Web-Expanded Sidebar: Oscar's Rich Video History

Cinerama Rehearsal, photo courtesy David Taylor

As preparations for the 74th Academy Awards show at Hollywood's new Kodak Theatre hurtled into their final hours, production designer J. Michael Riva had only a few, brief moments to ponder what he had gotten himself into. Riva is a veteran feature film production designer (two Charlie's Angels movies, two Lethal Weapon films, Radio Flyer, cult classic Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, and others), but the Oscar event was his first attempt at designing and staging a live, televised show, let alone a monolith event like the Academy Awards.

His brief period of reflection was made possible the day before the show when performers for the Cirque du Soleil acrobatic troupe scorched Riva's shiny, newly painted stage floor during final rehearsal of a pyro stunt. As a result, late that night, Riva found himself rousting the sleeping owner of Hollywood's Linoleum City and driving to that store to find material to keep his stage safe. As he drove, Riva couldn't help but ponder the unexpected complications that inevitably arise when staging high-profile events like the Academy Awards.

Fabric Projection Test, photo courtesy J. Michael Riva

“You are never sure until the show itself if everything will go according to plan,” says Riva. “For instance, until I saw Cirque du Soleil perform, I was a bit skeptical about what, exactly, they would bring to the show, but I eventually came around. So just when I was feeling comfortable about that part of the show, it seemed — up to the last minute — that it wouldn't work. We had lots of technical problems in rehearsal, the fire department didn't like the idea of having acrobats bungee-jumping over the audience, and of course, there was that fire stunt. The projection guys were worried they would melt their screen, but that wasn't the problem. The problem was, in the final rehearsal, they burned my stage floor.

“Some people suggested we switch out that part of the show, but we decided to go for it. So, we woke up the owner of Linoleum City and went over there in the middle of the night. We bought the flattest, thinnest material we could find, and loaded it in a truck, went back to the theater, and used that material for another rehearsal the morning of the show. They scorched it slightly, so we went back to Linoleum City that afternoon and got more, and used it on the show a few hours later. That saved our stage floor. It's a good example about what happens when you take risks, avoiding the safe route, and then it pays off. There's a wonderful sense of accomplishment when that happens.”

Tiki Village, photo courtesy David Taylor

Looking back at the 74th Academy Awards, that sense of accomplishment is pervasive among key players who helped stage the event. The collaboration between Riva, producers Laura Ziskin and Michael J. Seligman, the TV crew headed by director Louis J. Horvitz, video engineer Marc Sanford, the 25-person lighting crew, headed by lighting designer Bob Dickinson, and the technical services, equipment, and video projection support provided by Creative Technology (CT) North America, makes for a behind-the-scenes story almost as unpredictable as the awards themselves.

To tell that story, SRO offers an inside look at the technical and creative ups-and-downs behind the staging of the 2002 event from the perspectives of three key players: Riva, Dickinson, and veteran projection supervisor David Taylor.

Cirque du Soleil acrobats perform during the show (above, Copyright ©Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences). Their pyro stunt (during rehearsal, below, Photo courtesy David Taylor) was one of the most complicated parts of staging the event.

The effort of the crews and engineers working with those men often led to the innovative use of technology made by manufacturers such as Digital Projection Inc. and Christie for projectors (all 30-plus projectors used during the show were DP or Christie units, built around Texas Instruments' 3-chip DLP technology); Stewart Filmscreen Corp., Torrance, California, for all the main screens; Imaginary Forces, Hollywood, for graphics' expertise; and Vari*Lite, Dallas, and Fourth Phase, Los Angeles, for most lighting instruments, along with technology and services provided by the Kodak Theatre itself.

All those players combined to make sure the venerable Oscars had a successful debut in their new home, but it wasn't easy…


The challenges faced by the projection and lighting teams overall were largely the result of three factors: the ongoing need to balance a live audience's needs with those of a massive television audience; the move of the Academy Awards to a new venue; and the show's theme, developed by Riva in consultation with producers, which made the event projection-intensive.

The stage, under the specially constructed proscenium arch, as designed by production designer J. Michael Riva.
Copyright ©Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Riva says the theme revolved around the concept of “going back to the movies.”

“It was about going back to the roots of the Academy Awards — that magic of a movie theater, what happens in the dark when the audience goes somewhere special,” Riva says. “The producers and I felt that idea was appropriate and that it also fit in well with the move to a new venue, because the Kodak meant a return of the Academy Awards to Hollywood after many years outside Hollywood. We talked at great length about how this concept would require lots of projected imagery, which is what led to all the tribute films during the show.”

