Production designer Anastasia White is no stranger to “oners” — those long, sweeping, single-take scenes. She’s had plenty of experience, having worked with Sam Esmail, the writer, director and producer of USA Network’s “Mr. Robot” since 2016, when she joined the show’s second season.
Now White is teamed up with Esmail once again on “Homecoming,” Universal Cable Prods. and Amazon’s new half-hour drama series to be released Nov. 2. Starring Julia Roberts, it’s based on the Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz podcast of the same name.
Esmail, who directed all the episodes, kicked off the series with yet another oner. The camera tracks Roberts as Heidi, a caseworker at a treatment facility that helps reintegrate soldiers back into daily life, on an epic walk-and-talk starting in her office on an upper floor of the facility, tracking her down a flight of stairs and through a common area, around hallways passing individual soldiers’ rooms, down more stairs and through the lobby. The scene runs for three minutes.
In order to help achieve that vision, White built the multi-floored set — within a soundstage at Universal Studios in Hollywood — with a removable ceiling so that the crew could not only fit in a crane but also allow for overhead lights. Esmail let her in on his plan for the opening of the show early on, so White was able to consider in her earliest designs what the crew would need to be able to shoot the sequence.
“The whole layout was based on that scene,” she says. “It was meant to showcase the facility where she’s working as soon as possible in the show, so we tried to give a good example of all of the pieces of the building in that one scene.”
Transitioning the story of “Homecoming” from the audio medium of the podcast to the visual one of television allowed White the opportunity to get creative and specific with her set design.
“There were not a lot of details in the script,” she says. “All of the stuff on the walls was the art department coming up with things based on research and knowing the tone of the show.”
White and her team utilized lots of organic materials such as driftwood to juxtapose “the wild gnarliness” of nature with the cold artifice created by the Geist Group, the facility where Heidi works.
“The way that the writers described how they wanted the interior facility to be, it was decorated in a trying-too-hard-to-be-tropical, homey way, [with] ferns and palms and pineapples and Floridian-type fruits,” she says.
“Homecoming” takes place over two timelines, with the present-day story being told in widescreen, while the “near future,” after the facility has been closed, is in a square aspect ratio. That meant White had to think “vertically” about how to dress certain sets and design frames. She also wanted to rely on “muddied and gray” imagery to further convey Heidi’s own confusion over what went wrong with her work.
And since the treatment the soldiers are undergoing is experimental, White wanted to suggest a sense of them being studied. That’s what inspired her to put a fish tank in Heidi’s office and mount a metallic fish on the wall.
“It played back to the idea that the cafeteria is this fishbowl,” she explains, “where people are all being observed.”