It takes a village to build the Oscar set

February 24, 2006|By MARY MCNAMARA | MARY MCNAMARA,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOLLYWOOD -- The host gets the photo shoot, the nominees get the luncheon and the winners, of course, get the Oscars. But the people who make the Academy Awards telecast possible get the cool Oscar gear - sweat shirts and hats emblazoned with the show's number and famous logo. That and all the assorted "truck food" they can eat.

The Academy Awards show is consistently the largest entertainment-driven live broadcast in the world, and it takes roughly 1,000 people to make it happen. At this year's production meeting, there were more than 200 in the room, representing the disparate areas of expertise the show requires, from the medical staff to the stage manager, from the set designer to the telephone technician, the limousine coordinator to the director. Some have 30-plus years of experience working the show; for others, this is their first time.

Regardless, Oscar owns them all for two weeks.

Last year, the set builders' days were haunted by metal pipe - 8,000 feet. And gold leaf - 120,000 sheets, applied by hand. This year, it's all neon all the time.

For the three dozen or so people building the sets this year, "Oscar" means yards and yards of neon, towering walls as softly curved as any starlet and highly sculpted accents, all done up in silver and black.

"I went into the first meeting thinking, `Well, it can't be as bad as last year,'" said Dino DeCristo. "I mean, the gold leaf alone took days and days. But then, my God, all that sculpting and neon. Basically, we look at it every year and say, `We'll never be able to do it.'"

And then they do.

DeCristo is foreman at the unpretentious scenery and prop construction company Scenic Express, where much of the initial hands-on work for the show is being done.

And while other people worry about ratings and star power, the folks here stand knee deep in blueprints and sawdust.

"You see that?" DeCristo asked, pointing to a nondescript ring of plywood. "That was how it started. That was the first thing we built, to test if it would hold those." He pointed to a stack of rounded plastic boxes that would eventually create two internally lighted proscenium towers. "Doesn't look like much, but you have to start with something."

It will take three construction shops and more than 40 members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Union Local 33, not to mention the help of an art director, assistant art directors and various supervisors, more than two months to turn production designer Roy Christopher's Art Deco and Baroque homage to the golden age of movies into reality for the 78th Academy Awards. (ABC will televise the March 5 ceremony.)

Some, including head scenic artist Kevin Ward, will follow the pieces from blueprint status to installation, pacing the stage at the Kodak Theatre hours before the show begins, checking for seams and shiny spots, anything that might ding the image of sleek perfection.

"Those are the tensest hours," Ward said, "walking around, trying to figure out if something is going to go wrong, look wrong." And sometimes it does.

In 1990, Steve Martin had to ad lib a response when an electrician, attempting to fix an overhead sphere that wasn't turning, dropped his cell phone, nearly braining the comedian. (That portion of the set was not a Scenic Express creation.) But for the most part, any glitches have been worked out before the opening music cues.

"By the time things leave here," DeCristo said, "everything fits and works and does what Roy wants it to do."

DeCristo is second-generation set construction - his father still works at CBS - and he remembers when the Oscar set would be done by one company alone. But the increasingly high-tech sets now make that impossible.

For many involved in the set-construction business, the proliferating awards shows have become their bread and butter, replacing the half-hour television shows that once ruled the airwaves. Ward and DeCristo have worked at Scenic Express for almost 20 years; they've done dozens of Oscars, hundreds of awards shows. As they stood discussing the Academy Awards, flats of lights were being loaded up for the Grammys.

"It's a big liability issue, considering the stuff we hang over famous people's heads," said Ward, with a laugh. "You have to be pretty specialized in what you do."

Nearly everyone who works on the Oscars is a specialist in one area or another. Christopher has done 16 previous sets and won Emmys for six of them. Art director Greg Richman has worked with him often over the years. This is Richman's eighth Academy Awards; his involvement began early in November when Christopher gave him sketches to make into board models.

Among the three men there is the easy banter that comes from facing down the challenge of the show year after year. Although Richman works out of the show's production office - and wears a jacket and dress shirt - he comes to Scenic at least every other day to answer questions and keep an eye on the progress. DeCristo is as watchful and laconic as a foreman from Central Casting, while Ward often goes for the joke. Except when he's explaining the work. Then he is very focused.

Ward is in charge of the finishing work - the paint and screens and film that eventually cover most portions of the set. He got his start in the early '80s painting sets at ABC, back when sets were still painted.

"Now a lot of it is digital," he said. "So a lot of those people are just not working."

Mary McNamara writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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