By Zoe Chevat
Wednesday afternoon found the Oscar shorts nominees at 20th Century Fox's sprawling backlot, located in the heart of Century City. After checking in at the Little Theater, used by the studio for on-site screenings, it was off for some behind-the-scenes looks at one of television's biggest studios.
The campus itself is sun-lit and greenery-filled, dotted with elaborate topiary that resembles horses, elephants, and, in the case of the bushes in front of The Simpsons offices, Bart Simpson. But, though things were relatively quiet when we were there, we know that behind soundproof doors the truth is quite the opposite. With dozens of on-site and off-site productions going at once, Fox's soundstages currently house the permanent sets for many of their TV network's long-running hits, including Bones and House. We were lucky enough to be taken through the Bones set, where shooting is down for the season, but there are plenty of autopsy tables, fabricated cadavers, and chemical bottles still around. Large sets for multi-season hits like Bones, which cost millions of dollars to construct, will stay intact for the duration of the show's time on air, until final cancellation.
The investment towards complex, versatile sets could be seen in the winding fake hallways of the soundstage where the new drama Awake has been shooting. Our guide led us through another mock autopsy room (a repeat feature at Fox), a fully dressed police headquarters, most of the downstairs floor of a house, and even the front of a dummy parking garage, complete with cars sawed in half.
Even though our time on the Fox lot was concerned with contemporary activity, there's history to be found, as well. In sight of the lot is the highly recognizable exterior location from Die Hard. One of the stages, Fox’s largest, played host to the huge Harmonia Gardens set for 1969’s Hello, Dolly! Today, the studio’s stars reside in trailers just off their stage, but many of the original star’s bungalows are still standing, having been transformed into production offices for network staples such as The Simpsons.
Soon after, we were ushered into the lot’s scoring stage, site of breakthrough sound recording for The Jazz Singer. These days, large studio productions, like James Cameron’s Avatar, record their scores in this room. Just following this glance into Fox’s scoring legacy, we shot across the lot to another, more visible piece of history; Fox Studios’ own slice of New York City. Its back lot set, where everything from past movie-musicals, to exteriors for today’s television hits and music videos are shot, used to be much larger, spanning several “city” blocks, and including a trolley system. Budgeting and studio hand-changing over the years have meant a chopped-down piece of NYC, but a good chunk still remains, complete with stoops, fire escapes, the corner Royal Diner, and one dark alleyway.
After a quick photo-op with the nominees in “NYC”, it was soon time to head back to the Little Theater, where the last of the shorts was winding up. The screening was a resounding success. During the Q&A, one person asked how producers Michael Fukushima and Marc Bertrand selected Patrick Doyon’s Dimanche/Sunday for production. Another asked for a more in-depth description of how Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis created the painterly effect of Wild Life, while a third person dug to get the full story behind the story of Grant Orchard and Sue Goffe’s A Morning Stroll. Much to the delight of the nominees and their hosts, what appeared to be a significant amount of The Simpsons writing staff had sat in to watch and engage in the Q&A afterwards, including producers Al Jean and James L. Brooks. Even creator Matt Groening made an appearance, taking time to chat with the visiting animators, and stand for pictures.
As the sun began to set over the lot, and the nominees rallied to head off to the AWN/Acme Oscar Party, there was a palpable feeling of camaraderie between the nominated animators and their mainstream American counterparts. One of the essential aims behind Ron Diamond’s tour organization has been to bring nominees together with their peers in the industry, for discussion, sharing, and mutual appreciation. Toiling in a field too often ignored in the media’s coverage of Oscar hustle-and-bustle, the tour spotlights these unique creators and gives them a chance to shine in front of those who can truly understand their work. Posing as a single, smiling crowd in front of the theater, at the end of a long day, it was obvious that the goal of meeting in the middle had been undeniably achieved.