The Academy Award of Merit, also called the Oscars, refers to any of the several awards presented annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to recognize achievement in the film industry. The award, a gold plated statuette, is bestowed upon winners in 24 categories including best picture, actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress, directing, original screenplay, adapted screenplay, cinematography, art direction and set decoration, editing, original musical or comedy score, original dramatic score, original song, costume design, make up, sound, sound effects editing, visual effects, foreign language film, animated short, live action short, documentary feature, and documentary short. The Academy also presents scientific and technical awards, special achievement awards, honorary awards, the John Hersholt Humanitarian Award, the Irwing G. Thalberg Memorial Award (for excellence in producing), and the Gordon E. Sawyer Award (for technological contribution), although these are not necessarily awarded annually.
Only members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science may nominate and vote for candidates who make it to the shortlist. The Academy is divided into various branches of film production, and the nominees in each award category are chosen by the members of corresponding branch. Thus, writers nominate writers, directors nominate directors, and so forth. All the members of the Academy nominate the candidates for best picture and vote to determine the winners in most of the categories.
The design for the award statuette - a knight standing on a reel of film and holding a sword - is credited to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and director Cedric Gibbons. Sculptor George Stanley was commissioned to create the original statuette based on Gibbon's design. For many years the statuette was cast in bronze, with 24-carat gold plating. During World War II the statuette were made of plaster because of metal shortage. They are now made of gold-plated britannium. The design, however, has remained unchanged, with the exception of the pedestal base, whose height was increased in 1945. The statuette stands 13.5 inches (34.3 cm) tall and weighs 8.5 pounds (3.8 kg).
The origin of the statuette's nickname, Oscar, has been traced to three sources. Actress Bette Davis claimed that the name was derived from her observation that the backside of the statuette resembled her husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson. Columnist Sidney Skolsky maintained that he gave the award its nickname to negate pretension. The name has also been attributed to Academy librarian Margaret Herrick, who declared that the statuette looked like her Uncle Oscar. The true origin of the nickname has never been determined.