A look at the world building through the eyes of production designers. David Willson (“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist”), Martin Childs (“The Crown”) and Mark Friedberg (“The Underground Railroad”) break down how they crafted sets for their shows.
“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist”
Production designer David Willson’s first season on “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” was the NBC musical comedy’s second.
While some key sets, such as the titular character’s apartment and office, were already in play, he was able to put his touches on the show through new spaces, such as Max (Skylar Astin) and Mo’s (Alex Newell) restaurant.
But whether he was building anew or zhuzhing up a favorite, he always had to keep the large ensemble of principal cast and day player dancers in mind.
“With SPRQ [Zoey’s company], there were computer stations and those had to be moved around so there were no cables that the Steadicam operators would trip over,” Willson says.
Other times, he had to create 360 degrees’ worth of set — plus a ceiling, as dance moves might include being thrown into the air.
“There’s no place in the set you could hide. Everything needs to be fitted and dressed,” he says. That included outdoor space.
The 11th episode of the second season, which choreographer Mandy Moore directed, called for a recreation of the Bay to Breakers 12K race. That very quickly turned into a massive performance with about 50 dancers and 150 extras (all safely working amid COVID protocols, he says).
Since the show shoots in Vancouver, they needed a space without easily identifiable landmarks so it could stand in for the San Francisco setting.
“We found an old shipyard,” Willson says. And because the scenes were outside, he had to build rain protection in the event of bad weather.
With four seasons of “ The Crown” under his belt, Martin Childs has recreated 50 rooms within Buckingham Palace for the Netflix royal family period piece. His approach is to apply a color-coded system. “It’s rare to find earth tones at Buckingham Palace — useful then to save them for the more rural homes — Balmoral and Sandringham — places where you’re more likely to see the queen in tweeds,” he says.
In order to learn this, he posed as a tourist to visit the state rooms of the real-life location.
Under that guise, he was able to study colors, furnishings, scale, how light affects the design and the general atmosphere. But because no tour would give him access to the private state apartments, Childs utilized what he calls “informed imagination.” “I took my pretty limited prior knowledge, added extensive research and mixed both with the need to make frames for actors, frames within frames, distance and proximity, the appropriate color and light,” he says.
When it came to finding the royal red that is a fixture within some of the grandest rooms, Childs says there is no “correct” red. Each piece of furniture and fabric “had their own variations from one another and according to how the light falls. You can’t sustain one shade of red over 40 hours,” he says.
“The Underground Railroad “
Production designer Mark Friedberg is no stranger to designing trains, having created them for Wes Anderson’s 2007 film “The Darjeeling Limited.” He did so again for Barry Jenkins’ 10-part “The Underground Railroad” for Amazon Prime Video.
“Trains are complicated to work on because they only go in two directions. They’re either behind you or there’s something in front of them,” he says.
Another complication was that the train in this series represents a bit of magical realism. The series based on Colson Whitehead’s novel of the same name, follows young slave Cora (Thuso Mbedu) as she escapes a Southern plantation via the titular network, which is depicted as actual trains and stations. The trains were the first pieces Friedberg made for the series and the first sets that would be shot. Additionally, Friedberg was aware of sensitivities around trains since the 2014 death of camera assistant Sarah Jones, who was filming on tracks in Georgia, w h e r e “The Underground Railroad” also filmed.
“What became clear to me was I needed to come up with a controllable world and I was not going to bring a real train on to a stage,” he says.
Friedberg reached out to a private museum in Savannah, Ga., asking to use their trains and 200 yards of track. “We built a football field’s length of the tunnel around the existing track and modified four different trains,” he says.
Once he had that, he had to build the different stations to reflect Cora’s journey North.
Production could not keep the museum closed for filming, so his team had to work fast to make those station switches. “ We shot South Carolina first, pulled it out, and revealed Georgia. We shot North Carolina and had Tennessee ready to go,” Friedberg says, praising construction coordinator Thomas A. Morris Jr. for helping to make it happen.
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