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Richmond Artist Up for an Oscar

David Crank

The Academy Awards will be broadcast Sunday from Los Angeles, and one Virginia man will be in the audience, hoping for his first Oscar. 

It might surprise you to learn that a top Hollywood production designer lives in Richmond.  His name is David Crank, and he’s been involved with drama since high school when he learned to craft scenery for school plays.  He studied art at William and Mary, then found work on  historical dramas shot here in Virginia.  He won an Emmy for his work on the John Adams series and met one of the producers – Tom Hanks.  In 2019, he was called to work on another film – this one starring Hanks as a Civil War veteran traveling through towns in Texas, performing a unique service – reading newspaper stories aloud to locals.

“Ladies and gentlemen," the dapper gentleman begins, "My name is Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, and I’m here tonight to read the news from across this great world of ours.”

Crank’s job on this and other films is complicated.  He scouts locations, oversees the art director who builds sets and alters landscapes, the decorator who brings in furniture and props.  He works closely with the costume designer and the cinematographer, and reports to the director.

"I don’t mean to belittle it all, but it doesn’t seem hard to me, " Crank says. "It’s what I enjoy and what I do.  If I was a math teacher I’d be miserable."

For News of the World, he began by designing four different versions of the wagon where much of the action takes place.

“Those we had to come up with quickly in the beginning because the wheels and bases were made by an Amish group on the east coast,” he explains.

The wagons  didn’t last long riding over deeply rutted roads in New Mexico, and they were not comfortable.

“We would shoot something and then go back to the beginning, and Tom Hanks would just get off and walk. “I’m not riding back in that thing,’'” he vowed.

Other scenes were shot on a set created for other films -- a place known as a movie ranch.

“It’s like a town with no city planning," Crank jokes.  "Whoever is shooting something can do what they want to do to the town.”

To minimize travel costs and time for a crew of more than a hundred people, Crank made that one location look like three different places.

“We kind of mapped out three different ways to enter the town and saved parts so you didn’t see all of it at one time. And then, at the end, with the help of CGI they were able to extend vistas and add tops to buildings and make it feel different.”

CGI – computer generated imagery – is key to films about super heroes, but Crank says it’s an expensive way to create settings for historical drama -- so even at the age of 61 he’s not worried about his job security.  In fact, he says, business is booming.

“They need so much product to fill all these platforms, between Netflix and HBO and Hulu and all of these, and they all want to make their own content, because they make more money off it, it’s almost impossible to find a crew, because everybody’s so busy.”

He’s able to work some of the time from a light-filled studio on Fulton Hill in Richmond thanks to an agent in Los Angeles.

“She finds the work and arranges the interviews.  It would be hard if I didn’t have that.”

Now, he’s got an Oscar nomination to further build business, and while he’d be delighted to win, Crank says he already feels deeply honored, since the nominations come from fellow design experts in film.  And, frankly, he adds, the best work isn’t the most obvious.

“It’s always kind of wonderful when no one knows that you did everything," he says.  "Then we know we’ve completely succeeded.”

He’s already received some gifts from the academy and attending his first awards ceremony is another perk – even though he must be tested for COVID once before flying to California, once on arrival and once before taking his seat in an audience of Hollywood’s finest.  

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief