About 2,500 of Hollywood’s elite will file down the red carpet into coveted seats for this year’s Academy Awards® ceremony at Hollywood’s famed Dolby Theatre®. But while the stars have been pursuing their beauty regimens for months, Dolby gets just three days to prepare the theatre for its big night.
We talked to David Gray, the Dolby technical director for premieres and chief designer of the theatre’s state-of-the-art Dolby® Atmos™ sound system, about the huge effort required to get the site ready for the Oscars® team to create the event’s elaborate sets and stage the show. To understand the magnitude of the theatre’s preparations for the Oscars ceremony, it helps to put the Dolby Theatre’s size in perspective.
At 180,000 square feet, with an 86-foot ceiling and 3,400 seats, the Dolby Theatre is one of the country’s largest—four times the size of its neighbor, the TLC Chinese Theatre, formerly known as Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. By comparison, New York’s Ziegfeld, one of the country’s marquee theatres, has around 1,100 seats, while the cinema houses most of us regularly attend, such as the biggest AMC Theatres® locations, hold around 500 seats, and Imax® theatres typically seat 300 to 400 people.
But some of what makes the Dolby Theatre an awesome place to see a movie—the hundreds of speakers and massive movie screen—get in the way when you need to put on a live show with a huge cast. The bulk of the work that Gray, Vice President of Global Services and Industry Relations, and his team do before the Oscars is removing many tons of hardware from the theatre to accommodate a custom stage, make room for all those presenters and stars, and give all the guests an unobstructed view of the stage.
First, to make room for the Oscar ceremony’s expanded stage, the colossal 60-foot-by-32-foot movie screen must go. The screen hangs at the proscenium arch onstage, thanks to an intricate—and extremely heavy—rigging system that supports it and many speakers. The rigging system includes 192 feet of screen trusses that support the screen’s weight, 90 feet of curtain trusses, and 24-foot poles to hold the curtain up. All of this must be taken down, along with the screen’s speakers (58 for the screen alone), and the 28 rigging motors and rigging points, eight giant subwoofers, power amp racks, power distribution racks, hampers, and cable cases. The screen itself, once it’s taken down, is rolled up and put into a protective box.
Gray’s team and the theatre crew painstakingly remove all of this.
Next to go are some of the surround sound speakers. The Dolby Theatre boasts 201 of the best speakers on earth, with 261 channels of power amplification. It contains an astonishing 143 surround sound speakers, 68 of which have to be removed for the Oscars. Gray’s team also removes the giant electrical distribution systems, which he describes as “beefy boxes” filled with literally tons of electrical cables. To give you a sense of just how much equipment the theatre requires to run its best-in-class imaging and audio systems, consider that the cables alone measure more than 50,000 feet.
With tons of speakers, cables, motors, and an iconic jumbo movie screen dismantled—and the clock ticking—now comes the next dilemma: what to do with all this stuff.
Every piece of equipment removed from the theatre must be sorted and cataloged. Anything that’s in need of maintenance is carefully placed inside a 45-foot tractor-trailer that is taken to an off-site warehouse, where it remains until after the Oscars event. The rest of the equipment and cabling is stored in a custom-built cage nearby.
Yet for all the carefully orchestrated muscle required, Gray thinks the 2014 preparations should prove much easier than last year’s, when the crew managed the theatre strike-down as well as dismantling the set for Iris, the Cirque de Soleil show running at the Dolby Theatre at the time. “The crew had to take this whole flying grid out, which was a gigantic steel structure that weighed an ungodly amount.” Gray estimates some 80 crew members were needed to handle that transition.
He adds nonchalantly: “This year, it’ll be a crew of about 20 guys who will work for about three days.”
Three long, tough days.