As everyone prepares for Hollywood’s biggest night, we always chatter on and on about what people wore or how the ceremony plays out. There was something different with this year’s Academy Awards, however, because the set, designed by Jason Sherwood, is jaw-dropping. With his Emmy-nominated production design, Sherwood has created one of the most unique and memorable Academy Awards sets in recent memory.
With a roomful of stars, why not have the stars glittering around the arc of the stage? Sherwood blew out the traditional idea of a proscenium and incorporated the images of the nominated films into the set, and it changed every time. They could be projected onto that sharp point that comes across the top of the stage or they could be featured in the cylinder found center stage. It was all so unexpected, and it gave us something else to look forward to every time a new category was presented.
I joked with Sherwood that his design might be one of the most viewed since everyone will go back to see reigning Best Picture winner, Parasite, win over and over again. But we don’t need video proof of such a glitzy endeavor. It’s one that we won’t be able to forget. Awards shows everywhere have a new high bar to hurdle.
Awards Daily: I read that you are quite the movie buff. What did this opportunity mean to you?
Jason Sherwood: In a professional capacity, I believe the Oscars are a gold-standard job for production designers and set designers. It’s the opening ceremony of the Olympics and the Oscars—those are the projects that you are lucky to be part of one day. Personally, we had Friday night movie night. I would make everyone sit and watch the Oscars. I had predictions ballot, and I’d always won because I was the only one who saw all the movies. Getting to be a part of it was like getting my hand in one of the family traditions. It’s special in a personal way. I’ve been very lucky that all of my projects have been personal in that way. Very full circle.
AD: I love how a lot of your theatrical designs are unpredictable. There’s always a lot of light, and your design of the Oscar stage really changes the shape of the proscenium. How did you want to break up the space?
JS: Typically in theater, things move up and down and left to right. And they are very presentational. A big focus of my work, in whatever medium, is to involve the audience or invite them visually to break up that frame that separates where the space is and where the audience is. With the Oscars, our producers Lynnette Taylor and Stephanie Allain and our director Glenn Weiss sort of tasked me with changing the typical look of the show. The show has looked incredible for many years and has variety, but it relies on a frame around the space. This year, I wanted to intercept that, and I tend to want to make something sculptural. When we were talking about the Oscars, a big function of the show is that we introduce the nominees and show clip packages. Normally, that means a movie screen, and I wanted to make the screen the environment.
AD: Yeah, that’s an incredible idea.
JS: What if the images were swirling around the space? The cyclone, spiral of the design was born of me making me that swirling hand motion. I wanted the movies everywhere. I wanted an abstract, exploded film reel. The shape came from making it less of a presentation and make it an environment that celebrates the year in film.
AD: With a lot of awards shows, we are just waiting for a stuffy screen to slide down so we can watch a montage.
AD: That made it feel like the set was alive.
JS: Thank you.
AD: I was curious about the musical numbers. You did those additional pieces as well?
JS: I was hired on a Wednesday at the end of October and we had our first meetings on a Monday. We had four days to come to this meeting with the team with some ideas. What I presented on that Monday was the core essence is what you saw on television. Everyone really grabbed onto the idea and embellished it and brought in their various expertise to it. Lynette, Stephanie, and Glenn were very specific with me doing something different. We worked on the show until late January and we knew that we were going to accommodate all five nominated Best Original Songs with performances.
JS: We had the opening number with the phenomenal Janelle Monáe, and then we had this back pocket Eminem performance and this Original Score compilations. There was a lot of music in this year’s ceremony. It was the quickest turnaround between nomination day in recent history. As soon as we heard what the nominees were, we went into overdrive to create sets for those performances. As you know, those performances are for huge, megawatt artists, but we only have two weeks to really pull them off.
AD: That’s insane.
JS: We were in contact with all these amazing people like Cynthia Erivo and then we are talking to Disney to see what they want for Idina Menzel’s number, including getting visas for all the actresses who play Elsa. That was a really rigorous time. Those were such a treat, because by the end of January we were looking at the same set for so long. It felt like the final pieces really finish our planning.
AD: I loved how “Into the Unknown” was really simply done with all of those shapes and then other elements were introduced to make it atmospheric. But I also loved Elton John’s performance because those enormous glasses are so Elton John. It feels like something he would have on tour.
JS: (Laughs) That means a lot hearing that. I was so excited when Elton was nominated because he is a huge hero of mine. I wanted to get it right. When we showed his team the design—and we did a heart-shaped version as well—they were like, “This is so Elton!” It was one of my favorite parts of the show.
AD: I know there is a ridiculous amount of Swarovski crystals on the set. How many were on the set?
JS: There were 50,000 of them on the set.
AD: Wow. How do you ensure that everything remains tasteful?
JS: The interesting thing is Swarovski is a partner on the Oscars. They have been for over a decade. When you come to the show, you expect to see gold or Oscar statues everywhere. We didn’t have a big version of the Oscar on the stage because we wanted to emphasize that when a person receives an Academy Award, it’s special. There aren’t dozens of them on the set as if they’ve come off the shelf. That was important to me in the design.
AD: I do love that they aren’t everywhere. I feel like that is something very much from the early 2000s.
JS: The beautiful thing about a crystal is that it’s sort of a physical object, but it really is about light. That’s what the set is about: light and points of light. Sometimes it’s negative space and sometimes it’s a picture of a person’s face that’s coming out of what feels like the glamour of this. To a certain extent, it was about finding the elegant quality of a Swarovski crystal and the sculptural composition of the set. Swarovski is a very game partner and they gave us carte blanche access to their resources. We wanted something to dazzle and glimmer and that’s one of the best resources for that. The set uses a lot of video surfaces or LED lighting surfaces but it also has refined scenic treatments. There was a very fine, gauze mesh drop.
AD: I loved that one.
JS: We layered in light behind it so it can glow and then drape it across the front. Blending those materials was a goal of the design to ensure that it didn’t feel too futuristic with all these videos. It felt like it could support the idea of a conjured element. The show has various functional needs. So we have to be putting up Elton’s set while an award is being presented, so we had things like that to close off the space so we could do other things. One of the principle designs was the idea of a winner’s circle.
AD: Oh, I love that.
JS: In a lot of designs you have center stage, left and right, and I liked the idea of a position of prominence where all the people would be accepting the highest award in filmmaking. I loved putting them downstage like that. All of the lines of the design erupt from that point. It feels like things are growing and diminishing. At close down, we wanted it to look like flame or like air. I didn’t want it to feel like a solid thing, and that mesh material gave us that openness that we were excited about.
AD: I wanted to ask how you feel right now because you design for events and performances where we all experience things as a big group.
JS: Like everyone, the world is so daunting, and we are in a world of transition. I personally know that there will be a return to a sense of gathering. We experience things together. At the beginning, I was more stressed, but now I am thinking that I am excited to return to work with other artists. I am allowing the cacophony of voices to overtake me and experience that. There’s a lot to learn from a privileged point of view about other people’s experiences. If you’re talking a lot, you’re not taking the time to listen, so I am trying to absorb that more than I have been able to in the past.