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Interview: ‘Loki’ Production Designer Kasra Farahani & Cinematographer Autumn Durald on Collaborating To Build Worlds

Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Getting wrapped up in the adventures of the Marvel universe is quite easy; in part due to incredible amount of skill and creativity applied to bring those worlds to life. For the Disney+ series Loki the world building were ambitious to say the least. They required a collaborative approach across teams to make each settings that were familiar and cohesive, yet surreal.

Production Designer Kasra Farahani and Cinematographer Autumn Durald worked together to deliver aesthetically stunning settings which still feel real and lived-in – no mater how peculiar they became. I spoke with the talented duo about what went into designing and delivering their impressive vision for Loki around the same time Joey spoke to director Kate Herron (here) and head writer Michael Waldron (here). Enjoy these new conversations, below.

Steven Prusakowski: I was amazed just how vast of a world we got because no one knew what to expect going in. And what we, the viewers found, was incredible. Were you comic book/ superhero fans growing up?

Autumn Durald: I wouldn’t say I was an advanced comic book fan, but I definitely loved comics. And I would go see the blockbuster films. Spider Man was always a favorite. I had kind of always been impressed by that world. But I didn’t read comics.

Kasra Farahani: Yeah, I had a few comics and I had friends that had more than me, I was interested mostly in. But, I like to draw. So I was mostly interested in art. But I do have to say that I grew up at a time I was ripe for the Tim Burton Batman films. I was exactly the demographic. I was probably 12 or something when those started to come out. I feel like they definitely made an impression on me to see that level of craft and resources basically being focused on a comic book story was new to me.

Steven Prusakowski: Going into the TVA, there’s such a mix of styles, the gloomy, kind of bureaucratic nightmare, the city of the future, there’s hints of like ancient architecture, then you have Miss minutes. What were some of the goals when you’re creating the look and the feel of this crucial setting?

Kasra Farahani: I think the goal of the sets, for the TVA at least, is to contrast the monolithic, imposing totalitarian feel of socialist mid-century modernism and brutalism with the kind of sweet, disarming colorful and warm version of West Coast American mid-century modernism, where there’s a lot of like brighter colors and warm palate. So you take this monolithic form language and you skin it in this veneer of welcoming finishes to create this kind of insidious uncanny blend of the two. Then I think you do add an element of devotional culty architecture as it relates to the time the Time Keepers so there’s that subtle minor chord that’s in there as well.

Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Steven Prusakowski: How did you approach it when shooting it because it? The future is often represented as bright and clean, but this series you went in a different direction.

Autumn Durald:  Everything’s so textural, I like paying attention to textures. I think as a designer and a DP it is so important. When you’re photographing someone because you want something to feel real, and real things have texture. And then to have depth, just like in paint, you choose the color, you choose the application that’s on the wall. And,  so he’s kind of making these choices beforehand. And we’re having meetings about them. He’s running color by me and showing me tests of his paint. And it was already built in. I think our world from the beginning, that it should feel textural. And it should have a vintage kind of whether it’s Blade Runner meets Mad Men, which is something that was kind of pitched early on to us by the showrunner (Kate Herron) in the writers room. These things should feel real and they’ve been lived in even though some of them are surreal. I think in the same application I was shooting. I like things that have an older feel, older lenses that kind of take the edge off of digital cameras and lighting that feels more realistic. So there’s more contrast and frame, moodier and darker characters moving in and out of light as you do in real space, not the whole set lit. He’s designing spaces that feel very architectural and real. You want the light to kind of correspond with that. And the lighting in the renderings was also beautiful. So taking that and riffing off of it, and kind of paying homage to it was really important to me, because I want to take that idea and kind of elevate it as well. And it was already there in the start of the conception that him and Kate ended up coming up with prior to me getting coming on board.

Steven Prusakowski: What were some of the films or TV shows that influenced the look and feel like this?

Kasra Farahani: I guess Terry Gilliam’s Brazil was a big touchstone on a conceptual level and at times, in a visual way, specifically, the processing chambers, the metal kind of like little cubes that he falls through. We took inspiration from Brazil, in a more directly visual way in those kind of small sets. But in a broader way, on the conceptual level, I thought that was a very helpful idea, because it was also about characters facing a giant bureaucracy that’s operating by a set of rules that we don’t really understand. There’s a shot that Autumn did that is going across these buttons in the elevator that ended up being in the trailer and something that people talked about a lot. And the buttons, we honestly, that wasn’t anything that was a script, we were just sort of playing around. We thought it would be funny to have an elevator that looks like an elevator that everyone in the audience has been inside of except the buttons are totally strange. And there’s too many of them and there’s no way to determine the logic of one symbol to the next. Because I think that’s the whole idea of the TVA, it’s this sort of familiar, seemingly familiar thing on the surface, but what’s under there, is totally opaque, and he can’t understand it.

