Every year in late February or early March, Hollywood Boulevard is shut down between Highland Avenue and Orange Drive, as the Hollywood elite convenes for the Academy Awards. While the show, which is broadcast to over 225 countries, lasts only a few hours, it takes weeks of preparation, as crews work day and night to transform the Dolby Theatre into a shrine of Hollywood glamour.
Ahead of the 88th annual Academy Awards on Sunday, TechnoBuffalo got a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to turn the historic venue into the epicenter of entertainment, and it was an incredible sight. Imagine the security that surrounds President Obama when he goes overseas; now double that. Escorts had to have escorts, credentials were needed just to use the bathroom and no photography of any kind was allowed.
After an hour or so of walking through the 180,000 square foot building, with its 86-foot-high-ceiling, and massive 60 feet by 32 feet screen, I learned just how difficult it is to transform for the Oscars spectacle. It made the Super Bowl sound like first play.
First presented in 1929 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the Academy Awards, or Oscars, is an annual awards ceremony that recognizes excellence in cinematic achievement. It’s a show that’s turned director Steven Spielberg into a living legend, and a silly gold statue into a holy symbol of artistic significance. (A statue I actually got to hold; yes, it’s heavier than it looks.)
A massive production
While the several hundred million people watching at home will be focused on what’s happening onstage, the real show takes place in the days leading up to the event. On a normal day, the Dolby Theatre, formerly the Kodak Theatre, is equipped with 215 speakers, 115 of which are surround-sound. For the Oscars, however, the theater only uses 84 surround-sound speakers, providing a seamless and enjoyable experience for the orchestra, parterre and mezzanines.
All of this is controlled from a command center deep in the bowels of the theater, where directors, producers and sound mixers frantically work to ensure the show’s broadcast goes off without a hitch. If the only thing that happens on Oscars night is a presenter flubs their lines, you know these unsung heroes have done their job. In all, there are over 50 sound experts and audio engineers who ensure audiences get the best sound experience possible.
I talked to the show’s lead sound mixer, Paul Sandweiss, who shed details on what a complicated production the entire show is. And when asked about working at the Dolby Theatre, in particular, Sandweiss revealed how today’s technology, along with the venue’s layout, allows him to granularly control exactly where sound is placed at any given time throughout the broadcast.
“If we were doing a music piece, we could place guitars in one area, bass in another, and just move them around, EQ them and give them their own reverb,” Sandweiss explained while sitting behind a glowing console of dials, nobs and monitors. “It’s mixing on the fly, that’s what live television is.”
In a way, a sound mixer, especially someone like Sandweiss who does this for live events, is similar to a professional chef, combining the music, dialog and clips into a beautiful dish. If a presenter is too loud, Sandweiss can make adjustments. If a drummer is playing too quickly, he can fill in the sound so it isn’t noticeable to the audience.
The show is broadcast to homes across the world in Dolby Audio 5.1 surround sound, which is now the America television standard. However, not every person of the 1.2 billion who tune in has a surround sound system (me), which means it’s Sandweiss’ job, along with the other Dolby engineers onsite, to ensure the experience is the same for someone down the street in Los Angeles to someone across the globe in Japan.
To give you an idea of just how complicated it is to maintain such a delicate balancing act, Dolby told us that the broadcast signal is sent from Los Angeles to New York, and then to several satellites hovering 22,300 miles above Earth. At any moment, anything can (and will) go wrong.
“Sometimes you feel like you’re part of the performance, but you’re really not. Nobody at home thinks that,” Sandweiss said. “The audience just notices if you make a mistake. You’re not allowed to make mistakes, otherwise, you’ll get hell from Twitter. You have to really focus and know what you’re doing.”
Luckily, the technology has reached a point that Sandweiss’ job has become much easier than it was in the analog days. He can set the controls for a particular act, for example, and push a button to accommodate the next presenter or performer on stage. It’s just a matter of finding the right nobs and dials to adapt to what’s happening, whether the orchestra is playing, or someone is giving a really embarrassing speech.
All Oscar-nominated films over the past 38 years in the Sound Editing and Sound Mixing categories used Dolby technologies while Dolby and its engineers have won 12 Academy Awards for technical achievement. This year, seven films featured Dolby Vision and/or Dolby Atmos, including Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which premiered at the theater last December and featured both technologies together for the first time.
Speaking of Dolby Vision and Atmos technology, it really does provide an incredibly immersive experience. Before I talked with Paul, I got to hang out in the newly refurbished Dolby Lounge, where we got the full Dolby experience thanks to carefully placed speakers and an 120-inch Vizio TV. And earlier this year, I had the chance to attend the premiere of Terminator: Genysis at the theater. Honestly, once you see and hear movies with such fidelity, you learn to appreciate what kind of work goes into color and sound.
“Filmmakers have been really excited about Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, being able to use an expanded color gamut and place sound,” said Curt Behlmer, a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Board of Governors and Senior Vice President at Dolby. “Once you experience Dolby Vision, you’re spoiled by the quality. You don’t get that at home. It’s really starting to resonate with filmmakers. It’s like going from standard definition to HD. You don’t want to watch standard definition anymore.”
Taking on many forms
The Dolby Theatre doesn’t just get transformed for the Oscars. At any given time throughout the year, the venue is used for live-events, movie premieres and more, and is capable of being transformed in just 14 hours.
In the case of the Oscars, it takes much more planning due to rehearsals and sound check, but it was built and optimized to be adaptable to the occasion. Before Dolby took over the theater, it wasn’t set up to screen movies, and now it hosts a few dozen a year.
“It’s mellow right now, but come Sunday, it’ll be crazy,” Behlmer said. “There are so many different components and so many different variables you can’t prepare for, but this venue is so capable of adapting to different situations that we’re always confident when we need to tackle whatever challenges arise.”