Exhibition highlights from the Stories of Cinema galleries at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, selected by designers and technicians who brought the exhibits to life.  

Click here to read more about the design thinking behind the Stories of Cinema galleries

When you see a great movie at a cinema, you’re transported to another world. The skill of the actors, the details of the costumes, the beats of the screenplay, the swell of the soundtrack… Every element comes together to take you to another place and time, all through the frame of a single screen.  

Behind the scenes, the magic of cinema is revealed as a complex balance of multiple moving parts. As designers of the Stories of Cinema galleries, our challenge was to reveal those interconnecting elements, exploring the history of cinema as an ever-evolving art, a science, and an industry – all while ensuring clear navigation and a compelling visitor journey.  

Just as a movie is the product of a synergy of stories and skillsets, so the design process required a fusion of different disciplines and expertise, brought together as a cohesive team by the WHY Museums WorkshopThere’s so much to see at the galleries, and over the next two weeks our team of specialist consultants will be sharing top highlights, revealing their role behind the scenes. From A/V wizardry and feats of structural engineering, right down to the small-print of label text – every element of the design intentionally recreates the cinematic experience.  





Perhaps my favorite gallery is The Path to Cinema on the third floor – it focuses on the earliest days of cinema and the dawn of projection. Being a lighting designer, it’s all very near and dear to me. You get to see all the physical hardware – projectors and magic lanterns and the like – and one especially nice touch is an interactive area where you can experiment with your own shadowplay. It’s very simple, just a light shining on a rear projection screen, but it hearkens back to the essential impulse behind the movies: you see a light, you make a shadow, you tell a story.  

Transformation is a recurring theme of the gallery, and I’m particularly drawn to the cityscape scenes of the “Vue d’Optique which switch from day to night depending on whether the artworks are lit from the front or the back. We built a computerized mechanism that crosses back and forth; when the scene switches to night, the small pinpricks in the surface appear like festoons of string lights, streetlamps, or car headlamps. Again, it’s very simple but you get a sense of the ethereal quality of light. That’s very much the mood of the gallery. Each device – many of which are crafted in gleaming brass and wood – is a beautiful object in its own right, and they appear to float out of the darkness. It’s a magical environment. 

– Ted Mather, Managing Principal, Available Light 





Our goal was to ensure that the museum could always serve as a beautiful blank slate – to direct attention to the artifacts as the primary point of focus and to allow scope for flexibility as the museum evolves. The challenge came in designing the exhibit components so that they would appear completely finished in their present state, yet also be modified according to future programming and new artifacts on display. 

There are so many exhibits that were amazing to work on – but if I’m going to pinpoint one, it would be the fractured mirrored wall element which serves as a backdrop for Enter the Dragon in the Significant Movies and Movie Makers Gallery. We wanted to create the sense of the fragments of broken glass spinning around the figure of Bruce Lee, and we worked with WHY and the museum team to see how that static, faceted physical form could duplicate the dynamism of the iconic shot. Deciding which material to use for the mirrored wall was quite a process, given all the rules and regulations of working in a museum environment. After some trial and error, we selected a mirror reflective aluminum composite panel and polished stainless steel, developing a method of scoring and bending the material so that it would look sharp and fragile but would actually be safe, fire retardant, and durable. I’m so pleased with the final result – it evokes that sense of drama while still serving as an active backdrop, not overwhelming the artifacts on display. 

– Paula Neston, Technical Design Director, Cinnabar 





When we were developing the graphic design language for the museum, our goal was to continually connect the visitor to the context of filmmaking and the cinema experience. Among the key principles are references to analog filmstrips and the concept of creating motion from a series of static, repeated frames. The typeface  – Cinetype – is inspired by the original laser-etching process that was used for closed-captioning, leaving a subtle jagged edge which evokes the tactility of filmstrip.  

