Last fall, the Academy Museum opened after many years of careful planning, and Below the Line was given a tour of the facility by one of its curators, Jenny He. The Museum was well worth the wait, as it’s an impressive achievement to behold.
The structure itself is the old May Company Building, a local landmark that has been seen in films such as The Big Lebowski, Suburbia, and Miracle Mile, to name a few, and is now known as the Saban Building. When you enter the museum and veer to the left, there is a room that has many screens playing clips of classic films on repeat, and if you stand there long enough, you can get a strong vibe for a non-sequential history of cinema as well as a preview of what you’ll find upstairs in the Stories of Cinema exhibit. “All of these screens together show that cinema is happening all at the same time all the time,” said He.
When you enter the first exhibit, there’s a sign on the wall with all of the major departments with a brief explanation of what everyone does. This is a great introduction to what lies ahead. This museum truly is a testament to everyone involved in the making of motion pictures — Acting, Animation, Casting, Cinematography, Costume Design, Editing, Executives, Makeup and Hair, Marketing/PR, Music, Producing, Production Design, Screenwriting, Sound, Visual and Special Effects, and more.
“Moviemaking is inherently a collaborative effort and we want to celebrate all different facets and elements that go into creating what you see onscreen. You move past these descriptions of the filmmaking craft areas to significant movies and moviemakers,” explains He.
Immediately inside the Stories of Cinema exhibit is a tribute to one of the greatest films ever made, Citizen Kane. The Museum has the Rosebud sled, which is one of the most famous props in movie history. Next to it are other notable Hollywood artifacts such as the annotated screenplay, Herman Mankiewicz‘s typewriter, and Gregg Toland‘s camera lenses. This is the stuff classic film dreams are made of.
As you move through the Museum, there are many more impressive sections, from tributes to Emmanuel Lubezki and Thelma Schoonmaker, to a Spike Lee area that features the director’s impressive poster collection, including classics like Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy, and Cool Hand Luke (a print featured in Lee’s 25th Hour), plus the famous Dodgers jersey that Lee wore as Mookie in Do the Right Thing. There is just so much to look at that it can be blissfully overwhelming at times, from the hall of speeches and a room full of Oscar statuettes to Emerald City itself.
Indeed, one of the most memorable displays is from The Wizard of Oz, which is surely one of the most iconic films of all time. You can see the yellow brick road from across the museum floor a few exhibits away, and it calls to you with the rich color of Oz. The sides of the walls are adorned with emerald green, and the centerpiece of the exhibit is Dorothy’s sparkling red shoes.
Dara Jaffe and Doris Berger curated The Wizard of Oz exhibit, which features the two Pinafore dresses — one black and white, and one blue Pinafore — both of which were used onscreen in the same sequence. It was actually pretty interesting to learn the background behind one of the most memorable moments in film history when Judy Garland‘s Dorothy steps out from a black-and-white world into a world of color.
“This was a way of [re]creating the special effect, and this iconic transition from sepia-toned Kansas to Technicolor was achieved without a cut as she opens the door into Oz,” explains He.
From there, you’re treated to the sound of Raiders of the Lost Ark, presented by filmmaker Ben Burtt, who is a three-time Academy Award winner best known for his work as a sound designer on blockbusters such as E.T., Indiana Jones, and Star Wars, which feature some of the best-known sound work in all of the galaxy. Burtt has a long history with Skywalker Sound, so when the Academy reached out, there were several reels of his that illustrate the importance of sound. The one that stood out was his “Boulder Roll demo” from Raiders of the Lost Ark — the thrilling opening scene where the titular hero had already escaped thieves, spiders, a collapsing room, and the floor breaking apart from under him before being chased by a massive boulder. As a kid, I was on the edge of my seat during this sequence, as the sound felt epic and made me turn around and look behind myself to make sure it wasn’t coming for me. This immersive effect does not happen without top-tier sound design.
Burtt also recalled the original making-of featurette, commissioned for Skywalker Sound. “We kept the pre-mixes so you could hear foley footsteps and separately just the dialogue from the music and the boulder itself. Then they began to understand, when they see the scene in the movie broken out into component layers of sound, and then hearing it all come together and illustrated in a 20-minute format. That was on film, something I cut together that sat around for years, used as a teaching tool within Skywalker. It was recut years later and upgraded to hi-def to keep it going for demonstration.” When the Academy screened a bunch of archival reels, they selected the Raiders one and commissioned an update with added BTS, Home Video, and Pictures.
“What you hear in a movie is manufactured after the fact. [It’s a] fun reward doing sound, [as] you see the film coming to life in a significant way,” adds Burtt.
Next up was an impressive array of costumes including Eiko Ishioka’s incredible costumes from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A wall of makeup examples includes the impressive Dolemite Is My Name transformation of Eddie Murphy into the legendary comedian Rudy Ray Moore, an immersive Miyazaki room, an Almodovar-curated room, and a spectacular primer on animation that includes more than a few Disney films.