To fit his theme, Riva altered the front of the Kodak stage by building an elaborate, fabric-covered, proscenium arch to frame the stage, reminiscent of old movie theaters.

“The Kodak has a beautiful and deep stage, but we wanted that old movie-house feel, so we had the art department build this ornate proscenium,” he explains. “We had to cut metal in the rafters just to move pieces in and out. We made it all fabric, with gold that goes all the way up. Then, we added an art-deco flavor, with hidden lights behind architecture, neon lights, and deco statues of ladies holding Oscars.”

The flying “gallery screens” during a rehearsal before the big show.
Photo courtesy Dan Reed

Riva and his art department worked out those design elements months before the show by using a scale model of the Kodak, about the size of a tabletop. He used the model to experiment with fabrics, lighting, and the development of the proscenium, among other things.

“We took digital photos of the model, decorated for each portion of the show with pieces dropping down from miniature line-sets, just like the real theater has, and we compiled a little book of visual images,” says Riva. “That helped us do a miniature breakdown of each act, seeing the show play itself out as we went about making decisions about how the stage should look during each segment.”


Riva's desire to hark back to old-time cinemas contributed to the development of an upstage projection screen, designed to remind viewers of the movie-going experience. To do that, Creative Technology brought in a massive (18×72, but masked down to 18×50 in order to better fit Riva's stage design) Stewart Aeroview 100 screen, which the crew nicknamed the “Cinerama Screen,” though it was not a true, Cinerama-style screen. The screen was originally built in 2001 for use on the Daytime Emmy Awards. Early this year, Stewart configured it to fit the needs of the 74th Academy Awards.

Computer-controlled stage lighting and follow spots (shown during a rehearsal) were among the many lighting challenges at the show.
Photo courtesy Dan Reed

That was one of three main projection areas developed for the show, along with the traditional, drop-down “Best Picture” screen, and flying “Gallery Screens.”

Taylor explains that the Cinerama Screen posed unique challenges because of the need to rear-project a seamless 50-foot, high-definition image that would translate well for TV viewers. The eventual solution arrived via the creation of a system relying on three “triple stacks” of nine Digital Projection 15-SX projectors, in combination with an optical edge-blending approach (essentially, physical metal flags on C-stand brackets, used to mute the edges of the light bundles coming from the projectors), along with the use of a proprietary computer control system to seamlessly mix dynamic graphics with video.

“There are several technologies these days that lend themselves to edge blending, and we tested most of them,” says Taylor. “But all the ones available require a 25% image overlap area, and are designed more for corporate presentations. This show needed no more than 10% overlap in order to use as much of the full-screen area as possible, with minimal gap. So in the end, we developed a custom optical solution for edge blending.”

The approach eventually came together during a crucial test on the Sony Pictures lot in February.

“That was the first time we used all nine projectors and the same screen we brought to the Kodak,“ Taylor explains. “Each image area on the 50-foot screen was 18×24, so we actually threw away about 9Ω feet of image from two of the projectors. The concept was nine projectors, each with three images overlaid on top of each-other, for each viewing area. During the Sony test, we worked out the method to reduce overlap areas, and the optical edge-flagging approach worked well. If we hadn't flagged the edges of the light bundles, you would have seen two overlapping images, so the flags in front of the lenses were designed to intrude on the light bundle to minimize the amount of doubled light.”

Taylor's team worked closely with the Imaginary Forces' team of engineers, under the supervision of Andrew Sabol. That team wrote custom software to seamlessly mix hard-disc graphics' playback with the video.

Vanessa Williams and dancers perform the Oscar-nominated “Colors of the Wind” bathed in Greg Brunton’s lighting design for the 68th Academy Awards at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (1995).

“It was a basic, timeline type, screen-control system, but more versatile and more suited to instant TV cuing than what is commercially available,” says Taylor. “The engineers first developed the concept for the 2000 Academy Awards, and now they customize the control system for each show, as needed.”

The CT team stacked the 20-plus upstage projectors needed for both the Cinerama screen and the Gallery Screens onto what Taylor calls an “ugly, but efficient” tower of back-stage scaffolding that the crew dubbed “Tiki Village.” All the computerized projection control work was handled from control table positions in front of Tiki Village.

The “Gallery Screens,” meanwhile, were designed to display images on five individual screens, located on a pipe dropping down from one of the Kodak stage's 70-plus ceiling line-sets, which fly set pieces in-and-out as needed. Taylor's team used 11 Christie Digital Roadie S-12 projectors, stacked together on Tiki Village, to rear-project onto the five individual screens as they came into view.

