One half expects the ghosts of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to swirl across the silver skyline rising inside the Dolby Theatre for Sunday's 89th Academy Awards. The stage set glitters with more than 300,000 Swarovski crystals and is an homage to the sly and urbane musicals of the 1930s.
Production designer Derek McLane says the sets were inspired by the Art Deco and Hollywood Regency styles that resonated in films such as "The Broadway Melody" and "Top Hat," the 1935 musical starring Astaire and Rogers. The stage evokes the sensation of wandering in a tux and tails through a metropolis on a starry, if misty, night. The award show's producers, Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd, wanted a look that would summon the past with flair and elegance.
"They really felt that we ought to have something that was happy and delightful, maybe a little escapist so you could look at it and say, 'This will be fun,'" says McLane, a trim man with a flop of hair and a scarf. He's been the production designer on five Academy Award ceremonies. "There's a little nostalgia, and it's a real tribute to what's fun about Hollywood."
That wink to the fabled, bygone days of the film industry comes amid a nation riven by anxiousness and political acrimony. The movies of Astaire and Rogers were a salve, a bit of witty fantasy sparkling with sequins and martinis, for a land enduring the Great Depression. That sense of glamour will decorate Sunday's ceremony, where the nominated films speak to America's current complicated dimensions: from the whimsical "La La Land" to the starker racial narratives of "Fences" and "Moonlight."
McLane, who spends much of his time designing theater productions on Broadway and around the world, says a live show is a balancing of images and a promise of the unexpected.
"You want enough visual variety so that it stays interesting and surprising," he says, adding that over the years he's learned how to design for a stage that is on view from all angles: "I hadn't realized the extent to which the camera sees the backside of the scenery. The show is becoming more and more 360 degrees" with ever-present roving cameras.
Pivoting LED screens were placed in the wings, he says, "so you feel there's a continuous environment all the way around." Much of that view is pointillist and bright. Crystal — as if a giant champagne glass has shattered — glints no matter where the cameras point: 80,000 crystals in the 80-foot-by-40-foot curtain, and 23,500 crystals gracing the theater's 18 opera boxes.
The other day, as stage hands worked and sets were moved about, the theater, for a moment, fell quiet except for the hum of a vacuum cleaner moving through rows beneath the crystals. McLane's work was nearly done. The moment the show starts, his sketches and renderings will be put aside: "I literally sit in the audience and watch and keep my fingers crossed," he says. "By then, we've turned it over to the stage managers and the crew."