Every year the title cards that designate the Oscar categories and the films nominated in each get more and more interesting thanks to an innovative designer named Henry Hobson.
Hobson, who’s worked on the last seven Academy Awards broadcasts recently did a quick interview with Slate to detail his process. In addition to the title cards for 23 categories, Hobson also designed the imagery used during John Legend and Common’s performance of “Glory” from “Selma,” no doubt contributing to the production of David Oyelowo and Chris Pine’s tears. He’s also designed opening and closing titles sequences for such films as “Snow White and the Huntsman,” “Sherlock Holmes” and “Robin Hood” as well as seasons 1 and 2 of “The Walking Dead.”
For the Oscars, Hobson sees all the films in advance, then sketches, pulls together materials and begins coordinating teams. The entire process must be completed in just over a month, with the nominees announced on January 15 and the show airing February 22. Here are some highlights from Slate’s interview plus clips of Hobson’s work.
How Hobson Began
“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.”
Sneaking Things In
“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.”
“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 mustaches that really stood out for me. The time period, the characters they are portraying, it all comes together in the mustaches. 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.”
Hobson remarked that over the years he’s noticed that the title sequences can get repetitive, so he’s always trying to come up with new ideas.”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].”
The Academy’s Hesitancy
“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.”
Production Design of Production Design
As Slate points out, the Production Design category title sequence was particularly masterful, with objects representing each of the films laid out on a table. “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….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 ‘The 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.”