For the more traditional “Best Picture” screen, CT again relied on Digital Projection technology — two Lighting 15-SX units and one Lightning 25-SX, front-projected from the first balcony of the Kodak onto a 16×29 drop-down Stewart screen, relying on a computerized control system separate from the system controlling the Gallery and Cinerama screens.

“It was all serial port technology, looped in a large control string with two loops — one for the Cinerama screen and one for the gallery screens,” Taylor explains. “Each system had a laptop running manufacturer software to control single or multiple projectors. That lets you mute a projector at a keystroke, to close them down, if needed. It also gives us the ability to tune the show — image tweaking off a large broadcast monitor. On a show like this, the needs of the television broadcast are paramount, so we have to view the screens as the camera views them, at a different color temperature than the human eye. So we watched the images on the broadcast monitor, using router control so we could see every camera angle, and then we shaded each projector for specific shots.”

The 9th Academy Awards, staged on March 4th, 1937 at the Biltmore Hotel with a painted curtain and a smattering of ferns and audio cabling.

Dickinson's colleagues operated the projection systems for the three main areas — senior projectionist Norm Levin taking care of the Cinerama screen; Kerry Perkins, head of projection for Creative Technology, handling the gallery projectors; and senior projectionist Mike Scheliga operating the Best Picture projectors.

Taylor adds that the projection team had to collaborate closely with Bob Dickinson's lighting crew, to make sure screen brightness matched Dickinson's lighting scheme.

“We had to make sure our image areas were not too dark or too bright,” Taylor explains. “If our lighting levels weren't right, the backgrounds would blow out on television. The cameras were set to a specific exposure level based on Bob's lighting, so it was very important we got that right. That's why our ability to watch the entire show backstage on the broadcast monitor in real time was so crucial — it let us make adjustments on the fly.”


Meanwhile, Riva's theme also influenced Bob Dickinson's approach to lighting the Academy Awards. Dickinson, who has lit 16 of the last 19 Oscar events, says Riva's theme, and certain particulars regarding the Kodak Theatre's architecture, posed several challenges. But more than anything, the hybrid nature of the show — serving two different audiences — always muddles the lighting approach.

Surrounded by projection screens, Sally Field gives her well-remembered speech accepting the best actress Oscar at the 57th Academy Awards (1984). (Photo courtesy Doug Hunt, AVHQ.)

“Shows like this are sort of bastards — neither fish nor fowl,” says Dickinson. “We have to light appropriately for television, but give the audience the sense of a live event. Yet, the way you light one is not how you normally light the other. So you strive to give the event a sense on television of what a live show would look like. We can't truly light like a live event, because we're required to light the audience for the telecast, but we were able to keep our compromises from being too obvious.”

Dickinson adds that the competing lighting needs of the live show versus the TV broadcast are exacerbated during events like the Academy Awards because of broadcast video's limitations regarding contrast ratios.

“That happens with any live performance shown live on TV,” he says. “If there was no video presentation, we would probably light the intensity of any person on stage at about 10 times the rest of the environment, to emphasize where the audience should direct its attention. But for a video broadcast, we can go no further than a 2:1 ratio. So if we light scenery at 30-footcandles, the maximum we can light a person is at 60-footcandles. That can create difficulties for the live audience, but it can't be completely avoided. However, Michael Riva's design approach helped, because we avoided too much visual complexity on stage and kept it fairly straightforward.”

Olivia Newton-John performs her Oscar-nominated song “Hopelessly Devoted to You” at the 51st Academy Awards (1978).

Early on, Riva and Dickinson agreed on how they would light the audience. They both felt that “simplicity was our friend,” according to Dickinson.

“Our first conversation was about key-light levels inside the theater,” Riva remembers. “Bob told me that, for years, he had been wanting to use less key light on the audience, which was precisely the way I felt.”

Therefore, says Dickinson, they agreed to “give TV viewers the impression the audience was being lit merely from the effect of the stage being lit up. In reality, we couldn't light the audience just with stage lights, because there would not be enough intensity for a video presentation. But we did expose the audience far less than we have in past shows. The video engineer, Mark Sanford, worked hard to make sure they got more exposure out of the cameras, and it worked fine.”

At recent Oscar events, Dickinson has avoided rigging the front-house lighting to a motorized truss in order to keep rigs from appearing on camera. For the Kodak, he decided to retain that approach, but that decision meant the lighting crew had to be “more crafty than usual,” according to Dickinson, in order to highlight the theater's architecture.

