APDG: Congratulations Hugh on Sense8. The show looks amazing and everyone is watching it!
You have worked with the Wachowskis on a number of feature films including: Art Director for Matrix (1999), Supervising Art Director Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions (2003), Production Designer for Cloud Atlas (2012) and this year’s Jupiter Ascending.
Sense8 is described as a science fiction drama webisode series. Did this format present any new challenges? How was this experience different to previous projects with the Wachowskis?
Well the Wachowskis are not only the Directors of half the cities, they were also the writing team with Joe Stracczynski, a very renowned writer of shows such as the series Babylon 5, The Changeling and many others. They all had a very strong view that the show should be shot on locations in its entirety. This was a challenge that the directors set themselves, being used to doing a lot of stage work and green screen – much more controlled environments. Most everything else I’ve been involved in with Lana and Andy has been on stage as much as possible.
We were also shooting at TV pace – up to 11 pages per shooting day. This was something that our directors were not used to, and in such large cities this provided many challenges for the locations department and with general logistics.
We had done science fiction before, obviously, but it was new for all of us to be working with a ‘real world’ contemporary look. Really we’d only done this before with some of Jupiter Ascending. The parts of Cloud Atlas we did with the Wachowskis were set in 1849, the near future or the distant future.
APDG: How did you prepare for the series? And how much time did you have for pre-production, filming and post-production?
I started out with a Set Decorator (Peter Walpole) whom I have worked with since we did Speed Racer in Berlin with Owen Paterson, and an Art Department Co-ordinator (Trish Foreman) who has worked with the me since we did “the Matrix” films. We also had a Location Manager/Supervisor (Marco Giacalone) who has done many films in Europe and north Africa and who has also been part of the group since the “Speed Racer” days.
We four were basically the world art department and went from there. We would set up an art department in each city and leap-frog to and fro. Sometimes we were all 4 in a city, but often 2 of us would be somewhere and the other 2 elsewhere. There were a few periods when we were all in different cities.
We started our first Art Department in San Francisco which was our first shooting city. We had pre-production only about 8 weeks or 9 weeks before we started filming during which I also had to duck off to Spain for a quick shoot for Jupiter Ascending, so it was all go right from the start. We really had to jump in and get location scouts out and about in various countries, spend some time in Chicago with the directors, and get a ‘plan’ sorted out for how we would approach the logistics and what we needed in each city.
Filming started in the 3rd week of June 2014 and was mostly completed in late November. There was a short winter shoot in Iceland which was scheduled for December, but there wasn’t enough snow (climate change!) and had to be postponed until January.
Post-production continued until very close to the series’ release, but I was not involved in this. There were no pick up shoots.
APDG: Filming took place in a vast number of locations across the globe. Can you tell us about the locations and the challenges they presented?
The way the show is structured it was impossible to shoot in a regular way (episodically). The script for the whole show was written and then sorted into cities. Because the characters can appear in all the other Sensates’ cities, all actors had to be in all cities. This meant we had to shoot all scenes for a city for the whole 12 eps and then move to the next city. We had to approach it as if it were one 10 hour film.
Also the writers wanted to film at an event in each city if possible. Whilst we were filming there were four that could be scheduled in.
Those were: San Francisco, The Gay Pride Parade . Chicago, 4th of July fireworks. Mumbai, The Ganesha Parade to the sea. You can imagine what the locations departments in those cities thought about that idea.
We also shot the character flying scenes on the actual charter flight that was taking the crew to Reykjavik from London.
The directors were keen to shoot the series ‘guerrilla style’, so we started from the premise that we would try to find locations that we could shoot in with minimal changes, but it became obvious early on that this was not often going to be creatively possible given the constraints of the schedule. We mostly had minimal construction but we did have large dressing teams to cope with the number of locations in each city and the pace of the shoot. There was barely a location that didn’t need something done to it.
And then each city had its own challenges of course.
San Francisco: Here everyone needs to approve filming at a location, residents as well as the whole neighbourhood. Shooting in an apartment building was not as easy as one would think. We lost several locations due to this factor. Also there is a 10PM curfew. The directors were keen to shoot with a very lean crew, but various workplace regulations there made this impossible. Shooting around the Pride Parade was interesting. All the locals were very keen on the idea but it was logistically complex as there were many groups involved in permissions and access.
