Several landmark occasions are associated with the 71st Annual Academy Awards, which were held March 21 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and telecast by ABC starting at 5:30pm PST. It's the first awards ceremony in the history of the Oscars to be held on a Sunday--a day the network hopes will garner higher ratings, and the Academy hopes will cut down on traffic jams. It's also the final Academy Awards ceremony of the century, indeed of the millennium. And that fact is integral to the show's design, the responsibility for which falls to Roy Christopher for a record-breaking 12th time.
"When I first met with Gil Cates, the producer, he said he wanted the last Oscars of this century to do two things: pay homage to the past, and yet be very forward-looking," says Christopher, who has won four of his five Emmys for previous Oscar ceremonies. "He said that he wanted it epochal, he wanted it optimistic, and he wanted it somehow circular. I was writing all this down, but I didn't immediately see the design. I started with a mid-century, 1950s theme, and spent a long time researching and drawing. But anytime I happen onto a concept that literal, it never takes off. It never has magic."
Christopher finally got inspired when looking through a book of 16th-century etchings in forced perspective. "I thought, how fascinating--that perspective is very cinematic, like a low angle shooting up," he recalls. With Cates' enthusiastic approval, the designer came up with a 70'-wide by 30'-high domed rotunda in forced perspective to basically contain the show.
"It's as though it's tilted, as though you're looking at it head-on, from a low camera angle," Christopher says of the set piece. "There's a great oval opening in the top of the dome, where you can see sky or whatever we put up there. Consequently, every piece of scenery in the show is in the same perspective--a chandelier hung through the opening of the dome, a column going up toward the center. Even the 30'-tall Oscar that sits centerstage for a couple of scenes is carved in the same kind of forced perspective, tilted back. There's not a straight piece of scenery in the show.
"Of course, the thing we had to commit to," he continues, "is that dome is onstage all four hours of the show; there's no way to lose it." There are many ways to vary its appearance, however. Constructed of a slightly marbleized rear-screen projection material, the dome itself can be transformed by patterns, by colors, and by lighting, courtesy of LD Bob Dickinson. Smaller set pieces, such as overlapping wing-shaped portals in faux alabaster and a large frosted glass window, can close off the rotunda or fly out to open it up. The colors are romantic--green, lavender, peach, rose. The look is fitting for a year in which Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love are up for Best Picture.
Staging the entire Academy Awards show around such a set requires some adjustment on everyone's part. The production numbers, which at press time, Christopher was designing around elements such as fire, water, and the heavens, are a challenge--"You try telling Debbie Allen, the choreographer, that the numbers have to fit into this rotunda," he says. And he told Louis J. Horvitz, the director, "It's not like in the past where you go from bare stage to full stage." But he adds that everybody has been most cooperative. "Bob Dickinson said, 'We're going to make this thing work, we'll find ways to get lighting in this dome.' And Louis planned his beauty shots lower, trying out new angles."
The design process for a huge production like the Oscars is complex. Obtaining bids from scenic builders is very time-consuming: "We take the drawings and models to all the shops," says Christopher. "They break it down per sheet with prices, and then we make a chart. I have a spread sheet in front of me, and my assistant, Steve Olson, feeds it into his computer. We do comparisons, and then we turn that information over to Michael Seligman, our line producer. Sometimes you won't go with the lowest bid--ABC was not the lowest bid for the dome, but they were the one shop that could dedicate a soundstage to building and setting it up. So we'll all get a chance to see it completely assembled before it goes down to the theatre, which is essential for a piece this unusual." Scenic Express, Scenic Services, and Showcraft were other shops assigned to build pieces of the set.
For the first time on a project, Christopher made use of CAD. "Steve did all the drawing and drafting, but then we hired someone to put all the information into the computer, so we got some very carefully realized CAD drawings," he says. "I don't like designing on computer, it's so rigid and stupid--and you can quote me!" he adds with a laugh. "But once you design, the computer can really help you realize the design without making it rigid and stupid. It's very valuable for a piece this complex."
Besides the Oscars, which Christopher gets to watch in a state of exhaustion from a "nice seat, center orchestra," the designer has been busy with two sitcoms--the long-running Frasier, and Becker, starring Ted Danson. ("I'm down to two series, my career is drying up," he cracks.) He also was granted the honor, by his peers, of creating a set for the Third Annual Art Directors' Awards, held February 27 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. And in the spring, Christopher should once again be jetting to New York to design the Tony Awards.
What about next year's Oscars, the first of the new century, or the 2001 show, when the brand-new Academy Theatre will be unveiled? "You never know," says Christopher, who is clearly itching to add a 13th and 14th Oscarcast to his credits. "After I'd done it three or four times, I thought, 'Oh, I don't want to be associated only with this.' Now I'm at a place, with the team we have, that as long as they ask me to do it and the team's intact, I'll do it."