Need your series to pop? Great production design that underscores tone, theme, and character is key. But while the best design doesn’t overshadow the action for viewers, designers are as devoted to detail in the construction of their sets as they would be if they were building their own homes. Variety spoke with the five Emmy nominees for production design for a narrative program (half-hour or less) to discuss the vagaries of locating pecky cypress wood, fashioning click farms in Culver City, and what happens when you relocate the White House to the West Coast. Trust them: production design is much more than putting up walls.
THE BIG BANG THEORY
Four-time Emmy winner John Shaffner has six nominations for CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” and 20 other noms over the course of his career, which kicked off with theater design for Joseph Papp in the late 1970s. But his real challenge this year was finding a way to meet the rules requirements of two-thirds new sets to qualify for this latest nomination for a 10-year-old show.
Not only did he pull it off, but “Big Bang” also turned out to be the only multi-cam sitcom nominated in the category. To achieve eligibility, Shaffner redid the ancestral home of Wolowitz for the episode “The Positive Negative Reaction,” inspired by cable TV: “We know what America aspires to, because we watch HGTV,” he says. “[‘Fixer-Upper’s’] Chip and Joanna are showing us the way.”
Next up, a tiki bar (though it wasn’t easy to get the signature pecky cypress wood he wanted) and a cabin in the woods with a “Napa vibe” in episodes “The Big Bear Precipitation” and “The Fermentation Bifurcation.”
In addition to “Theory,” Shaffner oversees design on “The Odd Couple,” “Mom,” “Carmichael,” and “The Ranch.” “If done properly, sets don’t upstage the show,” he says. “But in shows like this, we took the opportunity for the environment to come forward a little more.”
“The Muppets” may not have reached a second season, but that didn’t stop Denise Pizzini, a Texas native who shut down her interior design business years ago to “run away with the circus” designing for TV and film, from giving it her all. With her only puppet-related experience being an episode of “Community,” she had to focus on creating “Muppets” sets that looked modern and realistic — but design them in such a way that they did not look like they were disguising a full-grown puppeteer. Pizzini’s nominated episodes are “The X Factor,” “Pigs in a Blackout,” and “Single All the Way.”
“Some people think, ‘You did everything in miniature,’ but no, everything was full scale,” she says. “I just wanted people to look at it and feel good about it — not think, ‘Wow, that’s 4 feet off the ground, how did they get that Muppet next to that human?’”
She won’t be out of work for long (next up is a job on ABC’s “Speechless”), but she still mourns the loss of such an unusual, challenging workplace. “We were trying to do something a little different, and it needed time to find its way,” she says. “That’s just the creative process.”
Richard Toyon picked up his first Emmy for HBO’s “Silicon Valley” last year after 26 years in the industry. He may design for a funny show, but his sets are not meant for laughs. “We try to not tell jokes through set design,” he says. “There are some sight gags, but we try to create an environment that’s believable to the tech industry.” (He’s keenly aware of every move being parsed by Redditors.)
This year, he was tasked with creating Pied Piper’s new offices for episode “Two in a Box” and a “click farm” in Bangladesh for “Daily Active Users,” in which exteriors were shot in India while interiors were shot in Culver City in a room he could degrade and load up with pre-millennium monitors. All of it has to be on the nose, says the trained architect, who got started designing scenery for The Groundlings: “You have to know the tech and understand what the tech is all about.” (And Erlich’s massive Hawaiian blowout in “Bachmanity Insanity” was pure ostentatious sparkle.)
Toyon has plans to work on Bill Hader’s “Barry” for HBO, but before that has one other big set to finish designing: a guest house for his mom.
She may be signed on to help tell the contemporary story of a retired professor’s transition into womanhood, but seven-time Emmy nominee Cat Smith admits: “I love doing period stuff, trying to fill the space with things you wouldn’t normally think of.”
In season two she was able to re-create 1930s Berlin for flashback scenes that had to be credible: “It was incredibly tricky to find sexual materials that might have been in an institute in Germany in the ‘30s.” In addition, the show kept her hopping with a wedding episode, “Kina Hora,” (shooting L.A. for Palm Springs) that needed to be beautiful but also in the “tacky but also very trendy” style of one of the wives; and a “wimmin’s” festival in “Man on the Land,” complete with many different styles of tents. Yom Kippur-set “The Book of Life” rounds out the nominated installments.
Smith clearly adores working with show creator Jill Soloway — they’ve paired for another Amazon series, “I Love Dick.” “The first day of the [‘Transparent’] pilot she came in and said, ‘We should all be happy because we’re working on art,’” recalls Smith. “I thought, ‘art?’ But she gives you power and creative input and all of a sudden, I felt like an artist!”
Creativity aside, there should be a special award for Jim Gloster, who had to move a Baltimore-based set across the country and reassemble it (or try to) for the most recent season of HBO’s “Veep.” “We didn’t build the set in Baltimore to come apart,” he says. “One of the last containers the guys opened over here had a sign in it that said, ‘Sorry, it wasn’t meant to be moved.’” Ouch.
That precipitated a redesigned West Wing, Oval Office and new situation room, plus an enlargement of the press room in addition to a rebuild of many other preexisting sets. But Gloster says he was able to improve things, adding break rooms and long hallways to feature walking-and-talking scenes as seen in nominated episodes “The Eagle” and “C**tgate.” “What I love about the show is it’s about creating a real-looking Washington, D.C., not a Hollywood, D.C.,” he says. “We go for the look of people in political chaos.”
The Charlotte, N.C.-based designer is a starving actor turned community theater set designer who worked his way up through commercials and stepped up to “Veep.” “This was my first production design job,” he says. “It’s about being in the right place at the right time.” How politic.