Design Studio


Designing the 2018 Oscars Stage — Interview w/ Set Designer Derek McLane

One of the biggest stars this year at the 90th Academy Awards was not an actor or filmmaker. Viewers couldn’t turn their gaze from the dramatic sparkle of the stage, the work of award-winning set designer Derek McLane, who has designed the Oscars stage for the last six years. We've all read about the 45 million Swarovski crystals that were used to adorn it, but what about the form itself?

Ed Herrera—ABC/Getty Images

Ed Herrera—ABC/Getty Images

When the Robazzo team caught sight of it, immediately we wondered how much technology was used to create the proscenium, the tessellated arch surrounding the stage—particularly since we specialize in parametric design (the use of a visual-based scripting language that generates algorithms to efficiently produce complex geometry) and digital fabrication (production using machines such as CNC, laser cutters, and 3D printers).

As it turns out, constructing the stage did, in fact, involve digital fabrication, but the design was prepared without parametric tools. We spoke to McLane and his team, who told us about the process they used to achieve this show-stopping design. First, McLane produced several sketches, both on paper and iPad, based on inspiration images and the underlying idea of a geode.

Derek's pencil sketch and inspiration image. Courtesy of Derek McLane.

Derek's pencil sketch and inspiration image. Courtesy of Derek McLane.

Next was the production of realistic renderings, after which the fabrication was handed over to Alana Billingsley, art director for the Oscars. She told us that the real challenge was finding a common tile shape that could be repeated without a clearly discernible pattern; the complexity of the arch was created by varying the “topography” of aluminum panels cut on a CNC machine, which were then folded into their final dimensional shapes.

We’re excited that the role of technology in design is starting to have wider-reaching effects, and while it seems parametric design still hasn't permeated many sub-industries, or at least this one, we predict this could soon change.

Stage rendering.

Stage rendering.

Technology aside, we loved speaking with McLane about design, his creative process and work for the beautiful Oscars stage. Check out our full interview below. 

How do you think technology is shaping the design industry? Is it affecting your process? 

Yes and no. I think the design process is still basically the same. It’s still drawing based, whether by hand or with the computer; generally, I draw by hand. Whether you make a virtual or paper model, it really depends on the project. We usually make physical models at my studio in New York, but there are some television projects for which we tend to make virtual models because it’s easier to look at different camera angles that way. I wouldn’t say it’s any faster, since doing all that work on a computer usually takes longer than it takes by hand. The real advantage of doing it digitally is that it’s easier to revise. Otherwise, for me it’s still very much the same process: I start with images I find or imagine, and then I draw it. I usually do a lot of rough drawings by hand, just because it’s super fast; I can churn out a bunch of ideas in very little time.

Alana mentioned that the pieces of the proscenium were cut with a CNC machine. Do you make use of any digital fabrication technology when you make sketch models? 

In my studio, we have both a laser cutter and a 3D printer. We don’t use the 3D printer that much because it’s really slow, and we have to create 3D drawings to use the 3D printer and that usually takes a long time. If we’re just trying something out, we usually want it fast; for that we use the laser cutter a lot because it’s fast. In terms of fabrication, something that’s different is, a lot of our full scale drawings get cut out by shops on their CNC machines, water jet cutters or laser cutters. We end up doing a lot more big full scale drawings.

Do digital fabrication tools open more doors in your creative process when you’re brainstorming? 

Yes, I have more confidence that a really complicated pattern will be reproduced accurately. The cost is also less; it used to be that really intricate cut-out patterns and painted patterns and drawn patterns were really expensive for shops because they had to spend a lot of time doing the layout, which isn’t really true anymore. The flip side of that is, all our drawings have to be done with more accuracy in our shop, so some of that work has shifted to the design studio versus the shop floor.

If you were to use parametric design, would that change the way you design? Do you see any opportunities there? 

Yes, possibly. It’s very interesting; we’ve never done that. 

Where do you find inspiration and how do you start a project? 

Many different ways. Most of my work is for plays and musicals on Broadway; everything there always starts with a story and trying to understand how the story works and what it needs. A lot of images come out of that, whether it’s realistic or abstract or something in between. Usually I start looking for images for inspiration, which could be through anywhere from photography or art books, to things I see on the street or online. It depends on the project. 

You’ve said that the proscenium was inspired by the inside of a geode. Is there a story behind that? 

There were a couple of things. I was interested in the geode, and I came across an image of a mirrored faceted room that was really interesting; it looked like the inside of a geodesic dome, with the illusion of complexity created by its mirrored reflections. In the same way, the proscenium looks so much more complicated at first glance than it actually is. 

Your Oscars stage dazzled millions. Was this the pinnacle of your career so far? 

While this is actually the sixth year I’ve designed the stage for the Oscars, this one seemed to strike a chord more so than in other years. It kind of surprised me that there was so much reaction to it, and that’s great. I’m always excited about the next thing I’m working on. At the moment, I’m working in New York on the play Children of a Lesser God. After that I’m doing Moulin Rouge.

The Academy Awards stage seems to be one of the biggest possible projects for someone in your field. Is there another goal, or do you feel like you’ve made it? 

No, it never feels like you’ve made it. Every project is its own puzzle and own set of problems, its own mood and story. It’s a combination of trying to find new ways to tell a story and finding things that work in particular for that project; that’s always the challenge. That never gets old.