Production design is not without its challenges, even on the best of days — and between dealing with tight deadlines, small crews and chasing a yacht around the European coast, the Emmy-nominated designers working on HBO shows this year certainly faced their share.
In a panel for TheWrap’s Virtual Screening Series on Wednesday, John Paino (“Big Little Lies”), Stephen Carter (“Succession”), Howard Cummings (“Westworld”), Eric Morrell (“Last Week Tonight”) and Kristian Milsted (“Watchmen”) discussed some of those challenges.
For Paino, who worked on the second season of HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” the difficulty was maintaining the look and feel of what was originally intended to be a limited series. With Andrea Arnold taking over as director from Season 1’s Jean-Marc Vallee, that also meant more significant time split between Los Angeles and Northern California as a stand-in for the show’s Monterey setting.
“The challenge always with our show is making sure that everything feels like it’s in the same place, and that it has the same mood and tone and atmosphere that we had in the first season,” he said. “Mixing what’s on the stage with what’s on location and making sure it’s all the same atmosphere.”
One of the new sets built for Season 2 was a cafe on the beach that utilized rocks and trees from the beach in its construction. “People loved it there,” he said, adding that the set had been donated to the town. “It’s going to be a coffee shop permanently.”
Consistency was not a concern for Cummings, given “Westworld’s” reboot going into Season 3. Set almost entirely outside of the Delos park from the first two seasons, Season 3 takes place primarily in a futuristic version of Los Angeles, complete with new buildings, redesigned transportation systems and — perhaps most fantastical of all — a flowing L.A. river.
“Pretty much everything was a rethink,” he said. “It’s a combination of Singapore, L.A., and we had this great advisor, a futuristic advisor … a Danish architect named Bjarke Ingels. He actually lent me 450 projects that were unrealized projects, the buildings and stuff. So we actually used those as a way of building the future skyline.”
While Cummings had well over a year to plan future Los Angeles, HBO’s “Succession” has a different style, Carter said.
“We get our scripts late, I think it’s fair to say,” he said. “It’s got an almost improvisational quality to the way we approach the work. And that means changing things at the last minute and in our department, construction teams have to roll with that in short order.”
One of the toughest episodes of the season for Carter was the episode set on a yacht. With just a few hours to see the boat in person before refitting the interiors to make them suitable for filming, Carter was forced to work with tight deadlines crammed into the boat’s travel schedule.
“We did a lot more traveling this season than we did in Season 1,” he said. “I was sort of wrestling with art departments in Croatia and in the U.K. and in New York, both upstate and New York City. That was sort of a new thing, marrying those challenges.”
But working within strict time constraints while building a whole new world is the “great joy” of production design, said “Watchmen’s” Kristian Milsted.
“We had quite a short amount of time to get a grip on the show,” he said. “To try to stay true to the color palette of the graphic novel as much as we could. We tried to give different palettes to different parts of the show … so it was a big kind of world-building exercise that was going to happen in a short amount of time.”
“Every new episode was something completely new,” he said.
Morrell, whose work on HBO’s late-night show “Last Week Tonight” comes with a completely different set of demands, said the biggest challenge is often finding ways to make ambitious ideas like the “Eat S—, Bob” musical number a reality with a limited budget.
“We’re such a small group of people and we always have these huge ideas,” Morrell said. “It’s really about trying to get John to write something on paper so we can start working on it, that’s probably the biggest challenge for us.”
“There’s lots of ideas that are thrown around the office that we just want to try, and sometimes they’re too much,” he added. “The craziest part is just the scale of those things because it’s just me and the art director. We have a small crew, that we hire on the day for moving things around and stuff like that, but really it’s just the two of us.”
“It was all a challenge, and that’s just for one week’s episode,” he said.