April 14, 1969: Jane Fonda presents the Oscar for Best Costume Design during the 41st Academy Awards at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion amid an elaborately staged extravaganza that blended nominees Romeo and Juliet and Planet of the Apes. Photos Copyright © Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

“We used a combination of moving lights and fixed lights for the house lighting,” Dickinson explains. “We mixed in moving Vari*Lites, fixed Lekos, and also some Source 4 PAR64 lamps (manufactured by Electronic Theatre Controls, but provided by the Kodak Theatre). The ETC version of the PAR64 lamps is perfect for this kind of application because of the heat-synch technology they developed to draw all heat away from the front of the unit, sending it out the back instead.”

Still, the architectural design of the Kodak Theatre was far different from what Dickinson and his crew had experienced over the years at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Shrine Auditorium. Dickinson explains that the Kodak features ”a European opera house look, with royal boxes on the walls.”

“The other theaters have just architecture or lighting positions on the walls, but this theater had people actually sitting on the walls in those boxes,” he continues. “Therefore, we had to be careful about how we lit the walls. If we lit the audience too brightly, the architecture ends up lit the same way, and that won't work. So, instead, we used highly controllable instruments to light people separate from architecture. That way, I was able to light the wood on the face of the balcony, or columns between the boxes, without getting light into the eyes of the people sitting right there. That made this job very intensive in terms of equipment inventory. In most theaters, we could use one, big 10k to light everything on one wall. Here, we had to use ellipsoidal lights in several places. We lit each side of the theater from the opposite side, with all the lights at cross-angles, very high, very inconspicuous. We had them on the balcony rail, and left and right in the royal boxes. That was far more elaborate than what we usually do for house lighting.”

The most sophisticated part of the lighting job, however, revolved around the computer-controlled stage lighting, designed by Dickinson and Vari*Lite's Andy O'Reilly. Following Riva's overall approach, Dickinson wanted an “elegant and clean environment.”

“We had around 600 moving lights on the stage system,” Dickinson says. “The computer controller let us pan, tilt, change color, change size, and even add the illusion of pattern textures for all those lights, with a high degree of accuracy. The technology of computer control for these systems has grown by leaps in the last decade, to the point where we can now focus every single light individually for each scenic configuration. The same light that illuminates a piece of scenery at one moment can easily turn into a back light and be pointed in the opposite direction the next moment.”

Dickinson says the Vari*Lite system designer, Andy O'Reilly, used Vari*Lite's Virtuoso computer controller to handle the job. (Vari*Lite's Los Angeles office provided about 98% of the stage lighting system, according to Dickinson.) He calls controllers like the Virtuoso “the big advancement” in stage lighting systems in recent years, because they operate, essentially, in real time. “I remember when we had to enter numerical parameters just to rotate a light,” Dickinson says. “This is a major step forward from that era.”

For much of the show, Dickinson says the lighting job was made easier by the modern infrastructure of the Kodak, which was designed with lighting and camera positions seamlessly integrated into the theater. “That avoided those horrible retro-fits we've done in the past at the Shrine and other facilities,” he says. “And not just with dimmers and placements, but also with cabling. The Shrine is a new theater, so it was built with television in mind, as opposed to the Shrine or Dorothy Chandler, which were built before TV was a consideration.”

There was, however, “one area” where the theater was unable to easily accommodate the show's lighting needs, according to Dickinson. That area: the location of the theater's follow-spot positions, which was important because of the crew's need to use Xenon Gladiator spotlights (manufactured by Strong and provided by rental house Fourth Phase) to maximum advantage for television close-ups.

“The follow-spot positions built into the Kodak are typically steeper than what is flattering for television use,” says Dickinson. “For strictly theatrical use, a 40-degree angle for the follow-spot is standard, which is what the theater has. For TV, though, we prefer angles between 15 and 22 degrees for a flattering angle on a performer's face, because the invasive nature of TV allows the camera to pick up more of a performer's face than what the typical theater-goer sees.”

As a result, Dickinson says the lighting team had no choice but to claim some second balcony seats for spotlight positions. “We took out approximately 24 seats in three rows of the second balcony,” he says. “Those were the only seats sacrificed for the entire lighting job. We kept it to a minimum, but it was necessary.”

Dickinson says the entire effort would not have been successful without “the intense work” performed by lighting director Bob Barnhart, Vari*Lite's Andy O'Reilly, electrical gaffer Jerry Nashleanas, and fixed instrument board operator Gil Samuelian, among others.

