Art directors conjure past

Road to the Emmys 2012: Creative Arts - Art Director

The barrage of period dramas has led many TV production designers to master the art of reproduction. This year’s design contenders continue to perfect their skills for conjuring bygone eras.

“The Borgias” art director Jonathan McKinstry says when it comes to the show’s design, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” — especially when Rome needs to be built in Hungary. “We have only have one backlot set,” says McKinstry, “so we have a lot of work.” He and other production designers from the series draw inspiration from books about the medieval and Renaissance periods, and from paintings they’ve “interpreted.”

Given budget and scheduling limits, McKinstry says some sets are deliberately kept “anonymous.” “If we get distinct with the designs,” he says, “we won’t be able to use them in different scenes.” But he finds re-creating the period to be fun. “These were the richest people in the world at the time,” McKinstry says. “They were the equivalent of Bill Gates of the 15th century.”

Donal Woods, production designer for “Downton Abbey,” did a lot of his research on foot. His team visited more than 40 houses in England; those houses, says Woods, became their palette.

He estimates that around 50% of the props used on the series have been brought in to these 19th century homes for shooting. “The main thing we try to do is create two worlds in one house,” says Woods of the “Downton Abbey” estate. “In the above-stairs, we added to the lavishness and the internal architecture. And we contrast that with the downstairs that is almost like a black and white photograph.”

“Mad Men” benefits because the show’s 1960s time frame is so recent compared to the other period shows. “We use furniture from around that period,” says production designer Dan Bishop. “A lot of it is in remarkably good shape and the camera doesn’t pick up on the age. … Though, we’ve had to reject pieces that may be beyond our ability to restore in the time we have.”

Bishop, who is particularly proud of Don Draper’s apartment on this season of the skein, saying, “The exact replication of things that have already been designed isn’t anything more than a technical challenge. Replicating furniture is easy. The forming of a space. . .that is the design.”

Road to the Emmys 2012: Creative Arts
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