The hardest blow is the feeling that their work doesn’t matter as much as other filmmaking disciplines. That was the sentiment shared by a panel of veteran artisans who represent the craft categories that will no longer be presented live at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony on March 27.
“What offends me is that somebody in the Academy would claim to or imply that they know which crafts are more important and more deserving of respect than time than other crafts,” said Randy Thom, a two-time Oscar winner for sound. Thom was among the participants in the “Variety Artisans: Special Report” virtual panel, moderated by Jazz Tangcay, Variety‘s Senior Artisans Editor, to examine the fallout from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ decision to reformat the Oscars ceremony this year.
Like the other panelists, Thom is no stranger to the Academy Awards. He’s been nominated 15 times and won for 1983’s “The Right Stuff” and 2004’s “The Incredibles.” Thom was joined by editor Myron Kerstein, nominated this year for “Tick, Tick … Boom!”; hair department head Mia Neal, an Oscar winner for 2020’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”; editor and composer John Ottman, who won for editing for 2019’s “Bohemian Rhapsody’; and director Ben Proudfoot, nominated for documentary short subject for “The Queen of Basketball.”
On Feb. 22, AMPAS confirmed that the awards for Documentary (Short Subject), Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, Music (Original Score), Production Design, Short Film (Animated), Short Film (Live Action), and Sound will be presented at the Dolby Theater before the start of the live show and “folded seamlessly” into the telecast.
The quintet gathered March 2 for a lively discussion about why AMPAS’ telecast decision cut so deep. The much-decorated artisans also offer insights into how their craft specialties contribute to the collaborative work of filmmaking.
Watch the full conversation above.
Tell us about the feeling of being nominated for an Oscar. Tell us what it means for your professional career. Mia, you made history last year when you became the first Black woman to be nominated in the makeup and hair category.
Mia Neal: It was unbelievable for all of us. You have the build up to it, so you have a little bit of an expectation.
We all work so many hours. We do so much in our crafts, but when you get that recognition from other people in the same field, it is like joining a sorority or fraternity. It is like — you see me, and you like my work. It is a validation that is unlike any other. But there is something about other artisans in this field operating at that level, to acknowledge your work and feel like you deserve an Oscar for it, is next-level. It’s something that I have so much gratitude for and that feeling will never die down.
Myron Kerstein: It was an out-of-body experience. I’ve spent most of my career with imposter syndrome thinking that I wasn’t good enough. To be recognized by your peers in that way, you finally get a little validation, and it makes you want to be better, ironically enough. It makes you want to keep pushing.
Ben Proudfoot: It’s a full-body emotional experience. As a documentary filmmaker, it’s exciting to be recognized by your filmmaking peers. We’re an ally and advocate for the storyteller in the film, in this case, Lusia Harris. It’s a huge win for her, her family and her story to be recognized in this way. It was a win for closing the gap for her, her significance and her recognition.
Randy Thom: Oscar is such an icon that there’s nothing that can prepare you for getting the news that you’ve been nominated. The confusion and exaltation never go away, no matter how many times it happens.
I was in my late 20s, and I was nominated for three different films in the same year. It was just a matter of luck having worked on these three particular films over a previous couple of years, all of which got nominated in the sound category: ‘Never Cry Wolf,” “The Right Stuff” and “Return of the Jedi.” “The Right Stuff” won the Oscar. In my confusion, my main worry was that I was going to thank the wrong group of people.
The best thing about being nominated and certainly about winning is the level of respect you feel you’re getting from your peers, people who don’t do the same kind of work that you do, but who have a pretty good idea of the challenges involved in doing the work.
John Ottman: It’s great to win, but the nomination in a way is more of an honor because your craft nominated you. The nomination is an acknowledgment of your peers acknowledging your work.
There’s also the envelope opening, that walk up [to the stage] and you hear your name. Talk about that.
Ottman: Almost a billion people are watching the Oscars, and I thought I’d be so scared, but when you get up there, you forget you’re on live TV. The venue is a lot smaller than you think, and you walk up there. Honest to God, I was not nervous at all, because I think you’re on adrenaline. My biggest fear was I didn’t memorize any speech.
Thom: It is an out-of-body experience. You’re getting up from your chair and you are numb, but you realize that there are people around you who are congratulating you. I don’t remember what my feet were doing. There are often lots of steps to climb. You think, ‘I don’t want to make a complete fool of myself by tripping on the steps.’ But it’s a dream-like experience that I wish everybody could have.
