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|| News Item: Posted 2006-03-30

Leading Off: Nervous, sweating and dark. Backstage at the Oscars.
By Robert Hanashiro, Sports Shooter

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Hilary Swank is photographed backstage by the AP's Chris Carlson and the Los Angeles Times' Al Seib back stage at the Kodak Theater at the 78th Annual Academy Awards.
Tuxedo-clad and in a hurry, he rushes across the red carpet in front of the Kodak Theater, asking ushers for a discrete entrance to backstage where the music has started and the booming voice of the narrator says "Live from Hollywood, the entertainment capital of the world, the 78th annual Academy Awards…"

"I'm sort of in a hurry," he says as an usher opens a door that leads to a hallway where the "green room" is located … turning right through an open doorway, he is now standing in near darkness as a dozen people peek past the heavy curtains of the stage.

He's stressing out big-time now, sweat beading up from his hair as he tugs once again on his loose cumber bun, "Jezz … where have you been?" someone says to him as he tries to control his breathing and settle into his work for the night.

"Out on that friggin' red carpet fighting the crowd," he replies, trying to sound calm.

He turns and almost steps in front of Reese Witherspoon, nominated for best actress for "Walk The Line" and is getting ready to make one of the first presentations on stage.

To the right is a large theatrical makeup mirror, lined with light bulbs … "Must be for the stars before they go on stage," he thinks to himself. A moment later, a tall, beautiful woman sits in a chair in front of the mirror as a makeup artist and hair stylist fuss over her. She's not one of the stars … she's one of three "trophy girls" who walk out from the wings to give the Oscars to the presenter as the winner rushes to the stage after hearing their name announced.

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Reese Witherspoon studies her script backstage before presenting in the Kodak Theater at the 78th Annual Academy Awards.
A few minutes later as he's looking onto the stage, he senses someone next to him and sees Witherspoon again, this time studying a binder containing the script for the show.

He nervously wipes his hands for what seems like the 100th time on his pants as one of the "trophy girls" moves past him with a curt, whispered "Excuuuuse me." He's beginning to feel the tension in the air backstage, it's now as thick as a Musso & Frank's flannel cake.

"Remember to stay out of the way of the crew and for GOD'S SAKE, stay out of sight! If the producer or director sees your ass on one of the monitors everyone's outta here," a voice from a show rep says into his ear. "But do your work and try not to worry too much about getting tossed … if it happens, it happens."

All this does is add another flannel cake to the tension he feels and the tux shirt is beginning to stick to his back.

Right on cue, a massive boom camera is pushed past him, two cable pullers giving a nasty glance over their shoulders on their way to follow Witherspoon onstage.

"This is worst than the sidelines at the friggin' Super Bowl," he mutters under his breath.

Then all of a sudden, everything is very still backstage and everyone peers over to center stage and a few seconds later they hear: "And the winner is … GEORGE CLOONEY!"

Wild applause erupts from the theater, heads turn as Clooney (did he REALLY play Batman in that crummy movie?) rushes on stage, to a waiting Nicole Kidman, who is smiling, holding out his Oscar …

I raise my camera and let off a burst of three frames, very aware of the noise it makes. To me, it sounds like the '72 Ford Pinto I drove when it was running on just three cylinders … but nobody backstage seems to notice as they clap wildly for Clooney.

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Oscar statuettes wait presentation backstage in the Kodak Theater at the 78th Annual Academy Awards.
No, the sweating nervous man was not a stagehand or assistant gaffer or the 3rd best boy … it was a backstage-Oscar-newbie from a national newspaper.

USA TODAY Life section photo editor Jym Wilson had been working several years for that moment. Getting access to backstage at the Academy Awards was the Holy Grail of award show coverage. It gave the paper's readers a look into one of the highest profile events on the planet that they could not see anywhere else, not even in the network's live broadcast.

Still photographers backstage at the Oscars are certainly not new. The Los Angeles Times' Anacleto Rapping, the AP's Kevork Djansezian and photographers from Premiere magazine had been doing it for several years.

But for us to finally get to photograph something the public and even TV didn't see was an opportunity to do what Wilson called "real photojournalism" … something that is often lacking in the posy situations on the red carpet and photo rooms.

