While the rest of the world anticipates the gowns, speeches, and spectacle of the 88th annual Academy Awards this Sunday, construction workers and technicians have spent the past few weeks transforming the Dolby Theatre and parts of the Hollywood and Highland Center into the annual Oscar shrine.
Audio pioneer Dolby, itself a winner of 12 statuettes, gave Co.Create a peek behind the curtain to gauge the setup, particularly from a sound standpoint.
Security was extremely tight, with mandatory badges or escorts for both workers and visitors, as lines of Oscar workers completed backstage walk-throughs, and tourists leaned their phones over barricades snapping shots of the red carpet and bleachers assembly.
“What makes this night special is how many people watch it live around the world,” says Steve Venezia, Dolby’s senior director of worldwide content services, referring to the 1.2 billion viewers in 225 countries and territories. “When you consider where things can go wrong—microphones, projectors, sets, presenters, and winners when you have no idea what they might say. There’s always something that doesn’t go right in live television, but that’s also the fun of it.”
While the Oscars is a fairly straightforward live production, there are quirks—adjusting for an annoying loud laugh, presenters who moves the mic or tap it to see if it’s working, winners who yell into or shyly step away from the mic. Even planned bits, such as the 2014 Oscar selfie, still hold elements of surprise. “People in the audience didn’t know that would happen, and we didn’t know who would jump in,” says Venezia. “That’s just a magical moment.”
The epicenter is the Dolby Theatre, a 3,400-seat site occupying 180,000 square feet and with an 86-foot-high ceiling.
“This venue is used for so many different things, but the Oscars is the premier live event that happens here,” says Curt Behlmer, Dolby’s SVP of content solutions and member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) board of governors.
“On the Dolby side, this is our showcase, our home for our technology, and it’s the connection to Hollywood and filmmakers and creative community,” he adds.
This year, Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision were used in seven nominated films, while its engineers won an AMPAS Technical Achievement Award (also known as a SciTech Oscar) for developing the Dolby Laboratories Professional Reference Monitor, the industry’s most accurate display.
“Creating convincing surround sound in a venue this size—about two and a half traditional theaters—is a pretty big challenge,” adds Behlmer. “A lot of the sound system brought in for the show has to work with the theater’s existing infrastructure.”
Audio crews incorporate the theater’s Dolby 7.1 and 5.1 surround sound systems with Oscar-specific equipment, such as the 10 to 12 projectors showing clips and audience shots, sound playback for performers to hear music cues and the audience, and mics. Because ceiling trusses containing Dolby Atmos speakers are removed to accommodate mezzanine sightlines, they don’t use that system for this ceremony.
“This room has a very distinct look. It’s a European opera house that’s become a very branded look for the Oscars,” says Venezia. “We’re not having Dolby Vision either, though we’ve just started using it for movie premieres. At some point, we’ll get there.”
Although planning starts months in advance, making sure the set design doesn’t interfere with sound, the load-in week is devoted to rehearsing, troubleshooting, and crafting contingency plans.
“What happens in the house can’t affect the broadcast,” says Gary Epstein, Dolby’s product marketing manager of professional content tools. “We’re always balancing the sound to the broadcast.”
Isolated audio feeds from the orchestra, performers, presenters, playback monitors, audience, and speeches travel to an array of smaller mixing trucks in the lot behind the theater. Those funnel their sound feeds to a large production truck housing the directing and overall sound mixing teams, where the show falls together.
The large truck relays a Dolby 5.1 mix signal (the American television standard; the theater audience hears the 7.1 mix) via satellite and fiber optic channels to ABC Broadcasting’s New York headquarters, which disperses the signal for domestic and international markets where commercials and scripted but live voice-overs in local languages are dropped in.
In addition to the broadcast audio mix are monitor mixers onstage mixing sound that artists hear for music cues and front-of-house mixers of sound for those in the audience.
“We sit in this truck and get all the sounds and blend it in with the audience mics, dialogue, and playback,” says lead sound mixer Paul Sandweiss. “The mix from this truck goes through satellite and fiber and ends up on air.”
ProTools mixer Pablo Munguia, who handles music, likens it to a kitchen: “It’s like I cook the meat and he does the seasoning.“
Sandweiss points through a door in the truck leading to another larger section lined with monitors. “That’s the room where all the money sits,” he says. “The director, technical director, producers, network executives making decisions between there and backstage. It can be smooth sailing—or a source of constant entertainment. If either side gets too loud, we take turns shutting the door.”
The overall sound mix involves a combination of preset and manual controls. “When you rehearse a particular act, you set the controls the way you want. Then the next act comes on, and it’s completely different, so you push a button and all the controls go to how you left them for the next act,” says Epstein. “What you can’t control is how enthusiastic the orchestra will be when they’re playing the real show. Once he has his presets, Paul is always ready to modify and adapt in a real-world scenario that you can’t rehearse for.”
Adds Sandweiss, “This is completely manually driven for the show with options to be computerized. But we actually hands-on mix this.”
This year, the board setup is a little more involved. The team is using a new, much more powerful mixing board to run simultaneously, from British audio manufacturer Calrec, whose mixing capabilities exceed those of a human.
“The last few years, I’d come in, pull up the Oscars from 2012, hit a button, and all these things would go right where they were and I start with a really good beginning,” says Sandweiss. “Now we have to start from scratch and everything has get completely re-equalized and re-tweaked. Then we store it all again for next year.”
“There are a lot of guys who think they can mix a show,” says Hugh Healey, a broadcast engineer with NEP Broadcasting, which owns the production truck. “But it’s the guys who can get a good sounding show and listen to the screaming people next door, and all the requirements of everybody needing this, that, and the other thing, those are the guys who get to sit here doing what he does. It’s the ability to multitask while still generating a good mix. A lot of guys can mix dress rehearsals, but not a lot can mix live shows.”
Sandweiss jumps in: “If you drive in here Sunday and see what you have to go through—the police, the barricades, the dogs—it’s overwhelming to some people,” he says. “They just don’t do well with that. A lot of us love that stuff. This is cool, they got snipers on the roof. We thrive on that sick kind of adrenaline.”