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Oscar set designer Derek McLane draws on his theatrical expertise

A Tony-winning set designer, Derek McLane's plans for the Oscars include visuals that will engage both the theater audience and the TV public.

February 16, 2013|By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times
  • A rendering of the Oscar stage for 2013.
A rendering of the Oscar stage for 2013. (Derek McLane )

When it came to designing this year's Oscar sets, Derek McLane didn't have to look far for inspiration.

McLane, a Tony Award-winning set designer who has crafted the scenery for such Broadway shows as "33 Variations," "I Am My Own Wife," "The Heiress" and the upcoming "Breakfast at Tiffany's," stole an idea from his own New York apartment — an installation of 35 industrial lamps on a wall, each in its own cubbyhole, backed by an antique mirror.

"They're all slightly different and they're objects you wouldn't think of as warm or romantic, but in a pattern they create an almost lush backdrop to the room," said McLane in an interview on the day his sets were being loaded into the Dolby Theatre at the Hollywood & Highland Center in preparation for the 85th Academy Awards telecast next Sunday. "That kind of tension between an ordinary object and the patterns you can create with them is interesting."

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Oscar producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, who worked with McLane on their Broadway revival of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," plan to pay tribute to movie musicals in this year's telecast, which will showcase "Les Misérables," "Chicago" and "Dreamgirls," and include performances by Barbra Streisand and Adele.

In keeping with the musical theme — and his own lamp muses — McLane said he looked to the style of repeating geometric patterns common to 1930s Busby Berkeley musicals. In Berkeley's case, those patterns were often made up of dancers' gyrating bodies. In McLane's, they are composed of objects connected in some fashion to movies, including Oscar statuettes.

"I'm exploring things I think suit the majesty of the event, the glamour of the event," McLane said. "But some of them are unadorned."

The designer also built multiple movable screens into the sets to incorporate film imagery, and relied on materials such as aluminum and light bulbs to create looks for the show's 12 acts.

"[Meron and Zadan] said, 'We don't want you to try to make this look like another Oscar show,'" he said. "'Make this look like your own work.' And they singled out some of the more abstract, interesting Broadway sets I'd designed. It really freed me up."

Coming from live theater and set designing his first Academy Awards, McLane said he was conscious of the show's twin aims — engaging the 3,400 people in the theater and entertaining the wider public watching at home.

In terms of set design, that meant thinking of visuals that would be beautiful both in camera close-ups and from the last row of the theater.

"We really want the show to play well in the house," McLane said. "This is a TV show watched by millions of people, but it's also really important that it's a good show for the people in the theater. It's their night. The better job we do for the people in the room, the more I think the people at home will feel it."

rebecca.keegan@latimes.com

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