Brow Beat

Meet the Graphic Design Mastermind Behind the Best Part of the Oscars

During Sunday night’s Oscars, the elegant slides that announced each category may have been the best part of the broadcast. For Best Picture, a row of animated bullets left a trail of blood on the title sequence for American Sniper. A black watercolor sketch of a man’s torso dissolved into a flock of birds for Birdman.

The Production Design category was a particular highlight: Each slide featured a selection of objects representing the nominated film, artfully arranged and photographed from above—the delicate pastries and gilded keys of Grand Budapest, the wires and screws of The Imitation Game. If awards show graphics can often feel lifeless and tacked-on, these slides popped off the screen.

The man behind the slides is Henry Hobson, a graphic designer who’s worked on the last seven Oscars broadcasts. Hobson, who also designed the images that flashed onstage during the musical performance of “Glory,” has created title sequences for movies including Snow White and the Huntsman, Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr., and The Help. Slate talked to Hobson about the process of making the Oscars slides, working with the Academy Awards producers, and Chris Pine’s Selma tears.

Were you actually at the Oscars last night?

I watched at a pub with a load of colleagues. But I did get to attend every rehearsal, so by last night I had seen the show several times over.

So how did you first get involved with the Academy Awards?

There’s a kind of creative liaison on the academy side, [Oscars producer] Lee Lodge, who chooses people to collaborate with. He’s another Brit, but I promise we don’t always stick together.

My first Oscars was seven years ago. At that point I was just designing fragments of it—really small aspects, like the captions that come up on the bottom of the screen when it announces the winner. But gradually I took on more and more categories. Last year we designed custom looks for nine separate categories; this year we did 23.

Do you remember what that first year doing graphic design for the Oscars was like?

You’re in awe of the world’s most famous celebratory event. You sit there kind of bewildered at the huge complexity of the show and how it comes together.

And then you got more jaded?

Oh yeah, absolutely. The first year you’re in awe; the second year you’re in awe but you are trying to not make the mistakes you’ve made the first year. The third year you’re a bit more laissez-faire. You realize there’s a repetitiveness to it. Then after that you start to think: it’s only repetitive because you are making it repetitive! You don’t just have to always show video clips [to introduce a new category].

Last year for the Best Picture animated sequence, I even managed to get away with a Wolf of Wall Street poster made out of cocaine. Maybe I shouldn’t emphasize that just in case the bosses didn’t notice.

How much input and direction do you get? What are the Academy’s main priorities for these slides?

Neil Meron and Craig Zadan are the producers of the show. They are the guiding lights. This year the charge was that they wanted as much visual excitement as possible.

With the Best Picture package, the goal is to tell a film’s story in a single frame. So last year it was the whip in the shape of a violin for 12 Years a Slave. This year it’s the American flag made of bullets tearing across the screen for American Sniper. And with Grand Budapest, it was the moustaches that really stood out for me. The time period, the characters they are portraying, it all comes together in the moustaches.

Overall the hope is that these slides are things you can view and view again and start to see little Easter eggs and moments. Alan Turing’s brain is made up of the wiring of the enigma machine. In one slide, there’s hidden text of the town where I’m from in the U.K.

What’s your process for creating these slides?  

I’m kind of a film nerd so I’ll see all the films in advance—as a director myself, I get sent all the screeners. So then it’s sketching the vision, pulling materials together, coordinating teams to create that vision.

How big is your team?

It depends. For the images for the “Glory” stage performance, the team was myself plus one designer from Elastic, [the production studio I partnered with], and one animator.

What was it like to work on that performance?

I knew it was going to be a special moment in the show. But when you’re putting images together, you don’t know how the director of the show is going to handle it, how many wide shots he will get of the whole stage. Those few moments—he timed them perfectly. The guy in the middle of the street with his hand up in the air: that shot sent shivers down the back of your neck.

How did you choose the images that were projected onstage?

