8 TV shows with awesome set design

2017-11-10 16:39

Cape Town -  What makes a series or movie completely immersive, transporting you immediately to a past (or future) era, a faraway place? 

These 8 shows on Showmax, Netflix and DStv Now prove that a little attention to even the tiniest details of set design goes a long way to getting viewers hooked.

1. The Swingin’ 50s: Magic City (Showmax)

Set against the sun-drenched, glamorous backdrop of Miami Beach, Florida, in 1959, this glitzy crime series sees the owner of the Miramar Playa Hotel, Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), running into trouble on all fronts, whether it’s from the mob boss who’s his financial backer or the FBI, who are sniffing him out as a way into the Miami underworld. 

The stunning set design and attention to detail are reminiscent of Mad Men, with even the tiniest details turning the set into a time machine, whether it’s a hotel match book or the portholes into the pool from the Atlantis Lounge, where guests watch “mermaids” frolicking in the water. 

The show’s production designer, architect Carlos Barbosa, oversaw construction of the hotel interiors from scratch, including the two-storey lobby, a landscaped driveway, grand staircase and even the lingerie shop. The interiors were then filled with handmade replicas of furniture from the era, unless actual mid-century pieces could be found at antique auctions.

Look out for the incredible crystal chandelier in the lobby of the Miramar - it was originally installed in the lobby of the very grand, real-life Eden Roc hotel in Cuba. Read more about the making of Magic City here.

2. Step inside the Vatican: The Young Pope (Showmax)

With an Emmy nod this year for Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Contemporary or Fantasy Programme, this miniseries starring Jude Law as the first American Pope has one of the most immersive set designs we’ve seen. Ever wondered what it’s really like inside the walls of the Vatican? Watch the Young Pope, which is first and only on Showmax. You’ll never guess that the Vatican refused to cooperate with shooting, and that the crew had to recreate every setting as best they could, often having to shoot in many different places while still trying to convey the idea of the show being set in a single location - the Vatican. Which is fascinating, because, on the one hand, the Vatican was purpose-built to strike the fear of God into those who live there, and, on the other hand, it has to operate as a functioning country, with pharmacies and ATMs and cafes. Director Paolo Sorrentino read diaries of past cardinals to get an insight into the daily workings of the Vatican, and a theologian was a fundamental part of the crew, giving advice and assistance on the finer details of life behind the walls. Read more about the making of The Young Pope here.

3. Oscar-nominated opera design: Phantom of the Opera (Showmax)

South African Celia Bobak worked on the set design of the 2004 movie starring Gerard Butler as the eponymous Phantom, Shameless’s Emmy Rossum as Christine, a beautiful chorus girl, and Patrick Wilson as Raoul, Christine’s childhood friend and minor French royalty. No expense was spared on the sets, which beautifully evoke late-19th-Century France, and many of them were created using miniatures and computer graphics. At least two of the elements of the lavish set design, however, were real. The chandelier weighted 2.2 tonnes and cost over a million dollars - it was so valuable that it had a “stunt double” for certain scenes in case of breakages. And the mannequin of Christine in the Phantom’s lair was not a wax figure in real life - it was Emmy Rossum herself in waxy make-up, standing very, very still. It’s attention to detail like this that we believe led to set director Celia Bobak being nominated for an Oscar for Best Achievement in Art Direction in 2005.

4. Sets made for a queen: Victoria (Showmax)

If it’s lusciously lavish sets that set your heart racing, there’s nothing like a period drama about British royalty to deliver your fix. Bringing 19th-Century England to life, the production design team of the series Victoria recreated the interiors of Buckingham Palace in vivid detail, even hand-making the gilded mirror frames out of things like sea shells and leaves so that they looked like the work of famous artist Grinling Gibbons, who carved the frames of the mirrors in the real-life palace. The chandeliers on set make the one in Phantom of the Opera look like a flimsy light fitting, weighing a total of 4.5 tonnes. When you watch the series, keep an eye on Victoria’s bedroom - its changes in texture and colour are said to mirror her transformation as queen.

