As a World War II era warplane flies 76ft. over his head, director Martin Scorsese looks up with a smile. No, he's not on the outdoor set of his hit film, The Aviator. In fact, the plane he's watching is from Anthony Minghella's 1996 feature, The English Patient, and Scorsese is sitting comfortably in his seat at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre. The 77th Annual Academy Awards have just begun.
Every year, production designer Roy Christopher is challenged to come up with a set design that tops the last, and this year was no exception. A 16-year veteran of the show, this year Christopher decided to make video display a major part of the revamped Oscars presentation. “I don't like working with projection for projection's sake,” he says. “It's been done so much on every awards show. So this year, I thought the only way it would interest me is if we could put it in the floor and in the ceiling over the audience.”
Producer Gil Cates' initial request was for a design that would utilize new technology and embrace the audience, explains Christopher. The final design included video display in several innovative ways. Besides the “Best Picture screen,” the main on-stage image space for displaying nominee footage, Christopher added a set of screens suspended from the theatre's ceiling from which additional imagery could be displayed. The designer met with his production staff, all multi-year veterans of the Awards as well, in November to present his design. “Roy always brings his vendors in early, something we all really appreciate,” says Creative Technology's Frank McMinn, who has worked for 13 years on the show. “It really helps to include us as part of the design team.”
The design included a sweeping curved set piece, hinged at the stage's proscenium and rising toward the rear of the theatre, which was utilized as a projection and lighting surface, according to projection supervisor David Taylor of Stealth Rhino Productions. Christopher's design staff broke the surface into three rows of individual pieces, a total of 25, onto which imagery would be projected. Rather than install 25 individual projectors, Taylor and production art director Steve Olson developed a system to break the images into four raster zones. A single projector stack would project on anywhere from three to nine screens within its zone, giving the appearance of individual image projection on each screen.
Working in a CAD program, Vectorworks, Taylor created a 3D template, exported as an Adobe® Illustrator® file, which prescribed the precise geometry of each screen within each zone. “We had Dave define, literally, on a pixel-by-pixel basis, where each of those projector stacks would be projecting,” explains engineer-in-charge Tad Scripter.
The Illustrator file was then provided to Malibu, Calif.-based Prologue Films, which was responsible for the creation of most of the projection content for the ceiling fixture (filmmaker Chuck Workman produced the program's opening film, assembled by Santa Monica-based Chainsaw's Yoram Tal). Prologue then created a mask file for each zone in Adobe After Effects®, which acted as a set of windows through which imagery was projected from each projector onto the assigned screens. [Those masks were also provided to Chainsaw for use in designing their projection files.]
In addition, Taylor cut custom “maskers” from sheet metal in the precise shapes prescribed by his template, to prevent any spillover from leaking out onto adjacent screens or into the faces of audience members looking up at the array. “The digital masks still create a projection of black light in the areas outside the image areas, which still has a read. The maskers trim off that extra light,” he explains.
The main content for the screens, though visible for “rejoins,” as the camera broke away for and returned from commercial breaks, was mainly intended to entertain the theatre's celebrity audience during such breaks. Working in HiDef, Prologue director Kyle Cooper and his staff created a set of seven montages, each with 10 to 15 clips taken from roughly 400 films, according to Prologue technical producer Josh Laurence. “We created five retrospective montages, covering Best Actor, Supporting Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress, and Picture, as well as two other themes, Best Never Winners and Best Shots. For the latter, we took all the great shots from all of the great movies over the last 100 years and juxtaposed them thematically.”
After testing the design using Taylor's screen template, Prologue prepared a single canvas, which was used to design the motion and flow of the images across the 25 screens, using Adobe After Effects for compositing and animating. Those images were then broken up into the four individual zones and output as QuickTime files, down-rezed to Standard Definition, for playback.
For projection, four pairs (double-stacked) of Digital Projection Lightning 28sx units were supplied by Creative Technology. “I love the 28sx projectors,” notes Taylor. “I've been using them for quite some time. They're very reliable, and we had zero failures.” A zero failure rate was imperative for the installation, due to the tight working conditions. The projectors were rigged on truss platforms suspended from the theatre's ceiling, which features a decorative “tiara” architectural element. “I had projectors within inches of that ceiling,” Taylor says. “We were limited by how far back we could get and still provide a picture big enough to cover the imagery.”