(Michael Goldman is senior editor of Millimeter and SRO).


Oscar's Rich Video History

Doug Hunt vividly remembers the first video wall ever used at the Academy Awards, and according to him, likely the first used for any live, televised event. The year was 1990, and Hunt’s company—-Audio Visual Headquarters (AVHQ)—-was charged with producing a giant video wall for a musical performance honoring The Wizard of Oz during the 62nd Academy Awards.

“That was before today’s technology,” says Hunt, a 19-year projection veteran at the Academy Awards, and now a senior VP of staging for AVHQ, a subsidiary of Audio Visual Services Corp. “We ended up putting 64 video projectors into that wall on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, rolling it along on two, special platforms (pushed by 14 stagehands). What made it even more difficult is that then, as now, stage time for the projection unit to rehearse was limited due to the nature of the show and the different entities that need to get on that stage. Therefore, we only had that wall together and operating four times prior to the Academy Awards.

"The projectors were so large and heavy," he says, "that rolling them around on the plastic floor cracked the floor in several places. But the scariest part was, during a final rehearsal, we were rolling the wall into position when the stage manager screamed at us to stop immediately. We did, and when we looked down, we realized we were about to roll it over a hole that used to open up for a stage elevator, years earlier. They never reinforced it, and if that guy hadn’t stopped us, we probably would have lost the whole thing down that hole.”

Complex, moving projection towers posed a major projection challenge during the 2000 Academy Awards show.
Photo ©A.M.P.A.S. and courtesy Digital Projection Inc.

Hunt, of course, goes back further than that, and recalls the days when rear-projection video technology first debuted at the Oscars in the mid-80’s.

“It was actually, politically, a hot potato,” he recalls, “because this was, after all, the preeminent show honoring the medium of film. But they wanted to do one of those retrospective films, and the only way it was cost-effective to take all those various film clips and edit them together was to do it in video, so they figured if that piece was in video, the other pieces might as well be also. So we had to use those old Eidaphor projectors, which was more than bit scary for a live show because they were each the size of a couple of refrigerators. But it was the only way to do large-screen, rear video projection back then.”

The Eidaphors relied on the use of electron technology to write images on oil as it flowed over a sheet of glass, with the oil pumped from a vacuum. “We could only use the Eidaphors in the Shrine Auditorium, because they were so noisy that that they didn’t work for the telecast in the smaller Dorothy Chandler Pavilion,” Hunt recalls. “After the Eidaphors, we moved on to the General Electric PJ series of projectors in the early ‘90s, which were relatively smaller—about the size of a small desk, and brighter. Then, of course, Texas Instruments developed DLP chip technology a bit later on, and now, they can do just about anything.”

Even with the help of modern digital projectors, however, the 72nd Academy Awards show in 2000 was, by any standard, “the most complicated event when it comes to video projection that I’ve ever seen,” Hunt says. His former colleague, David Taylor, who still supervises projection work for the Oscars, but is no longer affiliated with AVHQ, agrees wholeheartedly.

“The idea was to put up four moving columns of four projectors each that could move around the stage,” Taylor says. “The four pictures had to combine to make one large, single image. The towers consisted of 8-10-foot screens, and each tower was 33 feet high, 8 feet wide, 14 feet deep, and each weighed 6,500 pounds. Each of them contained four Digital Projection 8GV projectors. The screens were each 8x8, and made out of ArrowVu 100 screen fabric. We couldn’t use video hardware and control software, because these were not 4x3 images. We needed something more elaborate than the video wall controllers that were available back then. So we used 11 Tektronix Profile DVE switchers and a router to feed it all down the various lines to us. Plus, the towers had to roll over the stage, and we could not turn them off to move them because of the time involved in powering them up. Therefore, we had to stay hot the whole show, and we needed 250 feet of color-coded umbilical cable. The crew had to make sure all those cables never crossed with each other. That display was quite a feat.”

The projection team actually built five towers, to have one for back-up, but Hunt recalls that a projector in one of the towers failed just minutes before air-time.

“One of our technicians, dressed in a tuxedo, jumped on the back of the tower and re-set the projector, but it failed again,” Hunt recalls. “So, as the show hit the air, he took off the top of the projector and taped a little electric fan to it, keeping our fingers crossed that temperature was the only problem, not electronics. When the curtain opened, that guy was still hanging out the back side of one of the towers, where the audience could not see him, ready to re-set the projector again if it failed. But the fan worked and it didn’t fail again. It was one of those things where we swallowed adrenaline all night long.” --MG