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ARTISTIC ACHIEVEMENT ACADEMY AWARDS SET DESIGNER STRIVES FOR PERFECT MIX OF GLAMOUR AND GRANDEUR.

Byline: Valerie Kuklenski Staff Writer

'I don't think there's ever been a year that I've been as excited about the set as this one,'' veteran art director Roy Christopher said just before unveiling his 16th set design for the Academy Awards.

``I also don't think there's a year that I've been as frightened about the outcome of the set as I am this year.''

For those mixed emotions, he gives credit and blame to producer Gil Cates, who spurred him to take risks, think outside the proscenium arch and get creative with technology and materials.

``The minute you decide to take a risk or a big leap forward, the insecurity sets in,'' Christopher said. ``And I wake up every morning thinking, 'Will this work 100 percent, and will it be everything we want it to be - and will it be exciting?' ''

We'll know for sure on Sunday, when his handiwork sets the mood for the 77th annual Academy Awards.

The set will include 26,000 feet of metal pipe covered in gold and silver leaf and arranged vertically in screens, a paneled cyclorama that will take on different colors, frosted pillars lit from within and a towering center-stage spiral of 23 golden Oscars (which he considers his little Busby Berkeley touch). All of that is the fairly routine part of the project.

Where Christopher went out on a limb is with 386 LED screens beneath an inch-thick Plexiglas floor (there is something to be said for balcony seating this time) where graphics, photographs and other images can be projected - and even more screens overhead, arcing from upstage out over the first 10 or so rows of the Kodak Theatre.

Next year, maybe holograms? He insists he never presumes the Academy Awards assignment is his until he is asked, but he sounded intrigued by the idea just the same.

Christopher is among the first to admit that Oscar viewers barely remember the set even minutes after the show is over, what with all the water-cooler talk about winners, losers and evening dress. But it doesn't keep him from giving it his all, coming up with last-minute fixes, worrying about what might go wrong and trying to outdo his earlier successes.

Tell me what you want

Motion picture academy insiders and observers use the term ``glamour'' with abandon when talking about the show, but it is not a terribly useful guideline for the art director. ``I looked 'glamour' up in the dictionary. I thought, 'I gotta get a handle on this word,' '' Christopher recalled with a laugh. ``It said, 'Alluring, beautiful, mysterious' - I kind of liked that - 'heightened sense of beauty' or some damn thing. And it's like, of course! I had one producer, not Gil, say he wanted it glamorous. And I said, 'Duh.' This is not a direction. 'I thought we'd do something crappy-looking.' ''

Make an entrance

Nothing makes for a more dramatic entrance than a curved staircase. And nothing can cause greater stress for a presenter than picturing herself in a rumpled heap at the bottom of that staircase in front of hundreds of millions of viewers. ``If we plan an entrance down stairs, we have to let the manager for the actress know, and we have to let the actress respond to that. And some of the younger women don't like it ... (but) many of them will. Renee Zellweger will come down stairs beautifully and be happy to do it. You can put John Travolta anywhere, and he'll embrace it - he'll dance down. It just depends on how confident they are.''

Christopher said in his first Oscars in 1979, virtually everyone walked down stairs because they had been groomed for it and were at ease. ``But for younger stars, it's two things. They don't want to appear that pretentious, and they don't want to navigate the stairs. They want simple, clean entrances.''

Ooops!

Christopher said he generally has few concerns during the ceremony itself beyond wondering whether a scene change will happen in the allotted time. But he recalled one glitch two years ago.

``We had the big turning globe in the front of the theater. It worked every day of rehearsal, and now the show is on and I'm in the audience with my wife and everything looks beautiful. And it didn't revolve.

``I just went nuts. I ran to the booth and said, 'Gil, hug me!' And he said, 'It's OK, no one knows except you. Now calm down. Louis J. (Horvitz, the director) has it on tape revolving.' And people who watched the show didn't know the difference, and we all went on to win Emmy Awards for it.''

Color my world

All those projection screens, columns and cycloramas mean that lighting designer Bob Dickinson is virtually unlimited in the colors in which he can bathe the scenery.

He says he's taking his inspiration in part from the colors of this year's Oscars poster (also seen on banners around town): fuchia, robin's egg, goldenrod and lime. That's good news for those who are weary of the customary black, white, silver and gold.

But it may give the presenters - particularly the women - yet another reason to choose carefully among designer gowns. The clashes could be memorable.

``That is extremely critical and difficult to anticipate, because oftentimes we do not know about the gowns until a day or two before,'' Dickinson said. ``What Roy and I try to do through our stage managers is interrogate the women especially and see what color they are so we can make subtle changes in the lighting to anticipate that.

``Often times the talent, especially those who have been around awhile, they know to ask, 'What color do you plan on putting behind me?' And it's a very good question for the talent to ask, and it also helps us an enormous amount, because then we can conspire together to make the right moment for the talent.''

So what would be the visual equivalent to fingernails on a blackboard?

``Any kind of moss green to that Armani green that was especially popular a few years ago - if you put that in front of a magenta, it's catastrophic.''

Recycle

Christopher estimates that his basic sets run about $1 million, and this one's price is dearer still because of all the projection equipment.

To soften the Board of Governors' sticker shock, he noted that the 23 Oscars of varying heights for the spiral, digitally carved from foam, ``can be used many times in the future, I'm sure.''

``We store the podiums, we store the Oscars, store certain elements we think we might use again - which we never do - but there's a big warehouse.''

Which they never use again?

``They sent me a list and said, 'Do we need to store all this stuff?' Every designer who comes in, whether it's me or whoever, you want to start fresh and do your own. It's one of the few shows that permits you the luxury of building everything. So you're not going to use someone else's old stairs.''

Anyone looking for a sweet deal on a Lucite podium may want to contact the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Valerie Kuklenski, (818) 713-3750

valerie.kuklenski(at)dailynews.com

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2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) Oscar's next stage

This year's set design reaches for new heights

(2) Roy Christopher, Oscar production designer, with a model model of his set for the 77th Academy Awards

Evan Yee/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 22, 2005
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