Production design of the Oscars 2020 awards show by Jason Sherwood

Designing the Oscars 2020 – interview with Jason Sherwood

August 21st, 2020
Production design of the Oscars 2020 awards show by Jason Sherwood

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, and this time extending it into designing live productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Jason Sherwood. In this interview he talks about what goes into designing sets and stages for live performances across a variety of genres, going back to his work on music tours for the Spice Girls and Sam Smith, to Fox’s “Rent: Live”. Jason also takes a deep dive into what went into designing the main stage of this year’s Academy Awards for which he has been recently received the Emmy nomination for outstanding production design for a variety special.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Jason: I’m Jason Sherwood, and I’m a production designer. The focus of my work tends to be in live performance – theater, live television, music performance for television, music performance in stadiums and touring arenas, shows, etc. It’s around things that are either filmed and broadcast, or performed live.

My initial interest in production design and set design was derived from an early love of books, of reading, of writing, and a love of the theater world and a love of graphic design. When I was a young teenager, I was looking for a way to be a part of the theater world, which obviously requires a certain understanding and facility with language, with reading plays, and understanding text and dramaturgy.

I grew up near New York City. My parents would take me in to see Broadway shows, and I fell in love with the beautiful, ephemeral and magnetic quality of a wonderful stage performance. So I began to identify that as a possible career path, and that was at the joining of several different interests of mine. That led to an education at NYU for undergraduate school, and a bunch of internships and apprenticeships, and then jobs as an assistant and associate for several established designers. And then a career on my own as a designer began in my early 20s, which has lasted until now at the age of 31.

Kirill: Why it is your preference to focus on performances that are live in nature, be it taped for broadcast, or live in theater or concerts?

Jason: There’s something truly magical about having to perform the entire production, or the magic trick or the moment, without being able to cut away or fix something in post. It creates this rare alchemy where the audience and the performer are experiencing something singular. Even a Broadway show which runs eight performances a week is different in some form every night, and certainly over time it really changes. That ephemeral nature of a thing that is live is what interests me the most. It’s the way that we can do it again and again, and it will always change based on who is in the room, or who is singing the song, or what city it’s being performed in.

There’s something about the liveness of it that can’t be bottled. You can’t capture it. And of course, when you go back and you watch something that was performed live that has been recorded, it carries that sense of spontaneity. But it’s just not the same as what a live thing is. The work that filmmakers and folks who create television shows do is incredible, but I personally am attracted to this particular challenge. You have this much amount of space, this much amount of time, and you cannot cheat. You cannot augment later. It has to somehow occur in front of the audience’s eyes, and that’s a challenge that I enjoy the rigor of.

Production design of the Oscars 2020 awards show by Jason Sherwood.

Kirill: Do you think that we as humans have a built-in need to tell and hear stories? Is that how we as the audience can “buy”, so to speak, into the make-belief fantasy world that you are building on that stage?

Jason: Stories reflect human experience. You see a play, you watch a movie, you’re told a story, and it feels incredibly real. It’s visceral, and it almost feels uncomfortably related to your own experience.

Humans naturally congregate. They come together, they form communities, and those communities speak to each other. Those conversations are stories. Those stories create discord. Those conversations around the discord create empathy, and that’s how people grow as groups of people. Ultimately, the need to come together to tell stories is inherent, and the varying degree of “substance” that they have within them speaks to capacity for entertainment or interest.

There is something within us as people that requires us to tell stories, and that relates to music, theater, television etc. And that goes to the way we relay our relative histories. That concept is an inherently human idea, and that’s why we keep coming back to it.

Kirill: Is there any difference in how you approach your work when it is in theater for that fixed point of view of the specific audience member versus something like you work on the Oscars ceremony where you working for the multiple cameras and their motion for me a viewer at home?

Jason: Absolutely, it’s a thing I talk about a lot. In the theater with a fixed audience and a fixed vantage point, even if you surround the audience with the design or put them in the center of the design, in 99% of cases the audience is stationary. There are exceptions to the rule where the audience moves around and has agency, but certainly it’s more about a fixed point of view and a frame.

The first time I designed a major production for television was “Rent: Live” on Fox. The thing that excited me so much was that you were able to take the audience from the first row to the back row, and establish scale and intimacy at the same time. In theater you can create something that feels like it can move to change perspective. On television you are creating something that can be moved around or discovered by camera in a way that creates a revelation of space. It arrives in a similar principle, but you have to apply characteristics to get there differently.

