Friday, June 12, 2009

Exterior Sets

Did you know that 95% of all blogs are abandoned ?  I just read that in the paper.  I'll try not to let that happen to this one!  Mike and Marco have asked about other shows and exterior sets so I can certainly ramble on about that subject.  I have been working a lot on my house again.  No, it's not San Simeon, but ever here of Mrs. Winchester?  Well, meet Mr, Winchester!

A lot of people don't realize that Set Decorators also deal with a lot of exterior items as well.  Greens still does plants, trees (real and fake).  Sometimes they will wrap "tree skins" around telephone poles or street / stop lights to cover them up if it is a period show and they would be inappropriate.  Set dressing might include mail boxes or even parking meters besides the obvious park benches or even magazine stands, newspaper boxes, and fire hydrants--noe working, of course.  Any signs are always the Art Department.  One time I called the Chicago police department to ask what color their street signs were because I was the designer on a show that was supposed to take place in Chicago and we had to cover up the Hawaiian names on the street signs downtown.  It is not uncommon for the director to order street signs cut off if they are in the way and be welded back later.  I don't know how much trouble they might get in for that or if anyone even notices the weld later.

Set dressing also covers garbage and dumpsters.  One time we were doing an alley set (I think it was Magnum) and we had bags and boxes of garbage all over.  Well, a trash company came along and picked up half our "set" before we noticed!  We were dressing the day before shooting so there was no reason not to think our garbage wasn't real--instead of "reel."  There was some actual dumpster diving that day.  We always had to have security on those kinds of sets all night.

One of the most amazing exterior stories popped into my head when I was thinking about this.  When we did the pilot for LOST, they shipped a real plane over on barges that had been cut up in one of those airplane graveyards they have out in some desert.  We did the main crash site on a beach with very little depth.  In fact, the actual road went right through the set and we covered it with sand.  They would have to hold traffic whenever we filmed.  Of course the cars would drive slowly because they thought it was a real plane crash.  No one had ever heard of LOST or knew anything about it so there weren't really many people that interested.  When the pilot ended, the entire plane and parts had to be taken off the beach as the permit only allowed them to leave it for filming the pilot.  It was stored at a nearby small airport.  When the show was picked up, they re-erected the plane a little further away with a little more depth to the beach and allowed the road to go through without covering it with sand.  The plane and the pieces were again set up.  The BIG no-no with the state and all the environmental people was that NO plane parts could wind up in the ocean.  We eliminated a lot of the insulation parts and other things that might blow in the water anyway.

So when the actual show started filming, the pilot still hadn't aired and no one knew anything (or cared) about the show.  The first season was fairly easy with the permanent sets being either the plane crash site or the "caves" which were built in an old warehouse right on Nimitz Highway.  Then the flashbacks were the only real sets we had to worry about.  Anyway, as we got closer to winter surf season, there were concerns about the plane crash site.  In the winter here (so-called winter!), the storm generated surf comes from the north and causes the northern facing short to have large waves.  Right now you could water ski in Waimea Bay and in the winter you would be killed by 30' waves.  So there was concern because the waves started actually coming closer and closer to the plane.  We had to move plane parts sometimes.  Of course the State had people watching us so we had to comply.  Given that they seemed to be making up the show as it went along, the writers actually put into the script that the characters were going to have to abandon the plane site and move before it washed into the ocean--which it was literally about to do.

So there was this script written about them about to pack up their belongings and leave their original camp.  There was nothing about what they were going to do when they got to wherever they were going.  So the time for the move came.  They had already shot them leaving the plane site with the water coming right up to the plane and gave the impression it was washing out to sea--which of course couldn't happen.  The new beach site was several miles away outside Haleiwa.  You cannot control beach access in Hawaii--no one can own the beach--but you can control access through the land.  So the new location was fairly protected from people trying to watch and was surrounded by land owned by the Bishop Estate and leased to the police.  So they had planned this shot with all the rag tag people carrying their worldly possessions struggling up the beach right at sunset.  It was really breathtaking with them in silhouette and the sun setting behind them.  All they needed was Moses and the Red Sea parting.

Because this was all we were expecting the scene to be, there was no one from the Art Department there.  Well, all of a sudden the director / producer announced he wanted to see the beginnings of their camp site!  This would normally have involved the production designer, art directors, much decision making with producers, etc.  Since this kind of thing happened on the show, my crew and I were scrambling for tarps, palm fronds, plane parts, and anything we could rig to start creating a camp site.  Did I forget to mention that the sun had gone down by now?  The topics have very short sunsets and we could barely see what we were doing.  And WHAT we were doing was creating permanent sets for the next 2 seasons in locating the various characters tents and the look of the camp--in near darkness, with almost no materials, and with absolutely NO discussion about the "look" we were creating!  Nor would it have been our responsibility to have done so.  Anyway, we pulled it off and the rest is history, as they say!

BTW, the production designer was furious but there was nothing he could do.  My department and I couldn't exactly stand there in front of the whole company and dozens of extras and refuse to do anything.  It's not like it was brain surgery, but they were already starting to obsess about things on the show and here I was pointing my finger arbitrarily and creating what was becoming one of the most important sets of the series.  Well, not to take all the credit, it was only the early beginnings of what later became much more developed and designed and planned and obsessed over just trying to make it look like it all wasn't.  Typical.

Ok, that's my story.  Back to my nail gun and paint brush............

Aloha,  Rick


golfmobile said...

I do love your LOST stories in addition to the MPI ones. I'm a big fan of that show, who got hooked while watching it ONLY because it was filmed in Hawaii. I'm not exactly a Lostie, but I do enjoy seeing the Lost Virtual Tour online (its locations -- it was fun to recognize Waimanalo Beach when it was used), which site is really fun IF you're a fan of the show. I think about you when I visit that site!

Anonymous said...

In the efforts to keep the blog going, maybe you won't mind if I asked a few questions at once.You have worked in both TV and theatre, other than the obvious, what are the big differences between the two? Is it common for a set decorator to work in both worlds? It does not seem like that common a cross-over for actor.Also wondering, when they film shower scenes like the one Selleck did with Sharon Stone in season 6 (I think), how is such a set put up? I think of things like the camera's fogging up and controlling the direction of the steam - how's it all done?

Susie (Canada)

Steven said...

Hello Rick. As always your blog entertains and informs! Great work! I knew that the reason they moved the location of the camp on LOST must have been because they needed to get rid of the wreckage off the beach, but I didn't know it was about to wash into the ocean for real. As great as the show is (in my opinion) they do seem to make up quite a bit as they go along, but so far it's been a great series. I'm really impressed with the fact that you guys came up with sets in those conditions under short notice. You and your crew creating great sets is also a big part of the reason the show works and my wife and I are fans of it. From the Pilot to 60 episodes later you and your crew worked on the sets that made the show even more interesting! Thanks!