In addition, the screen piece itself, containing the 25 projection screens, was canted 23 degrees from the floor. Taylor then built special brackets, which rigged the projectors at the same 23-degree angle to match. Once the projector truss and screen piece were in place, few adjustments could be made, again due to the tight space. “I did spend six hours up there in a harness making final adjustments,” says Taylor. “And I'm not that fond of climbing out 70ft. in the air.” Creative Technology helped limit his needing to return by re-lamping its projectors prior to installation.
The 28sx, which utilizes Texas Instruments 3-chip DLP technology, has a design that makes it uniquely appropriate for such installations. “A lot of high performance Xenon-based projectors aren't designed to be pointed down or at angles, due to thermal dynamics issues,” explains Digital Projection's Mike Levi. “On the 28sx, the lamp is oriented to shoot sideways into the optics, allowing the projector to be rotated at nearly any angle, from the lens pointing straight up to straight down.” Heat collection is designed within the unit to isolate areas that generate great amounts of heat, prolonging bulb life, as well as protecting the DMD prism from heat damage.
The tight fit also required extremely short throw lenses. “While the lens used here is called a 0.8 lens, it's actually a 0:64:1 on a Lightning 28sx, which is an extraordinarily short throw ratio,” says Levi.
The image files were played back off of Grass Valley Group Profile drives, one for each screen zone, plus a fifth playing back a composite image on Sharp 46in. LCD screens for audience members in the rear of the theatre. The playback includes custom software, which utilizes Ross keyer cards, allowing the inclusion of the matte files generated by Prologue.
If looking up wasn't your cup of tea, Christopher added another video display element to wow TV audiences — a 20'×40' LED floor, which occupied most of stage right. “I showed it to Gil Cates, and he said, ‘I don't know if we can afford it.’ I said, ‘I don't even know if we can do it!’” recalls Christopher. “It's basically just an LED wall on its back,” says Dave Taylor.
The oval-shaped panel system, visible mainly only to the home audience, featured graphics, such as “nominee packages,” etc., produced by Burbank-based Design on the Fly. “We provide every possible graphic they might need,” explains the firm's Bob Gautieri. “There were 95 win packages, plus headers for every category. And I think they only ended up airing a couple of them.” The graphics are designed in standard def, and then up-rezed using a Teranex Xantus format converter to 720p, for use with the LED screens (which operate progressive).
The screens themselves consisted of 336 panels of Barco iLite 6xp LED screens, placed in groups of four into the floor structure. The steel undergrid structure necessitated raising the stage an additional foot, to accommodate the structure and equipment. The area was also heavily air conditioned to remove the immense amount of heat the screens generated.
Above the screens were layers of plastic — 3/4in. Plexiglas for strength covered with 1/4in. Lexan for a durable wearing surface. Beneath that, though, was a “plastic sandwich” of diffusion and neutral density materials. The mass of 6mm-spaced LED lights creates an image comprised of 1.7 million individual points of light. “At a given focal length, those point sources could produce a moiré pattern, which the diffusion material eliminates,” explains Tad Scripter. Neutral Density (ND3) material is then added to lower the black level, which the diffusion material tends to raise.
The theatre was fitted with two other projection screen systems. The large Best Picture screen, which was raised and lowered onstage for showing nominee clip packages, utilized three 28sx units, both for redundancy and for brightness (to enable television cameras to pick up the image). Audience members were also provided two house screens, placed in the right and left opera boxes. Single 28sx projectors were used in each, again using a 0.64 lens due to the short throw. “The screens were actually a few feet out in front of the opera box walls, so we used custom built ‘whales’ — projection tunnels — to prevent light source from adjacent lighting equipment from getting on the screens,” explains Frank McMinn. An additional wall of 42 Barco oLite panels was used outside the theatre, on the Red Carpet area, to show 720p HD imagery during the Academy's pre-show.
Overall the challenging video concepts were considered a success — evidenced by the confused responses from industry friends. “People still ask me, ‘What kind of plasmas did you have up in the ceiling?’” notes McMinn. “I have to keep telling them, ‘We didn't.’”
Matt Hurwitz is a writer for a number of entertainment industry outlets, including Associated Press, The Hollywood Reporter, Directors Guild of America Magazine, Mix Magazine and The Los Angeles Times.