Autumn Durald:  There were so many beautiful details in the sets and just the art direction and the decoration that you would walk in. And Kate was a big fan of doing these little textual inserts, like David Fincher and Fincher films. I’m a big fan of doing inserts that look good – not just grabbing an insert, after you shoot the scene, but taking time to light the actual insert, and whatever the item may be, like the buttons on the elevator, there were just so many great little things like that I think that are important in the storytelling, too. It just helped you understand the world they were all in, and they all looked real. It was great to kind of make time to shoot those things. I definitely enjoy doing that.

Steven Prusakowski:  Even being in this fantasy world, it feels legit. Like you feel like you could walk through and imagine what’s around the corner. You spoke about all the detail that’s in there. This is such a massive world, it spans across the globe, universes and timelines. The TVA alone is a massive undertaking, but then it expands beyond that. Where does it all begin? And what’s your collaboration with each other like? And with Kate?

Kasra Farahani:  We find it together is the honest truth. You get pieces, obviously, the script is where you start. And then the next place you go is Kate and to hear her thoughts on it. And based on that, you sort of start to put some pieces together, and see if you can get traction, and you look at research, obviously, finding things that work and then evoke the right feelings that the story is going for in those moments. Then you create art concept art, that takes the inspiration and focuses it into a specific image from our story. Then you sort of build this critical mass from that point and start to find kind of anchoring ideas, through which you can propagate into more ideas. And then you basically try to infer a logic from which you build a world. I always like to, in my mind, it’s like world building is a term that gets used a lot in, but I think it’s misunderstood in a lot of ways people think it has to do with scale. I don’t think world building is about scale. World building in my opinion is about consistency, like the buttons on the elevator that can do more to tell the audience that they don’t understand the rules of this place, than a inexpensive, CG vista of an alien world in my opinion. And to do that consistently, to be constantly showing them things that hit those same kind of logic, logical notes. And by logic, I mean, the narrative logic of our world of our scripts in our story, that I think that’s how you sort of start to really create the sense of world building.

Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Autumn Durald: I think it is a cohesive idea and the design, and the way it’s shot. And kind of, even though we’re jumping through different sets, and worlds – we were very lucky to be able to do this show as one team. I know a lot of other shows, sometimes they switch directors and DPs and production designers. I’m not sure how that works. I think it is all about understanding the world and everyone being on the same page and having this cohesive idea of what it means to be in the TVA and how that should look. And then we obviously had lots of meetings, we were talking about the effects because that was kind of for me. I was so spoiled with having sets all the time from Kasra. We’re trying to do as much as we can in camera, which is what I like to do, and that kind of trying to keep that dogma as much as you can in the Marvel project. But most of the time we spent figuring out stuff was when we had to have more of the effects in the shot. We did need more thought because we wanted to make sure everyone knew what would be out there, what that world looked like, how it should be lit so that when the VFX were put in later, it all felt cohesive and not like two different films. Those felt like the more stressful moments for me at least, because I was so spoiled with great sets most of the time.

Steven Prusakowski: Having a great set must allow you to really do your job instead of imagining the setting when shooting on a green screen instead of a physical set. As a cinematographer, that must have been a great advantage.

Autumn Durald:  You want to be inspired. I think that’s something that Kasra and I share. You want inspiration to come from the space, right? You want to be inspired, the same way you are when you walk into beautiful architecture, you know? You see the light, the people walking through it, and  how people are interacting with the space. That’s what’s so important for me as DP. I love operating, I love being in that space, I want it to feel real, I want the light to feel real. It is hard to kind of switch over when you don’t have that. And obviously, any DP, I’m sure, would struggle with that. And as a designer, because you’re in a space where you’re guessing you’re doing a lot of guessing.You’re hoping to kind of nail down as much of the elements as you can, while you’re there. You’re playing make believe a little bit. It’s interesting that you’re getting all of the stuff in-camera that the VFX people need and taking the time to get them what they need. So afterwards, they’re not missing elements to make it feel like a real space.

