‘Barbie’ Production Designers Reveal Set Secrets, From the Key to Kendom to a Painted LA Skyline

“We wanted it to look like the Emerald City, but in gold,” Sarah Greenwood says

"Barbie" box office
"Barbie" (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Production designers Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer have worked on all manner of epic projects, but Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” left the duo with a high bar to cross. “It was one of the most challenging, philosophical and intellectual pieces of work we’ve ever done,” Greenwood told TheWrap.

“It was extreme because with our other work, like ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or ‘Anna Karenina,’ or even ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ they’ve all come from somewhere, whether based on a real person, from a book or from a famous animation,” said Greenwood. “But this, we know there’s this amazing doll that we had to get to know and love. But it’s like, what’s a doll?”

The pair explained they had several conversations with Gerwig about the fundamentals of the world Barbie (Margot Robbie) inhabits, conjuring up rules for how the land would work. “Barbieland is this kind of hermetically sealed place that has no elements,” Greenwood said. “There’s no water, there’s no electricity, there’s no wind, there’s no rain, there [are] no light sources.” Though Greenwood does point out that there are lightbulbs.

That adherence to the rules of Barbieland, as well as utilizing old-school Hollywood techniques to convey the land’s artificiality, gave Greenwood and Spencer the opportunity to get unique with how the world looks. The pair went on to discuss working with largescale matte paintings and why Ken’s (Ryan Gosling) “Kendom” was so popular with the crew.

Was the pitch as simple as “‘Barbie!’ Go?”

Sarah Greenwood: It was kind of the other way around. It was somebody saying “Greta Gerwig and ‘Barbie.’” It was the combination. Jacqueline Durran kind of gave me the nod, who’d worked with Greta on “Little Women” and she said, “Oh, you might be getting this amazing script for ‘Barbie’” and it’s like Barbie? How’s that work?

Katie Spencer: It’s funny because when the call came to Sarah, we were in Sicily [on] Mount Etna, an erupting volcano, finishing off “Cyrano,” so you couldn’t get more surreal.

How did you want to approach the design?

Greenwood: We had to make it look toy and that’s all about playing with the scale. You’ve heard us talk about reducing [items] about 23%, this kind of mystical number. And that was for everything. It makes the characters, the doors, the actors look bigger in the spaces, which is what makes them look more toy, and then also playing the scale at the other extreme, which is when things got bigger.

Spencer: We just need to do those things a couple of times and the audience will believe, which is when you had the giant hairbrush and the giant toothbrush, and the little things, when she’s brushing your teeth [or] there’s the bubble bath with the bubbles suspended behind her. It’s things that would really appeal to children, but they’ll appeal to adults.

Was there anything you wanted to adapt from the Barbie Dreamhouse but couldn’t?

Spencer: Because it was an interpretation we could do what we wanted. The battle was that they had no walls.

Greenwood: But that’s because you want to constantly cross-shoot and see what’s going on in the other houses. So therefore, you saw the world around you and, in effect, your walls and your wallpaper became the world outside, that is this hermetically sealed box that you’re in. You’ve got the sky, you’ve got the mountains. Everything is two-dimensional layers until you get to the wall, and then everything that comes over the wall is three-dimensional but everything is still kind of heightened in the way it’s painted. The cloth was over 800 feet long, 50 foot high, painted with sky. But that means that your environment is one big toy box.

Spencer: There were a couple of direct things we did, like Tanner the dog was a direct copy…but then you get the joy of being able to see Weird Barbie’s cat, which you probably didn’t see. We had our rules. We had our rules of color [and] we have our rules of no color. There’s no black white or chrome in Barbieland until Ken comes along with this special interior design skills. Even though it was a nightmare to find a new chrome.

Can you talk more about creating Kendom? Especially as the two worlds are blended by the end.

Spencer: That’s exactly right. The final scenes with Ken it’s almost like a harmony. There’s a little bit of Ken now in the Barbie house, there’s also a bit of Weird Barbie. There’s Kendom still there, there’s Weird Barbie’s stairs and her vulture mailbox.

Greenwood: The palm tree in the middle out back, and it’s got a bandage around it with a big pink bow.

Spencer: The key into Kendom was the black leather sofas and the mini fridges… A key thing is that 50% of the crew wanted to buy nearly all the things in Kendom, I’m not going to tell which 50%.

How was that different than approaching the real world?

Greenwood: We always knew it [was] going to be Venice Beach, so therefore, what Venice Beach looks like compared to what our beach looks like. But there were certain crossovers, like your lifeguard stations which, obviously, ours was smaller and ombre, through blue to pink. I’ve always loved the palm trees on Venice Beach that have the graffiti on [them]. I just think they [Barbie and Ken] land on Venice Beach and they are alien. This place is alien to them, but they are alien within it and this is where Jacqueline’s costumes were sublime. When you’re landing in the real world it is heightened.

Mattel, as Greta said — and she wrote it so she can say it — was like a halfway house between the real world and Barbieworld, because they know about Barbieworld and they know how to get there. So everything about their world was slightly combined and very monochromatic until you went upstairs into the boardroom. You go into that boardroom and what we did, rather than doing a blue screen, we did a painted cloth outside. And we slightly played with the architecture of Los Angeles. So we brought the snowy mountains. We put Warner Brothers Discovery [in] center frame as a nice joke, and then downtown Los Angeles. We wanted it to look like the Emerald City, but in gold.

“Barbie” is in theaters now.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.