In the theater things have to reveal themselves for an audience. There needs to be revelations of space, or discoveries that occur. But when you have the camera, it can guide us there. In that world, it’s the collaboration between myself, a director on a show and the director’s team as far as how they’re going to sculpt and capture the space with camera. In the theater, I spend a lot of time talking to a lighting designer, because that is who is often deciding what we see. We could have the whole stage, and if the entire place is illuminated, we’re understanding the scale. But then if we’re bringing it down to just one single person illuminated, that is the way that we create theatrical close-up. Even though we can’t see someone even closer, we find a way to focus on them.

Ultimately, both conversations in each medium are about how do we direct the audience’s eye to the story, to the details that we want them to understand or feel or perceive, but in a way it’s a little bit more dexterous on television and in filmmaking, because we can really guide them there specifically and manipulate the scale in an interesting way.

Production design of “Rent: Live” by Jason Sherwood.

Kirill: How different was it for you to work on “Rent: Live”? My understanding is that it was this immersive experience where you didn’t have the traditional separation of the actors’ space and the audience’s space.

Jason: The idea that I came to the project with and that we as a team were excited about was that the world would be a fully developed world. We wouldn’t hide from the audience, the audience wouldn’t hide from us, and the show would live at this intersection between a theater piece, a live music event, a television show, and an art installation. It’s a rock musical, so embedding the space with visible audience, mosh pits, and that special energy exchange between a live audience and a live performance was important to the development of how we would stage that show.

The set was everywhere. Cameras were everywhere. We were constantly creating hidden pathways, cubby holes, and places for camera to go so that we could follow someone completely around the room on Steadicam, and then that Steadicam could drop away behind something as we went to a wide shot. It became an interesting choreographic dance between directing, lighting, production design and staging to make that happen. It was the first of its kind in the live musical space to do that, where it felt cinematic in a way, but crossed over into something more like a Beyonce concert. At one point we even had actors crowd-surf the crowd. There was a certain mixed media quality of the whole thing that became fun to explore.

Kirill: Speaking of Beyonce who just released her latest visual album “Black Is King”. If you look at productions that explore new forms of expressing stories, or crossing over boundaries of the more “established” genres, do you think we need to come up with new names for such productions?

Jason: It’s subjective. Providing genre or context is sometimes useful so that people know how to approach something. I like knowing that I’m going to take in a film, it’s nice to know or have an expectation of what something is meant to be. You look at artists like Beyonce or Lady Gaga, and a music video isn’t necessarily music video in the MTV sense of the word. Sometimes they become other kinds of projects, and creating terminology for those ideas is about setting expectations.

That way the audience doesn’t think they’re walking into a feature film called “Black Is King” starring Beyonce. They’re walking into something else. I don’t know that labeling those things is inherent or necessary. It’s a way for artists and makers to allow their audience to take in what they’re making in a way that feels accessible, perhaps. It gives them a chance to reach it. If I attend an event, I’d like to know what it’s going to be so that I can dress for that night. It’s a silly analogy, but if you are an established artist like that, and you are working on a project that has so much visibility, being able to provide a sense of expectation can be useful. Then you can subvert it, or lean into it, or modify it, or take it somewhere else. But it gives the conversation a basis for genre, which can be useful.

Production design of Sam Smith’s music tour by Jason Sherwood.

Kirill: Speaking about musical performances, you’ve collaborated with the Spice Girls and Sam Smith on their live tours. How different is it to work in the environment that has tens of thousands of people in the same physical space, some of them really far away from the stage? How do you design something that can be enjoyed from such different viewpoints?

Jason: It varies by the project. In the case of Sam, the collaboration was about how to convey an emotional story through Sam’s music, and then also create a relationship for Sam and the audience that would be intimate. It’s a tricky task in an arena that can house 20,000 people. Sam and I and our team had a lot of conversations about how to make that happen, and ultimately I devised this thin, narrow stage that stretched from the back of the room into the middle of the room, and created 200% of “front row seats” compared to what you typically have at a concert like that. That way Sam could work each side, move along as a runway, engage with the audience in an intimate sense, and almost feel like Sam was floating in the middle of the room.

Then we augment that with IMAG [image magnification] and video to allow for close-ups, so that folks who are further away can enjoy the expressive quality of Sam’s face and singing. You find those ways where the audience relationship and their relationship to the performance can feel unexpected or intimate. We spoke initially about the idea that the show should sometimes feel like you’re in Sam’s personal space, and that became an abstracted idea that translated into being inside of that emotional space.

