How ‘Code Black’s’ Gritty, Realistic Trauma Center Comes to Life

On CBS’ “Code Black,” the hallways and operating rooms of Angels Memorial Hospital don’t have the gleaming white surfaces seen on the typical medical show. The space is gritty and lived-in, with layers of wear reflecting the building’s 80-plus-year history, as well as its status as a chaotic, overtaxed trauma center.

“We wanted a world that felt made for humans, by humans,” explains creator and showrunner Michael Seitzman. “It had to be as analog as we could make it. We leave tape and Post-its everywhere to show a world that’s very lived in, even misspell signs on the walls — anything that will remind us of the humans that inhabit this place.”

Inspired by the 2013 documentary of the same name directed by Dr. Ryan McGarry (an executive producer on the show), “Code Black” captures the waning days of the original Los Angeles County General Hospital. Built in 1928, it housed the busiest trauma center in the U.S. The pilot was shot on location at the now disused original facility.

For that initial episode, production designer Richard Toyon took lots of photos of the hospital. When the show went to series, he used them to re-create the facility on the Disney lot in Burbank.

“We wanted a world that felt made for humans, by humans.”
Michael Seitzman

Most of the sets are covered by a corkboard drop ceiling, which means no overhead lighting. Thanks to the broader exposure range of digital cameras, the crew can make do with practical lights.

“We come in, turn the lights on and we’re ready to go,” says L.J. Houdyshell, who was promoted from art director to production designer when Toyon left to resume work on HBO’s “Silicon Valley.”

For the show’s trauma room, known as Center Stage, Toyon found four vintage overhead operating room lights on eBay for $1,200. Together, they had enough usable parts to make one light.

A large portion of the set dressing — including gurneys, beds, lights, X-ray holders, clipboards and textbooks from different eras — were bought as surplus from L.A. County General, but the slightly out-of-date health ad posters that paper the walls were produced in-house.

Toyon and team also built a wall-mounted box that they dubbed the Code-Black-ometer. It lights up with progressively urgent status codes, from green to yellow to red to black. Made with surplus Chevy taillights and ’60s push-button consoles, it looks convincingly vintage, but it’s a fictional device created by Seitzman, Toyon and exec producer David Semel to illustrate the codes to the audience.

No detail was spared. “We even spilled fake blood” on the off-white tile that covers the floor of the soundstages, says Toyon, “and wiped it up so the color was in-between the tiles, and it had that heavily used sense.”

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