Having designed the previous two Oscar ceremonies and last year’s wildly successful live television presentation of The Sound of Music Live, Emmy and Tony Award-winning production designer Derek McLane is regularly working on multiple projects, being highly in demand for such prestigious ventures in addition to his ongoing role as one of Broadway’s top live stage designers.
From the Bethpage, Long Island state-of-the-art TV studio, Grumman Studios, set up in a former aircraft manufacturing facility, McLane was busy on a mid-November afternoon preparing for yet another live TV event, Peter Pan Live, which airs on NBC on Dec. 4. “It’s a challenge,” McLane said of designing a live television narrative production as with Sound of Music and Peter Pan, which will be co-directed by TV director Glenn Weiss and theater director Rob Ashford. “It’s a lot of conversation about how to get scene to scene with the directors. You figure out the logistics that way. There are commercials where those can help us, but one of the things is, when we get started, we don’t know where all the commercials will be.”
For the one-night broadcast of Peter Pan, McLane began work in April, spending his first six weeks on the project sketching and doing drawings of various sets. “By June,” he said, “we started making models of the set. By July, we had drawn up plans. We sent the scenery out for bids for pricing. Construction began at the beginning of August, built in scene shops.”
In mid-to-late October, McLean’s completed sets were loaded into Grumman Studios, leading to the actors rehearsing on stage the first week of November followed by late-November camera blocking.
Though his live stage familiarity on a host of Broadway shows informed the live television experience, McLane noted that they are entirely different constructs. “Physically, the way it’s laid out is different,” he stated. “We have all of the different sets set up simultaneously on Peter Pan and a lot more space than a Broadway stage. It’s also different getting to the finish line. On Broadway, once you get to opening night, it gets repeated over and over again in runs. Here, we’re aiming at one shot at this. It puts a premium on reliability. You don’t get a chance to go back and fix it. It’s got to work right on the night. And the live audience is watching television. In a Broadway theater, you know what your reaction is instantaneously.”
Additionally, shows like Sound of Music and Peter Pan, the latter of which is even grander in scope than its predecessor, which are aimed at live television, are indeed more sizable overall efforts than a Broadway show. “Physically, the scale of this is larger,” McLane noted. “There are more people in the art department and more stagehands.”
Simultaneous to his work on Peter Pan is McLane’s third stint at designing the Oscar ceremony. “I’m well underway,” he said with over three months until the broadcast, “because we need to send plans for sets into the shops to build before Christmas in order to build it and load it into the Dolby. I started on this in late summer. It’s really just me and a couple of people in my department, and the producers working on the design at this point. It’s all very internal at the moment. That’s how it’s been on the others.”
With a project as singular as the Oscars, McLane has many individual elements in his department which must ultimately be determined. “Some of that will get shaped with what films are nominated,” he said. “That will also inform who’s going to be on the show. We work on it to a point, so that we have a lot of things ready to go, then fine tune.”
To date, McLane has created sketches and rough models for his art department to study in terms of shapes and proportions. Then, a refined presentation model will be unveiled to the entire Oscars team in late December. “I can’t bang things out,” McLane related of the entire process. “It takes a tremendous amount of planning. We say, ‘What do we want to do?’ and then we budget it. We can’t do everything, so we decide what’s most important to us. We don’t start with a budget. I start with creative ideas and see where that leads. Later, I will have to go back and make some choices and cuts to meet a budget.”
In the two Oscar ceremonies that he has designed, 2013’s 85th awards and 2014’s 86th awards, McLane’s goal was to have four-to-five majorly different looks for his sets. Typically, the full Oscar show has 11 -12 acts in it, which are actually segments found between commercials. “We try to make each of those acts different from the acts before it for the sake of variety,” he explained.
