BWW Interview: Jason Sherwood Talks Designing the Set for THE OSCARS
Jason Sherwood is an Emmy Award-winning designer and creative director for live music, television, theatre, and experiential productions. His creative and design credits include RENT: Live on Fox! (Emmy Award), world tours for Sam Smith, the Spice Girls, and Sara Bareilles, the People's Choice Awards on E!, the 2019 GRAMMY AWARDS opening number starring Camila Cabello and Ricky Martin, music events for Apple Music, and performances for artists on SNL, the Late, Late Show, Ellen, the Brits, and many more.
Jason Sherwood was signed to be the set designer for this year's Oscars, and he took the time to speak with us about designing film's biggest night!
Read the interview and see his rendering for the The Oscars set below!
How did you get asked to do the set design for the Oscars?
I received a cold email asking if I'd like to talk about what an opportunity to work on the show would look like. I got on the phone with them and I said, "Listen, I think THE MOVIES that are coming out this year are totally nuts, a totally different landscape of where they come from and what they're about and who they're featuring and what the stores are. And yes, it's Hollywood's most glamorous night, but it should be a really complex, interesting, diverse sort of sculptural environment that celebrates this show." And that's all I said on that initial call. Our producer, Lynette Howell Taylor, called me two days later and said, "Alright, well, let's do the Oscars," which was totally insane. And about three days after that I had to present my first idea for the show and get the team excited about that. So it's a very, very fast process. The show is on February 9, and I was hired the end of October, beginning of November, somewhere in there.
How long do you normally have to design something like this?
It would be wonderful to have like six months to design this show. But on a project like "Rent: Live," I was hired in June and the show was in the next January, so that's six, seven months, and even that was a little quick to some extent. The really unique thing about a show like the Oscars is you of course have a sense of what the format is, but then when the nominations arrive, there's an added layer of who will be there, who may perform, what's that going to be like. That creates a whole new set of design challenges because we want to support all these amazing moments that become available to us very, very late in the game, in our case just three weeks before the actual show. So the process overall, I would say, for what I consider to be one of the top three jobs in production design is fairly truncated and incredibly quick, but there's a certain excitement to that. I enjoy the sort of impulse driven process.
Can you share a bit about your design?
I think the main goal of this year's show was to really differentiate. The show has always looks incredible and it's always a complete theatrical event and it's beautifully designed. This year, we wanted to move away from some of visual principles that has defined the show for the past handful of years. The show is often really characterized by an incredible proscenium design and emphasizing that proscenium object, that show portal, as a focal element of what the design is, and it's been that way for a handful of years. And our producers this year wanted to focus on something that would feel more dimensional, and what that meant was up to interpretation. So what I've gone after creating is something very sculptural, that breaks the proscenium line, that moves in unusual ways, that moves over the audience and crest over the audience in unusual ways. There's this element of it feeling like it includes us, it moves toward us, it's very dimensional and includes technology in a unique way for the show. I hope it's going to feel like you're a very sculptural Cyclone of moving images and light and Hollywood glamour in a very encapsulating way. I think it's going to be really unique.
The other interesting thing about the show is that we're going to have performances from all of the five Best Song nominees. And what that creates is an opportunity to present those songs in a unique way on the show. Those songs are being recognized for their achievement in songwriting, for their inclusion in those films. And what we get to do is put them on the show and create an original moment with that music and with those performers. We get to make a completely live and original performance for these five incredible songs on the Oscars, and that's been part of the real fun of the entire process so far. Now, at the very last minute we get to say, "Well, what are we going to do for these incredible artists? How are we going to make this happen for Elton John, Cynthia Erivo, Chrissy Metz, Idina Menzel, Randy Newman, how are we going to make these moments incredible in and of themselves?" So that's the sort of fun layer on top of the whole thing.
Do you collaborate with the performers on the design?
Oh yeah, absolutely.. The show has to hang together more as a complete idea, and so at four o'clock in the morning on nominations day, I'm up and we're texting with our producers, we get the list. We immediately started talking and that day we had conference calls and phone calls with representatives and/or the artists for every song. And there's a lot of people in those conversations, of course, to make sure that everyone's excited and that everyone's happy. Some people know "Into the Unknown" and some people know "(I'm Gonna) Love Me Again" and all of these songs, so how do we present those songs in a unique way on a unique stage for our show specifically. It's probably the most fun part of the process albeit the most stressful.
What are you most excited about for The Oscars?
I think the thing that I'm most excited about is on our show in particular, we are celebrating voices that maybe haven't been on the show for a while. The Academy creates a list of nominations based on their voting body, but what we get to do, our incredible producers, Lynette Howell Taylor and Stephanie Allain, myself and the rest of the creative team, is we get to make a show that that celebrates voices and artists and people who we think are worthy of that celebration. When people watch the show, I hope that they're going to see a slice of entertainment representative of the world that we live in. And I think they're going to be really excited to have two women producing show, including a woman of color, a gay man designing the show who's only 30 years old. We're going to have a particular exciting and contemporary view of what we want this celebration to be, and I hope that it feels of the moment. And I think it's going to.
Photo Credit: Emilio Madrid-Kuser