You’ll see those principles at play as you go up the elevator to the second floor and turn towards the glass title wall at the entrance to the galleries. The large graphic lettering and the countdown motif (telling you which floor you’re on) are designed to let you see through to the film projections within the galleries. The flickering colors and light can even be seen reflected on the dome of the Geffen Theater beyond – I love the way that there’s a cinematic, dynamic quality to the static lettering. 

Another important area of focus was the table in the Academy Awards History Gallery that serves as a timeline – it’s a huge, modular piece which can grow and be updated every year. For us, it was an incredible graphic design challenge to make something that didn’t feel too overwhelming, but still shared that extensive history in a way that a user could engage with. We worked very closely with the editorial team to devise a framework that could accommodate all the information required, as well as interfacing with the costumes and embedded elements such as invitations and photographs. Approaching the table, there’s something for everyone – all kinds of things that people will recognize from their own experience of watching the Academy Awards. For me, one of the most exciting aspects was considering the different points of entry to the content, inviting the visitor to discover something they might not have been expecting.

Shannon Harvey, Co-Founder, IN-FO.CO 





For the Spielberg Family Gallery on the ground floor, we created the content for one of the screens and an animated “takeover” that spreads across the five-screen montage at the looping point.  We love the way the visuals are transformed by the curved glass to create different forms as you walk through the space. The design of the gallery encourages you to interact with the hanging screens for a wide view as well as closer inspection. 

 When you exit the Stories of Cinema galleries on the third floor, you walk through an illuminated hallway where you can stay for a beat to take in quotes from Academy members on the future of cinema, with graphics illuminated on two large LED panels facing each other. When creating the screen content, our approach was to reference the end scroll of a film’s ending credits with a subtle “spotlight” illuminating the text from one screen to the next, create an illusion of light passing through the physical space and into the next screen. 

– Ben Conrad, Creative Director, GenPop 





The Oscars Experience is designed to recreate the thrill of accepting a real Oscar live at the Academy Awards, so – as you can imagine – expectations were extremely high! Meeting the standards of the Academy meant that the design and technology had to surpass what you’d expect at the Dolby Theater itself. The sensation had to match the surreal, overwhelming experience of the Academy Awards, and it also needed to feel personal for each visitor.   

Luckily, we had the full resources of the movie industry at our fingertips when creating the experience. With an audio system by Dolby Atmos, cinema-grade cameras by Sony, visual effects by Rodeo FX, and an original score from Primary Color Music, we were able to achieve the visceral immersion of the Dolby Theater – including a truly lifelike Oscars audience. Working closely with the architecture team at WHY, we amplified the dimensions of the stage area through subtle spatial illusions and designed the maze-like “backstage” space to heighten your mind for the experience. When you reach the end of the passageway, a specially trained producer ushers you on stage. And after that – we don’t want to give too much away, but we can testify to the fact that you really don’t know what to expect until you’re there, in the moment, feeling the high-sensory impact of the lights, cameras, music, and applause. 

While you’re accepting your Oscar, 4K Sony cameras installed at different angles capture your reactions and the response of the audience. Hypno’s proprietary video processing technology instantly mixes the footage from the cameras with motion graphics and custom audio, exporting and delivering personalized videos to your phone in seconds. Each video is optimized for social, so it’s perfect for sharing. Of course, we’re  expecting some visitors to arrive at the museum fully dressed for the Oscars so that they can get an amazing video and add some magic to their museum experience.

– Russell Armand, CEO, HYPNO 



The galleries are designed to let you follow your eyes and your ears, mapping your own path according to your own personal interests and impulses. Now that you know a little more about the techniques behind the scenes, you might find yourself drawn in new directions – experimenting with shadowplay in the path to cinema gallery, or perhaps finding yourself losing track of time in sonic space. If there’s one thing as exciting as cinema magic, it’s discovering how the magic is made. And as gallery designers, we think that’s equally true of museums.  

 Interested in hearing more about WHY’s design thinking for the project? Click here 


Article by Matilda Bathurst
October 11th, 2021
Exhibition Design,  Museums,  Programming
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