Seth Reed reveals the secrets of production design that makes 'The Gifted' and 'Cosmos' so visually appealing
In one of the most interesting accounts about filmmaking, production designer Seth Reed gives us an inside look into how some of the most visually appealing shows are made.
Seth Reed is the man responsible for making worlds depicted in some of your favorite tv shows like ‘The Gifted,’ ‘Cosmos’ and ‘Supergirl’ look realistic. From historical accuracy to creating an entirely new world based on scripts, Reed has done it all to allow the viewers to fully experience the stories they are watching. The famed production designer recently explained his craft and the tedious, yet unbelievably interesting process of filmmaking to Meaww. Here are some edited excerpts from the interview:
Your work on ‘The Gifted,’ ‘Cosmos’ and ‘Supergirl’ is phenomenal. Before starting a project, what are some things that you take account of?
Every project is different and, for me, is defined by the script, the characters and their experiences. Usually, after reading a project, I start to do research and gather ideas and imagery. Sometimes the ideas are for color, especially focusing on spaces that I think will help define the scene.
In 'Cosmos', we were really trying to explain things. The trick was to find the right idea that would be visually easy to understand and would allow Neil deGrasse Tyson to interact with when he's explaining the subject. Often, I would do historical research in order to recreate something as accurately as possible. For example, the Library of Alexandria scene where Neil walks through and pulls a papyrus from a library shelf.
On ‘The Gifted,’ our task was to know the characters and to use architecture, form, and color to provide three distinctly defined environments that would express the motivations and lifestyle of each group: The Inner Circle, the Mutant Underground, and the Morlocks.
What are the subtle differences you use to separate Mutant Underground and the Inner Circle on ‘The Gifted’?
There are many subtle and not so subtle differences that you might notice when watching the show, from the way the characters look - their hair, makeup, clothing - to their physical environments. I like to create sets that go along with the characters and their style. The Mutant Underground is trying to be part of the greater society, so they live in apartments, go out on the streets and drive regular cars. Their apartments are furnished similar to what we see in the everyday world, and their colors are mostly tans, brown and an eclectic mix of others. There is a warmth to the MU environment, which is reflected in the set through the softness of the edges and texture on the walls.
The Inner Circle, on the other hand, is much more hidden and much more selective. They drive slick black SUV’s with tinted windows and their world is more separated. Their colors are cool, mostly blue, but also black and white depending on where they are. The structures for their world are sharp and have hard edges. In addition, the architecture of their Grand Hall is glorious and majestic which represents the idea that they are clearly in a penthouse overlooking everything and being separated from society.
On shows like ‘Supergirl’ and ‘The Gifted’ that are part of a bigger franchise, do you try to keep and some Easter Eggs for the hardcore fans?
I do not generally put Easter Eggs unless specifically asked, but we do refer to little details occasionally. For example, we do know that Polaris has a special dad, and we do refer to him indirectly sometimes, and we know Andy and Lauren have Fenris grandparents. Though we go into their backstory, we do not get specific connections to comic books or movies. I get my inspirations from the story so I try to keep my designs unique to 'The Gifted'.
When it comes to superhero shows, what is the art of mixing the greenscreens with physical props like?
With superhero shows like 'The Gifted' that have unusual effects or stunts, we often design the sets with a VFX extension in mind. We will build a small portion of a set or even a corner “pocket,” and then they can use the material to either add into a much bigger vista or keep it small and practical. It's interesting to note that most visual effects can happen without a green screen, they just need to not have any people in the middle of the effect.
For bigger scenes, we may not ever build a full set, only the part of the set that is immediately behind or beside the actor. It's often a big collaboration - take shooting a scene when a character is using their "power". Often, the special effects team will do an initial portion of the "power" effect - maybe an explosion or maybe something flying through the air. Then, VFX comes in afterward and augments the effect and my art department can build an “aftermath” of it, which can be practically shot for the rest of the scene.
'Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey' is unlike any other show in terms of its content and more importantly visual. Could you tell what the process of figuring out the visuals of that was like?