Chicago: Probably the easiest city we had for crewing but there were a lot of last minute location changes as the schedule there was very heavy and the directors were settling into how they could adapt their particular style to shooting fast, very fast. We did the most shoot days there of all the cities. As Production Designer I had to entrust a lot to the local Art Director and Location Manager, who both did a fantastic job. Lana and Andy are from Chicago, so they knew a lot about what they wanted to see and we had done some pre production and a shoot for “Jupiter Ascending” there.
London: Here it was a very short shoot, with an inner city that was hard to get around, and heavily regulated in regards to location access. This affected some location choices. Once again because we had experience there with other shows and Peter Walpole is English so crewing was relatively easy.
Reykjavik: The smallest city we went to, but we shot out of town a lot, so a lot of distances had to be travelled. Iceland has a small population but everybody who works in film and TV could be thrown into any job. Our Art Director there was also a special-effects co-ordinator, and as a sideline, designed and built things for the Iceland airline company.
Seoul: There were some cultural differences between what we expected to be there, and what we found – some of the scripted locations didn’t fit our preconceptions of how people actually live. There was a bit of changing around in the writing once we had all been there. Seoul is all new. And again, a very large city. We were very lucky in Korea to find a prison set that had been built several years earlier about 3 hours drive south of Seoul. Damien oversaw refurbishment of that set and building the solitary confinement cell in a stage in Seoul to cut out the travel for a couple of days. The Seoul dressing department consisted of 15 people on computers. We never actually saw anything physically. I had to OK dressings and props for locations from just photos. On the day you turn up and a small army had been picking the stuff and there it was dressed. This process was quite stressful until we understood that it worked.
Mexico City: A great city. We did have a lot of problems there because of their shooting permit system. Sometimes it went our way other times not, so there were again some last minute location changes, which tested our teams greatly. The Mexicans like to describe their traffic situations as legendary. I flew from the middle of the US to Mexico City in the same amount of time it took our driver to drive the 9 KM from the office in Mexico City to the airport to pick me up. We spent a lot of time in traffic there. We had locked in Lito’s apartment in a block of flats with a great vista. The owner had agreed to let us pull a couple of walls out, repaint and build a roof garden. The day before we came to shoot, locations had not got permission to enter the building from the actual owners of the building and we were locked out. Within 24 hours we had another apartment in another part of town, repainted it, undressed the original apartment and dressed the new one. It worked out well in the end because Lito’s apartment was I think a great looking place and it had a great vista. Out of adversity sometimes comes good things.
Mumbai: The Bollywood system is bigger than Hollywood, and we didn’t quite fit the mould for that. The directors wanted us to shoot in places that hadn’t been filmed in before, but this was not the way they did it there. We fought hard and sometimes it paid off greatly. Sometimes we didn’t win but what can you do when someone shrugs their shoulders with a big grin and just says “ it’s not possible”. You compromise. There were times when we understood why they did what they did. …our location manager there was ‘the great’ photographer whose name is Navitt – We would go on scouts only to discover that places looked a LOT (LOT) better in his photos than in reality. We had a second unit shoot there before main unit arrived. We built a large Ganesha statue and production donated it to some devotees that pushed it in the annual Ganesha pilgrimage to the sea, which is a parade that has over a million people at it. We had a small crew filming in and around the parade.
To clarify, I didn’t design the stories set in Nairobi (Capheus) and Berlin (Wolfgang). Tom Tykwer was the director in these cities. He has a foundation that helps young people in Nairobi with film training. He has helped make a couple of films there as part of this training so it was great for them to have the opportunity to do something to the scale of Sense8. The art department in Berlin was headed by Uli Hanisch, the co-designer I had done “Cloud Atlas” with.
We did have a small shoot in Berlin for the Wachowskis, for the only 3 sets that we built, and a location that we had been unable to find or fit into the schedule in Chicago. Due to the volume of work elsewhere, I wasn’t actually able to go to Berlin, so we employed an Art Director who had worked with myself and the Wachowskis there before (Stephan Gessler), and we sent him the designs we’d already had drawn for the sets. Peter Walpole and I oversaw the build and dress by skype – I was in a couple of different cities as that evolved, and Peter Walpole was in Iceland. We had no choice but to do it that way, but I think it worked out fine.
APDG: What were some of the logistical issues for you as the production designer?
