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Interview: Talking ‘Lucifer’ with Production Designer Alex Hajdu

Today we are speaking with Alex Hajdu, the production designer behind the beloved Netflix show, Lucifer. Alex worked on over 60 episodes of this fan-favorite show, and today he chats with us about some of his favorite and most challenging sets, including the Gaudi-inspired Heaven set he designed for the series finale. Shortly after wrapping Lucifer, he and his art department were brought onto the CBS reboot of CSI: Vegas, where Hajdu built and designed the iconic crime lab from the ground up. Keep reading to hear more about Alex’s brilliant work on Lucifer and CSI: Vegas.

Netflix

Congratulations on Lucifer recently being the #1 viewed title on Netflix! How did you get brought on to the show?

Thank you! I feel fortunate to have been invited to take on the series as Production Designer Season 3, by producer Hilton Smith when it came from Canada to Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank.

I had been working with Hilton in Atlanta on a STARZ series called Survivor’s Remorse for three seasons. Hilton was kind enough to introduce me to KristieAnne Reed at Bruckheimer Television. I was hired after interviewing with them, and pitching some ideas on how to recreate the permanent sets with some needed modifications. 

“The Room of Infinite White” and the “God’s Throne Room” sets in the finale episode looked incredible. We saw co-writer and producer, Chris Rafferty, praise these sets on social media as well. Walk us through the design process and how you and your team built this set.

One of the most challenging sets I was asked to design for Lucifer, was in the final episode of Season 6, ‘God’s Throne Room in Heaven”. When asked by the showrunners Joe Henderson and Ildy Modrovitch what my inspiration was for the set, I replied, “Gaudi”. 

My research in images of Heaven led me to a series of vague, cloudy environments with an Olympian image of white-bearded God in robes sitting on a marble throne, with some Roman columns and a long flight of stairs leading up – literally, a ‘stairway to heaven’. 

The inspiration for my set was Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona. I had been to see it and other Gaudi sites, on a recent trip to Spain. Gaudi derived much of his architectural designs from nature. He was also a very devout man. He once said he got his inspiration for the interior of the Sagrada from a walk in the woods. He said the towering trees intertwining overhead, breaking the sunlight into shafts, made him feel the presence of God. 

My design uses this metaphor and elaborates on it in a very modern way, using parametric architecture. “Parametric” is defined as shapes and forms that have a curving nature, often similar to a parabola or other flowing forms in the shape of arcs. These forms can include the arcs of entryways, or the entire shape of the structure can be in the form of flowing curves. Good examples of these types of designs are the TWA Building and the Ingalls Rink at Yale both by Eero Saarinen. The works of Antoni Gaudi and the current day designs of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao Spain are other good examples of these designs.

The work of Antoni Gaudi can be seen as an early example of designs based on these types of curves, which can be graphed based on a set of “parameters”, much like a parabola or other conical cross-section would create. And while Gaudi may not have used the mathematical approach to achieve these shapes, he did create the forms of Sagrada Familia based on the catenary curve by hanging chains from the ceiling of his design studio to determine his designs. By using these hanging chains, he then inverted these arcs to define his designs and essentially based these shapes as a physical connotation to the mathematical equivalent of these parameters. Parametric design is an essential part of CAD architectural software. I’ve been using CAD for my design process for a long time, so developing a 3D computer model was especially apt for this set.

I worked with my talented team of set designers, Tim Wilcox and Tom Wagman, to tackle the design. The concept was to keep it minimal, airy, and open. This was to be the highest point in “The Silver City”, as Heaven was referred to in Lucifer

The set was made of sweeping round beams that intersect and form arches in multiple directions, making chambers and anterooms. These round ‘beams’ end in organic column bases that suggest the sturdy trunks of trees. The entire set is encased in a thin gauzy scrim with a subtle ornamental latticework printed on it. Everything is painted reflective silver, and the entire set sits on a mirrored plexiglass floor, representing frozen water, which is encased in a white limbo ‘tent’ to create an infinity effect. In Heaven, the throne room is perched on top of a massive column of water, accessible only to winged beings. 