The science-fiction section as my personal favorite. Seeing everything in the room together takes you back to that moment in life when these creations first wowed you. Growing up in the ’70s into the ’80s, there was a period where there were iconic characters introduced every year, and they’re all represented here. You can view them any way you like as they are displayed in glass and can be viewed from any angle. I’m talking about R2D2 and C3PO from Star Wars and the Xenomorph from Alien, plus E.T., Edward Scissorhands, and the Fish-Man from The Shape of Water, among others. It is a unique experience you can only have at the Academy Museum.
“Curating the space was like Sudoku. You move one element, then you have to move everything else. It’s a way to get these viewpoints where you can walk around the room or you can stand in one area and see a different juxtaposition of these iconic characters talking to each other, so to do that we wanted also to be sure to get everything precise,” He shared of the process.
In this gallery stands an artifact of utmost importance, the original Aries 1B pod from the stone-cold classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (my personal favorite). A five-year conservation project involved a whole restoration team who repaired the original pod using 1960s model kits that reproduced, replicated, and restored it as close as possible to the original. Legendary model maker and VFX whiz John Goodson was part of the team that found the Aries, and that was a mystery in and of itself — finding the artifact and repairing it will be the another. Traced from magazine photos from 1974, the 2001 Space Station was sitting in a field, and Goodson, with the help of photographer Dan Winters, managed to track down the location of the field via Google Earth.
Meanwhile, Academy Award-winning Visual Effects Supervisor Craig Barron had located the Aries Pod and had it verified by the late Douglas Trumbull, who did VFX for 2001. After a bidding session, the Aries Pod became the property of the Academy and the team was assembled to restore it. It was restored over five years, based on a handful of photographs from old magazines, and with the wisdom of Adam F. Johnson, the author of 2001: The Lost Science who helped the team work off of the correct version of the Aries, the third version that was ultimately on-screen in the film is as authentic as can be.
Behind the Aries is the uncanny film Behold by Ben Burtt, situated in a rounded corner of the room and an endless loop (actually 26 minutes) of every amazing sci-fi film you can think of. It is an original installation that looks at outer space and futurism through films over 110 years, and it’s a way for visitors to immerse themselves in these ideas and imagery from filmmakers interested in space and what the future may look like. It fits right into the encounters gallery, where sci-fi, fantasy, and horror movies are celebrated.
“Behold developed from sound actually. I was asked to create audio montages that maybe played as ambiance in the corridors, so I cut together famous lines of dialogue and music from films all the way back to the beginning in these overlapping montages,” Burtt said in describing the project’s origins. “As an experiment, I put the picture back in the project. The flow of sound free flows from one era to another, and one genre to another, from westerns to sci-fi. But the picture came up with this really interesting montage and I showed them and they really liked it.”
When they had an idea for the circular theater special effects wing of the gallery, they pulled Burtt onto that project, adapting his montages of all films into one that was exclusively sci-fi. No narration, just an ambient piece akin to a living mural with robots, weapons, planets, and lots of Sspaceships. With layers of sound design, Sound Effects is kind of an ultimate trailer for science fiction films with hundreds of clips (all films are listed on the Academy website). Burtt holed up in his home studio (with colored lights and a curved gamer monitor) and got into a trance-like state to complete the concept of seeing all of film history all at once, and images of Metropolis and Blade Runner side-by-side still look like they’re from the future.
“Cinema doesn’t get better and better and better. It’s like any art form. Like painting or music, it has eras it goes through, a focus on a certain type of artist’s style and delivery,” concluded Burtt. “There is great value in films from 1900 to the present. Part of making Behold was that filmmakers get inspired by what they saw — each generation of filmmakers going into space were influenced by the films they saw when they were seven years old.”
Around the bend are some magnificent models — The Cobblepot House from Batman Returns is a sight to see, and the Skesis puppets from The Dark Crystal are wonderful to witness in person.
“We really wanted to celebrate the unlimited possibilities of filmmakers’ imaginations, so as soon as you walk into these galleries you are reminded of where filmmaking can take you to the farthest reaches of outer space or a land that has never been imagined before,” adds He.
The Academy Museum is a must-see for any serious film fan. It is not perfect, and it certainly remains a work in progress, one that was in development for years and came to fruition during a sea change in cinema that has forced us to redefine the term. But the sheer volume of artifacts to behold and holy grails of cinema to see with your own eyes is reason enough to make the trek to the Museum, which also has a Branch Selects Series (curated by craftspeople) that screens classic films every week.
With a tribute coming later this year in honor of The Godfather’s 50th anniversary, the Academy Museum is an offer that serious film fans can’t refuse, and I know I certainly plan on returning to 6067 Wilshire Blvd. to see that exhibit and others in the coming months and years ahead.