- Distance, always distance. I was not often in the same city as the shooting crew for long, so was not able to be on set as you would normally be as Production Designer. It also made it difficult to have time to discuss evolving issues with the Directors. We had to skype a lot. We were usually running at least 3 art departments at any one time – at one stage I was dealing with teams in 6 cities in a day, across as many time zones. There was a lot of jet lag. I had to scout each city, then usually return to the city we were prepping in to deal with that, and then often journey to where the directors were to meet with them, then return to the prepping city, or the next city to see in a new art department, then return to the city that was nearing shoot, and either see in the shoot or leave beforehand and have Peter Walpole see in the shooting crew. Over the course of the show (about 8 months) I travelled about 170,000 air km, and spent countless, countless days in vans, driving around looking at locations, meeting, skyping as we did that.
- Crewing. Whilst we were able to work with at least some people we knew in Art Departments in San Francisco, Chicago and London, in the other locations we didn’t know anyone, and really had to take the word of local producers in regards to the local art director, and then trust them to crew the team. We had a structure that we tried to stick to, but the shape of each art department was a little different, depending on how the industry works in each country. Luckily we had a good run and had fantastic teams – it was great to see that generally, art departments run in similar ways around the globe, and interesting to notice the differences in each place as well.
- Language – in Korea. Not many people speak English, so this was an issue for the entire crew, not just the art department. We took in an Australian Art Director (Damien Drew) as I knew from initial scouts that Seoul was going to prove difficult to find the locations that we wanted from the script, and that the language problem was going to be an issue. We also had a local art director who was great, but who had very limited English, and an interpreter in the department, so things went as well as they could, although there were definitely moments when things got ‘lost in translation’. We had limited English speakers in Mexico and also in Mumbai, so this was also the case there sometimes, and everywhere we went there was plenty of entertainment to be had from my strong Australian accent, english speakers or no.
APDG: The characters and locations contrast dramatically yet are deeply connected and resonate long after the final episode. How did you create the character’s story worlds?
The creators of the show wanted always for the audience to know where you are and what city you are in, so this drove the design. We were always guided by the locations, and trying to find locations that meant you knew where you were, whilst working with something that was appropriate to the character and the story. Each character’s home was generally our prime location or starting point in each city. For instance, Sun in her sleek hi-rise apartment in Seoul, Lito in his penthouse in Mexico City, and Riley in her more grungy inner-city London pad. We spent as much time as we could making each character’s home fit to their everyday life, and found other locations to work around these.
It was very important to show the world off. With every location we tried to make the background as recognisable for the audience without being as blunt as ‘Oh there is Westminster so we must be in London’.
APDG: What were your favourite characters, sets and locations?
I think Lito’s story is great and the Mexico experience was fantastic.
APDG: What was the scale and scope of the art department? What challenges faced the art department?
Each art department was set up as a single entity. I would do the design thread. Peter would do the decorating thread and Trish was overseeing the systems that we had to have in each place across the show, as well as being our point person with production and locations. As you can image just keeping the filing of photos, plans, layouts all in the same format was a nightmare. And Clearances were hell. Peter & I would share the supervising art director role in different places. This was important as well for the continuity with the various production offices we were constantly dealing with.
Each department had a Key art director and small art team. Each city had its own set decorator and large dressing crew and each city mostly had a local stand by props and props buyers.
After we had done our pre in each city I would go through it all with Lana and Andy, and when they signed off I would head off. Peter generally stayed for the first day of the shoot and he would be off somewhere else. We had the confidence that each of the departments could do this and it worked for us.
APDG: How much collaboration and involvement did you have with other design and creative elements (ie costume, digital and sound design, cinematography, music)?
There was a core group on the show that had been working together for a while so it was fairly easy. John Toll was the main show DP and we have done a couple of shows with him. The costume designer was a lady from London Lindsay Pugh. Lindsay hadn’t worked with any of us before but in the circumstances we were all in we just spent a lot of time talking and looking at location photos together whenever we could. We had a photo website and sent links to HODs when we were all in different places.
Australian Danny Ruhlmann came on board to DP in Mexico City and Mumbai, which were being directed by another Australian, James McTeigue. It was great to have some pre-production time with James and Danny. We did an extra shoot in Mumbai for the Ganesha festival and also some locations reccees together.
Dan Glass directed in Seoul, and we knew him well as he has been working in VFX teams on Wachowski projects since Matrix Reloaded.
APDG: What did you most enjoy about the experience?
The art department personnel and location department personnel were the highlight of all the experiences. They were all into the show and into the ideas of making it work and just worked so hard to make it happen.
APDG: Do you have any advice for others considering a design career as a global citizen?
Leave any ideas you may have about how things are going to work-out at home. Things never go the way you plan but you do need a plan to be able to change it. Take your sense of humour and a camera.
APDG: Will there be another series?
I believe the show has been very successful for Netflix so who knows??