Neal: They said only one person can speak because of COVID [Neal was nominated with Jamika Wilson and Sergio-Lopez-Rivera. Originally, they said 90 seconds. I said, ‘Everyone, give me 30 seconds of what you’re going to say.’ But the night before, they cut the time down to 60 seconds. I was overwhelmed with needing to respect the Academy’s wishes around the time limit. Right before we went out, Sergio said to me, ‘Honor your ancestors.’ And because of the situation with Jamika and I being the first Black people ever nominated and to win in this category, it was also that this moment is not really about us. It was much bigger. There was a responsibility to honor that. I was very nervous, and a lot of the excitement of it all was taken away in the moment just because I was afraid of not honoring the people that were on the stage with me, not honoring the people that came before me, and it was this overwhelming pressure to acknowledge all of these things and to do it very respectfully.
Thom: One of the tragedies about this decision is that the Academy has traditionally been one of the most egalitarian of all the major awards-giving entities. It’s included more of the crafts and treated the crafts more on an equal basis than the others have. So it’s tragic that they’ve decided to backpedal on that and become less egalitarian and establish more of a class system.
Ottman: They’ve become, in this decision, less about moviemaking. It’s entertainment and the (award) shows need to be entertaining to get people to watch. But I think part of the intrigue of the (Oscars) is that they talk about making the show for the common man and so forth who aren’t necessarily in showbiz, but the common man wants to open up the hood and see what’s going on underneath. The common man wants to go through Willy Wonka’s factory gates and see how it’s done.
This is a huge moment of being completely out of touch with their own existence. They’re supposed to intrigue the audience with the craft of moviemaking, not distract them by a tap dance number.
Myron and Ben, you were both on the town hall Zoom call where the decision to eliminate the live presentation of the eight categories was revealed. How did that feel?
Proudfoot: There were a lot of grumpy people. I think it was just a surprise. Two conversations are happening; one is, hurt feelings and how the news is delivered. The other is the larger philosophical question about how artists, craftspeople and filmmakers now and in the future will be recognized and that the Oscars do that in a way that doesn’t impinge on any perceived importance of any one category over the other.
People were disappointed and hurt, and in some cases angry, and understandably so. At least for me, in the time since, I’m much more out of my feelings about it, and more in my mind. I’ve been trying to educate myself about the fact that there’s been a long conversation about whether or not categories should be removed from the telecast altogether.
In as much as I think we can do better than this decision, I am glad that somebody made sure that at least all the categories would be in the telecast itself.
Kerstein: You go from this, which outside of getting married or your kids being born is one of the greatest moments of your life, to shock and confusion, and a bit of anger and sadness.
I acknowledge that the Academy has a huge problem in its hands. Not only [do they have to] compete on live television, with all the kids who are on TikTok, and in the thousands of hours of other programming at any given moment. To get people hooked in for three hours, that is nearly impossible. This is what we do as filmmakers trying to keep people engaged.
Ottman: Those kids on TikTok, don’t you think they are intrigued by how a movie is made? Wouldn’t it be interesting if the show is more about that?
Kerstein: I have a 15-year-old son who has three devices open at any given point. He’s watching, he’s drawing and watching YouTube, checking social media, and maybe he cares about watching something live. Live television is a tough thing, it’s a bit of an antiquated thing that needs to be modernized.
I don’t know what the right answer is. There was one year when the Academy showed a little package of how editing works, and it got me excited. I thought, ‘This is what we need to do every year, educate the audience.’ Editing is the invisible art, you get caught up in the storytelling, you don’t notice the editing anymore. I believe that films and art can change the world, but it’s also a business. I understand that but from the Academy’s perspective, and the network’s perspective.
Director Guillermo del Toro did speak up, saying that this is not the year to silence voices. Randy, you had some thoughts on that.
Thom: People who are nominated are notoriously careful about saying anything controversial at this point when they don’t know whether they’re going to win or not. But it was incredibly brave for Guillermo to make the statement that he did. I do disagree with part of his reasoning, which was that this decision to change the broadcast shouldn’t have happened this year because everybody worked especially hard. After all, it was a COVID year. I guess my response to that, is that it’s not about working hard. On a big movie, there are hundreds of people who work very hard on every film to get every film made. If getting nominated for an Oscar was about working hard, then there should be 100 people nominated for every film.