5. A treasure trove of details: Black Sails (Showmax)

You might not expect a series about a cutthroat pirate in the early 1700s to be a treasure trove of intricate set design, but this is just one of the ways Black Sails defies expectations. The show was shot in Cape Town, and contains hidden gems in the set design, such as: all the books were bound and stitched by hand especially for the show, so that they really looked like books of the era; a pair of gallows that were made of wood had to be aged so they didn’t appear too new or shiny on screen; the beach was created at the studio, made of quarry sand, because the weather on the actual beach would have been too unpredictable for filming; and buildings were plastered with a special kind of cement called Tabby to recreate an authentic construction technique from the 18th Century, using a combination of seashells, ash and water. And if you think it would have been simple to collect enough seashells to make this possible, think again - the team had to find a company in Cape Town who had the right permits to collect shells on their behalf. Read more about the making of Black Sails here.

6. Upper-class style: HBO’s Big Little Lies (Showmax)

The gorgeous beach homes of the affluent moms in murder mystery miniseries Big Little Lies have been called the show’s actual break-out stars, and once you’ve seen the architecture and style in the wealthy characters’ houses, you’ll know why. Set in the ridiculously picturesque and very upper-class town of Monterey, California, the series was always going to showcase dreamy beach houses, but once you’ve been invited into successful CEO Renata’s (Laura Dern) modern mansion that’s all edges, double-volume living spaces and minimalist decor, or stay-at-home mom Celeste’s (Nicole Kidman) cliff-side house that’s filled with kids’ toys and plush furnishings, or Madeline’s (Reese Witherspoon) traditional, classic family home directly on the beach, you’ll start to rearrange all your ideas about how to decorate that beach home you’ll have one day when you’re rich and famous. The really interesting thing about these homes is that they really are homes - none of the sets were created in studio. 

7. Stark dystopia: The Handmaid’s Tale (DStv Now)

Winner of eight Emmys this year, including for Outstanding Production Design, the series based on Margaret Atwood’s award-winning dystopian novel uses clever details to convey the stark and scary near-future depicted in the novel. Part of the United States is now called Gilead, a totalitarian religious regime that stripped women of everything - jobs, bank accounts, basic human rights. Elisabeth Moss plays Offred, a handmaid whose sole purpose is to be a walking womb for a powerful Commander and his barren wife. Her room, which is painted sanitarium white, lacks everything except the most basic comforts. It’s empty except for a bed, a lamp and a desk - even though she’s no longer allowed to write. In episode 1, Offred visits the supermarket, Loaves and Fishes, which is unnervingly similar to any shop you’d walk into today, from the metal shopping baskets to the pile of fresh produce to the bright lighting. But look carefully and you’ll notice something off about the labels of the food on the shelves. Reading is forbidden in Gilead, so production designer Julie Berghoff got her graphics department to create hundreds and hundreds of labels with no words on them, only symbols, which they stuck to countless cans and boxes for the grocery store set. Find out more about the hidden details in the Handmaid’s Tale set design here

8. Seventies nostalgia: Mindhunter (Netflix)

Executive produced by David Fincher, who also directed the first four episodes, Netflix’s Mindhunter is immediately recognisable to Fincher fans in many of its visual elements. The colour palette, for one thing - dark, gloomy, naturally lit, heavily saturated with yellow tones - is vintage Fincher; the almost geometric perfection of the composition of each shot is another. The series follows Holden Ford and Bill Tench, two FBI agents in the late 1970s who were at the forefront of the study of the behavioural and psychological profiling of what were then called “sequence killers”. Their main task becomes to interview convicted and jailed murderers who have killed three or more people, with a similar MO, but soon Ford and Tench are also roped into solving dead-end murders in the small towns they pass through, using their psychological insights to catch the killers. The sets and props (and the cars!) are retro perfection. One particular gem to look out for is the massive tape recorder that Ford hauls out of the trunk of his car en route to an interview (it’s a reel-to-reel tape recorder, a Sony TC-510-2 track). Since the series launched, these specific models have become quite the hit on eBay, but the prop has a serious role to play in the series, especially in the later episodes, when Ford needs to eliminate evidence of a less-than-salubrious conversation he has with one of “his” killers.

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Read more on:    netflix  |  showmax  |  series  |  tv

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