the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles last April. Although he didn’t win, just being nominated was a thrill, he said.
“It’s a huge honor to realize it was whittled down to five people. It’s exciting,” said Crank, 61.
Crank was nominated for best production design for the movie “News of the World,” a drama set in 1870. The film follows a Civil War veteran, played by Tom Hanks, who returns a 10-year-old girl, kidnapped by the Kiowa people, to her biological aunt and uncle against her will.
One scene in the film called for a child’s corn-husk doll. Crank went to a grocery store, bought some dried corn husks in the Mexican food section, and crafted six dolls for the director, Paul Greengrass, to choose from. He “aged” the dolls with paint and water and rolled them in mud.
That’s all in a day’s work for Crank who, as a production designer, is the person in charge of all the settings in a film. In that role, he typically manages the art director, set decorator, construction and greens crews and painters. Crank has designed sets for 20 movies, including “Knives Out,” “There Will Be Blood” and “Lincoln.”
Every movie has a different set of challenges, both creative and practical, he said. For “News of the World,” filmed in New Mexico, Crank had to design five Western towns, each with a different look and feel.
To make the towns look authentic, he read history books, old newspapers and novels, studied old photos and Texas Historical Society documents, researched authentic tombstones and watched some Westerns.
The film’s total production time extended from April to Thanksgiving, with filming from September to Thanksgiving 2019. The filming phase involved intense, 17-hour days, five to six days a week.
“It’s fun to concentrate on one thing intensely. I never ask, ‘Why am I doing this?’” Crank said. “You just put yourself in the mindset of the story.”
He typically has a six-month break between projects. When not on the set, he likes to paint and draw in his studio located at the former Fulton Hill School.
This was Crank’s first Oscar nomination. For the same film, he was also nominated for production design for the British equivalent of the Oscars, the BAFTA awards.
In 2008, he earned an Emmy for art direction for “John Adams,” a television mini-series filmed at several Virginia locations.
A Richmond start
Crank grew up in Bon Air, where he made theater sets in high school. “My mom said that, as a child, I was always making things like art projects,” he said.
He credits his mother and father for encouraging him to find creative solutions. “Growing up, my parents urged me to just ‘figure it out.’”
Crank earned a bachelor’s degree in studio art from the College of William and Mary and a graduate degree in theater design from Carnegie Mellon University.
After graduation, he worked on sets and costumes in Richmond outdoor theaters such as Dogwood Dell. Then he moved to New York City for six years. After 10 years of theater work, he switched to film.
Crank began doing television work as a painter on the mini-series “The Murder of Mary Phagan,” starring Jack Lemmon, and then moved up the ranks.
Before he became a production designer, he worked as art director for many films produced by famous Hollywood icons — from the late Dino De Laurentiis to Stephen Spielberg.
On his first trip to the Oscars last spring, Crank and his team watched the ceremonies in Los Angeles’s Union Station amid all the glam and glitter.
It was “all rather flashy. Really, though, the nomination itself was the best part. Being chosen by your peers means, by far, the most,” Crank said. “The rest was just like whipped cream on the dessert.”