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Lighting design 91st Academy Awards Kevin Winter, Getty Images

By Design: Lighting The 2019 Oscars

Lighting designers Bob Dickinson and Travis Hagenbuch—both 2018 KOI-USA Award winners—lit the 91st Academy Awards, illuminating sets by David Korins for a glamorous evening. The Oscars were broadcast live on ABC from the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on Sunday, February 24, attracting 29.6 million viewers. Live Design chats with the LDs on challenging aspects of this live-for-broadcast celebration of Hollywood.

Live Design: How did the new set inform the choice of fixtures for the lighting, from lighting the set pieces and proscenium to the presenters and winners?  

Bob Dickinson: It is a new world of visual hybrid productions, which is the melding of the traditional scenic and lighting with integrated screens and projection mapping. David Korins and I fell into a nice step together and worked closely with Raj Kapoor to create completed visual thoughts.

Travis Hagenbuch: In the mechanical sense, and in the spirit of “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” we utilized a familiar approach to the plot that has developed over the last several years and has worked well for this show. Our goal is to use fewer fixture types, but in larger quantity and in every angle we can dream up; the intent being that a similar toolset is available to light pieces from multiple angles and throw distances. No matter if LD/programmer Andy O’Reilly tries to light a particular piece of scenery from the front, back, or side (and often all of the above), the same feature set (lamp type, color mixing, gobo load, etcetera) is available to him. This helps enormously in efficiency and in continuity between looks, as well as the blending of physical scenery into the backgrounds of digital scenery. 

Lighting design 91st Academy Awards

LD: How do you make sure you can see the people with all that's going on scenically and visually?

BD: A delicate dance that never ends. Scenery blocks, preferred backlights, inquisitive camera people feeding shots never anticipated, and film clips that the audience in the theater have to enjoy while still on the broadcast. It is constant manicuring. Andy O’Reilly never stops looking. He ferrets out the right angles, anticipates the whacky camera angles, and makes sure every shot is visually nourishing.

TH: Almost every spot fixture on the show is a framing light. Besides helping carve out bits and pieces of scenery to emphasize highlight and/or shadow, it helps us keep clear of projection screens and only puts light where we want it. 

Since much of the show is in a close-up on television, the treatments of the stars’ faces and close-up backgrounds behind them are paramount. While the primary key light for any given speaking location comes directly over the camera lens, we fill in some of the hard shadows that are created with a combination of footlights and low fill lights from the balcony rails. 

We also want to make sure that—to the best of our ability— the talent’s wardrobe has separation from the background to help them stand out in the foreground. We ask ahead of time what color each presenter is wearing so that if a potential clash could happen we have time to address it. Of course, we can’t plan for what a winner might be wearing, but we do our homework and plan ahead where possible. 

Lighting design 91st Academy Awards

LD: How about audience lighting?

BD: Oscar job #1…faces. All those faces that are on camera must look like movie stars. The confines of very few lighting positions, mostly steep and unflattering, make the job almost impossible. This is why I developed a method of hemorrhaging light onto the audience faces. A myriad of angles and source types overlap, quietly erasing each other’s shadows. It is tedious and tiring work, but the result is impossibly good. I have the most amazing team led by Travis Hagenbuch working with Patrick Boozer and Ben Green. These unsung heroes make Hollywood look like stars, at least for an evening.

TH: Each year we start with our most important lighting position: the first electric. This electric holds the 40 ellipsoidals that are the workhorses of key lighting the presenters and nominees in the orchestra level audience. Although it can tend to look like broken teeth from a front shot, this year we endeavored to make its overall silhouette match that of the new proscenium. The new proscenium also had a smaller opening than the past few years, so to keep using the same ellipsoidal approach we had to fit the same number of fixtures in a smaller physical space. We double hung them very close together on both chords of 20'' truss, and LD Ben Green spent time in Vectorworks 3D to pre-focus them on focus points and make sure they wouldn’t collide with each other once focused in the theater. 

The rest of the audience light, consisting of a few hundred fixtures placed all over the theatre to create the myriad angles Bob mentioned, begins with our notes from the previous year, which have been stacking up for a long time now. We have a good place from which to start, but each year is a little different in terms of minutia. If we discover something new we’d like to repeat the next year should we be fortunate enough to get asked back to the show, it goes into the notes. 

Lighting design 91st Academy Awards

LD: Use of LED fixtures…How do they look for the camera and to the eye in the theatre, or different look than in the "old" days before LED?

