Oscar sets the stage for big night

Oscars stage design A sneak preview of Derek McLane's Oscars stage design

Award-winning set designer Derek McLane tells BBC News about the challenge of creating the Oscars stage set.

The name Derek McLane may not be familiar to many outside Broadway but this award-winning set designer is about to showcase the biggest project of his career in Hollywood on Sunday.

Having worked with Oscar producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron on the Broadway show How to Succeed in Business starring Daniel Radcliffe in 2011 - he got the call from the duo offering him the Oscars job.

Derek McLane Derek McLane is a Tony-winning set designer

"It's quite humbling and terrifying at times as well as completely exciting. It's a show with such an enormous tradition... that I want to honour," he says.

McLane usually watches the Oscars ceremony with friends at home where they do a ballot to predict the winners.

"I'm aware people enjoy critiquing the Oscars, that's a bit of sport for the audiences… I know that I'm on the chopping block just like everyone else involved in the show. It's an exciting place to be."

McLane's previous work includes Follies, Anything Goes and Variations 33, which won him a prestigious Tony award in 2009.

But it's a whole different ball game designing a theatre set than it is creating the Academy Awards stage.

"It's different in a number of ways - one difference is we're not telling a narrative story in the way that you would be for a play, musical or an opera. That's what I'm most familiar with.

"And we just get one shot at it, there's only one performance. With a play, you do sometimes hundreds, even thousands (of performances). You get more chances to adjust. We don't get that luxury here," he adds.

Jessica Chastain Jessica Chastain starred in The Heiress

"That's part of the thrill the audience feels - it is live and spontaneous.

McLane studied previous Oscar sets before beginning work on his own design.

"I actually spent some time with Neil and Craig looking at what we thought was successful in previous Oscars shows, not with an eye to copying them but try to learn as much as we could about how they work."

So can we expect anything radical this year?

"One of the mandates Neil and Craig gave me is that they wanted this to look completely different to any other Oscar show, they did not want this to look like what people are familiar with," he says.

"They wanted me to think boldly, they referenced some of the more adventurous theatre designs that I had done and said they would love it if I riffed on some of those design ideas and found a way to make them relevant to an Oscars performance."

33 Variations, a play inspired by Beethoven's work which starred Jane Fonda on Broadway in 2009, is one of the plays the Oscar producers cited: "Obviously it couldn't look like 33 Variations but the kind of design style of that... you will see in a very subtle way."

Another inspiration for McLane is closer to home.

"In my New York apartment, I have an architectural installation which is a wall of lamps. I've got about 35 - 40 small industrial lamps from sometime during the last century, they all have articulated arms like task lamps... and they're all aiming in the same direction.

"They're all on dimmer switches... and then I put antique mirrors behind them so they are the major light source for the room. The objects themselves are plain and they're made out of rusty metal but together, what they do as a pattern, creates a warmth and romance."

Anything Goes McLane designed the Tony-award winning Broadway revival of Anything Goes, currently on tour in the US

McLane says he won't be using industrial lamps as part of his Oscar set "but there are a number of pieces that riff on this idea in ways, some more related to the movies".

His most recent stage production was Broadway's The Heiress, starring Oscar-nominated actress Jessica Chastain.

"She is amazing in Zero Dark Thirty and I'm so excited that I'll get to see her at the Oscars. What she does in The Heiress is so completely and utterly different than what she does in Zero Dark Thirty, it makes you really admire her range as an actress."

Now he has entered the movie world, is film design now on the agenda?

"Yes, that is absolutely something that I would like to do, especially a high concept film or a period film," he says.

"From a design point of view, I think Life of Pi is extraordinary, as is Lincoln and Anna Karenina - what they did with Lincoln was gorgeous, capturing the clutter and smoky claustrophobia in the White House. It was a visual surprise.

"It's an unusually strong crop of films this year from the Oscars."

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