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‘Black-ish’ Production Designer Talks ‘Aspirational’ Comedy Color Palette, Building the World of ‘Juneteenth’

As “Black-ish’s” production designer, Maxine Shepard not only created the specific color palettes of the home and office environments for Dre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) and his family, but she has often had to build fantasy or flashback sequences-specific sets ranging from an homage to “The Deer Hunter” to a historical slave cabin. “You just have to be flexible,” she says.

What were your earliest inspirations in the world of design in film or TV?

There used to be this retrospective theater in Santa Monica [that] played old movies, and my mom took me to this double feature and one of them was this old Busby Berkeley feature called “Footlight Parade.” I’d never see anything like that before with the women coming up the stairs and all of these graphics and it morphed into all of this type of stuff. I think that was the first time my interest was piqued. And then a few years after that, the movie “Chinatown” came out and even as a kid I was blown away by the fact that they were creating this world of Los Angeles and making it look like it was 40 years earlier. I was like, “How did they do that!?”

What is your starting point when you first get a script to work on?

Maybe this is a process that only happens in my head but I just start to see colors — that one aqua color just starts to come up, and it’s not that anybody is pushing aqua, it’s just that my eye keeps gravitating towards it and I realize I have to incorporate it. [But] initially I’m pulling a lot of magazine stills, I’m pulling colors, if my set designer is on board I will give him a little thumbnail sketch and he’ll pull that up and we’ll build the world on computer.

The world of “Black-ish” was built in the first season, so what keeps it fresh season over season for you?

Kenya Barris, the creator and executive producer, he always throws us curveballs with stuff he’d like us to update. Season 3 was all about updating the kids’ bedrooms and then this year we have Devante so we had to do a full bedroom for him. But “Black-ish” is also about flashbacks and fantasies so we always get a little bit in there. We’ve done stuff looking back into Pops’ past where we saw him supposedly in the ’70s fung-fu fighting. I think that’s what keeps us fresh.

Did the design of this year’s “Juneteenth” episode feel like the biggest of those curveballs?

When they first told me they were doing “Juneteenth” and the sort of slave cabin, they didn’t really elaborate and the script wasn’t at the point where all of the music was written, so I had no idea really what they wanted. “Is this a very realistic 360-degree set or am I only doing a partial?” The one word that Kenya Barris said to me that made everything make sense was “Hamilton.” I was like, “All right, I know what that is. I know it has to be theatrical and I have to create this stage environment.” And in my mind it was going to be more of an abstraction in terms of trying to create the slave cabin — what’s the essence of that? We weren’t trying to copy “Hamilton,” we were just trying to be in the spirit of that. It’s another part of research [to] find out what stage sets look like — to find out what is contemporary theater design.

What was the process to actually build those one-off standing sets?

What we did was we found an empty stage on the lot and we basically just literally taped out the footprint of the set and we gave them a few pieces of furniture that we had and a couple of makeshift boxes. Derek “Fonzworth Bentley” Watkins created [performances] almost out of thin air. You could see him thinking about it and getting the lyrics going and jumping up here. And as I watched that rehearsal I could see how they started to move in the space and what I needed to give them. It was indicating what that performance could be — how I saw the heroic stance on the stage, how I needed to give them this proscenium and this framework so that they had that ability to project and feel like they were really on the stage.

How often is it at this point in your career that what you’re asked to do is as new and different for you as an episode like “Juneteenth”?

I hadn’t worked on that many comedies, so that alone was new for me. So it felt like a new experience to go into a half-hour sitcom, to do something lighter and a little more fun, to do something aspirational. I had come off of about four years on “Southland” where it was a lot grittier.

And the design of “Southland” was to use real locations as opposed to build so there have to be more limitations with what you can do when you’re faced with a real space you have to leave as you found it at the end of the day.

They wanted to be as realistic as possible and not build sets or have anything that could even vaguely be misconstrued as “This isn’t real, this isn’t authentic.” So the challenge as the designer was to really put my all in when we were location scouting — to really think about what we were seeing and to get the best locations. It was so frantic, so we might have been shooting five, six, seven locations a day so we were like a little army [and] coming off of four years of something like that where it’s really, really realistic, authentic, gritty and then having something that’s lighthearted and people are laughing and there are splashes of color, that had me intrigued.

Did you create rules on “Black-ish” about certain colors or design elements being specific to certain characters?

It was sort of an overall palette that I was going for. I wanted the two worlds between Dre’s office and home to be different, but they had to have some elements that blended the two together so that you would feel like it was more cohesive. So the house in terms of the general areas became a softer palette. There are blues and grays and not as many patterns, and even when you go into the parents’ room, there are some jewel tones and it’s a little richer but there are still blues and grays and browns. It’s when you go into the kids’ rooms that it’s a total riot of color. I wanted the kids to have their own colors, so Zoey, initially, had more probably pink and green — a little bit acidy — where Junior, we kept him in primary tones and blues and reds, and then the twins, it was about trying to make that distinction between these two very separate people. Although Diane obviously is pretty tough, I still wanted to give her a girly edge [so] I sent her into a pink, orange world, while Jack had some blues and greens and orange. And the trick was to have two things that were very different side by side and somehow make them blend together — so it was pulling a little bit of color out of Diane’s and putting it in Jack [and vice versa]. And then when we went to Stevens and Lido [Dre’s firm], we weren’t going to do the stark white walls you usually find in those firms, so it was a soft gray with pops of color. I wanted something that related to the family home without being too on the nose, so I still used orange and green and bright blue, but I used them in different ways, and then I let the big postery artwork be black and white.

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