The design, instead of these enormous video walls on some tours, was a slender sculptural object that almost was reminiscent of a lighthouse. Sam’s music often feels that way, like a siren song. Those ideas contribute to a way to allow the audience to feel like they have a different access to the music than they would if Sam were an additional 50 feet away, all the way at the back of the room.

In the case of the Spice Girls, the scale of that show was enormous. You stand at the back of a stadium, and they stand at the front, and they look tiny. So the design itself had to have scale to hold the attention of the room, and it had to facilitate a device that allows us to see them. In our case it was a lot of complex geometric video surfaces, sort of sculptural ring that went around the geodesic dome, and then large screens on the side. In addition, we wanted to enable a similar kind of tactic that we did with Sam, with a large circular passerelle that scooped out into the stadium floor. That allowed people to be on either side of the performance of the group, and also allowed them to feel like they’re much closer, while allowing those video surfaces to grab their faces and take us into a more intimate close-up experience.

It’s interesting how concert space utilizes camera in a way that is alike and dissimilar to television. What’s interesting about it is that on television you get one image and it’s of the performance. But when you’re at a concert, you could be in the front row watching this world-famous artist in front of you, and just behind them is a duplicate version of their face. It becomes an interested scaled relativity that is fun to play with.

Production design of the Spice Girls music tour by Jason Sherwood.

Kirill: As you look at the last few years of your work, maybe in the concert arenas, or perhaps in your other productions, do you find yourself bumping into certain technological limits, or do you find that pretty much anything you can think of can be achieved given enough money?

Jason: So far, most of what I have endeavored to create in a stage environment, has been facilitated by the engineering side of it in a feasible way. There are budget limitations that sometimes prohibit certain design ideas, but I haven’t yet encountered a particular idea of my own that just wasn’t physically possible.

This comes from a position of knowing a lot about the technology – LED lights, rigging, automation, how things move. I wouldn’t ask for something to move magically with no wires or motors or visible infrastructure. The sophistication of concert touring, practicality, build and engineering is such at this particular moment that it becomes easy to dream big, and then have those ideas pulled off provided you have the pockets to back it up.

Explorations into the AR and the VR space have been happening for a while now. In a certain sense, I’m a little less interested in those realms, because I have yet to see many strong examples of how they’re used in a way that doesn’t feel at the expense of the live performance. Are we leaning into something because it is novel instead of because it is useful? People who are more interested in that space currently may encounter more limitations as that technology developed.

My obsessions if the quality of depth of being in real space, and I can’t think of a specific moment where I’ve been told that something was not possible.

Kirill: Is it easy to talk about what you do for a living with people who are not in your field? Do you struggle to succinctly summarize what it is that you do?

Jason: When I’m talking with folks who aren’t in any design or entertainment space, I say that I design stages for live performance. Then I’ll bring the examples of the stage for the Spice Girls tour or for the Oscars on television this year, and provide an example or two that people have seen. People usually understand what that is, right off the bat.

Occasionally people will think that I fabricate set designs, that I work in a fabrication shop, that I’m a welder, a painter, or a builder. That would be an extra funny think if you and I were having this meeting in person, because I just don’t look like I build things for a living [laughs]. But that’s the only misunderstanding I ever encountered, that folks think that production design means set or environment construction. They are different ideas, both inherent and valuable to the process, but just very different.

Production design of the Oscars 2020 awards show by Jason Sherwood.

Kirill: Between the technical side of things that you’ve mentioned, and finding the right artistic expression to support that story or that production, is one of them more important to you?

Jason: I wouldn’t even get to the conversation about a practical application of anything if I didn’t have the storytelling idea. It begins there. You have to find what the expression of the story is going to be, what the expression of the space is going to be, what the psychology of the environment is going to be as it relates to the text or the music or the album or the performance or whatever the event calls for.

Figuring out how that idea comes into three dimensions is a layer of detail that we cannot proceed without, and it informs back on the idea. Sometimes I’ll find through those conversations that my initial thought could go much further. Sometimes I’ll find that the initial thought should have been something completely different altogether – not necessarily because something wasn’t practically possible. Sometimes while you’re exploring materiality you find another idea.

For example, if the central theme of a story is regeneration, things coming back to themselves or back to life, you start thinking about repurposing materials that were familiar in a way, and then recycling them back, sending them through a lens where they appear as an entirely different idea. It could, in some way, aid the dramaturgy of what is central to the play or the musical or whatever it is. It ends up being this really nice volley between the left side brain – of what am I thinking about creatively, what is the storytelling – and the right side brain – of how do we pull this off, how does it exist in real space, what are the real dimensions, how does it function, how to stage our performance on it.

