One thing writing this column has taught me is that the idea that everything’s online is a lie. We’ve talked about how hard it can be to research radio careers, how hard it can be to research stage careers. And, of course, how hard it can be to research careers behind the scenes in pretty well anything but directing and producing. I’m never sure if credit lists are complete. Especially in the technical fields. You’re probably okay with writing, though script doctors are essentially never listed, but beyond that, you’re in trouble. Even when it comes to Oscar winners like Barbara Ling, who’s been in the business since 1986.
All Wikipedia says about her is that she’s from LA, she has an Oscar, and she’s been a production designer on a bunch of movies. It lists them, but I don’t know if the list is complete. IMDb has a little more—a few credits beyond production design and information about a couple of awards she won for lighting stage back in the ’70s. If she has her own official website, I haven’t found it. Almost all the interviews I’ve found with her have centered around Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, for which she won the Oscar.
Now, I haven’t seen that movie, and I have no intention of doing so, but by all accounts her work on it is magnificent. She didn’t fully reproduce Hollywood of 1969, inasmuch as Tarantino insisted on a few references from later than the actual August setting of the movie. But she apparently put in a lot of work, to the extent of contacting Taco Bell to get period appropriate signage—which she then arranged to have built, as there was none of it in existence. The signage is now in the Taco Bell museum, which is a thing that turns out to exist.
Production design is one of the categories we talk about more when it goes wrong than when it goes right. She’s repeatedly recreated the past—at least four of her credits are period pieces from the same approximate period. I’m not familiar with all of her movies, but it’s not everyone who can tackle films based on books from Stephen King, Nicholas Sparks, and Bret Easton Ellis. I’ve seen two of those, albeit not in some time, and her work is, well, as invisible as good production design so often is.
And I don’t know if that list is complete. I have no reason to trust that it is, because I know how lousy my usual sources are in this department, and I don’t know if there are any sources that would be better. It’s frustrating, because Barbara Ling is considerably more deserving of attention than people whose IMDb pages I’m more certain are complete. A lousy actor who makes lousy movies and TV shows for an entire career, provided they start after a certain point, is almost certain to be complete. Someone who does good work for the same time and isn’t on camera, you can’t be as sure. It’s not right.