Production designer Ruth Ammon has worked on iconic films and television shows from “Drop Dead Gorgeous” to “Heroes” and “Smash,” but the one area she has long wanted to play in was space. Working on Amazon Prime Video’s anthology series “Solos” finally gave her that chance. She describes the show as “The Great British Baking Show of Scenery Design” because of how each episode required completely unique settings to bring its story to life.
Each episode’s set for “Solos” is such a focal piece of the individual story, yet self-contained as well as varying in size and detail. How did you approach the builds when it came to whether or not you could work on multiple ones simultaneously?
We had two stages and we did flip-flop: we built on one stage and then built on another and flip-flopped back and forth. The space pod was quite small, so that could go on the same stage as the log cabin, which sounds ridiculous to say in a sentence, and then the beach took up one whole stage. Everything had to be very streamlined, so I composed these very, very detailed concept decks that were 70 pages or so for every single character, and we talked about color and palette and overall vibe, architecture, paintings, art work, historical motifs. David [Weil, creator] and I were very thorough about building these decks to detail and then we would share them with everyone else.
In most of these episodes, there is only one actor in the space. How early on did you know a director’s plan for blocking and shot style, in order to factor that into the size of the build for that particular set?
When I met with [producer] Pixie [Wespiser] and David, I really talked them into having a virtual art department. It was something that I’ve been trying to do on other shows, but what it allowed for me is a lot of previz and concepting in 3D and virtual models that helped everyone understand these spaces because during COVID times, people just couldn’t walk on stages and look at things. We wanted to create a real world [in which] these actors could move freely to wherever they wanted. No one was allowed on the set. Literally it was just the actor on the set and I think a 20-foot Techno, so we tried to have little camera ports and small moving walls that kept it always feeling like a confined space. We actually started the spaceship first, alongside Sasha’s dream house. The space pod started much larger, but got smaller and smaller. Honestly, I’ve never done a spaceship before and so when I met David and he said, “Helen Mirren, spaceship” in one sentence, that was like, “I have to do this show.”
Is it fair to call the space pod your favorite of the sets?
That’s so hard because I love the house, but I’ve been interviewed for so many big sci-fi and space movies or TV shows and I never get the job, and I always just feel it’s because no one hires a girl to do something like that. And so, I was just so excited to do it. We called our show “The Great British Baking Show of Scenery Design” because it was like, “This week it’s bread, next week is cakes.” They’re all really difficult challenges and you’re using different materials and different computer programs and the approach to every set was so completely different. And [the space pod] was the first time that I had used a fully robot-cut foam piece of scenery. It had all these compound curves, and we used a little bit of the organic nature of the work of an architect [named] Zaha Hadid, but I never worked in so many curves and compound curves and foam and a teeny tiny space that any mistake, any flaw would be enormous. I love a challenge and I’m most proud of that challenge.
Designing Sasha’s house feels like it would be a challenge, as well, because while she has been living in that one space for years, so too has the audience been cooped up during the COVID-19 pandemic and perhaps you don’t want to reflect their own reality back to them too closely.
We didn’t want to give away too much of anything. Quite honestly, this design was the first thing I drew. It was my fantasy, as well as a lot of other people’s, of where we could be if we’re locked in. That’s a story where you needed to be outside the house as much as you needed to be inside because it was so strong and architectural. Having that nature really, really close, bringing nature inside and out and having the ability to see life outside that didn’t have to be other humans — that you could see birds and rabbits and the leaves falling and changing — [showed] there was a world outside, but there wasn’t this understanding or honesty about what was really going on in the world.
How collaborative was creating those elements outside Sasha’s window with the VFX team?
100%. Working in a virtual art department [means] using platforms like Unreal Engine and Lumion. None of us want to think of visual effects as something you do in post-production; we want to know the whole world in the early stages. It’s more efficient; it’s quicker; it gives better understanding of the character, and it also helps studio, network, DPs, costume designers to understand what this world is. So for Sasha, we created that: we made the trees in the background and we showed Will [Rexler, the DP] where we thought the sun would come and go. In our drawings you can place the sun and watch the day lapse. With that house it was important to feel the angle of the sun, and that was useful in changing the mood of the story. We also designed the effect at the very end; we built that in our virtual model and we were able to show visual effects and David and Will an idea for them to respond to. I just think it’s very grounding and it’s also very creative for everyone to be part of that process, as opposed to 10 years ago when you just handed your set over and you never knew what someone was going to add to it.
We also designed the exterior of the spaceship, even though we never filmed it. We put the spaceship in space for Sam and we had the spaceship moving past the past the moon, and we showed her lighting effects that would happen over this space pod as the character passed the moon. Eventually our visual effects team came in and did a much better and more detailed version of that, but we were all able to sit and say, “This is where this is how far away from the moon she is. This is what’s going to happen with the moon.” Everyone could time it together with direction, acting and cinematography.
These episodes all have a sense of being set in the future, given the high-tech elements the characters have access to. How did the “when” and “where” of the stories affect how you created these environments?
With Sasha’s house I said, “Is this in the desert, where is she?” David did say the Redwoods in California or something like that. But then, with [Nicole Beharie’s episode] I actually pushed it further into log cabin than maybe anyone thought of in the beginning. I was inspired by the work of an artist [named] Kara Walker, and I wanted to bring it back to an early American historical feeling, kind of colonial American history. But also, within the interior, I added enough details that made it a little AirBnB. We pushed high contrast, black and white in there — the dark wood with the white chinking and the plaster between the logs. And then we pushed this color of red throughout some of the set dec.
For [Anthony Mackie’s episode] there was like a reference from Pedro Almodóvar’s recent short and what was nice about it was it had this timeless feeling of a European villa with a 1920s headboard, so it had lots of different historical references, and you couldn’t really tell if it was future or past. That’s something that really appealed to us because we wanted to be a very personal moment happening in an impersonal space — that was the hotel room. And there are elements of little secret moments of the future that come at emotional moments and not necessarily take over the set.
Each of these sets had to be interesting enough to film for 30 minutes and be malleable enough that you could adjust the lighting, move the camera, move walls away: they all had to be flexible in a certain way. And you don’t want to give it all away in the first frame. We wanted to have moments of discovery about time and place.