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TV Production Designers Overcome Limited Budgets With Imagination

Sets crafted for television have not traditionally been known for their glamour, says “Fosse/Verdon” (FX) production designer Alex DiGerlando.
“TV was always about characters interacting, and sets were something to fill the background,” he notes. “You got close-up and medium shots and you needed some kind of background to make it feel not random. To ground the action.”

But as the action has ramped up, so have expectations for production design, even though networks don’t always make extra room in their below-the-line budgets, leaving the art department with the same funds whether a show is contemporary or period.

That leads production designers including DiGerlando — along with his fellow designers Michael Whetstone (ABC’s “The Kids Are Alright”) and Jason Sherwood (Fox’s “Rent”) — to come up with some pretty creative solutions. Whetstone’s Cleary family home on the recently axed “Kids” is an impressive set, a full three-bedroom structure for a show set in 1972, but that echoes the late 1950s-1960s.

“We tried to make things look like they’d been there for 10 or 15 years,” he says. But what he’s really most proud of is the living 7,000-sq.-ft. back yard, built “in 116-degree weather” on a loading dock outside the stages. “We aren’t the kind of show that can afford to go on location, so the studio put the money to build it in the lot. It’s massive. And if it rains, it gets wet; if it’s cold you shoot in the cold.”

“Rent” stayed indoors for its live production, but Sherwood’s ambitious 360-degree set construction meant there was no place to hide. “You had to address every single surface,” he says. “We couldn’t skimp on one room or the other. Everything had to be treated with the same delicacy and specificity so we could put the space, the actors and the story in direct conversation with the audience.”

To save money, Sherwood went full throttle with the bohemian aspect of the story and used recycled and reclaimed materials to build the set. “That’s good for the environment and good for the show,” he says. “And it really helped us meet a budget number that was challenged by the 360-degree concept.”

Meanwhile, DiGerlando had a two-headed hydra to tackle on “Fosse/Verdon”: the midcentury period apartments and sets the lead characters lived in, and the more fantastical movie sets they directed and danced in. And he did not want to do a “lame version” of what had been done so superbly in Fosse’s films like “Cabaret” and “All That Jazz.” Fortunately, he had access to “Jazz’s” Oscar-winning production designer, Tony Walton, and the assistance of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon’s daughter Nicole, who provided family photos that showed off the interior of their New York City apartment.

But there were challenges, including coming up with enough neon. “We just didn’t have enough time,” he says. “Neon vendors didn’t have enough time to turn around such complicated pieces.”

So they set up a lighting rig that would emulate the neon colors on the actors, then added more neon in post.

“It’s not about saving money. It’s about spending money wisely. You’re always rushing against time. So we made sure every shot counted.”

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