Backstage at the Oscars: Transforming the Dolby Theatre for the show

On a normal day, the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood is a movie theater, with the surrounding shopping complex overrun by tourists. It's hard to believe this is the home of the Oscars -- which makes the transformation even more impressive.

Mariel Myers Senior producer
4 min read

Mariel Myers/CNET

The day I visited the Dolby Theatre was definitely not a normal day. It was less than a week before the 87th Academy Awards and I was there to see what it took to change the theater for Hollywood's biggest, most glamorous night.

In the days leading up to Sunday night's Oscars ceremony, the Dolby Theatre's auditorium is one of the hardest places to get into. And don't even think about whipping out your phone to snap a picture.

The most closely guarded area is the stage, with its glitzy set. From backstage, I could see it as rehearsals played out, but in no way could I shoot video or photos. Security is so tight you're instructed to wear your media credentials backward, so they can't be photographed and replicated. That's more strict than some White House events I've covered.

The Dolby Theatre's transformation for the Oscars started in January, when a crew of about 20 to 30 people began to strip the 3,400-seat venue of some of its movie theater components, including a selection of speakers, trusses, cables, seats and rigging motors.

David Gray, vice president of global services and industry relations for Dolby Labs, oversees the theater's conversion. He said one of the most nerve-wracking tasks is packing up the 60x32-foot movie screen.

Watch this: The tech it takes to put on the Oscars

"We have to roll it up, which is time consuming because it's really big and we don't want to get it dirty. We don't want to scratch it. We don't want to put anything through it."

One type of technology the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does not like to rely on is rigging motors, which help lift and lower things like scenery or scrims or lights. Instead the Academy prefers ropes, pulleys and man power.

Audio director Paul Sandweiss Sean Phillips/CNET

Gray explained, "The Academy uses very few motors in the Oscars. Motors can fail, and in their case it would be deadly. Not deadly in terms of people, but deadly in terms of the show. They're still using the old pipe and ropes and counterweights. So all the stuff flies in on that."

For this Oscars, Dolby added surround speakers and boosted the acoustic absorption in the mezzanine levels. Gray hopes the audience in the theater will get a more immersive experience, especially with the movie clips.

"The clips in stereo are kind of flat," he explained. "When you're here live, you're watching the clips on little monitors. It's way nicer to have the sound be big and normal, because the picture is on the little monitor."

For audiences at home, movie clips and music performances will be in Dolby 5.1 surround sound. Home viewers with a surround sound setup can have a similar sound experience as the celebrities.

Capitol Records, where the orchestra performs Sean Phillips/CNET

All the audio and video from the show is piped into broadcast trucks stationed just behind the Dolby Theatre in an area nicknamed the broadcast compound. Hundreds of thousands of miles of cables from the red-carpet area and inside the theater dead-end into those trucks, which serve as mobile control rooms.

With hundreds of millions of people watching from more than 200 countries, there are multiple backup plans and redundancies.

"The signal has multiple fiber feeds, but we also have satellite feeds," said Steve Venezia, Dolby Labs' worldwide senior director for contact services. "So they can cut from one feed to another pretty seamlessly."

One of the trickier parts of the broadcast is melding the live orchestra performance with what's happening on stage. That's because, to make room for more seats, the orchestra is not in the auditorium but one mile away at Capitol Records. The live music is piped through fiber optic cables back to the theater. According to Dolby, the entire latency from the Oscar broadcast trucks to Capitol Records and back is about 2.7 milliseconds.

Workers deliver sections of the red carpet. Sean Phillips/CNET

"We just keep trying to get that latency down as close to zero," audio director Paul Sandweiss explained, "so that performers can hear exactly what the orchestra is doing, and the orchestra can respond with them so they are all seamlessly performing together."

The Greenroom, where presenters and honorees can relax, was still being constructed at the back of the stage. Crew members were nailing the door into place and trying to figure out how to drag a 500-pound table into the room without cracking the floor tiles.

Architectural Digest Greenroom Roger Davies/Architectural Digest

This is the 13th year Architectural Digest has produced the backstage lounge, and it's become a sort of showcase for show sponsor Samsung, which struck marketing gold last year with Ellen DeGeneres' selfie on a Note 3.

When you first enter the Greenroom, there's a wall of 16 Samsung displays designed to mimic a window view of Los Angeles from atop the Hollywood Hills. Architectural Digest says the room also includes Galaxy Tab S tablets and Samsung smart TVs, including a curved UHD TV.

Actor Kevin Spacey posed for the Twitter Mirror during last year's show.

New this year, to top last year's Twitter Mirror in the Greenroom, will be a so-called "GIF-Cam " powered by Twitter, to capture celebrities' reactions. According to Twitter, the cam takes a series of four photos and makes a GIF out of them. Celebrities can also put their signatures on them.

And when it's all over and the final golden statuette has been handed out and the Governors Ball is closed down, Dolby says its team can convert the theater back to cinema mode in only 14 hours. And then it'll be a wrap, until next year.