The fabrication was challenging. We found a company that could take the CAD files and extrude the massive beams that made up the arches out of foam. These had to be suspended by cable from the perms of the stage and blended by hand where they intersected. My talented construction department let by Duke Tomasick, assembled the pieces of the set. The painters, led by Frank Oliveri, used oversized stencils to create the lattice pattern on the scrim material, that had to be stretched between the beams. 

God’s throne was another challenge. With the help of illustrator Guy Gonzales, the throne was modeled in 3D, using gothic elements and organic shapes. It was cut on a 5 axis CNC machine from foam, hard-coated, and painted silver. The tall dias it sits on had a milk plexiglass base, to help with the lighting. The set was so transparent, that there was no place to hide lights. I reached for another Gaudi element from the Sagrada to help. In the nave about the altar, Gaudi designed a massive flower-shaped lightwell to channel the light. I used this idea as inspiration for the silver flower over the throne, as a place to hide lighting, and as a kind of ‘crown’ over the throne. 

Everyone was challenged by this set; the design, the fabrication, and the shooting of it. Tom Camarda, uber-talented DP, and his lighting and grip department stepped up to the challenge of a completely encased white limbo set with a mirrored floor. The Room of Infinite White was this white limbo set minus the throne room. 

It was a complex process from start to finish, and we are all very proud of the outcome. Designing Heaven involved meeting the needs of the story and script, pushing for an original design approach that defined Heaven without using ecclesiastical architecture, and fitting that into a television budget and schedule. It all came together because of the support of the incredible Lucifer production family, formed over 4 seasons. 

The Magic Castle Theatre in the first episode of this season was quite remarkable, was this set built as well or a part of an existing location?

We shot at the existing location for the exterior; the famous entry via the secret bookcase leading to the lobby bar and hallways leading to the interior. When Lucifer, who is taking Chloe out on a date, enters the theatre for the special show, we transition to a set built on stage. The ‘locked door mystery’ required us to control the environment, which also included a secret entrance via an antique pipe organ, to the subterranean hallways where the killer abducts Chloe. 

It also allowed us to manage the COVID safety requirements of safe distance and minimal personnel in an enclosed space. I designed the stage to closely match the Victorian flavor of the main stage of the Castle. The set walls were all beautiful red satin drapes, provided by the Warner Brothers drapery department. Knowing we would be using low angles to tell the story, I designed a large elaborate ceiling with wood beams that supported a faux Tiffany lamp as a centerpiece. I added two layers of black bobbinet in the openings between beams to limit the view. In this COVID season of Lucifer, I could not have solid ceilings limiting airflow.

The only other solid scenery in the room was strategically placed wood pillars to support sconces for lighting, and one main entry. The organ we used was actually a silent movie organ from 1925 originally from the Rialto Theater in Pasadena that was being restored. There were no pipes, so the construction department had to make them! The organ was built onto a pivoting base, which swings to reveal the hidden entry to the underground tunnels that were supposedly running under the Magic Castle. 

The magic act required a classic sword escape box, which we found at John Gaughan’s amazing workshop. John is the premier manufacturer of magic acts and equipment for magicians based in Los Angeles. He has the most amazing museum of magic in his workshop. This is the kind of amazing experience I was able to have while working on Lucifer

There’s such a wide variety of sets on Lucifer, are there any others that you’d like to discuss?

