A Persistence of Vision
THE ACADEMY MUSEUM OF MOTION PICTURES
Brings the Past Into the Future
by Diane Friedman
The Academy Museum opened its doors in September 2021, realizing a long-held dream of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Over a decade in the making, it promises something for everyone, including location professionals!
Occupying the reimagined 1930’s May Company department store on the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire, the Academy Museum is the latest landmark to grace this stretch of Los Angeles’ Museum Row. The museum’s preserved Streamline Moderne exterior boldly fronts the domed glass, steel and concrete sphere that is Renzo Piano’s addition on its north end.
Sky bridges connect the architectural styles, reframing them through the lens of present sensibilities, much as the museum promises to “advance the understanding, celebration and preservation of cinema” by addressing “the history of cinema in truthful and inclusive ways.”
Starring the Exhibitions!
It is fitting that a museum that embraces the mythological and practical landscape of moviemaking would arise in the heart of Hollywood for tourists to enjoy and heartening that it offers film buffs and filmmakers—both established and aspiring—so much to explore.
Immersive galleries on five levels with multiple big screens and related props and ephemera are devoted to the history of film or international moviemakers, such as Pedro Almodóvar and Hayao Miyazaki. Spike Lee has a comprehensive space that showcases everything that inspires him and his work.
Other displays are more technical. The discovery in the 1820s of how the brain perceives the “illusion of movement” led to early inventions and cinematic devices—and the first film projector, the Cinematographe Lumiere, found in The Path to Cinema: Highlights from the Richard Balzer Collection. A small screening room devoted to sound repeatedly runs a clip of the Raiders of the Lost Ark rolling-boulder scene—each time showing how a different kind of sound effect is created. Finally, they are all mixed together with music, enhancing the action sequence to great effect.
Bruce, the only remaining shark cast from the original mold from Jaws, hangs menacingly from the ceiling that soars above the escalators. Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz sparkle! The sight of Citizen Kane’s sled, ET and R2D2 all give goose bumps. The costume exhibit showcases a breathtaking collection, including the elaborate dress worn by the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wiz, the Dude’s bathrobe from The Big Lebowski and the spacesuit from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
These cinematic objects are dazzling, and for those seeking a deeper experience, they serve as the point of entry into the nuts and bolts of moviemaking and the art and craft of the talented men and women who labor behind the scenes.
“The exhibitions aim to pull back the curtain and provide a better understanding of the magic that we see on the screen,” explains assistant curator Sophia Serrano. “But also place it in a relevant context.”
An in-depth presentation of The Wizard of Oz in the Art of Moviemaking Gallery is used to illustrate how each craft contributes to the making of a film, using one of Hollywood’s most iconic movies as an example. Starting with casting—did you know Shirley Temple almost played Dorothy?—and following every step of the process from the art department’s sketches of Munchkinland, the wardrobe department’s prototypes for Dorothy’s gingham blue and white dress, the travails of the music department fighting to keep the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the final cut, through the editing process, to the details of its publicity campaign. Yet it does not shy away from documenting accounts of how a young Judy Garland and the actors who played the Munchkins were mistreated by the studio.
This kind of commentary is embedded in many of the exhibits. The dramatic two-story backdrop of Mount Rushmore used in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest showcases this singular art form and considers the controversy surrounding this specific image: The carvings desecrate a mountain in the Black Hills of South Dakota sacred to the Lakota people. Other installations incorporate the struggle for Civil Rights, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and issues of gender equity in their narratives.
The Academy was formed in 1927 when 36 production executives and film luminaries were named as founding members at a dinner hosted by MGM chief Louis B. Mayer at the Ambassador Hotel. Originally focused on labor-related issues, the Academy has evolved into an organization dedicated to the preservation of cinema history and its artifacts, the study of cinema and the bestowing of awards. In the beginning, only five crafts were honored: actors, directors, writers, technicians and producers.
Since then, the Academy has grown to more than 10,000 members and now also includes casting directors, costume designers, documentary filmmakers, executives, film editors, makeup artists and hairstylists, marketing and public relations people, music, production designers, short filmmakers and feature animators, sound and visual effects artists.
