Why West Side Story should have won Best Production Design


Sophia Steenburg, Editor

The 94th Annual Academy Awards took place on Sunday, March 27 this year, and one of the films nominated in several categories was Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story — with Ariana DeBose receiving the only award for Best Supporting Actress. 50 years ago, the original West Side Story famously swept the Oscars in 1962 with 11 nominations and ten awards. This year it lost to Dune for Best Production Design, which in my opinion, was not deserved. 

The award for Best Production Design recognizes the production designers of a film and their artistic influence on that film. A production designer is responsible for the visuals on a film. These visuals include props, lighting, angles, sets, and much more. This year, Patrice Vermette won this award, and while I do believe that Vermette did an excellent job on Dune, Adam Stockhausen is who truly deserved the award for his amazing work on West Side Story.

Creating West Side Story, 50 years after the original placed great pressure on the cast and crew. Not only did they want to make this film amazing, but they also had to stay as true to the original as possible, while making it their own. Stockhausen was the brains behind respecting the original while adding a modern touch through amazing visuals.

Dune is also an adaptation of a previous version which was released in 1984. But the original Dune was not well-received by the audience, thereby giving Vermette the liberty to change whatever he pleased. On the other hand, Stockhausen had to stay true to the original film. Spielberg’s West Side Story was an adaptation of the original West Side Story from 1961 which is an American classic. Since everyone loved the original, there was not much room for Stockhausen to change things up. That is what makes Stockhausen’s work so special — he was able to emulate the first film while still creating something so new and different.

The first example of uniqueness in the adaptation is the costume design. Obviously, they could not be changed too drastically, as they have to stay true to the time period, but when it came to the significance of colors and the wardrobe of these characters, Paul Tazewell, the film’s costume designer did an amazing job.

While there is a costume designer for the film, they report to the production designer, who overlooks all visual aspects of the film. This way, Tazewell would design the costumes and essentially submit them to Stockhausen. So while the costumes were not all Stockhausen’s job and idea, he still supervised that aspect of the project. If Stockhausen had won this award, not only would he be recognized for his great work on this film, but so would Tazewell’s beautiful costumes.

Another example of change in production design is the difference and specificity in props throughout the film. The new adaptation involves many shots where the viewer can see the props in close detail and for longer periods of time. A great detail in the film are the rooms of Maria and her brother, Bernardo, and the contrast between the two of them and their approaches to life.

In Maria’s room, you can see a pastel pink splashed on the walls, lace curtains, and a cute desk with a mirror hanging over it. This room reflects Maria’s innocence throughout the story and gives viewers the chance to see how she lives when she is not out in the streets dealing with these gangs. 

Maria finishes getting ready in a shared room between Bernardo and Anita. This room reflects Anita’s boldness and Bernardo’s passion for what he does. The walls are a mustard yellow color, similar to the color of Anita’s dress in the “America” scene, essentially, this color represents how strong-willed she is and her bold take on life. On the vanity you see Anita sitting at, there is a boxing glove hanging from one of the side panels and images tucked in the frame of these mirrors. This shows Bernardo’s passion for boxing and what he does, and the love he has for his family and friends. Throughout the film you can see him demonstrate all he will do for his family because of love, over and over again.

In conclusion, Adam Stockhausen did amazing work with this adaptation. He was able to create new stories for every character, within the original story itself. Depth was given to characters like Maria and Bernardo through the simplest of props.

If you want to view Stockhausen’s work in comparison to the original film, West Side Story (2021) is streaming on Disney+, Hulu, and HBO Max. Meanwhile, the original film can be found on HBO Max and Hulu.