Craftsmen Create Fantasy Worlds for Set of Oscars

Craftsmen Create Fantasy Worlds for Set of Oscars

Craftsmen Create Fantasy Worlds for Set of Oscars

Beth Goodnight, owner of Goodnight & Co. (Caitlin Esch/KQED)
Beth Goodnight, owner of Goodnight & Co. (Caitlin Esch/KQED)

The Academy Awards are all about glitz and glamour, but it takes real people to build all that fantasy. As film and TV productions are lured out of state by tax and other incentives, awards season is a real boon for the carpenters, welders and sculptors who build the stages and props.

At Goodnight & Co., a set-building shop in the San Fernando Valley, sculptor Tim Baker is putting the finishing touches on small replicas of the Oscar statue. They look like they’re made out of ice. They’re actually made out of resin.

“It’s nice and clear,” Baker says. “I use a vacuum chamber and suck out all the bubbles.”

Baker says he’s been up all night long working on the statues.

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“It takes about three hours for each one, so I have just enough time to get a little nap in and run the next one,” Baker says. “I have a little cot in the back.”

Owner Beth Goodnight says her shop builds sets for just about everything: TV shows, commercials, music videos.

“The jobs I enjoy the most are always the ones that are the most challenging,” she says. “And one of the more difficult pieces was the 30-foot-wide Lamborghini from the BET awards. We had 10 days to build a 30-foot Lamborghini they could dance on, with a 30-foot windshield and 25-foot suicide doors, and it was fun.”

And for the 86th Academy Awards, Goodnight production designer Sam Rhymes built 1,208 oversized roses made from stiffened and treated polyester fabric.

This boost in business is coming at a great time for craftsmen like Rhymes. Production work has steadily been leaving for other states. But AB1839, introduced last week, would offer incentives for big-budget films to move production back to California, and provide more tax breaks to the entertainment industry.

“There really has been an exodus of feature film work, large TV shows. There’s been a lot of that going out of state,” Goodnight says. “There are a ton of guys living very this gypsylike existence.”

Beth Goodnight says the Oscars and other awards shows make up about a quarter of the year’s business. This season, Goodnight’s mostly freelance workforce swelled from about 25 positions to more than 100.

Craftsmen at shops like Goodnight & Co. are executing the artistic vision of Oscar set designer Derek McLane. The theme this year is heroes in cinema.

“Designing for the theme of heroes is a tricky theme to actually design for,” McLane says. “Because if you’re too literal about it, I think you end up designing something that looks simply grandiose.”

McLane typically designs sets for Broadway, but last year he ventured into live TV. For the 85th Academy Awards, he designed a stunning stage inspired by the musicals of the 1930s and '40s.

“Finding ways that evoke that -- that don’t feel pompous -- was the biggest challenge,” he says. “And that, for me, requires trying to come up with something that you don’t quite feel like you’ve seen before."

While McLane cannot give too much away about what this year’s Oscars stage will look like, he can say it was a challenge. There will be about 10 different looks to the stage, rotated out during commercial breaks.

Growing up in Oklahoma, Rhymes says, he dreamed about working on movie sets.

“I remember being a kid and watching Disney movies, and I didn’t know the words for it, didn’t know the terminology for it, but seeing these lands that they created. And uh, and just going wow, I wanna do that.”

Rhymes says this Sunday, he’ll be watching the Oscars with all of his friends, feeling a special kind of pride.