A Role for Locations
The location community was thrilled when in 2013, former LMGI President and founding member Lori Balton (Argo, Inception, Heat, A River Runs Through It) became the first location professional welcomed into the Academy’s production design branch, joining production designers, set decorators, property masters, illustrators, storyboard artists and scenic artists. Others have followed over the years, including Kokayi Ampah/LMGI (The Color Purple, 8Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, Million Dollar Baby) in 2015.
“In film, we work closely with the designers to build the world of our movie,” says Kokayi. “First, we interpret what’s on the page in terms of character and action, then listen to the thoughts of the designer and director—that is the basis for the job. Researching the period, the architecture, the foliage, and even what time of year the scenes take place in is all a part of the art.
“In most films, the audience’s first understanding of the world they are entering is the location, well before they know the characters. The location says we are in a workplace, be it a high-tech office or street maintenance garage. We are in a certain community, maybe in Little Italy or a Malibu beach house. On set, the actors inhabit the location just like they wear their hair or clothing. The space informs the character. It tells the actors where they live, where they work, where they are going and the actors become those characters.
“We are photographers. We research, scout and present options that will excite the creatives in the visual language we share. We are thinking about those things, as well as the logistics concerned with filming. We must secure the permits, location agreements, places for the crew and equipment to park and eat. We coordinate fire and police departments when action scenes are part of the work. We organize the neighborhood or commercial area around the location—they are aware of us being there and trust that we will restore the community to how we found it when we leave.”
In a small screening room labeled “Image,” visitors can view a compilation of clips from the Academy’s Oral History Collection that highlights how cinematographers, production designers, set decorators and location professionals approach working on location through scene analysis and unique artistry. Spike Lee’s production designer talks about the search for that special block in Brooklyn for Do the Right Thing and production designer Jeannine Oppewall breaks down how the classic 1920’s Spanish-style house used for Kim Bassinger’s character in LA Confidential was the perfect find.
“I talk about how I went from being a PA on Roots back in 1976 to finding and managing locations, as well as production supervising, for The Shawshank Redemption in the ’90s. I talk specifically about the prison location,” says Kokayi. “For every scene that is shot outside the studio, it’s one of us that makes it happen! Before we present something, we need to know that it can be shot. We are filmmakers and the work we do is on the screen—the locations are characters for everyone to see.”
“I definitely felt that Boyle Heights was a character,” concurs assistant curator Sophia Serrano when she delved into creating the museum’s inaugural exhibit for 2002’s acclaimed film, Real Women Have Curves. Before joining the Academy Museum, Sophia was a research assistant at the Getty Research Institute, where she worked on the Metropolis in Latin America, 1830-1930 and completed a PhD in cinema and media studies at USC. She was drawn to this film and its nuanced portrayal of an immigrant neighborhood in Los Angeles.
The film features the debut of America Ferrera as a young student whose aspirations and self-image are at odds with her family and the Mexican-American community she grew up in.
“Director Patricia Cardoso donated her trove of material from the movie to the Academy,” shares Sophia. “Included in this collection were the location pictures taken by scout Rony Shino, and that drove the focus of the space. We highlighted the actual locations used in the movie and how they inspired the director and the story, also how they were enhanced with color and set dressing to evoke the true feeling of being in that world. We have scout pictures of the family house, the spot for the café and the warehouse where the factory was created—all on the wall of the gallery.”
“People love knowing where movies are filmed,” enthuses Kokayi. “They love seeing their towns and streets on the screen. They travel all over the world to visit these sites, to New Zealand to see where The Lord of the Rings was shot, or to the U.K. for the castle used in the Harry Potter films, for example.
“Two years ago, I went back to Mansfield, Ohio, for the 25th anniversary of The Shawshank Redemption. Mansfield sits 70 miles between Cleveland and Columbus with no air service, yet each year thousands come to visit the prison and other locations around the town. This year, well over 2,500 people came for the celebration weekend. That’s the power of film and how it can spark an industry in the most remote of places, and how it becomes a part of the culture and resonates on so many levels.”