There has to be a marriage between the film’s imagery combined with real ephemera from the time. There’s the shot from the movie of Oprah in the crowd on her knees with hands behind her head, and the signature of the character she is portraying is alongside her. This is a really sensitive area, so we were really conscious of the importance of getting this right. It’s certainly a very current event.

Did you notice that audience members from David Oyelowo to Chris Pine had tears dripping down their faces during that number?

It was astonishing. I don’t know what small part my team and I played in that, but it was still astonishing.

Those production design slides with birds-eye view shots of objects from each film were pretty incredible. Where did that idea come from?

The idea was to break down what production design is. Last year I did something with sketches coming to life—scenes from Her and Gravity with line art that mixed through to footage. It was much more of a traditional exercise. So this year we had to convince the Academy to send us all the props from these films for a photographic shoot.

Was that difficult?

Some films were quick to get stuff over. My favorite was Grand Budapest Hotel, when they started sending the little Mendel’s boxes and books and badges that they’ve produced during their show. They’ve put as much love into that as you could imagine. The objects were as beautiful as they appear in the film.

Did you watch the movies and pick out specific props you thought would work, or just say “Send us whatever you’ve got”?

We did a little bit of both. We made a wish list and then we got a note saying: we can’t get this, that, and the other. With Grand Budapest, we made the cakes ourselves.  Even though you are looking from above, you can see the Mendel’s cakes. They sat in our office for a few days before somebody devoured them.

Do you moonlight as a pastry chef?

Hah, oh no. In that category we hired we hired a production designer to help us out—his partner is a pastry chef and they whipped up a couple of these cakes.

For Interstellar, we sourced parts from the original NASA spacecraft engineering department. With Mr. Turner, I’m a huge fan and wanted to make sure it was right. That meant throwing out time period elements that didn’t feel appropriate. Making sure we were pulling in the yellow color that appears in the film. With Imitation Game, we weren’t able to get an Enigma machine. Who knew? It only took the British and the Polish years to find an Enigma machine, and they weren’t easily forthcoming in providing one to be dismantled for the Oscars. So we took typewriters apart.

Was it hard to convince the Oscars to let you do something so unconventional?

They were a little bit skeptical at first of it being pretty for pretty’s sake, not having the film at heart. My role is to push design. Their role is to make sure design fits in the box they need to present. But I showed them kind of rough Photoshop mockups and they said: as long as this captures the film we’re good.

The overhead shots of the objects have a very Wes Anderson feel. Was that a conscious decision?

No, it wasn’t! There might have been the extra fact that the typography was very centered. Wes Anderson has taken over the kind of centered typography. So I can see why they have that feel. That’s probably why the Grand Budapest one was the easiest to put together—we knew it would play very cleanly and read as “Wes Anderson.”

How long does each slide take you to make?

Overall, the difficulty with the Oscars is that you get the nominees on the 22nd of January and you have to do everything by the 15th of February. For 23 sequences. It’s incredibly tight. I’ve worked on a lot of title sequences for a lot of films, but the workload for the Oscars supersedes anything. And this year even more so.

Last year’s Best Picture slides had an overarching theme in that they all looked like movie posters. Do you generally try to give each collection of slides some kind of motif?

A couple of years ago, the Academy teamed up with an ad agency to rebrand it. So there was a set of colors we tried to get involved in every category. Red, black, gold and white: the Academy’s brand colors for this year.

What was your personal favorite slide this year?

That’s a toss-up between American Sniper in the Best Picture package and Imitation Game for production design. Bizarrely enough, I tried to direct the script for The Imitation Game. I got that a few years ago. I am an Alan Turing obsessive. I actually owned his domain name back in the ’90s:, before he was even known.

But my favorite thing that happened last night was getting tweeted by Donald Trump. He said, these are the worst Oscars graphics ever. When Donald Trump is saying how bad your work is, this guy who can’t even curate his own haircut—that’s when you know you’ve made it.