‘Room’: Creating a Whole World in a 10-Foot Space

Modular set was constructed with an eye toward preserving the innocence of 7-year-old Jacob Tremblay's performance.

When you’re making a film, half of which takes place within the confines of a 10×10-foot space, featuring a child actor who can only work eight hours a day, not to mention a 70-person crew that needs access to that space, it’s safe to say necessity becomes the mother of invention. That’s just what helmer Lenny Abrahamson and his team experienced when they went about shooting “Room.”

“From the beginning, I was keen that we had one set,” the director says. There was early talk of conceiving different versions of the film’s eponymous containment cell — built to imprison a 17-year-old girl and the son she conceived while trapped as a sex slave — for different purposes, but Abrahamson felt that would blow the integrity of the experience for 7-year-old star Jacob Tremblay. Similarly, moving out whole walls for shooting might have shattered the illusion and impacted the performance.

“The idea I proposed was that we approach it like an inverted Rubik’s Cube,” production designer Ethan Tobman says. “So the floor, the walls, the ceiling — they were all comprised of one-by-one-foot tiles that were modular and could be jettisoned out.” This allowed for production to maintain a rule that every shot be achievable within the space, meaning sometimes the camera would be outside the room with the lens poking in through a removed tile.

“The idea I proposed was that we approach it like an inverted Rubik’s Cube.”
Ethan Tobman

“You could shoot from down beneath the floor or sneak lights in where necessary without creating a huge gap by pulling an entire wall out,” Tobman says. “That created an incredible challenge for the crew, but an incredible intimacy for the performers.”

It also allowed Abrahamson to shoot many scenes with two cameras. “We didn’t want to not get a great performance,” cinematographer Danny Cohen says. “So we had options of shooting two sizes on Jake or a Jake shot and a Brie (Larson) shot simultaneously. What was interesting was to not detract from Jake the fact that his world had been that room.”

Tobman notes, the “Room” set might well have been the largest set any of the three had ever shot, “because every square millimeter of this location had to be imbued with so much life and history and detail. We sort of approached the material as a lunar landscape, where every crater was a clue to a richer backstory.”

Larson and Tremblay rehearsed intimately with the space, which was also important to Abrahamson. They made their own props, like aluminum foil measuring cups and little toys and ornaments scattered throughout, while Tobman and his set decorator tried to get inside the head of the kidnapper, Old Nick. “We needed to limit ourselves to his own economic, geographic and tempo limitations,” Tobman says. “If we ever found ourselves thinking about what would look good on camera, we had to see that through the prism of what Old Nick would actually be able to pull off.”

The result, built on a soundstage at Pinewood Toronto Studios, was an atypical concept, but one that paid off in spades for Abrahamson creatively. “We had to struggle with it, but it led to something more interesting visually,” he says.

More Artisans

  • Crawl Movie

    'Crawl' and Other Disaster Movies Pose Unique Obstacles for Production Designers

    The rampaging fires, earthquakes and storms of disaster movies present unusual challenges for a production: On top of the normal work of creating a film’s lived-in and realistic locations, designers must build sets that the forces of nature can batter, flood and ravage into something completely different. Take “Crawl,” in which a Category 5 hurricane [...]

  • Costume designer Michele Clapton

    Costume Designers Fashion a Plan to Fight for Pay Parity in Upcoming Contract Talks

    The Costume Designers Guild Local 892 is gearing up to fight for pay equity in its 2021 contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, establishing a pay-equity committee to raise awareness of the scale disparity between the mostly female CDG membership and the mostly male membership of the Art Directors Guild Local [...]

  • This photo shows composer Hans Zimmer

    Hans Zimmer on Recreating Iconic Score: 'The Lion King' 'Brought People Together'

    Composer Hans Zimmer is seated at the mixing board at the Sony scoring stage, head bobbing to the music being performed by 107 musicians just a few yards away. He’s wearing a vintage “Lion King World Tour” T-shirt, frayed at the collar. On the giant screen behind the orchestra, two lions are bounding across the [...]

  • On-Location Filming Slides 3.9% in Los

    On-Location Filming Slides 3.9% in Los Angeles in Second Quarter

    Held down by a lack of soundstage space, total on-location filming in greater Los Angeles declined 3.9% in the second quarter to 8,632 shoot days, permitting agency FilmLA reported Thursday. “Although our latest report reveals a decline in filming on location, local production facilities tell us that they are operating at capacity,” said FilmLA president [...]

  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

    How 'Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood' Turned the Clock Back for Its Shoot

    Crossing the street took months for the crew that turned back the clock 50 years on Hollywood Boulevard for Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” Production designer Barbara Ling created false fronts for buildings that were constructed off-site and installed by crane just ahead of the shoot. Set decorator Nancy Haigh described [...]

  • Just Roll With It Disney Channel

    Disney Channel's Scripted-Improv Comedy Crew Shares How They 'Just Roll With It'

    The title of the new Disney Channel series “Just Roll With It” appears to be as much a directive for its cast and crew as it is a description of the multi-camera hybrid sitcom, which is part scripted and part improv. The plot revolves around the blended Bennett-Blatt family — strict mom Rachel (Suzi Barrett), [...]

  • "SpongeBob's Big Birthday Blowout" cast

    'SpongeBob' Voice Cast on Acting Together in Live-Action for 20th Anniversary Special

    On a brisk morning in February, the members of the voice cast of Nickelodeon’s flagship animated series “SpongeBob SquarePants” gathered to work on a new episode, like they’ve done most weeks over the past 20 years. But instead of being in a recording booth, this time they’ve assembled at a diner in Castaic, Calif., shooting [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content