The Kodak Theatre goes quiet as the big screen at center stage begins flashing images of actors and filmmakers who have died. A photo of Heath Ledger or Paul Newman might move the audience to spontaneous applause. Other images inspire deep sighs, as viewers reflect on the entertainers who have touched our lives.
The In Memoriam segment can be the most moving part of the Oscar telecast. It's also the toughest to produce.
"It is the single most troubling element of the Oscar show every year," says Bruce Davis, executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "Because more people die each year than can possibly be included in that segment."
Davis' office keeps a running list of academy members and others in the movie business who have passed since the previous year's segment was compiled. Then, a few weeks before the awards, he and a small committee of academy officials whittle the list of more than 100 names down to the 30 or so folks who will be included in the show's memorial — from the famous faces viewers at home are sure to recognize to the behind-the-scenes workers familiar only to academy members.
"It gets close to agonizing by the end," Davis says of the annual meeting. "You are dropping people who the public knows. It's just not comfortable."
Segment began in 1990s
Oscar's In Memoriam montage began in the early 1990s and other awards shows followed suit, including the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Grammys and Emmys — all of which go through the same painful process every year.
"It's a killer because we have hundreds of members that pass each year and we can't get them all in," says SAG Awards producer Kathy Connell.
The film academy gives its final list of in-memoriam honorees to the producer of the segment just days before the big show. Chuck Workman, who is producing the memorial montage for Sunday's telecast, says he was working with a temporary list until last week.
Many of the names made the final cut, he says, but some did not.
"It's a constant balance for the academy," says Workman, who has 20 years of experience making film montages for the Oscar show. "They do try their best, but there's only so many spots."
Workman's task, then, is to find footage and photographs that best represent the 30 or so people in the memorial piece. He looks for images that "they would be proud of, their families would be proud of and the people in the audience would be proud of."
For Patrick Swayze, who died Sept. 14, Workman picked clips from "Dirty Dancing" and "Ghost."
But Workman notes that "In 'Ghost,' you don't want it to look too much like he died."
Using computers and digital editing software, he assembles the sequence like a puzzle.
"It's very tricky," he says. "You want a good juxtaposition, but you don't want it to be too cute. It's really an honor to the people who died."
Families always call after show
Davis, meanwhile, is already prepared for the calls he always gets after the show from family members upset that their loved one wasn't included in the memorial piece.
"I always hope that they take some comfort that the very fact that they worked in movies confers a certain amount of immortality ... and their work lasts longer than being briefly acknowledged in a short clip sequence at one show in one year."
Still, he takes the calls personally and feels the callers' pain.
Davis says he's "never had an enjoyable year" working on Oscar's memorial segment. But it's always worth it to pay tribute to those who have died.
"Even though I've been keeping the list as we went along, it's always stirring to see it all assembled and just remember how much extraordinary work a list of 25 to 30 people may represent," he says. "It's important because even though every given Academy Awards broadcast is about the year just past, this is a way of evoking the whole history of movies."