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Staging Oscar Magic

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They were hosted by Chris Rock, and accepted by numerous Hollywood glitterati including Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank and Jamie Foxx. But for staging professionals, the real star at the 77th Annual Academy Awards was the video technology that was innovatively arranged throughout the Kodak Theatre.

Produced by Gil Cates and directed by Louis Horvitz, this year's Oscars took place on Sunday February 27th, but planning began way in advance. For the video team involved in staging the event, initial talks began back in November 2004.

For the fourth year in a row, Creative Technology Los Angeles supplied video presentation systems for the big event. Inside the Kodak Theatre, CT professionals constructed a ceiling assembly comprised of 25 screens of varying sizes fabricated out of Rosco Twin White material and configured at a 23-degree angle. Eight Digital Projection 28 SX projectors with .8 lenses--also pointing down at a 23-degree angle--divided into four separate quadrants projected graphics and clip packages onto the assembly.

"I worked very closely with the art department to figure out how we were going to put video into the ceiling, drawing and re-drawing that ceiling piece to figure out the best arrangement of the shapes, because it's a fairly random set of shapes," explained David Taylor of Los Angeles' Stealth Rhino Productions. Taylor, who works closely with Creative Technology, acted as projection supervisor this year. "We needed the best arrangement of shapes that was going to allow us to create video over the whole thing where we could fit all of those shapes within specific projection rastors."

As a result, a considerable amount of adjusting was required to get it right. "A lot of people would look at it and think that because there were 25 screens, there would probably be 25 projectors--that wasn't the case," Taylor said. "We did a lot of the ceiling, and then I took those drawings and worked out how to accomplish that with four projection rastors. Once those rastors were determined, templates had to be made so that the content could be created and fit into those rastors. Everything that wasn't a video picture became black. It was not quite as simple as putting four video pictures up; all of the content had to be formatted specifically for those four projection areas."

Taylor and his team employed the use of custom assemblies to ensure that the projectors were hung at exactly 23 degrees. "I had special brackets custom built that held pairs of projectors into that arrangement. Once we hung those special brackets onto the trusses, once the trusses were hung level, the projectors were at that predetermined angle," he explained. "The placement of the projectors was critical: we were using extremely wide-angle lenses--the XGA .8 lenses, which, when you put them into the SXGA projectors, they become a .64 fixed focal length throw, so it's very critical that we are close to where we need to be in terms of screen centers."

The projector lenses were covered with special material to prevent excess light spillage. "We made custom dodgers or flags--little gobos that were in front of the lenses to trim off all of the excess light," Taylor said. "Where the rastors overlapped, you didn't see any black areas--it was a clean look. Otherwise, you would have seen the extra rastors bleeding into the other screens because of the way that the images overlapped."

CT once again employed the use of its "Best Picture Screen," a 16-foot-by-29.7-foot screen made of Stewart UltraMatte material. Three Digital Projection 28 SX projectors equipped with 2:5:4 lenses supplied clips and images. The screen was flown in and out throughout the show. "That was a 24-foot picture. The actual screen behind it is a 29x6-foot image, but the window that masks it down made it 24 feet wide in a 16:9 aspect ratio," Taylor explained.

Two six-foot-by-12-foot Stewart Aeroview screens, supported by two Digital Projection 28 SX units, were positioned on either side of the stage for audience viewing.

Arguably the most remarkable elements of the video set-up was the stage right portion of the stage floor, which featured 334 tiles of Barco iLite 6XP LED. The panels, which nominees and presenters were able to walk upon, created a 20-foot x 40-foot oval image that displayed graphics and clip packages. The most significant issue concerning the floor was, predictably, space.

A Challenge From the Floor
"We faced the challenge of doing an LED floor where we were only raising the floor one foot from a solid surface," Taylor recalled. "We had very little space to deal with in terms of trying to fit the LED equipment into the floor."

The staging professionals in charge of the floor also needed to find a way to easily service the technology, as well as keep it from overheating. "We had to come up with a way that we would be able to service the floor once it was installed without tearing up the whole stage," Taylor recalled. "There was no way to get to the back of any of these panels. There were a couple of issues: the need for service and the need for cooling, because within this enclosed space, we needed to blow a lot of air through there."

The solution: a framework that could be lifted out of the stage floor when required. "They were in 2x2 chucks of panels, which makes them about three feet square. We built those chunks and then set them on the bottom frame," Taylor described. "The floor itself came in modules that were also in that 2x2 configuration with a Plexiglass and Lexan surface that was basically dropped on top of them. Using window suction cups, you could lift that panel and get to those panels underneath. Fortunately, once we got everything up and running, we didn't have to get back into the floor. We did have a plan for it, but we were fortunate to have a lot of reliable gear that didn't fail on us. For the last four days, we didn't have to pop the floor at all."

Outside the Kodak Theater on the red carpet, CT provided 42 panels of Barco oLite 510 LEDs, a new product from Barco. Assembled in a 13.5-foot-by-20-foot configuration, the wall displayed image magnification of celebrities arriving as well as graphics and clip packages. OLite 510 combines the benefits of indoor and outdoor LED technologies. With its 5000 Nit light output, 15-bit processing, 1P65 rating and full TUV approval, the OLite 510 is an ultra bright indoor/outdoor display with all the benefits of the SMD LED technology, such as wide view angles and short viewing distances.

Technological challenges aside, Creative Technology Vice President of Entertainment Sales notes that good coordination was top priority. "We started loading this in on February 7th--20 days ahead of time," he said. "There were logistics involved in terms of getting the projectors in place before the ceiling parts went in. We had to get the LED floor down, even though they were building the set at the same time."

This was the first time the Academy Awards employed LED inside the venue--a natural progression from years before. Each time, the pressure is upon the art directors to make the show different. "The freshness comes from the art directors," McMinn said. "And it's good that [art director] Roy Christopher brings us in way before to budget this, because he wants to make sure that it's going to work before he presents it to the executive producer."

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