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Oscars Have a Duty to Respect Below-the-Line Categories (Column)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and ABC are determined to present a shorter Oscarcast on Feb. 24. One of their ideas: present several below-the-line awards during commercial breaks.

Apparently they think audiences don’t care about those categories. Here’s a better idea: Explain this work to TV audiences, and get them involved with these artisans, who are often the most interesting and valuable contributors to a film.

Exhibit A: Ruth E. Carter, nominated for her costume design on “Black Panther.”

Carter was an honoree this month at Variety’s fifth annual Artisan Awards at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. She spoke of her work as “an exploration of culture and color” as she created distinct costumes for various tribes of Wakanda, carefully choosing textiles, accessories and jewelry.

She wanted the costumes to reflect the fact that Africa and Asia shared cultures for many centuries, plus another factor: “Wakanda is technologically advanced so we also wanted to incorporate lots of forward-thinking fashion.” The film had 700 costumes in all.

Wouldn’t TV viewers enjoy hearing some of this, so that they could feel involved in the outcome of Oscar’s 10 behind-the-camera categories?

Plus there are talking points with all the artisans: For example, Carter would be the first black woman to win a below-the-line Oscar since Irene Cara for the 1980 song from “Fame.” (Shocking but true.)

The Santa Barbara panel Feb. 4 at the Lobero Theater offered other insights that would interest the TV audience:

• Sergio Diaz and Skip Lievsay briefly and clearly defined the difference between sound mixing and sound editing, and explained that “Roma” may look simple, but it was more complex than “Gravity” (for which Lievsay won an Oscar). They spent 18 months gathering the sounds of dogs, car engines, doors, crickets, birds, street pedestrians, radio music and multiple other subtle sounds, none of which were recorded during filming. With mostly first-time actors in “Roma,” there was a lot of post-production dialogue replacement. Then they layered these, and ended up with the biggest sound file ever sent to Dolby.

• Patricia DeHaney spoke about the hair/makeup team who re-created the look of Dick and Lynne Cheney for “Vice.” During filming, she said, “You’re never at ease, you’re constantly working. In a big-screen movie theater, a small hair-and-makeup detail becomes the size of a Volkswagen, so you have to be constantly diligent to the smallest detail.”

• David Shirk was one of the Industrial Light & Magic team on “Ready Player One,” working 2½ years on the visual effects, which were developed simultaneously with the writing of the script. He added that Steven Spielberg “was so generous in allowing everyone’s voice to be heard. There were visual ideas from every person on the team” as they helped create Cleveland in 2045, as well as the game world of Oasis.

Also, “BlackKklansman” editor Barry Alexander Brown talked about difficulties editing the multiple phone conversations in the film, and the challenges of the sequence with Harry Belafonte, intercut with a KKK initiation plus scenes from the 1915 “Birth of a Nation”; “The Favourite” production designer Fiona Crombie spoke of translating her images into the historic Hatfield House in England, “where every movement of furniture had to be negotiated.”

At the session, Marc Shaiman (music score, “Mary Poppins Returns”) enthused about the “glorious” experience of working with an 85-piece orchestra; and cinematographer Lukasz Zal spoke about making each time period and geographic location in “Cold War” look distinct, yet unified.

Yes, a spotlight on behind-the-camera artisans will add to the Oscarcast running time, but there are many ways to trim the show and keep it manageable, rather than to present these categories during commercials. (Want suggestions? I’m around; feel free to call.)

The Oscars are supposed to be a celebration of movies and moviegoing. Below-the-line contenders are not just anonymous names in “tech categories”; they are creative artists who make huge contributions to the films we see, and I’m convinced TV audiences would love to hear their insights.

The three-hour running time is a valid goal. But it’s what happens within those three hours that will make a difference. Support our artisans!

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