Why is it called an Oscar?
We don’t really know for sure.
One popular story is that Margaret Herrick, a librarian for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, saw the trophy for the first time and said it resembled her uncle Oscar.
But then there was actress Bette Davis, who said she named the trophy Oscar because its backside resembled that of her first husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson.
Hollywood gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky also claimed to have come up with the nickname. In 1934, he used it in a story about Katharine Hepburn’s first best actress win.
Nearly 100 years later, we still aren’t certain who named the trophy. But there’s no confusion about who made it.
The first Oscar was designed by MGM art director Cedric Gibbons and sculpted by Los Angeles artist George Stanley. It depicted, like it does today, a knight holding a crusader’s sword while standing on a film reel. The five spokes on the film reel represent the five original branches of the Academy: actors, directors, producers, technicians and writers.
The statuette was made of gold-plated bronze. But when there was a metal shortage during World War II, the award was made of painted plaster (which the winners were able to exchange after the war). And starting in 1982, the award’s core was changed to britannia metal, a pewter-based alloy.
In 2016, the trophy changed again.
“We were engaged to create a new version of the sculpture that had attributes of both the original and the more modern representation,” said Jake Joyce, general manager of the UAP workshop in Rock Tavern, New York, that now makes the statuettes.
UAP was asked to return the statuette to its original splendor and celebrate its history, Joyce said.
“The Academy supplied us with an original 1928 statue and a more modern version,” he said. “We 3D-scanned both, and then our digital artists worked with the Academy to celebrate the desired attributes of both statues.”
It is now closer to Stanley’s original Art Deco sculpture, including being cast solid in gold-plated bronze. Each statuette is 13.5 inches tall, and it weighs 8.5 pounds — about the same as a gallon of milk.
“It’s a very hefty and substantial item when you pick it up,” Joyce said. “They will last longer than all of us.”
For the past few months, photographer Christopher Payne has been documenting how the statuettes are manufactured, starting at the UAP foundry in Rock Tavern, a couple hours north of New York City.
“For me what was interesting was seeing this distinctive shape, that we all know and love and recognize, in its various forms leading up to the finished product,” Payne said.
Payne specializes in industrial photography and often works on stories of how various things are made, such as pencils and pianos. The challenge to these photo shoots, he said, is showing something that’s recognizable while the product is still being formed. That was not a problem for the Oscars.
“There’s no ambiguity,” he said, “and that’s the nice thing about working with something that’s so iconic.”
These wax figures — based on a 3D-printed model — are the first step in making an Oscar statuette.
The wax figures — with an attached gating system — are dipped into a vat of silica sand. This creates a ceramic shell around the wax. Silica is a popular ingredient in ceramics as it helps them retain their shape.
A look at the statuettes at various steps of the manufacturing process. From left: the 3D-printed model, the wax figure, the bronze statuette just out of the mold, the polished statuette before plating, and then the final gold-plated version.
UAP makes about 60 statuettes per year, Joyce said, and it takes about six months to produce them all.
The process starts with a 3D-printed model that is cast in a high-resolution wax. A silicone rubber mold is made off this master pattern to create more wax figures.
These wax figures are then reworked and what is called gated, Joyce said. It’s an attached plumbing system that will be dipped into silica sand to create a ceramic shell.
“When that shell is completed, it’s about 3/8ths of an inch thick everywhere surrounding the wax, and it’s perfectly picked up the detail of that wax,” Joyce said.
The plumbing system is important for the next part. Everything is placed inside of an oven where the wax is melted out, and a hollow vessel — with a perfect negative impression of the statuette — is left behind.
Silicon bronze is then melted in a crucible and poured where the wax used to be. Joyce says this is the traditional lost wax casting method.
“It’s left overnight to cool, and then the ceramic shell has done its job and it’s broken off with a hammer,” he said. “The statue is cut from the gating system, it’s inspected for any casting defects, and then it moves on to our finishing department.”
The finishing phase involves delicate handwork and polishing. Everything has to be precise because any imperfections will be picked up later in the gold plating phase.
“There’s no way to do it other than just spending hours sitting at a desk and very carefully making sure that you sand down the surface without removing any of the features,” Joyce said.
Payne was surprised to see how much the statuette changes from its first iteration.
“By the time you get to the end, the final Oscar is much smaller than the original because they’re always grinding and sanding and polishing and taking away metal,” he said.
Once that step is complete, mounting arrangements are made so each statuette can be eventually fastened to a base. Each statuette receives various stamps related to the Academy, including a serial number, and then it is sent off to a partner in Brooklyn, New York, that handles the gold plating.
Epner Technology is the partner that plates each statuette — first in copper, then nickel, and then 24-karat gold.
“We have many quality control visits with our partner, and we bring the statues back here and they are assembled on the base,” Joyce said. “The statue receives a gold-plated surface and the base receives a black patina. And then they’re assembled and shipped to the Academy.”
UAP also engraves the bronze bands that will have each winner’s name on it. But because it doesn’t know the winners ahead of time, it has to engrave name tags for every single nominee.
When you watch the show on television, you’ll see each winner handed their Oscar. But it is blank. The winner’s tag is attached later backstage.
Extra statuettes are made every year in case there is a tie for a particular category. Any that aren’t used will be housed in the Academy’s vault for the following year.
It’s easy to admire the finished Oscar statuette, with its brilliant gold finish.
Payne hopes his photos also show the beauty in the process, and an appreciation for the craftsmanship that goes into it.
“I’ve always tried to find beauty where we least expect it, especially in places that the public isn’t typically able to see, like factories and assembly plants and foundries,” he said.
In many ways, the Oscar statuettes are like the films that they recognize: A lot of hard work and dedication are poured into a glamorous, polished final product, and there are many talented people behind the scenes who make the magic happen.