For the fourth year in a row, production designer Derek McLane has been tapped to dream up the stage for the biggest night in Hollywood—the Academy Awards for the Oscars 2016. Known for his incredible scenic design for Broadway including Noises Off, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Gigi, Grease, 33 Variations (for which he won a Tony) as well as the live NBC musicals The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, and The Wiz, McLane is certainly no stranger to creating captivating sets.
In this interview the talented designer discusses his background in the industry and his process for the ceremony of the Oscars 2016, from the initial sketches to the final preparations.
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How did you get your start designing sets?
When I was in college, somebody asked me to design one. There was no theater program, so it was just an extracurricular activity. I was completely taken with it when I started. I said, “This is the craziest, coolest thing ever!” So I designed a lot of sets as an undergraduate, but I had no formal training. There was a lot of trial and error—a lot of error. After that I went to the Yale School of Drama and studied set design.
What do you love about designing sets?
First of all, I’m really impatient, and set design tends to be really quick (from ideas to production). Then for me it’s about creating a world or coming up with a design idea that takes on a life of its own. It doesn’t happen on every project, but that’s the goal, and it’s so satisfying when it does.
When did you make the jump from theater to live television?
Kind of recently. I should say I did some television work in the 1980s—I worked at The David Letterman Show and also designed a few talk shows way back then—but for 20 years I essentially worked exclusively in the theater. It wasn’t until I was asked to design the Oscars four years ago that I really started doing television. Now this is my fourth year doing the Oscars, and I’ve also done three live musicals for NBC. It’s been an amazing several years!
What challenges do you face when designing a set for live TV versus a theater production—and particularly for an awards show, where you have a large audience in house but an even larger one watching from home?
What a live TV event has in common with, say, a Broadway show is that anything can happen and whatever does happen becomes a part of that event. But on Broadway, the audience sees things from a fixed view. They’re basically sitting in one place, watching the set from a distance. With television, the camera moves around and it gets a lot closer to the set, so you see things in a lot more detail. But you wouldn’t want to design a set for just the close-ups, because you wouldn’t have the grandeur or sense of event that you would get otherwise. You really do have to design on a couple of different levels—you have to see the big picture and the close-ups.
How long does it take to produce an Oscar set?
It varies. This year, we started coming up with ideas in September and finished the conceptualization by mid-November. Then there’s a period of time for sending the drawings out for competitive bids from contractors—like you would with an architectural project. By mid-December, the designs are awarded to shops for construction, so they can start before the winter holidays and finish in January. They start loading the set into the theater in February, then about ten days before the show, we’ll turn the cameras on and start lighting it.
What is the inspiration behind this year’s show?
The producers, David Hill and Reggie Hudlin, said the inspiration line for the show is “Everyone dreams in gold,” so that is definitely a big part of it. Then the design idea that I’ve been playing around with is 1970s glam—but not in a kitschy way! Ideally the most beautiful version of it. I think the viewers might feel that inspiration but won’t necessarily be able to name it.
How many major set changes can Oscar viewers expect?
We have about four or five different looks, not including the three musical numbers. But there are design elements from each that were made to be combined, so we can create more like nine different looks out of the set.
How do you incorporate nominees into the design?
That part is a scramble. While nominees don’t really affect the physical sets so much—that’s more in video content—we only find out the musical numbers after the nominations are announced, in mid-January. Then it’s a question of figuring out which songs are best suited to the production. When organizing early on, we hold a little bit of budget back and set some time aside for this.
Which part of the set did you find most challenging?
Coming up with the look. This year I was working with producers who I’ve never worked with before. And getting to understand each other’s tastes is always a challenge when working with new people. It’s one thing to say a set’s going to look a certain way, but until you actually show some material to the producers, you don’t know whether the concept is something they’re going to respond to or not. The truth is, it’s a very high-pressure event. It’s an event that a lot of people watch, and a lot of people watch critically. There’s a certain level of stress that comes along with that.
Which part of the set are you most excited about?
I’m very excited about our proscenium this year, which is decorated with 27,120 Swarovski crystals, and these fanlike structures that we call in the trade “presenter backings.” They’re pieces that appear to the side of the stage and will be behind presenters for much of the show. I’ve designed them to look like a whole series of radial sunbursts, but they’re made very simply out of hundreds of aluminum rods. They have a beautiful feathery look and evoke ’70s glam yet feel contemporary at the same time.
What’s something new to this year’s design?
Those presenter backings, the proscenium, and the floor design are all brand-new. There’s a structure with a series of long vertical rods with little tiny shelves on them that hold Oscar statuettes. We’ve added LED screens to the side of the stage that can pivot to camera. The last few years we’ve had a really large screen that not only shows videos but also enhances the physical scenery that’s onstage. It can make it look like there’s a little more on the stage than there really is. This year we’re taking that a little further. The audience won’t necessarily be aware, but it gives us another opportunity to layer what we have onstage.
Have past shows—yours or otherwise—influenced this year’s design?
The first year I did the show, I studied probably 12 years of shows with the producers. We watched sequences, froze the playback, and discussed what was successful or less successful, not just about the design but how the show flows. We wanted to learn as much as we could from those.
Do you still get nervous when you watch the ceremony?
Oh, absolutely! It’s live TV, so you never know what’s going to happen.