Changing Lenses on the Past
Kokayi is also a member of the museum’s Inclusion Advisory Committee. He has broken barriers throughout his career and knows what people can accomplish when given a chance. “Hey, I’m just a poor kid from St. Paul, Minnesota, and here I am in the Academy. I was the first African American to join the Teamsters as a location manager. They told me I would probably be asked to scout downtown or in the hood—at least until people could see what I could do. But all my early jobs were in Santa Clarita which was the complete opposite! Now there are over 30 African American union location managers and assistants, my son among them. From being the first—wow, that’s something to see!
“This is a very active committee,” adds Kokayi. “Whoopi Goldberg and Marlee Matlin are on it. People from every kind of background and ability are represented. We want to make sure that the exhibits are accessible to people of all abilities and we speak to tell the truth about the history of filmmaking.
“Did you know that when Hattie McDaniel won the Oscar in 1940 for best supporting actor for her role in Gone with the Wind ,she wasn’t allowed into the theater for the premiere in Atlanta? Then, at the Academy Awards in Los Angeles, she had to sit at a segregated table at the side of the room. She couldn’t sit with the Gone with the Wind party. I’m glad these stories are now being told.”
“The committee’s input has been invaluable to the museum’s curatorial team during exhibition planning—it’s a tremendous resource,” adds Sophia. “Our mission is to represent a broad spectrum of global movies and moviemakers and embrace a commitment to diversity and inclusion. We work hand in hand with the committee to make sure we address these topics head on, and as truthfully and sensitively as possible.”
“For every scene that is shot outside the studio, it’s one of us that makes it happen! Before we present something, we need to know that it can be shot. We are filmmakers and the work we do is on the screen—the locations are characters for everyone to see.”
A Script for the Future
Seventeen task forces representing each of the Academy’s branches also work collaboratively with museum curators to offer their expertise. They draw from an impressive collection of props, scripts, photographs, objects, moving images, oral history recordings and more than 2,000 interviews from various sources that the Academy has amassed over the years.
Says Sophia, “The exhibitions are modular, so our content on view will always be changing. We have just announced our first round of new exhibitions for the 2022-2023 season that includes one that traces the founding of the studio system in Los Angeles called Hollywoodland, in-depth looks at The Godfather, Casablanca and Boyz in the Hood, and a focus on production designer Sarah Greenwood and set decorator Katie Spencer.” Their exhibition will showcase the design process, highlighting how the crafts within the design branch work together to create the world that is ultimately seen on the screen.
“In May, the museum will be screening John Singleton’s 1993 film Poetic Justice to mark the 30th anniversary of the Los Angeles uprising,” shares Kokayi. “I have been invited—as the film’s location manager—to participate in a panel discussion following the movie, along with John’s daughter, writer Justice Singleton and actor Roger Guenveur Smith.
“I hope that locations will be a bigger and bigger part of future exhibits. I hope there will be seminars and exhibits about locations. Take one or two award-winning films and break down the process used by that location person or team to get something on screen.
“By finally having a presence in the Academy, we will be able to tell more of our part of the story—for me as a person of color and as a location professional. This is just the beginning—there’s the promise of great things ahead for us here at the museum. I’m so happy we are included, that there’s a light shining on what we do. It’s a dream come true.”
Sophia agrees, “Designers have been advocating that we talk to the location managers because they know so much about how and why movies are filmed where they are. We are always looking for new ways to explore how movies are made.”
The Academy hopes that visitors will be both enchanted and enlightened by all that is on display in the museum’s grand opening. It has taken bold steps to call attention to the missteps of the past and embrace the diverse chorus of voices that contribute to the making of movie magic—then, now, and in the years ahead!
Location professionals who are members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:
Lori Balton 2013
Kokayi Ampah/LMGI 2015
Elston Howard/LMGI 2017
Mike Fantasia/LMGI 2018
Ilt Jones/LMGI 2018
James Lin 2018
Robin Citrin/LMGI 2018
Emma Pill/LMGI 2018
Sue Quinn/LMGI 2018
Todd Christensen/LMGI 2020
Markus Bensch/LMGI 2020
Robert Foulkes/LMGI 2020
Janice Polley 2020
Harriet Lawrence/LMGI 2020
Michele St-Arnaud/LMGI 2020
Charlie Harrington/LMGI 2021
Visiting the Academy Museum—Tickets to the Academy Museum are available only through advance online reservations via the Academy Museum’s website AcademyMuseum.org and mobile app.