Indeed, there were always amazing places to create on Lucifer! They were almost all crime scenes. Sets that I designed for the show include a Mars habitat with the 2001 airlock, The Pudding Factory where someone drowns in a vat of pudding, the Korean Karaoke Bar with the 4’ wide x 80’ long hallway with rooms that spewed knife-and-gun-wielding assailants for Lucifer to dispatch, and a Japanese Kendo Dojo. We also did an outdoor rave for 350 people with a DJ on a round stage we built with complex built-in lighting effects and inflatables. A stage set at the Hollywood Bowl for a Beyonce-style Diva and her dancers complete with lasers. Our black and white Noire episode complete with a classic ‘40’s nightclub interior, an occult shop, Maltese Falcon-era detective office, and many other period modifications of the WB backlot. An Opera singer’s mansion, a wine vault, a mission control set. The serial killer lair that is really a set in a video game companies loft, a million-dollar yacht bedroom. Caves, circuses, a drag cabaret, a steampunk Panic Room, Hell, and finally, God’s Throne Room in Heaven.

My art department team made it all possible: Tim Eckel my art director, Tom Wagman, James Addink set designers, Ava Dishian, Sally Grosenbach, ADC’s, Joe Mason, graphic designer, Duke Tomasick, construction coordinator, Frank Oliveri, lead scenic. I’ve had several set decorators throughout the series; Tim Stepeck, Susan Eschelbach, Julie Bolder, Melissa Levander, Karin McGaughey. These dedicated, creative people and their amazing crews made the magic happen on Lucifer. And none of this could be possible without the trust and support of the showrunners, Ildy Modrovitch and Joe Henderson. Their faith in me to create the right environments to tell their stories was unprecedented, and much appreciated. 

You and your art department from Lucifer were also brought on to the upcoming reboot, CSI: Vegas. What was it like shifting from the design aesthetic of Lucifer to the design aesthetic of CSI: Vegas.

Lucifer required me to be very fluid to accommodate the scripted sets and locations, many of which were done on the WB backlot, sometimes using the same exteriors and interiors we used in other episodes – but made to look completely different. Or elaborate sets on stage or built on location. My goal was to be as original as possible and to never repeat a design. For me, the scripts inspire the design aesthetic. I design to tell the story that is written. There was a kind of magic that happened on Lucifer, a combination of everyone’s mojo that worked on the show in every department. Creativity and contribution were encouraged. I always tried to find a place where I could introduce an unexpected texture, color, or design element while keeping it real to support the story. 

CSI was more of a technical challenge. We were tasked to develop the next-generation cutting-edge forensics laboratory in Las Vegas – with a Mid-Century aesthetic. The CSI:Vegas Laboratory headquarters was supposed to be housed in a Mid-Century Building on the outskirts of Las Vegas that had been gutted to make way for the lab interior. While the labs themselves were to be modern, I was asked to make reference to Mid-Century architecture where possible. The entry foyer to the lab, with the DNA-helix-inspired spiral staircase is the most literal example. 

Stylistically, we were going for the next version of CSI – with advances in the forensic sciences bringing more certainty to criminal investigation, the importance of effective and intuitive detective work needed to be emphasized. The crime scenes had to be complex enough that merely having more scientific data had to be shown as just a part of the whole process, with people at the center of that process. 

In an ironic way, Lucifer was a parody of CSI – it was a police procedural – what I called a ‘supernatural procedural’ – with crime scenes and a forensic investigator, and suspects being interrogated, but with tongue firmly in cheek. 

Can you elaborate on designing the main laboratory for CSI: Vegas?

CSI was on a fast track for the art department and construction right from the start. I was requested to take the project on by Jerry Bruckheimer as Lucifer was in its final episode. I jumped onto CSI along with my set designer Tom Wagman, and hit the deck running. In 9 long days, we had a Sketchup design of 17 laboratories complete with furnishings and lighting, to present to Bruckheimer Television. We continued to develop the plans, while also presenting the concepts in several design presentations to the network. Taking everyone on a virtual 3D tour through the massive model via Zoom was the method to introduce the design concepts to everyone. 

We had 7 weeks in total – design and construction – to create the 100’ x 200’ lab complex in a warehouse in Santa Clarita. This includes the pilot sets and locations as well. This was 4 weeks shy of the original prep schedule, due to a change before I was asked to take the project on. We made up for lost time, but it was extremely demanding, designing and building for a show with a pedigree and history that was aiming to outdo its predecessor in every aspect. 

