Lights, Camera, Oscars
A Q&A with the show’s lighting designer
This year marks Robert Dickinson’s 30th time working behind the scenes of the Oscars. When he began, in 1984, lighting was considered “illumination engineering.”
“Since then, there has been a growth not only in lighting designers’ ability to influence the production dramatically, but also in the understanding that the lighting designer is like the director of photography on a film.”
Dickinson has worked on the Grammys, the Tonys, the Emmys, the Academy of Country Music Awards and the Kennedy Center Honors, but the Oscars are where he got his live-TV start.
Introducing Moving Lights to Live TV
The year Dickinson began working for the show was the first time the Academy sought a freelancer for the job.
“I was a very young lighting director at the time. And I embraced a new kind of technology, which was intelligent instrumentation; in other words, lights that could move, pan tilt, change color and the like.”
“When I got a call to do the Oscars, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a great opportunity for me.’ But it’s also a great opportunity for this new technology. So, I used it on the Oscars. It was never used before on a live broadcast.”
“To be honest, I don’t think the producers at the Oscars knew what a courageous step they were taking.”
It has since become a standard practice in live broadcast TV. “Moving lights are the foundation of every single production like this. And the Oscars were where it was first pioneered.”
They Have to Look Like Movie Stars
Dickinson’s number one goal has always been to make the talent on the show, from presenters to audience members, look good.
“They have to look like movie stars. They have to look really incredible. That has been something that I have strived for since coming onboard, and I feel very proud of the result that we have.”
“But also, people in the audience have to look fantastic, because, at the Oscars, there’s a story going on when you are presenting an award. The reaction of people in the audience is critical to that story.”
Dickinson’s team takes cues from filmmaking, using certain cinematic light qualities to make for a flattering scene. Every year, as technologies evolve, the result improves.
Telling a Visual Story
Dickinson’s work begins once the show’s producers are announced. Along with the producers and production designer, “we begin the process of trying to create an environment to express the tone and the visual representation of what the Oscars are that particular year.”
“When you reflect back on it, the tone of the Oscars set can say a lot about the show in that particular year. You wouldn’t think it’d be so important, but it is. It really does identify the message that is meant to be visually delivered.”
“I never have been involved with a live broadcast that has this kind of amazing visual environment. David [Korins] has really designed a set that is standalone, and not repetitive of anything I’ve ever seen on television before.”
“I think it’s going to be a really visually stimulating and beautiful show,” he added.
“Every year, the Oscars reinvent themselves visually. This is one thing that very few productions do. It’s exciting, and it’s almost expected. Part of the fun for a viewer is, What is it going to look like this year?”
Dickinson likened it to fashion: “People like to tune in to the Oscars to see the dresses. I think they also like to see the visuals.”
He recalled hearing from people outside the industry refer to an Oscar year by the set.
“They’ll say, ‘You remember, the year that they had the Oscars cake.’ So, the visual statement of the scenery, and the lighting as it supports the scenery, is really important to the viewer at home.”
Thirty Years of Experience — and Memories
According to Dickinson, lighting controls mood. It’s the hidden ingredient of a production.
“It’s not just making something bright for it to be on television. It is actually helping to tell the story that the producers are trying to tell. So it is not just a matter of illumination; it is a matter of interpretation, of helping to deliver a message.”
Dickinson and his team tweak the show’s lighting for weeks, even taking into consideration what presenters plan to wear. During rehearsals a day or two before the show, talent will discuss their wardrobe with Dickinson, which informs how he decides to light them.
“I base all those on rehearsals, including what is going to be the tone and intensity of the background color. We don’t want the scenery and the lighting to ever compete with the star. They should pop out. They should be in the foreground.”
But many times, Dickinson noted, the presenters go back home and start considering their options, and show up in a completely different outfit.
One case he recalls is when Barbara Streisand, “the most amazing presence on any stage,” went up to present the Oscar for Best Directing.
“When she came to rehearse, she brought a few dresses with her and decided, ‘I’m going to wear this one with some pearls.’ When she appeared on the stage to actually give away the award, she walked out in a completely different outfit that we had never seen.”
“The background color would have been totally inappropriate because it has to be harmonious with the wardrobe. So, in that particular instance, as she was walking out on stage, we had to scramble and suddenly change the background colors so it could complement her dress.”
Other surprises come up, for example, when people jump onto seats unexpectedly.
“We have to be very nimble to make sure that we capture every moment and make sure that people, at all times, are illuminated properly for television.”
“It’s a live show. Anything can happen.”
Although Dickinson has his fair share of Oscar memories, he’s excited to continue making more.
“Every year feels like a new challenge. It has never gotten old for me because I always have to be at the top of my game to keep up with the complexity of the Oscars.”
“If I ever just phone me again, so to speak, I’ll stop doing it.”
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.