How Worldbuilding Beyond Characters Was Key to Drama Series Emmy Nominees

Stranger Things Handmaids Tale
Courtesy of Netflix/Hulu

From the dark future depicted within “The Handmaid’s Tale,” to the genre-bending settings of HBO’s “Westworld,” to the entropic state of Cold War-era Soviet Union on FX’s “The Americans” and Netflix’s period piece “Stranger Things,” rich environments transport viewers to new worlds and keep them immersed in the stories they’re watching.

“Constructing a fictional universe and making it feel real is the whole game,” says “The Americans” executive producer Joe Weisberg, who along with his executive producing partner Joel Fields, is known for obsessing over the tiniest of period details.

That willingness to focus on even the seemingly small, Fields adds, is “so important” in adding authenticity and credibility to the storytelling.

“If you get one small detail wrong, it will bump [the audience] out and ruin the viewer experience, sometimes without them even knowing quite what ejected them from that immersion,” says Shawn Levy, exec producer of “Stranger Things.”

In fact, worldbuilding is the backbone of every TV series, but the Emmy nominees in the dramatic series category this year have gone bigger, bolder and deeper into detail in order to capture the attention of the viewing audience and voting members of the Academy alike.

The second season of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” moved its setting beyond the claustrophobic confines of Gilead and free Canada into the radioactive wasteland of the Colonies. But expansive landscapes were just one element upon which the dystopia relied to expand its world.

“In year two we added more bees and types of birds in Gilead,” says “Handmaid’s Tale” executive producer Warren Littlefield. “Gilead is a cleaner, healthier environment than the Colonies, so when we’re in that world you’re hearing, very subtly, a richness of sounds of that world. Human rights may have been extinguished in a large sense, but nature is in many ways flourishing, so we’re trying to enrich that and have that play in contrast to the narrative that’s playing out.”

“Westworld” co-creator and co-showrunner Lisa Joy says that the storytelling within the premium cable sci-fi Western epic is “sort of a Russian nesting-doll situation” because the job in creating the show “mirrors the job of the technicians that we’re writing about who are designing the world” of the theme park within the show. Environmental elements are also employed to echo storylines: In the fourth episode of the second season, which Joy also directed, a downpour amplified a particularly emotional epiphanic scene for the Man in Black (Ed Harris), for example.

“Introducing elements like rain really change the texture and feel of the show, and help let us see the characters’ arcs reflected in the environment. It resonates beautifully together, and poetically,” she says.

The “Westworld” team artificially created the downpour for that scene, and similarly, shows including “Stranger Things” and “The Americans” also rely heavily on visual effects to help convey a sense of time and place.

“We had a similar process whether it was Russia or D.C.,” Fields says. “We’d get the plates shot, then we’d shoot either greenscreen or practically, then lay the plates in. More research would be done to determine which buildings were there that were not built prior to the date that the scene was taking place, and what buildings were missing. Then there would be another pass of CGI to make the plates accurate. Then everything would be put together.”

“Stranger Things” relied on below-the-line artisans not only to bring supernatural elements such as the Void and the Upside Down into a small town, but also to give the show a more realistic period setting and 1980s vibe.

“The style of photography needs to be consistent with the world we’re building. The style of cinematic language, the composition, the camera movements, the lighting — those are all inspired by the films that inspire our show,” Levy says.
“What we often do in the finishing stages is add film grain to the digital image in order to degrade the clarity of the image and make it fit comfortably within that ’80s feel.”

“Westworld” also leans heavily on the look of “classic” stories in its genres that came before, including films from John Ford, Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa.

“We took a hybrid approach this season,” says co-creator and co-showrunner Jonathan Nolan. “For one episode we took advantage of the fact that we use film and played with the photochemical look of it to keep a bit more of the silver in the image and dial the look towards more of a Kurosawa feel.”
Costumes, set design, props and copious amounts of research also must all work together to not only bring to life but also heighten the world that the writers and producers dream up.

“We always talk about how collaborative television is,” Weisberg says. “If you’ve ever wondered what that means, worldbuilding is a great example.

“Building that world requires everyone on the team using all of their talents to their utmost — creating that illusion takes everything.”