I had the pleasure of developing a new Morgue set, taking the familiar elements from past CSI versions into the future. My other favorite set was the Interrogation Room. I also re-designed the interrogation room in the Lucifer precinct, adding heavy concrete texture and built-in lighting. I took the same approach here, creating a claustrophobic brutalist interior to break up the static nature of a small room with expositional dialog. 

I must point out that without Joe DelMonte’s incredible construction, paint and plaster department, CSI:Vegas would not exist. We had to design and build simultaneously – which took a lot of frequent communication and a lot of logistics and skill on Joe’s and his team’s part to keep going while we worked out the details.

In order to keep ahead, we hired up to 4 set designers at a time, to develop working drawings from the elaborate Sketchup model of the entire set. I brought on Sean Faulkner as a second art director to manage the location work for the pilot. Tim Eckel, my trusty right hand and supervising art director, rode shotgun on the stage sets. 

Karin McGaughey, my talented set decorator from the last season of Lucifer, had the enormous task of reaching out to the manufacturers of the varied and complex forensics equipment that was called for in the specific laboratories within the CSI complex of sets. These vendors sent reps with their high-end fully functioning equipment and oversaw the assembly and installation of the equipment. They helped to train set personnel and actors in the proper use of the gear, along with the CSI consultant. 

Another complex requirement was to shoot two new backdrops of Las Vegas, one showing the Vegas skyline, the other to represent the location of the lab, somewhere on the outskirts of the city. These were to convey the glamour of the city, while also showing the urban setting of the lab. Three weeks of scouting and shooting by Philip Greenstreet from Rosco finally captured the required images. However, due to COVID affecting the supply chain, we very nearly did not get the backings in time from Germany. 

Did COVID have any impact on your work for either of these shows?

There was a definite impact. On Lucifer, we did not go into a practical interior during the entire final season, with the exception of the entry of the Magic Castle in the first episode. That meant we built all the interiors on stage or shot on the WB backlot, a controlled environment with strict COVID regulations and protocols. The sets had to be oversized to build-in distancing, and no ceilings were permitted, due to restricting airflow. We had to have exits without doors for the same reason. Balancing the needs of COVID safety with the aesthetics called for by the script added a layer of complexity to every set. 

Frequent testing, and department pods that kept the actors safe on set and any possible outbreak contained. Social distancing was strictly enforced on set at all times. Right from the beginning of Lucifer Season 6, I introduced a program called Slack to manage long-distance collaboration. That and Zoom meetings, screen-sharing with digital set designers, set decorators and buyers, and virtual location scouts were the standard operating procedures. Slack is now has a permanent place in my design toolbox, as does Zoom.

Having done a season of Lucifer during COVID, we were prepared to keep working under the safety protocols on CSI using the tools we learned on the last season of Lucifer.  

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Lucifer was a very special show to work on. It was creatively challenging but enormously rewarding. Currently, much is being said about working environments in the industry. By design, Lucifer was a positive and supportive environment for everyone working on the show. We called it the ‘Lucifamily’ – and it encouraged everyone to bring their best selves to work. 

The leap to CSI brought us to a different, more demanding environment. Everyone had to bring their ‘A” game to step up to the expectations this highly successful franchise had established – literally inventing a genre of television crime procedurals. That successful transition occurred because of the strong creative integration the crew from Lucifer had forged. 

I am a visual storyteller. I find no greater joy than to be a part of a creative team that has come together to tell a story. I am tasked to bring originality and interest to every setting, either to help add veracity or to transport the viewer to places they have never seen. I eagerly look forward to the next challenge!

Netflix

Lucifer can be seen on Netflix!

Oscar Sunday is my personal Super Bowl.

I cover behind the camera artisans, and love to hear about filmmaking magic behind the scenes.

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Written by Betty Ginette

Oscar Sunday is my personal Super Bowl.

I cover behind the camera artisans, and love to hear about filmmaking magic behind the scenes.

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