From Hamilton to the Oscars Stage
A Q&A with the Oscars’ new production designer
David Korins created the sets for the popular stage productions of Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen. He won an Emmy Award for Grease: Live! But come February 24, he’ll be known for telling a different kind of story.
As a production designer, Korins has worked closely with Oscars co-producer and director Glenn Weiss to recreate his Broadway designs for the Tony Awards stage. (Weiss has directed the Tonys 18 times.) When he was asked to design the Oscars a few months ago, Korins didn’t think twice.
“It’s one of those amazing phone calls you get,” he recalled of first speaking with Weiss about the project, “because the Oscars is the crown jewel of award shows and one of the biggest and most glamorous television experiences of the year.”
Over the phone, Weiss told Korins, “We’re not going to anyone else and you’ve gotta do it.”
“When he says, ‘You’ve gotta do it,’ you do it.”
But then came the kicker: Korins would have seven weeks to design the show.
A Korins-Designed Oscars
“To me, the Oscars is an organization that has always been a leader, not a follower.”
With the show, as with his previous projects, Korins had to decide: what did he want to say on behalf of the Academy Awards?
“I think whenever you take over the creative direction of such a visually important world, you have to ask yourself, What about the years before did you like? And what do you want to try to improve on or what do you want to do differently?”
“Also, as an artist, what is it that they wanted from me? What is it about my body of work that made them interested in going in that direction?”
Given the influence of the show, and its attendees and participants, Korins opted to make a statement about what it’s like to live in the world in 2019:
“The Oscars represents a bunch of thought leaders who are at the highest level of their craft. So for me, I tried to find my own way in with the storytelling of the design, to try and make a thing that could show the world what we hope the world will be.”
A Set Unlike Any Other
This year, Korins said, the design is about inclusion.
“It is something that is warm, it is welcoming, it is environmental.”
“It is a stark and drastic departure from pretty much any award show that I’ve ever seen, and certainly any Oscars presentation that I’ve ever seen.”
Korins hopes to create a thoughtful experience for viewers around the world, “a real shot across the bow with regard to a cultural event.”
“If the world in general is about rectilinear shapes and hard lines and us-versus-them, our design represents curves, organic materials, total inclusion, not just of the audience and the installation in the room, but also stretching out into the audience at home as you’re watching.”
This involves the use of new materials, “materials that I don’t believe have ever been used in an award show before.”
Despite the innovative presentation, Korins ensures that the set will remain familiar to longstanding Oscar fans.
“I have taken each of those touchstone visual icons, and I have infused each of those pieces with a new and interesting way to look at them, hopefully. So if you’re a fan of the stalwart old guard, there will be something for you.”
Over the weeks, Korins’ team has performed sight-line studies, considered textures up close and incorporated creative transitions to ensure that this unique and immersive installation will transfer to viewers watching at home.
“There’s a magnitude of about 2,000 people sitting in the room… but there’s a magnitude of tens of millions seeing it on television. So it is, first and foremost, a television show.”
“When you talk about the show, every single person has heard of it and every person has their eyes trained on it at the end of February every year. So it’s a really great common denominator in talking about experiences, which is what I do.”
Telling a Visual Story
While Korins is new to Team Oscar, he’s deeply familiar with helping brands and individuals amplify their message.
“When I got the job, I sat down with our two producers, Donna [Gigliotti] and Glenn, and asked, What is it that you want to say about the Oscars this year? What is it that you want to say about holding a mirror up to society and culture?”
Issues of inclusion contributed to Korins’ desire to create an embracive environment.
“I think that there’s going to be something visually and storytelling-wise for every single kind of person in America and across the world. The story that I’m trying to tell is one of inclusion.”
“This process all the way through has been one in which I have stopped to smell the roses. It is not lost on me the profundity of being included in helping actors tell their story. It’s a really beautiful moment for me personally and professionally.”
But for Korins, the most rewarding part is yet to come, when he gets to see his work move people and bring them together. “That is going to wind up being the most meaningful to me, because really we do these things to affect large swaths of people, and I think that will happen.”
But, of course, the Oscars isn’t the vision of a single person or idea; it’s a compilation of many. “You’re dealing with hundreds if not thousands of the most influential and powerful individual and collective voices in all of pop culture and all of artistic endeavors. So dealing with everyone’s voice and giving them equal weight, while trying to filter it all through my artistic sensibility and create a timely, important, entertaining piece is a challenge.”
“It’s a series of puzzle pieces, but it doesn’t feel like hard work, because it’s such an honor to do it.”
More Than a Designer — a Collaborator
For decades, Korins has worked under the title of designer. But often, he finds himself in a more big-picture role.
“People probably think that the designer of an event like this is relegated to just the visual world. But I’ve actually been in many kinds of conceptual conversations about the evening as a whole, and I think that they don’t understand how much we affect things like the opening number or the way in which certain beats of the show will play out.”
Korins sees one of his roles as that of a litmus test, an audience barometer of how something will come across.
“You can’t create the physical world without thinking about how you’re going to unfold it and unveil it over time… It’s a lot about storytelling. It’s a lot about parsing out information over time so that the overall story gets told.”
“It’s impossible to separate the overall visual landscape from the ultimate storytelling of the entire evening.”
“I think that people mostly think, ‘Oh, well, he makes the scenery.’ But the truth is I kind of make the entire envelope from which the story gets told.”
A Job Well Done
Korins will spend show night in the audience, watching his creation come to life onstage. It’s something he’s done with previous productions, but he expects this one to be a bit different:
“It’ll be a pretty stacked-up audience. I don’t normally hang out with that group of people.”
Still, his focus will be less on his own experience and more on what his loved ones at home are thinking. “Inevitably, that’s the more potent barometer of how we’ve done: what does it feel like when you watch the television show?”
“I want to step up to the challenge and deliver something that I would have been inspired to see when I was watching the show 20 or 30 years ago.”
As someone who has seen the show every year in recent memory, Korins brings a passionate, “super-fan” lens to the show.
“It’s one of the five jobs in the world that’s a real pinch-me moment.”
This interview is part of “Only I Know,” our series dedicated to taking Oscar fans behind the scenes with some of the key players that make the show happen.