Hollywood glamour with a touch of art deco architecture set the stage for The 89th Academy Awards ceremony, presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and broadcast live by ABC on Sunday, February 26 from the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. This celebration of Hollywood films was designed for the fifth year running by Tony and Emmy Award-winning scenic designer Derek McLane, with lighting by veteran Oscar designers Bob Dickinson and Travis Hagenbuch.
Noting that the show’s new producers Mike De Luca and Jennifer Todd said they loved art deco, McLane embraced this iconic architectural style, as well as the influence of movie sets from the 1930s, into his designs. “It was a little light-hearted at times and fun,” he says. “That was a great direction they gave me, and we felt didn’t need to have the Oscar statue represented as much as in the past.” As a result, strands of sparkling Swarovski crystals created the only Oscars embedded in the scenic design this year.
Some of the main scenic configurations were formed by a series of six wire towers, whose look was based on an art deco-style pattern that was popular in the ‘20s and ‘30s, “like a screen pattern, but very dimensional, with internal lighting both LED and incandescent,” notes McLane. The three pairs of 30' columns—two downstage, two upstage, and two mid-stage—were built by Scenic Express and could be moved independently.
“They went into a narrow V, for example, almost like a tunnel, or they could be very spread out, with random scattering. It’s a large stage, and you can’t ask a movie star to walk a long distance across an empty stage, so they could stage the talent behind these towers,” McLane notes. These scenic pieces could also turn and track into the wings, while a lot of the scenery flew in, and certain set pieces rolled on, these being the three ways to get things on and off the Oscars stage. “We wanted to keep it as kinetic as possible,” adds McLane who got extra movement from a Steadicam moving on stage, with the towers moving and the talent moving as well.
The glittery décor around the proscenium arch was an element revived from last year’s set. “We were very happy with it last year, and by using it again, we saved some budget to let us do other things,” McLane points out. Built as a steel arch, this giant curved structure has radiating lines with crystals mounted on the front. “The sparkle factor is gorgeous,” he indicates. “The crystals look lovely when they have light going into the front of them, and you really see the sparkle when the camera moves, with different angles of reflection.”
McLane’s moon portal, another scenic element, was inspired by production designer Cedric Gibbons’ work for the movie Pleasure Crazed (Gibbons also designed the Oscar statuette in 1928). This circular piece added additional art deco flair to the stage, with swirling curves once again rooted in period architecture. Other elements adding to the glamour were translucent drapes and art deco fans.
For the designer, the biggest challenges are time and budget, as well as finding space to store all of the scenic elements on stage. “Time is a factor, and we always have to work quickly, especially for the nominated songs. We get them in mid-January and have to come up with the ideas for the songs’ performances, design them, get them approved, then built, and it all has to happen very quickly,” says McLane. “The designs are simple, not that much for each one, as they are just two- or three-minute performances but enough time for a bold gesture or two.”
For example, blue silk waves were used for the song, “How Far I'll Go” from Moana, with a hip hop intro by Lin Manuel Miranda, and sung by Auli'I Cravalho. “We had to get the waves made, and then the dancers had to rehearse with them,” recounts McLane. “A sculpture on stage represented the sun and was made by Anthony Howe, an artist from Seattle, and we incorporated it into the piece.”
For La La Land’s “City of Stars,” sung by John Legend at the piano in the center of the stage, dancers surrounding him, some on benches, others flying upstage, so McLane left the stage pretty much open for this number, with patterns of light on the floor and upstage adding to the décor.
Three art deco buildings, inspired by those found in Los Angeles, stood 20’ to 25’ tall and were seen three times during the show. “The set was Hollywood, as seen through art deco,” says McLane. “That was a very glamorous period that coincided with the heyday of the big Hollywood musicals.”
In collaborating over the years with Oscars’ LD Bob Dickinson, McLane notes that he “is a great collaborator, and has a lot of ideas and suggestions that go beyond just the lighting. We have a lot of conversations. Our suggestions go back and forth, we are together almost all the time during tech, and he’s on a headset walking rather than at a tech table. We also sit with the director, so we can talk as we work. Even in the TV truck, we make comments about balance and color and so forth. I have a great time working with him.”
Check out Full Flood's lighting plots here!
This year's Academy Awards once again featured scenic design by Emmy and Tony Award-winning Derek McLane, with lighting design by Bob Dickinson and Travis Hagenbuch of Full Flood. Check out lighting plots here.