I like the job because it requires both things of me and my team to figure out as we go.

Kirill: Talking about your work on the Oscars, would you say that it was more constrained, perhaps, as the major stage setup stayed there throughout the whole show?

Jason: My design for the Oscars this year was based around a large sculptural principle which is that swirling cyclone. Then, within the 14 acts of the show there were many different design arrangements in the way that is similar to how some shows have a proscenium frame around them. Ours had a sculptural element that lived throughout. Sometimes it went away, sometimes we added that purple mesh cloth, sometimes we added the rotating cyclone element in the middle of the stage. There were seven music performances that all had individual sets as well.

The thread of the design is what gives it a cohesion – as opposed to having a potpourri of random design elements. That’s what continued our thread. That allows the viewer to hold onto something, so that when you see an image or a video of a moment from the show – like the historic win of “Parasite” in best picture – you can identify it as the 2020 Oscars because of the rigor and the consistency and the overall cohesion of the design. That’s definitely something we set out to make.

Kirill: How much time did you spend on it? How early on did your work start before the ceremony itself, and how many iterations happened until you settled on this final cyclone design?

Jason: I was hired on a Thursday in the second half of October, and four days later I presented a series of design ideas to the team at our first meeting. The idea that I liked best and that everyone responded to the most is the idea that was on television, so it’s just a few days.

There’s a ton of work that obviously goes into developing, understanding, drawing and creating that idea. But essentially, at its core, what I presented during that first meeting is what ended up on television.

Kirill: How busy was it during the commercial breaks for you to do all those changes for the next act of the show?

Jason: It’s a fairly rigorous change-over on a television show like that, particularly for major artists with music performances. Elton John had a huge setup, Idina Menzel and the “Frozen” performance had a huge setup. Sometimes those are happening over commercial breaks, and sometimes those are happening behind a scenic element like that purple mesh. We can use that as a way for us to continue setting things, while awards are being presented or introductions are being made.

We have an incredible stage management team on the Oscars that manages that process. It is our job in the art department to make sure that the elements are created in pieces and in parts to allow that to happen seamlessly. Sometimes it’s a minute and a half, sometimes it’s five minutes. It depends on choreographic machinations backstage about how that all happens. The process is inter-departmental and complicated.

Kirill: Did you have the opportunity to watch the presentations and the performances, or where you supervising what was happening behind the scenes?

Jason: By the time we go live on actual show night, which in our case was that Sunday evening on February 9th, my job as production designer is done. You have the director of the show and the stage manager, and they and their teams are responsible for running the show. I don’t supervise any of the changeovers.

We rehearse those performances and we rehearse those setups. We make sure that everything arrives as designed and is implemented as designed. But during the show I put on a tuxedo, I sat in the ninth row in the audience, I watched the whole show, and prayed and enjoyed what we had made. At that point in the process, much smarter and more organized people than me make sure that it goes off perfectly.

Kirill: Was there ever a thought in your mind that “I wish X doesn’t fall apart, that it doesn’t break the illusion of this perfectly created set”?

Jason: Absolutely, for the entire three hours [laughs]. One of the central elements of the design was that rotating spiral that sits in the middle of the stage. It was a completely custom piece of machinery that’s never been created before. It weighed 20,000 pounds. It was raised above the stage and rotated with 30 motors. If that piece fails during a show, it’s incredibly noticeable. It could stop the whole thing. You’re sitting there, praying for every minute that none of that would happen [laughs].

Sometimes it’s small things. Out of nowhere a single video tile out of hundreds of video tiles could fault, and then you have this random empty black square just sitting in the middle of an otherwise beautiful tableau. We have incredible video partners on the Oscars and that was never going to happen. But accidents happen, mistakes occur. So I sat, praying with fingers and toes crossed the entire time that it would go beautifully. And it did. I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Kirill: If you compare it to your other productions, is there such a thing as “X was my most challenging production so far” or do they differ in how challenging they are?

Jason: Each project comes with its own challenges. The Oscars is probably the most challenging because the window to design that project was so small. We settled on a design at the end of October days after I was hired, and then the show happens in the beginning of February. It sounds like a few months, but when you take out Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and the fact that the whole thing really has to be in the theater by the middle of January, it’s not very much time at all.

When you’re asking to create beautiful, custom, one-of-a-kind ideas, it becomes a narrow window to pull those things off. And then, in the middle of the process, when you finally have your hands around how it’s going and what you want it to be, the nominations arrive. You know that we are going to present five best song nominees, and all of those songs and their accompanying world-class artists require beautiful designs around them. And then we have to get into what that’s going to be.

