The Oscar Statue Gets a Makeover

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This year Oscar is wearing bronze. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has selected a new company to manufacture the statues for the first time in more than 30 years. The Academy chose a fine art foundry in New York to replicate the original method used for the first awards in 1929.

Over the years the process was simplified, bronze was replaced with an alloy that is mostly tin, and the metal mold got so worn that the figure’s features were becoming blurred.

Polich Tallix in Rock Tavern, New York was the Academy’s choice to rethink the trophy. The firm has built architectural elements and oversized artwork for 45 years with clients that range from Jeff Koons to H.R. Giger to Zaha Hadid.

The Academy loaned examples of the oldest and the newest Oscars to the company, which made 3D scans of both, combining the best elements of each into a slightly tweaked design. The 2016 version of the golden prize is a little sharper, and he takes a lot longer to manufacture.  He still has his sword, his art deco lines, and his film reel base, but now with more defined eyes and mouth—and it looks like he’s been working out.

When the Academy presented their first thirteen golden statuettes in 1929, the winners received a work of art created by three incredibly talented Angelenos, whose little man has become a global icon. MGM art director Cedric Gibbons had a decade of silent films under his belt when he made the first sketch of a stylized modern knight holding a sword. George Stanley (more on him tomorrow) was a sculptor who often worked at a heroic architectural scale, augmenting art deco architecture with contemporary artwork. He fleshed out a design inspired by the Gibbons sketch and created a design that has lasted for 87 years. Italian craftsman Guido Nelli realized the vision of both men. He ran the California Bronze Foundry in Boyle Heights and was one of the first in California to work in the ancient “lost wax” process of casting. Nelli was born in Rome and learned the method from his family. He moved to Russia and opened a large foundry in St. Petersburg just before the Bolshevik revolution began there in 1917. He was a stowaway on a ship and eventually made his way to Los Angeles, where he produced some of our most famous outdoor art: Tommy Trojan at USC, Beethoven in Pershing Square, and Seabiscuit at Santa Anita.

In 1935 the Academy switched to Phillips Bronze Bushing Works near Central and Washington for one year. Then a partnership between Dodge Trophy Company and Southern California Trophy Company made the awards for the next 24 years, crafting them out of plaster during World War II. Manufacturing moved to Chicago when the president of Dodge relocated there in 1960. When that company closed in 1983, Dodge recommended the nearby R.S. Owens Company to the Academy. R.S. Owens’ method involved making a four-piece mold filled with a mixture of tin, antimony, and copper that was coated in 24-karat gold. The process took two days.

Now, in New York, the statues start as wax sculptures that are covered in ceramic and fired at 1600°F. They are then cast in liquid bronze, then cooled and sanded before being electroplated in 24-karat gold. The company takes three months to produce 50 of the 13½-inch awards. R.S. Owens continues to make the technical awards that are presented in January.

“The new statuette,” says Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs. “Exemplifies impeccable craftsmanship and the enduring nature of art.” I agree, but I wish it could have been made closer to home. Eli Broad must know a guy. Can we look on Angie’s List?

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