With deep-pocketed streamers competing head-to-head with cablers and networks to create an ever-growing glut of programming in the peak TV era, shows must ramp up their production values if they hope to capture the attention of audiences and Emmy voters. Often that means going the extra mile with global locations.
In the case of Amazon’s “The Romanoffs,” creator Matthew Weiner’s follow-up to “Mad Men,” it was thousands and thousands of miles. Each episode of the eight-part anthology series was shot in a different city — sometimes more than one, with locations including Paris, London, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, New York, Mexico City, Toronto, Miami, Prague and Constanta, Romania. And, save for two constructed sets, all the locations were practical.
“We could’ve shot interiors somewhere else and just done a Paris unit to capture a couple of days of exteriors, but it was really important for the storytelling to be in the places as much as possible,” says series co-executive producer Blake McCormick.
“The Romanoffs” traveled with a core team of fewer than 20 people, including the showrunner-director (Weiner), a writer, two producers, a co-producer/UPM and makeup and hair department heads, as well pairs of production designers and costume designers that worked on alternate episodes. They would then flesh out the crew with a local production team.
“For Amazon, it was extremely ambitious and resource intensive, because in each of those cities, they had to negotiate production services agreements with the crews,” McCormick says.
For most of today’s film and TV productions, finding a location with a generous production incentive that can return as much as 30% on local spend is a top priority. But “The Romanoffs” only took advantage of incentives in a handful of locales, including Toronto and Prague.
The producers of Hulu’s limited series adaptation of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” including co-star George Clooney, considered shooting in Cornwall, England, to take advantage of the U.K.’s 25% tax credit. But after a rain-drenched scouting visit they quickly decided that they’d be better of shooting on the Italian island of Sardinia, south of the Italian island of Pianosa, where the novel is set. The climate was right and there was also a disused air strip around which they could build their World War II barracks (using vintage Army tents left over from another Clooney project, the 2014 feature “The Monuments Men”) and land the two vintage B-25 bombers flown in from the U.S.
For the interiors of the B-25s, they borrowed a two-piece fuselage (nose and tail) from a museum in Belgium and mounted it on gimbals on a soundstage at Cinecittà Studios in Rome, where they shot most of their interiors. The fuselage was an empty shell, so they had to outfit the interior with instrumentation, seats and weaponry.
“Luckily, interior of the planes was the last thing we shot, because it was an enormous amount of work,” says “Catch-22” production designer David Gropman. “We went to scrap yards and collectors [to find parts], and some things were built out of tin cans, new wire and cardboard boxes.”
On Amazon’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s novel “Good Omens,” production designer Michael Ralph’s most challenging build was a re-creation of a city block of London’s Soho neighborhood at RAF Bovingdon Airfield in England that could be dressed for both the 1960s and the contemporary era. The production also traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, where he re-created Christ’s crucifixion and Noah’s Ark and built a 12-structure village that was blown up for the cameras.
One of the advantages of shooting in South Africa is that there tends to be a large pool of multi-skilled labor available at a bargain price.
“The carpenter will end up being the person plastering the wall for you or welding the metal for the sub-frame of a gyro system underneath the floor of the set,” says Ralph.
The National Geographic limited series “The Hot Zone,” about early attempts to head off the Ebola virus, was also shot in South Africa, as well as Toronto (standing in for Washington, D.C., and surrounding suburbs). Similar to Ralph, production designer Emilia Roux built entire villages, and costume designer Ruy Filipe found authentic clothes to dress extras for Zaire in 1976.
Based in Durban, the production was able to get most of its equipment from Cape Town and Johannesburg, but there was some drama importing their prop monkeys from Canada.
“You don’t know if what you’re shipping is going to be caught up for weeks or months in customs, so one of our department heads from Toronto very heroically brought the monkeys in her suitcase,” says “Hot Zone” executive producer Kelly Souders.
On Netflix’s nature docu-series “Our Planet,” the crew faced some very real dangers on its four-year shoot, which employed 600 crew members filming in 50 countries. The greatest risk was working in the Arctic capturing footage of ice whales and polar bears while based on sea ice, which was forever threatening to break off and float away.
“Once you’re there, you’re effectively cut-off, so if you run into problems, you have to resolve them because no one’s going to rescue you,” says series producer Keith Scholey. Another Arctic challenge: “We discovered drones don’t like cold, but the crew got good at building a tent to warm them with a hair dryer.”