Creating the visuals for Cosmos began with extensive research and then translating that into illustrations and digital models in order to figure out the best way to visually convey the information that Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to describe. The show visually takes us to many locations so for example, Neil could be walking on a grass field in Africa.
In that case, we would have proposed a platform that sat in front of a green screen. The platform might have had grass on it, but behind and around him (because of the green screen) is an important background such as the Savannah or mountains. Also, the platform needed to be big enough for him to walk and talk, the grass would be real so that he could touch it, maybe even kneel down and touch the soil.
The idea is to place the set and Neil far away enough from the stage so that we are convinced he's on an actual field instead of a set. This is a typical example how we dreamed up sets for the show. On top of being historically and scientifically accurate, we had to make something beautiful and expressive. This was a case of working very, very closely with VFX - Rainer Gombos, Addie Manis and Natasha Francis.
We always had an illustration to go off of, usually created in the Art Department and that became the “blueprint” for the VFX work afterward. Our illustrator, Michael Maher doubled for us and then later moved straight into working with VFX once shooting was finished. It was a great collaboration that allowed us to tell such interesting and important content through beautiful visuals.
Did Seth Macfarlane and Neil deGrasse Tyson have any inputs regarding the production design of the show
I’m sure that Seth MacFarlane had a huge huge influence on the show, but his day to day input was minimal. The majority of input came from the writers and producers Ann Druyan and with Brannon Braga. Neil would join in to explain something if it's complex and intricate to all of us, especially in mathematics or physics.
On one occasion, we were doing a small vignette about Einstein, and we were supposed to cover a large blackboard with formulas and equations. We had carefully researched it all, and then Neil and his wife walked up and looked at it. They looked at each other, then one of them walked up, made a small adjustment and said something like: “I haven’t seen this since my college days!” It was fantastic to be around such great talented individuals.
Which project do you look back on as the best work you have done?
Well, it's so hard to decide on what my best work is but I can say that I have three favorites that I am very proud of! Each show was slightly different and satisfying for a unique reason. First, 'The Expanse' - while it is a science fiction show set in the future, the content is based on science and in many ways, as realistic as you can get. They applied the laws of gravity and physics into the script and it’s a solid look at space travel 300 years from now. We were given the opportunity to do some amazing sets...possibly the best spaceships I’ve done were on that show! These were probably the best sets - in any category - that I’ve had the privilege of being part of. I had a tremendous crew - Art Director Tony Ianni, Construction Coordinator Rob Valeriote and Set Decorator Pete Nicolakakos.
My second favorite is 'Cosmos'. Aside from Neil’s spaceship, the SOTI, most sets were digital augmentations of small builds or they were amazing locations. The satisfying part of this project was not the sets, it was the opportunity to participate in the spread of knowledge and to illustrate everything so beautifully.
Lastly, was 'The Long Road Home'. This was a chance to tell a real story of danger and heroism with the real soldiers helping us. The real events were amazing, but the writing really set this show off more than most. Our showrunner, Mikko Alanne, did an amazing job of running the show and making script changes as needed on the fly. This was an actual event, Bloody Sunday 4/4/2004, in the Iraq Conflict. By retelling this story and sharing their pain and conflict, we helped soldiers and veterans and we honored their service. For the show, we recreated a huge amount of the streets of Iraq, over 3/5 of a mile of double-sided streets. This was a different build, more literal and more realistic. But the ability to recreate a recent historical event was so special, it brought tears and amazement to all of us and everyone involved.
What excites you to take on new projects now that you have already accomplished so much in your career?
People and the story. I do have a number of producers and showrunners that I would love to work with again, including the wonderful showrunner, Matt Nix, and producers Robert Duncan McNeill and Derek Hoffman from 'The Gifted'.
What are some of the items in your career bucket list that you can’t wait to check off?
At this point in my career, all that I want to do is design more - I’d like to do more science and science fiction, these are my favorite subjects. I love reading a great book and I’d like to be the one designing for an imaginative and satisfying story full of information that I could creatively convey through my designs and builds.