Aesthetically, when designing an Oscar show, McLane seeks to celebrate the traditions of the Oscars while creating an original feeling to the proceedings, all respecting the esteemed significance of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “I try to avoid bombastic or overreaching,” he conveyed. “I hope to bring a little wit to some of that. At the same time, not be irreverent, but still honor what I think is an amazing tradition. I feel humbled and honored to be part of the organization and what that tradition is. To be a part of creating that and celebrating that comes with an obligation to live up to those traditions and standards.”
Despite the stature of the Academy and enormous audience which each Oscars brings, McLane noted that he does not have the resources to make the 12 separate acts in the show look completely unique from one another. “We’ve had at least five different looks altogether,” he described. “We’ll repeat one of the looks but mix it up with the other looks to keep it from looking all the same. Last year, for example, I had a set which was a curtain with giant red roses, and we used it three times in the show. Originally, we thought we would use it once. We combined it with a few other elements so that it didn’t seem the same each time we used it.”
Given the prominent venue of the Dolby Theater, originally founded as the Kodak Theater in 2001 as a permanent home for the Oscars, McLane has a truly blank canvas for his ideas. “There’s nothing permanent there,” he remarked. “The stage is completely empty. The proscenium is giant, so that I make a smaller proscenium that goes in it. That’s up to me.”
Though McLane’s core team begins with a limited art department, eventually construction will commence with an expanded diverse group actually building the show. “It will be built by different shops, mostly in the Los Angeles area,” McLane revealed. “The show will get divided up in different shops based on their expertise. Last year, we had big panels that tracked and turned that I had nicknamed the curvicals. They were made up of circles with light bulbs which tracked back and turned. They were made by Scenic Express. The automation to move them was made by PRG — an automated deck to move scenery on the floor. We had all of those roses made by a shop called Good Night.”
Though McLane’s base of New York City, out of which he has designed dozens of Broadway shows including the currently running Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, is more rife with scenic shops than Los Angeles, McLane has entrusted L.A. shops with the majority of set construction work for his Oscar gigs. “There are more shops in New York City, and more big shops that can build big shows, but I was surprised at the number of shops in Los Angeles,” he said. “There isn’t the same amount of theater in L.A. that would sustain these shops, but they do build a lot for television shows. The awards show market all needs sets — some of these shops build sets for all of those shows as well as TV talk shows.”
With the upcoming 87th Oscars on his plate, increasingly to be a priority once Peter Pan strikes, McLane is headlong into a philosophy for his third Oscars opportunity, noting that the Academy leadership is keenly attuned to both looking forward and maintaining a contemporary stance. “That is a part of my mandate,” said McLane. “The design of the Oscars show also wants to feel like it’s responding to the traditions and looking at things in a new way. Trying to introduce new technologies and make things move in a different or surprising way, and use images that make it feel modern. But I don’t want us to look pretentious.”
While McLane has traveled to Los Angeles several times over recent months, he will exponentially do so in February as his constructed set pieces begin to move into the Dolby Theater. Moreover, the last 10 days before the show date, he will be present at the theater regularly with all major additional show departments. “When all of the scenery is in place, the lighting designer will light different acts,” McLean said. “We start running through the show with dummied dialogue and stand-ins, so you can start to learn about what things look like and work out the flow of the show. It’s a way of developing your team for the show, so when you get to do it live, people have an idea of where everyone needs to go, how they exit and enter the stage.”
During February, a local technical supervisor will hire 35-40 stagehands, oversee the loading in of the set into the Dolby Theater, organize the most efficient offstage storing of set elements, and streamline the technical machinery of the set. At the same time, a stage manager will organize the smoothest possible running of the show. In the week leading up to the prized event, full rehearsals will commence with full musical accompaniment.
Finally, after months of meticulous preparations and fabrications, on Feb. 22, 2015, McLane and the entire team will conduct a 9 a.m. run-through. ”You might take a few minutes to fix some things,” he explained. “At that point, everyone is feeling a little exhausted. The show itself is exciting at moments, and I’m also nervous. It’s like an opening night, hoping it will all go smoothly.”