LOS ANGELES -- It's three weeks before the Academy Awards, and the celebrity presenters are hidden under a white sheet.
At least, their names are.
Talent coordinator Danette Herman guards the identities of the stars she has recruited for the Feb. 29 ceremony by draping a cloth over her board of names, like its a forgotten piece of furniture.
The Oscar folks like to leak their talent lineup a little at a time: Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Will Smith and Nicole Kidman are among the few names that have escaped from the shroud so far this year.
Across town in an industrial warehouse, seven gigantic Oscar statues are looking a little pale.
Veteran Oscar production designer Roy Christopher has commissioned the gargantuan Oscars for this year's set, which will go through about 20 changes during the telecast. The half-finished statues await their golden glow like ailing giants: ashen-hued and resting on their backs.
Only one of the Oscars stands upright, yet it leans a little. Eventually all will lean -- but on purpose.
Saying no a lot
While Christopher provides the Academy Awards with a big, bold and glitzy stage, Herman works to find big, bold and glitzy people to walk onto it.
Since the Oscar show is watched by tens of millions worldwide, the delicate part of Herman's job is not getting the stars to say "Yes" -- it's telling celebrity volunteers "No."
"Yes, we do say no to a lot of people ... a lot of people who are very worthy to be on the show," she said, sitting at her desk in a makeshift office at Revolution Studios in Santa Monica, the home base of Oscar telecast producer Joe Roth.
Stars receive no fee for being presenters, and there's no bargaining. Instead, Herman gives most stars a gentle take-it-or-leave-it pitch, sweetening the deal with a gift basket packed with thousands of dollars worth of treats like perfume, sunglasses and designer clothes.
So just because you show up to present the sound-mixing prize this year doesn't mean she'll offer you the chance to hand out the best picture next year.
Close call with Heston
Herman has worked with the academy for about 30 years, and one of her closest calls was when Charlton Heston got stuck in traffic and hadn't arrived at the theater by showtime. The producer told her to ask Clint Eastwood to fill in, but he was toward the front of the audience and she had to get to his seat without appearing on camera.
"I was crawling up the aisle and Clint Eastwood is sitting there, so I grabbed at his tuxedo leg. He looked down like, 'Who is this woman?'"
There was a typical Hollywood ending: Heston showed up at the last minute.
For the stars who make the cut -- and make it through L.A. traffic -- Christopher likes to tailor the stage for their grand entrances.
"There are stairways and drapes and columns that come in," he said. "For the fabulous ladies we pay particular attention, because everybody wants to see what they're wearing and we want to show them in a beautiful way."
This year's set features a bit of trickery called forced perspective to make the stage look deeper and more expansive. The floor and walls are wider at the front and grow sharply narrow at the back and tops, making them look longer or taller than they really are.
That's why the seven huge Oscar statues have to tilt -- to fit the illusion.
This year's stage has a starry-sky background, floating platforms on either side for the presenters, ceiling-high frosted glass marked with silhouettes of huge Oscars and hovering decks stacked with the oversized statues.
"Last year was the 75th anniversary so we really explored the history of the Oscars, the art deco look of the '30s and '40s," Christopher said. "This year we're taking a more sophisticated, contemporary, sleeker approach."
As he talks, sculptor Beth Schmidt begins to layer one of the prone gray statues with clear shellac and whisper-thin leaves of aluminum. Once coated, the silvery statue will be painted with a clear finish that is tinted yellow, giving the figure a transparent sheen that is prettier beneath the lights than simple gold paint.
Soon the golden guys will be trucked 10 miles to the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, ready for their close-ups.