BD: I miss the accuracy of good old-fashioned incandescent lights! I knew about their curve, and I knew how to anticipate the softness. High-discharge bulbs were always a crapshoot! Fussy, varying color and brightness. Having said that, LEDs have stepped up and now are beginning to have enough color accuracy that they are not only replacing older sources, they are better. Still limitations on theatrical colors, still not hitting color correction exactly right, but getting to be the best option we have. The lack of heat, dependability, reduced power consumption, and in many cases, quiet, they are rather desirable. That said, nothing pleases me more than a flock of old fashioned [Philips Vari-Lite] VL5s with that big smooth face without pixels. They fill a lot of volume in the air!

TH: Our use of LED on this show tends to be more reserved than on some. Given the aesthetics of the set, we didn’t want to be staring at pixels all night, and thus, most of the LED products are used where a low-profile fixture was necessary, such as hiding in scenery or as low-profile LED Tape footlights. 

Lighting design 91st Academy Awards

LD: Most challenging moments and how you solved them?

BD: The tension around the Lady Gaga/Bradley Cooper performance of “Shallow” was huge. Their doing a duet of that huge hit was much anticipated. Two weeks earlier with the input of Roy Bennett, I had lit Gaga doing it glam-rock style using the color signatures from the movie to key light. On the Oscars, we went through different creative options, and Mr. Cooper stepped in and asked if we could do the performance with the audience as the scenery? Hell yes!  I volunteered my beloved incandescent VL5s from the balcony rail in native 3,000 degree Kelvin. Scenery, key light, and back light using one tool, just a whole bunch of them. I offered it up and everyone, director Glenn Weiss, Bradley Cooper, Roy Bennett, and my co-designer Travis Hagenbuch knew right away…“only perfect!”

TH: Since the cameras were balanced at 4200K, the VL5s rendered a little too warm for key light when they were dimmed down on points. In the room, we get used to judging color and exposure on professionally balanced OLED reference monitors, but intensity and color rarely look the same on consumer TVs. We know that on many of them, contrast and saturation are cranked very high. Concerned that this could exacerbate the warmth of the VL5s to the home viewer, we worked with lead video controller Guy Jones to rebalance operator Tore Livia’s Steadicam for this performance, adding just a touch of blue to help take the edge off the low-end color temp of the lights while preserving the warmth that Bradley and the greater team desired. 

BD: Glenn Weiss, the director, wanted to use a moving camera on the center stage acceptance and presentation mark. This camera was designed to be on a post lift with a teleprompter. The hosts would read into that instead of the camera some 60' back on a long lens. The advantage of the closer camera is the wide lens, which showed much more of the scenery and the fact it could drift slowly, like a dolly. The problem is that it blocked that friendly front light followspot from the waist down. We solved the problem by using two fixed ellipsoidals from the balcony rail lighting the talent from the waist up and came in from the side to light the wardrobe from the side. We then added fill lights that were brought up and down to fill the faces as the camera moved offstage. So a followspot followed the presenters onto the stage, but faded as they entered that magic orb of camera shadow free light.

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LD: Timeframe for load in, programming, etcetera?

BD: I would ask Travis to fill in these blanks. All I know is that we have more time than any other show I do and still it is not enough time!

TH: The proscenium, which was very complicated to load in for the carpenters and riggers, started going up on February 1. We had a small crew onsite to begin the FOH ellipsoidal hang, as well as monitor the install of the fabric surround around the proscenium, which was lit with Chroma-Q Color Force IIs attached to the metal frame that held the stretched fabric. 

The bulk of our time onsite for lighting, though, is not all that long. The over-stage hang began on Tuesday, February 12, and went up in about a day. Audience light focusing started the next day (and didn’t stop until the day of the show). We started focusing and programming with scenery on Friday, February 15, and after dark days on February 17 and 18, rehearsals with cameras began on Tuesday, February 19. We did one dress rehearsal the night of February 23, another the morning of February 24, and the show was that evening. We stayed into the night a few times, but for the most part, this show sticks to 10-hour days. 

LD: General comment on how you feel the show looked?

BD: A designer knows when you have done well. It just feels like a perfect serve in tennis, unbeatable. Well that was how I felt as we went off the air. Damn, I have been doing this show since 1984, and this might be close to the best one. Not possible without the near perfect team. Probably the weak link is me!

Check out the lighting plots for the 2019 Oscars.

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