The 87th Oscars had its highlights: the Selma “Glory” moment, Lady Gaga and Julie Andrews celebrating 50 years of The Sound Of Music, moving acceptance speeches from J.K. Simmons, Patricia Arquette, writer Graham Moore; and, of course, the work of Henry Hobson. Who? The unsung designer-director behind those category introductions. Hobson’s been behind the scenes for seven consecutive years with the Oscars, since 2009, but this year the stylish look of the title sequences introducing the categories was a cut above. It was different. Classy. Memorable.
Hobson, who just directed Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin in his first film — the indie drama Maggie — was tasked with creating a look for the introductions for all but one of the categories. Those title cards showing the 3D elements of the visual effects category? The makeup swipes that transformed the actors to their characters? The Best Picture montage from Birdman‘s silhouette fluttering away to the voting ballot from Selma that turned from white to black? It was Hobson, commissioned by visual producer Lee Lodge and design/production house Elastic who brought it all to life. (How lucky is Maggie‘s financier Lotus Entertainment and its distribs Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions to be able to tap Hobson’s talent for the film’s marketing materials?)
Hobson is quick to give credit all around. “The charge from (producers) Craig (Zadan) and Neil (Meron) was to make each category stand out and as much as possible and not to rely on clips because the audience gets turned off after awhile,” he said. “This year, I wanted to mix it up a bit, so I worked with Elastic for the first time. We had 23 out of 24 categories this year, and we wanted to showcase the uniqueness of each event.” He worked closely with Jennifer Sofio Hall, a producer at Elastic.
And the production design of Selma‘s Glory and the Edmund Pettus Bridge with the actual photos on the backdrop behind it? The production design on the set was done by Emmy-winning production designer Derek McLane with Hobson, Lodge and Elastic doing the visuals. “When we were lining up the pictures for the song, everyone had the hair on the back of their neck stand up. And to see it actually play out. The imagery came on at the exact moment it needed to, and that was very rewarding.” And for all that glitter in later presentations, McLane used a total of 95,000 Swarovski crystals — that’s 250 pounds of sparkle — inspiration from Busby Berkeley’s musical numbers.
Hobson, who was schooled at the Royal College of the Arts in London, chose to tell each category as a story unto itself. He reasoned that most of the audience watching the show around the world might not understand what those nominated in the categories actually are being honored for. So rather have it spoken in words, it unfolded graphically to the Oscar viewing audience of 36.6 million.
“We had to give the audience a clue, a hint of what it is about. You can’t get it from a clip of the film,” said Hobson. “The idea was to put together props and artifacts from the different films. Building all of these from the elements we could find was an absolute joy. We were able to get 3D models from the visual effects houses for all of the companies whose films were nominated, which is unheard of.” He said that although Lodge is credited as a co-producer, he was the creative visual producer who curated the images onscreen.
The Make-up and Hairstyling category showed the swipes of the before and after. Hobson and designer/illustrator Paul Kim at Elastic used the same overall color palette that Oscar had used throughout the year to illustrate the transformation of Tilda Swinton to the aged and obnoxiously wealthy Madame D. in The Grand Budapest Hotel, for instance.
The Best Picture title cards that morphed from one nominee to the next was some of Hobson’s favorite work. “We needed tell a story graphically and in a very short amount of time.” So they used bullets leaving a bloody trail for American Sniper, which then burst into a red background for Birdman with, as Hobson noted, “his ego flying away in avian form.” That morphed into sketch drawings for Boyhood, which became the background for the mountain in The Grand Budapest Hotel and then a thin line led into a silhouette of The Imitation Game‘s Benedict Cumberbatch to show the inside of the character’s brain where the Enigma code was being cracked. A graphic on that background then opened a door into Selma to reveal a voting ballot changing from black and white to a black background that then became a chalkboard of mathematic theorems representing The Theory Of Everything. Finally, that was covered over by the smattering of graphic drumbeats for Whiplash.
The In Memoriam section also changed its look drastically. “It’s really difficult because you want to be respectful and it’s so heartbreaking,” he said. “We had six minutes of In Memoriam. Last year, we applied a more muted approach. This year, it felt more unifying to have beautifully drawn and illustrated still frames that gave everyone prominence. Some of the craft people like H.R Geiger may not be recognized, so you want to illustrate what he is known for. So we included a sketch from Aliens [for Geiger].” They did the same by blending in newspaper columns for the late L.A. Times‘ reporter Charles Champlain, pages from a book behind Colombian Nobel Prize winner and screenwriter Gabriel Garcia Marquez and noteworthy makeup work from the legendary Dick Smith.
“It was very rewarding,” says Hobson. “I think it worked.”