It is a non-stop, three-month rigorous design process that almost never ends. And then you go into these wild 18-to-20 hour rehearsal days. Then you go run home, take a shower, put on a tuxedo, come back, it happens, and then it’s gone.

It was rigorous in a way that I’ve never experienced. And it was rewarding and wonderful. You’re surrounded by incredible designers, technicians, directors and creative folk. You feel supported, and you feel part of a community and a team. But it is by far the hardest job I’ve ever been a part of.

Kirill: How emotional was it for you when the final curtains go down, when the final award has been given and you know that everything went according to the plan?

Jason: You breathe a big sigh of relief. Whenever I have a large project get off the ground, when that first or that only performance gets near, you expect there to be a bigger catharsis than there is. Your body is so flooded with adrenaline that it’s difficult to be there in the moment, to appreciate that it happened perfectly. You are happy and you are grateful, but there’s an element of still being on the ride.

I always say that you have a bit of an adrenaline hangover for a few days after those projects. And then somewhere around a week later you can look back and say how marvelous it was, and how proud you are. But in the moment you thank your lucky stars [laughs].

The work that we do, and the work that I do as a production designer is entertainment. It’s on television or in theater, but it’s personal. It’s a creative expression, and on its best days it matters to you a lot. Sharing that with people, wanting them to appreciate it, and wanting it to serve the event, whether that’s a play or a performance or a concert – you want all of those things to go well. You know it’s an act of self-expression. So sharing that thing with an audience is vulnerable. It takes a lot out of you.

Production design of the Oscars 2020 awards show by Jason Sherwood.

Kirill: Is there ever a moment of nostalgia where you look back and you think that you will never be able to walk that stage again, because that production has wrapped up and whatever happened to those pieces is never coming back together?

Jason: Sometimes, and that exact feeling that you describe is part of what I like about the job. It’s the ephemerality of it, that things go away. I appreciate that they live on in memory and in some cases photographs that are in record. But ultimately, we have to appreciate them as we remember them, how it made us feel.

The night “Rent: Live” was broadcast, I walked the stage one last time by myself, and had a moment to take it in. I don’t know that I long for any of the physical parts of the environment. But you long for some of the experiences. Some of those experiences were just perfect.

To have been there with those people, working that hard, working on something that mattered to you so much – that’s the thing that I sometimes miss or long for.

Kirill: Do you see the light at the end of this Corona tunnel, of how things might look like when productions ramp back up?

Jason: There are a lot of productions and shows that are going back into production. I think that the people who are creating protocols for that are brave, inventive, and respectful. They’re taking care of all the people who are working on those shows. Certainly it’s different, and certainly it’s difficult. I personally am not necessarily waiting for things to go back to the way that they were. I’m eager to see what things are going to become, because of what’s happened in the world.

What drew me to this line of work initially was that I wanted to be around the people who were making the theater when I was a kid. And then as an adult, I was infatuated with the people who were making the theater – and that could be a TV show or whatever it is. What I want to say is that showpeople are creative and resourceful. They do it on a dime or they do it on a huge budget, and those people are always going to be special to be around.

Whether we’re doing it with masks on, or with intense safety protocols, or we’re doing it from 20 feet apart, or we’re doing it on Zoom – those creative conversations are the thing that fuel me. They are the reason I keep coming back to it. And I think that will continue no matter what the circumstances.

Kirill: You pretty much answered my last question which was going to be what keeps you going and what keeps you coming back for more? So putting a bit of a twist on that, let’s say you win the lottery tomorrow and you don’t need to worry about money for the rest of your life. Would you still be wanting to do something in this field?

Jason: Totally, and I’ve had that conversation many times. I said to a dear friend of mine once that winning a lottery would make certain things easier. I could have more help, or I could have a bigger space or fancy machinery. But I’m obsessed with the work and the process, and being a part of it. I’ve never been motivated by the financial side of it. There’s a practicality to making money, obviously, as we all have to live.

What’s exciting about the work is that you get to be a part of a team, making something completely one-of-a-kind. I’ve been fortunate at a young age to be a part of projects that are meaningful to a lot of people, and to me specifically. A lottery win would be lovely, but who cares really.

Production design of the Spice Girls music tour by Jason Sherwood.

And here I’d like to thank Jason Sherwood for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design for live shows. I’d also like to thank Guido Gotz for making this interview happen. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.