What it’s really about is those crafts that revolve around making artistic decisions. What offends me is that somebody in the Academy would claim to or imply that they know which crafts are more important and more deserving of respect than time than other crafts. That is just a silly, silly notion.
On any given film, there’s this unpredictable mix of elements and you never know what’s going to work and what’s not until you’re finished with it. This idea of prioritizing the crafts and suggesting that certain artists are more important than others just offends me deeply.
Ottman: It’s an act of absolute disrespect for its own members in the key creative positions that make movies possible.
Let’s talk about your crafts and how they contribute to the final work that we see on screen?
Neal: I remember one actor, I put a wig on him, his whole character came to. He started talking differently, his body posture changed. It is a final touch. It is removing this person, creating this character and changing them. Hair and makeup play such an essential role in doing that, where it not only disguises that person for the audience, but it disguises that person for themselves, where they don’t see themselves anymore.
Thom: When I worked on “The Revenant,” the first thing Alejandro G. Iñárritu told me was that if we don’t completely believe this bear attack, the entire film falls apart. The very first thing that I worked on was the bear attack. The bear in the film that attacks Leonardo [DiCaprio] was computer graphics. When I first saw the footage, there was nothing that even looked like a bear. It was a guy who looked like he was in a hazmat outfit wrestling Leo on the forest floor. It was up to me and the team to make that sequence organic, convincing and believable. It was very hard to get it to a point where either I was satisfied with it or Alejandro was satisfied with it.
That bear has to express a whole range of emotions. It’s a mother bear who’s trying to protect her cubs. In some moments, she needs to sound like she’s nurturing. In other moments she needs to sound like the most vicious creature you’ve ever encountered. At a certain point, she becomes mortally wounded so we had to figure out how to make her sound like she was dying. All directors will tell somebody like me that sound is important in their movies. But some really walk the walk, and Alejandro did.
The irony is that the sound branch of the Academy decided with no prompting, to eliminate the two sound categories and make it one sound category. It used to be that there was an Oscar category for sound editing and another for sound mixing. We decided to make it one category in part to help the broadcast. That was especially insulting to us, when after we had made that sacrifice to get rid of one of the sound awards, we were still treated like second-class citizens.
Ottman: The music is the soul of a film. We’ve all seen how a score can make or break a film, just as any of our crafts can make or break a film.
Kerstein: We are like a cook in the kitchen. We are given a lot of ingredients, and we’re making a really great meal for you to enjoy. We’re taking all these amazing crafts, and we’re boiling it down into a film. We’re the longest on something, maybe from eight months to three years. There are over 2000 edits in “Tick, Tick … Boom!” and every single one of those was done with care and love. It’s not just slammed together.
Thom: One of the stories that illustrate the mystery and invisibility of what editors do, I think better than any other is “The Conversation.” It turns out that an important part of the story was never in the script at all. It was invented in post-production by Walter Murch, the editor.
Harry Caul (the protagonist played by Gene Hackman) mishears this recording that he’s listening to. Through the whole film, he’s listening to it over and over again, but you don’t find out until the end, that the filter of his brain and his preconceptions are altering what he’s hearing, and he’s not hearing correctly at all. That happened because Walter recorded the actors saying those lines, and during one of those takes, Fred Forrest said the line wrong. At some point, this light bulb went off in Walter’s head and he thought, ‘I can use that.’ That’s the kind of completely invisible, creative influence an editor can have on a film.
Ottman: You can do a really cool scene, but it means nothing if the story as a whole is not working.
Ben, what about documentary short filmmaking?
Proudfoot: As we think about democratizing cinema and opening the doors to everyone who has talent in storytelling, documentary short has the lowest barrier of entry. It’s the least expensive form of cinema and yet it can have this same impact as a $100 million feature film.
I lost my dad a year and a half ago, and as everybody was talking about their individual crafts, his liver failed. I remember that hepatologist coming in and explaining that the liver performs 500 functions a day. One of those functions isn’t working and that’s why your dad is going to pass away. All of us who know cinema know that all of these categories are vital organs in the body of cinema.
(Pictured top: Variety’s Jazz Tangcay. From left, Myron Kerstein, Mia Neal, John Ottman, Ben Proudfoot, Randy Thom )