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Emmy Contenders Master the Art of Building Worlds

More than ever, today's lavish TV series aim to create their own reality

Nancy Steiner, costume designer for Showtime’s “Twin Peaks” reboot, had a serious problem: She wasn’t able to do Naomi Watts’ first fitting until 5 a.m. on her first day of shooting. The original plan had been to put the actress in 1950s-style dresses, but when showrunner David Lynch happened to see Watts in a blouse, jeans and a cardigan, he changed his mind about her whole look.

“You have to go with the flow, because things change on a dime,” says Steiner. “When David figures it out, that’s the right thing.”

Not every workflow process between showrunners and artisans, or between artisans and other artisans, rides on such last-minute changes or tilts on an auteur’s whims. But every production, particularly those in non-contemporary settings or fantastical or alternate worlds, must have below-the-line creatives who can be fluid and meticulous about lining up their visions to create a unified look and feel.

The workflow starts from the top down with the showrunner, but often first-season artisans are enlisted to help build the world alongside the creators, as was the case on Netflix’s “Altered Carbon.”

“We developed the look of the show with Carey [Meyer, production designer],” says “Carbon” showrunner Laeta Kalogridis. “As soon as you’re setting something in the future you have to come up with your own methodology.”

Miller worked alongside a tight team in Los Angeles to create the show’s dystopic world; only when the production located to British Columbia did other artisans’ ideas enter the mix. “Having a script early meant I could Gantt chart out the whole flow ahead of time,” he says. “When we moved up to Vancouver, that’s when the two DPs and costume designers came in, and we started to develop a color palette and aesthetic.”

Creating a brand-new show is one thing, but for shows that survive into new seasons, often key artisans swap out, leaving newcomers to play catch-up.

Showrunner Bruce Miller of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” admits he doesn’t get too specific with his below-the-liners in terms of telling them what to do. “I tend to talk in storytelling language to my departments, then let them translate it. They’re there to tell a story, too,” he says. So when the show needed to replace its ailing season two production designer, new hire Elisabeth Williams depended on the institutional memory of her co-workers to help her get up to speed quickly.

“There were no notes,” Williams says. “But [art director] Martha Sparrow walked me through the first couple of weeks, and DP Colin Watkinson was there last year, so he held my hand for the first little while so I could get my feet on the ground.”

She wasn’t entirely reliant on the kindness of co-workers; the show retained extensive internal source materials for reference. But unlike other shows, “Handmaid’s” does not keep a “bible” on hand — a compendium of the key materials that’s used to make sure a series’ look remains consistent, even as it expands into new areas.

On HBO’s “Westworld,” however, a bible is critical, according to showrunner Jonathan Nolan. For the second season, the show was jugging hundreds of crew and running two units simultaneously.

“That kind of grounding is vital so that every department knows if they’re heading in the right direction,” he says.

But there’s more than one way for newcomers to find their way on an established set; production designer Howard Cummings was fresh for season two, but he’d been a close viewer of the first season and that came in handy.

“There were storylines that never made it to the screen in season one, and some people were confused about what they had shot and what had aired,” he recalls. “But as a viewer I knew what made it to the screen better than they did.”

Perhaps surprisingly, previsualization software doesn’t get much of a boost from these shows; artisans and showrunners alike seem to prefer old-fashioned methods of collaboration. “I always wander down to production design and look at what’s on their walls,” says Donna Zakowska, costume designer for Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

“We meet very regularly,” says Philip Murphy, production designer on AMC’s “Into the Badlands.” “We tend to have face-to-face discussions, and avoid texts and emails.”

However they manage it, when show artisans find ways to collaborate, a series can seem as though it sprang fully formed from a single mind.

Even when some of those design elements are of the unplanned variety.

“If a mistake happens on set, I always tell my entire crew: don’t go back to square one,” says “Carbon’s” Miller. “I’ll know in 10 minutes if I can use that mistake. If I can incorporate a change or mistake in to the set, it’s the same as if we’d planned for it all along. And you’ll get surprises you never would have gotten otherwise.”

 

BIG CHALLENGE FOR SHOWRUNNERS: KEEPING SERIES FRESH

Many viewers would love to spend another season in the lush, colorful 1950s version of New York City showcased on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” But that’s not necessarily how the show sees it, and in season two “Maisel” visits Paris and the Catskills during the summer.

“You have to keep people interested,” says costume designer Donna Zakowska. “You have to keep them seduced.”

Premiere seasons on new shows are all about introducing audiences to brand-new worlds, but once that’s done show creators know they can’t just rest on their laurels: audiences want new and fresh territory to explore.

Sometimes that’s literal, as with “Westworld’s” revelation of new theme parks in the offing. Other times — as is the case on “The Handmaid’s Tale” — it can be about adding wings, hallways or a greenhouse to an established home.

“If you’re dealing with a world that deals in colonization and exploration of other worlds, you’ve set up an expectation that the audience wants you to live up to,” says “Altered Carbon” showrunner Laeta Kalogridis.

“It still needs to feel like it’s the same show,” says “Maisel’s” production designer Bill Groom. “The audience needs a level of comfort.”

But coming up with fresh seasons, worlds, territories and wings of a house aren’t always enough.

“I told the showrunner early on that if I make it to the end of the season, you should change me out with someone else,” says Giovanni Lipari, “Into the Badlands’” costume designer. “New ideas have to come from a different brain.”

(Pictured above: “Altered Carbon”)

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