‘What is happening???’ Times photographer explains how he captured that viral Oscars moment
Veteran Los Angeles Times photographer Al Seib was perched stage right at the Oscars on Sunday night when “Moonlight” was revealed as the winner for best picture, not the previously announced “La La Land.”
As jaws dropped, Seib shot and captured the photo that instantly became a viral hit.
Seib’s photo of some of the stars closest to the stage at the Dolby Theatre captures their priceless reactions. Look at those famous faces. Meryl Streep’s eyes are bulging and Dwayne (formerly the Rock) Johnson appears to have heard a terrible joke, while Matt Damon and Michelle Williams are open-mouthed with shock.
The online dissection began almost immediately.
“That picture was made in an instant,” said Seib, who’s been shooting the Oscars ceremony for The Times for 30 years. “You don’t even know its significance until after the fact.”
How did you get this photo?
Al Seib: I’m stationed at what’s called stage right, which is where a lot of the statuettes are ready to go out to the award winners. The presenters often come from stage right, and all the exits happen stage right too. That’s why it’s a prime position. You get a nice perspective of the whole house from there. Because I’ve done it a lot over the years, they’re kind to me and let me go up front.
Michelle Williams, left, and Busy Philipps (and her fabulous pink manicure) look surprised.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Matt Damon, center, seems stunned and Casey Affleck, left, takes in the startling development.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Salma Hayek, center, braces for the ‘“Moonlight” twist. Ben Affleck turns to either Matt Damon or brother Casey Affleck -- could this all be another elaborate Jimmy Kimmel prank?(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Meryl Streep, right, and Dwayne Johnson react with arched eyebrows. Sitting behind the Rock is motion picture academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Gil Birmingham wears a startled look. David Oyelowo, front right, brings his hand to his face.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
The Oscars crowd looks around in surprise as it is told that “La La Land” is not the best picture winner -- “Moonlight” is.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Matt Damon seemingly cannot contain his disbelief at the turnaround.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Sting and Trudie Styler, upper right, turn to see who the real winner is (psst, it’s “Moonlight”).(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
The audience gazes intently as the cast and crew of “Moonlight” take the stage.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Jaden Piner of “Moonlight” takes the stage.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
David Oyelowo, center, takes in the events.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
The audience applauds the cast and crew of “Moonlight” take the stage.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Ashton Sanders from “Moonlight” runs to the Dolby Theatre stage.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Michelle Williams, second from front left, Busy Philipps, Salma Hayek and Ben Affleck clap and get emotional when “Moonlight’s” cast takes the stage.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Ben Affleck appears to be very emotional over “Moonlight’s” win.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Meryl Streep appears to be relieved by the resolution of the best picture situation.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Casey Affleck, left, David Oyelowo, Michelle Williams, Matt Damon and Busy Philipps were among those that got an up-close look at the action.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Dwayne Johnson seems to remain curious about the situation.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
The audience reacts as the “Moonlight” cast and crew take the stage.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Denzel Washington, Pauletta Washington and Viola Davis share a moment while events unfold.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
The audience watches as the “Moonlight” cast and crew gather onstage.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Busy Philipps clutches her perfectly manicured nails as the ‘Moonlight’ cast and crew give their thank-you speech.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Casey Affleck claps for the ‘Moonlight’ cast and crew as they take best picture away from the erroneously annoucned ‘La La Land.’(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Matt Damon is in awe of ‘Moonlight’s’ surprise win of Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Dwayne Johnson watches the “Moonlight” cast and crew onstage; Alicia Vikander, standing behind him, looks stunned; and Cheryl Boone Isaacs wears a serious expression.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
When was it apparent that you needed to shift your focus from the stage to the audience?
I was [already] cued to look at the crowd to see where the reaction could be. I was a little befuddled, because I didn’t know where the “Moonlight” crew was sitting. I had the “La La Land” people in front of me, so I could get Ryan Gosling’s reaction. The best-film category always fills up the stage with a lot of people, so it’s not the best photograph.
Then, all of a sudden, I could see the stage manager running up and I hear, “No, no!” I see the other stage manager in anxiety. So there’s this commotion, and I’m like, “What’s happening?” Then I see the guy from PricewaterhouseCoopers, and he’s standing right next to me. They’re talking about the other envelope. “Something has happened!” I don’t know if this is part of Kimmel’s gag. Then I realize something has gone wrong. When you’re right there onstage, you don’t actually hear what’s happening. All you have is the visual clues. I look at the audience, and there’s this look of shock. I shoot them because it’s a much better picture. Then I’m looking for the “Moonlight” people.
What do you like about this photo?
I think it’s a real different perspective that you wouldn’t normally get. There are photos of what happened onstage like the great one [by Robert Gauthier] that The Times ran on the front page today. I look at my photo as a neat secondary photo. You couldn’t run that photo alone, because what’s the context? But these are the most important people today in Hollywood, and they have this look of shock. It’s a reverse view that you wouldn’t get unless you were onstage. With the Academy Awards, they run this thing better than the Navy. This is the tightest, most organized machine you’ll ever see. I don’t think they’ve ever had a flub like that. To have something actually happen out of the ordinary is virtually inexplicable.
What happened in the aftermath of your photo?
I wanted to get more reaction of the “Moonlight” crew backstage. On the carpet, they were having so much fun, and I was thinking, “It would make great pictures if they win.” Well, it didn’t happen that way. The jubilation was kind of gone backstage. The youngest of the cast couldn’t really figure out what had just happened. I think there was this confusion that was emotionally tough for them. So I have pictures backstage of some of them putting their heads in their hands. There were tears, and I couldn’t tell if they were tears of joy or “how did this happen?” It was like the wind was taken out of that sail. It was kind of a hard thing to experience.
See more Oscars photos from The Times here.
Follow me on Twitter @jreedwrites.
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