TV series art direction isn’t just set building or location finding. The designer is a visual stylist charged with communicating the show’s thrust and themes to the viewers — right between the eyes.
Says “Mad Men’s” Dan Bishop, “We production designers are all working to support the drama one way or another, whether to convey character or to convey the center of time and place.” And in fact all of this year’s Emmy nominees for art direction/single camera put their choices in the context of a creative team’s shared vision.
Richard Berg of “Modern Family” harks back to his architecture background. “Le Corbusier’s credo was ‘A house is a machine for living.’ And for me, a set is a machine for filming.”
The sitcom’s machinery involves action bouncing among three family environments seen in diffused background. “Not knowing where you are in the first five seconds might spoil the first joke,” Berg maintains, so each home boasts a predominant identifying color: green; blue; off-white with flashes of red. “Subconsciously, audiences know where they’ve landed.”
Visual shorthand signals the landings in “True Blood” as well, according to production designer Suzuki Ingerslev. “Every location is a character. You need to transport your audience instantly into this world,” a bayou gumbo of contempo and historical detail mixed with magic.
“My spaces look really realistic. You can relate to them, yet something fantastical happens there. It grounds the show. You say ‘I’ve been in places just like these, so wow, maybe vampires and shape-shifters really could live among us.’ ”
But a milieu isn’t easy to make tangible. She was thrilled to stumble upon an authentic, unique octagonal brick mansion in Natchez as the abode of the formidable vampire king of Mississippi (Denis O’Hare).
“I went, oh my God, it shows grandeur, power and influence. There’s something foreboding about it. And it’s never been filmed before!”
Francois Seguin hoped to give viewers of “The Borgias” a taste of the Italian Renaissance they’d never had before: “something more theatrical, even operatic. It’s about greed, power, money and sex — very contemporary in that, because we never change.”
His decor subtly hints at character. The Borgias “are a family of hide and seek, so we put in many pillars, a lot of vertical structures so they could appear and disappear and cast long shadows.”
In establishing the Atlantic City boardwalk as “a place like nowhere else, the flagship” of “Boardwalk Empire,” production designer Bob Shaw had to follow the dictum of protagonist Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi): “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
“The original Ritz Hotel where Nucky lived is the only remaining period hotels, and it’s a plain brick box. Authentic, but it certainly didn’t capture the feeling. So we modeled our Ritz on other famous hotels that have mermaids swimming around them, and a frieze of seashells on top,” Shaw says.
Four seasons of “Mad Men” have segued from the complacent ’50s into the tumultuous ’60s, but in doing so creator Matt Weiner demanded “both accuracy and restraint,” says Bishop.
“Everything has to be right, but he doesn’t want us to use the iconographic period stuff. We have yet to introduce a fluorescent color!”
Paralleling the generational shift, the principals have split away from venerable agency Sterling Cooper. Their new digs are “a smaller, more chaotic space — more of a rabbit warren with people working on top of each other and a breakdown of some of the old social conventions.” What comes through is “a certain amount of disintegration of the familiarity of the ’50s.”
Settings are assigned narratives, not just walls and bric-a-brac. The office of Roger Sterling (John Slattery) “is all black and white, pretty horrible in its way. We decided his new wife had an influence on it, and maybe he doesn’t really like it very much.”
Bishop betrays no upcoming spoilers. But if the troubles in that marriage intensify, remember: The sets signaled it first.
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