While it was tense backstage, the real moments that you see and the emotions that the celebs display are what make enduring the pressures worthwhile.

I had spent the past 14 Academy Awards shooting the actual show from the back of the theater, something I had become pretty good at I felt. The reaction of the winners in their seats as their names are called (or not called) and on stage I felt was pretty honest and storytelling, unlike stars kissing the Oscar in a photo room or twirling around to show off a dress during the arrivals on the red carpet.

So when USA TODAY received confirmation that we would finally be backstage at the Oscars I will admit to a bit of nervousness … I was thousands of miles away in Torino, Italy at the Olympics and it was three weeks before show.

I guess when you slip into middle age and doing something for several years, there's a comfort zone you settle into. I tried to talk my colleague Jack Gruber into doing the backstage thing ... but the assignments were set: Jack would do my old job of shooting the show; I would shoot arrivals (another first for me!) and then head to the theater to document the goings-on backstage.

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

George Clooney escorts Nicole Kidman offstage after she presented him with his best supporting actor Oscar in the Kodak Theater at the 78th Annual Academy Awards.
I have covered several important finals at Olympic games, last second plays to win Super Bowls and NBA Championships. But I don't think I was as nervous and worried than I was with this assignment.

Fortunately for me, the LAT's Al Seib was extremely helpful in calming my doubts and nervousness. Al had taken over for Anacleto a couple of years prior and was the backstage veteran. The AP assigned Chris Carlson to backstage duty, taking over for Kevork and the two of us commiserated and tried to reassure one another in the days leading up to the show.

But like any assignment … big or small … once you start to make photographs and figure out your boundaries you begin to feel a little more comfortable. People begin to accept that you're there and you can work. You're still feeling the tension, it's almost like the closing minutes of National Championship Game. But it's quieter and you can't shake the feeling the camera noise is heard by everyone.

The thing that was a little difficult was keeping cool when looking around and finding you're 3 feet from JLo, Charlize Theron or Ziyi Zhang. Or standing next to Itzhak Perlman as he plays his violin before taking the stage. Or telling Ang Lee "congrats" as he waits backstage cradling his Oscar for best director.

One of the things I felt besides nerves, tension and pressure was a little … self-conscious: Would anyone notice I was wearing a (ill-fitting) rental tux?

I learned several important things in the nearly 5 hours backstage at the Kodak Theater. One is that it's DARK … almost pitch black with the illumination basically from what spills in from the stage. So that made a 24mm 1.4, 50mm 1.4 and 85mm 1.8 a photographer's best friend … backstage at least.

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Morgan Freeman escorts Rachel Weisz from the sage in the Kodak Theater at the 78th Annual Academy Awards.
The other thing I (re)learned is to trust your instincts and experience as a photojournalist … take the advice and cautions you're given in working in a new and strange environment … but ultimately you have to make your own photographs for your readers.

* * *

Sports Shooter v.89 leads off with a personal and thought provoking article by David Burnett on sitting out the recent Winter Olympics. And speaking of the Torino Games, we have a series of remembrances contributed by Scott Strazzante, Amy Sancetta, K.C. Alfred, Donald Miralle, Eric Risberg and Gary Reyes.

The problems experienced by photographers trying to cover the NCAA Tournament Regional in Oakland is recounted by Jack Gruber. Darren Carroll checks in with his "On The Road" column and we get a peek into the lighting kit of the Los Angeles Times' Myung J. Chun.

So sit back, relax, adjust the contrast on your monitor … put on the classic album "Windy" by the Association and enjoy Sports Shooter v.89.

As always, thanks to Special Advisors & Contributors: Deanna & Emma Hanashiro, Brad Mangin, Rick Rickman, Rod Mar, Vincent Laforet, Trent Nelson, Jason Burfield, Grover Sanschagrin, Joe Gosen, The Photodude, Reed Hoffmann, Anne Ryan, Darren Carroll and Bob Deutsch.

Thanks this month to: David Burnett, Jack Gruber, Myung J. Chun, Scott Strazzante, Amy Sancetta, K.C. Alfred, Donald Miralle, Eric Risberg and Gary Reyes.

I welcome any comments, corrections, suggestions and contributions. Please e-mail me at

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