As if putting together an Oscar telecast isn’t challenging enough, Academy Award’s producer Gil Cates inspired extra anxiety for the Academy and ABC more than a dozen years ago when he first suggested the program include an “In Memoriam” package, a segment in the show where film notables who had died in the previous year could be honored.
“They thought it might be a big downer to watch dead people on the screen,” says Cates, who adopted the concept from an annual meeting at the Directors Guild of America where members read a list of friends and colleagues who had passed away that year.
The montage had the exact opposite effect, allowing both the industry audience in attendance and fans around the world watching at home to remember, celebrate and say goodbye to important industry individuals.
“I thought we could do them honor by remembering them,” Cates says. “And with film being such a visual memory, the idea (for an In Memoriam piece) just made sense.”
Included each year since, the segment has become one of the most popular parts of the Oscars as well as other kudocasts including the Emmys and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, which feature similar segs.
“At the Academy Awards, there are so many different flavors in the evening with awards and musical productions and tributes,” says SAG Awards executive producer Jeff Margolis, who has also produced the Oscars. “Other shows, like the SAG Awards, don’t have as broad of a spectrum as the Oscars and need different emotional levels during the evening.
“The In Memoriam package gives people a chance to change gears, catch their breath and reflect,” he explains.
According to Mike Shapiro, who produced Oscar’s In Memoriam segment for nine years, the three-minute seg, featuring around 25 people, takes the entire year to put together.
“I would start keeping a file the day after the show of obituaries for the following year.”
As March nears, the producer submits a list to Academy officials, including the president and executive director, to ensure that no one of import has been omitted.
“I claim to leave it up to them and they claim to leave it up to me,” Shapiro says of the final list. “We try and insulate ourselves a bit from the process, but it’s very competitive and there are a ton of people who want their client, friend or family member included.”
“It would be wonderful to include everyone, but you can’t,” Margolis says. “So you put in as many recognizable names and faces as possible so the audience can understand the package and why you are paying tribute.”
Once the list is confirmed, the segment producer then decides the order in which people will be remembered.
“The piece should have a first, second and third act like a play,” says Shapiro. “You can’t save all the important people for the end or else the beginning will be limp.”
Shapiro, who isn’t producing the segment this year in order to work on other projects, made his mark on the In Memoriam package by eschewing still shots in favor of film clips featuring the deceased. He explains that the music and archive footage have a profound effect on the order that people appear.
“When the music hits or swells, you want to have significant scenes when a person comes through a door or waves at the audience,” he says. “You search very hard to find just the right images.”
“Sometimes you do two shots of the person — a then and now,” says Margolis. “Or a shot of what you think is the most memorable moment of their career.”
This process becomes much more difficult with people who didn’t spend their lives in front of the camera, but whose death might well be meaningful to industry insiders. For these occasions, the producer usually relies on home movies supplied by the family.
Which all leads up to the segment’s ultimate image, which generally stands as the Academy’s “vote” for the most significant death from the past year.
“When someone of great importance dies, they are usually shown last,” Cates says.
While many speculate that Jack Lemmon, George Harrison or Peggy Lee could all inhabit this year’s final spot, Cates says that simply remembering those lost is more important than their order of appearance.
“Sure, it causes great discussion and debate,” he says. “But this is one film package that’s put together without any arguments at all.”