Steven Prusakowski:  Was there a scene or a shot that you found either the most challenging or most rewarding?

Kasra Farahani: There’s so many rewarding sets. From one minute to the next I have a hard time choosing. I think we’re so lucky to have worked on a project that has so much visual diversity. I’ll tell you the time theater is such a big one for me, maybe because of how early comes in the season. And because it’s sort of like throwing the gauntlet down and establishing the look of our world that our team and all of our colleagues kind of put together. I just think the lighting and the photography and the scenery and the brilliant acting all worked so well together in that environment. The other one is the Loki Palace, which is the kind of crazy disused bowling alley in Episode Five, where all the different Loki variants are. I think that one has such a wild and zany energy that I think in some ways captures the spirit of the season in a way. And it’s just a different feel. Those two scenes, those two different settings sort of define the spectrum, the emotional spectrum of the story. I think from this really serious emotional space where Loki is brought to tears in learning about his mother’s death to the kind of bonkers alligator Loki biting off the hand of another Loki is the logic spectrum there.

Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Steven Prusakowski:  For the record, that’s the one I was hoping you would talk about. I love that palace. 

Autumn Durald:  Yeah, from the moment you drew that and I saw it I was like, ‘This is insane.’ It looked amazing on paper. And then when you walked in there, like I can’t tell you enough. I don’t bring it up a lot, because it’s just so obvious. ‘That’s brilliant.’ Like when someone asks, ‘What’s your favorite thing?’ I’m like, well, that’s brilliant, That’s just obvious – answer that one. And then when you’re on set there as a DP, you’re just like, point the camera in any direction and there’s just such good shit with depth and texture and it was great. It was really impressive to be on that set and swing the camera around which we did a ton. I think that everyone just loves that. And it’s fun and I think it’s so tasteful. That’s the thing with Marvel, right? I think there’s a way to do something that can be fantastical but grounded and still very tasteful. I feel lt’s so fun in there and the costumes and the comedy in there but it did feel like an old movie to me which I love. I want to always be watching something that’s new, but I want to feel nostalgic. I think that space has all that going for it without being cheesy or anything.It’s just done in very tasteful way with that design. And so I love that one too, but I think my favorite is the time theater because it has a great strong frame, in angles and symmetry and strong lighting from above. And from the moment that I saw that design, I was just in love with that space – and then walking in there and having a full space to shoot, and move light around that’s not on the floor, but coming from above. I like shooting a face, like just sitting people talking and kind of doing really economical coverage, but having elegant frames. So that space was always my favorite.

Steven Prusakowski:  It’s such a great cast, we were there to do a lot of face time working with the different Lokis and the variants and Sylvia?

Autumn Durald:  They’re all brilliant. They came with their A-game every day. And they all got along really nicely. And Tom’s just so lovely to be around. It starts from the top right – every head of department and him being the top. He has a great attitude, talks to everyone, helps everyone out. When we’re blocking things and trying to make things work. I had a great relationship with him. He was very appreciative of what we were doing and tried to elevate their game. All of our actors were really lovely. We’re very lucky with our team in general.

Kasra Farahani: I just want to echo what Autumn was saying about Tom, Sophia, all of them. Just such elegant, classy people. So appreciative of everything. Such a pleasure to work with them. But also, I think it’s worth mentioning. And this again, I hope this doesn’t sound false, but we had, from all the department heads, from all the crews working for those department heads, just a really nice and collaborative team on top of being a brilliantly talented crew of people on this show. I think it may be a long, very, very long time until I’ll be so lucky to have a lineup like that again, I’ve been in this business a long time. And I can’t think of too many times where we have such a great team of collaborators.

Autumn Durald:  It shows. You do see the result of that kind of great connection and people being inspired by each other and not working in fear, but working in a creative space where you can explore.

Steven Prusakowski:  That’s great. I don’t know if our hosts at The ‘Verse! Podcast would forgive me if I did not ask this. With so much detail, tucked away in every setting, are there any easter eggs that you could share? Anything that fans haven’t caught so far?

Kasra Farahani:  Easter eggs. I’ll tell you the one big clue I can give you, is that episode five is probably pound for pound, the most packed with Easter eggs. They’re all over the place. From the Thanos helicopter that people may have seen in the background to the Polybius video game machine inside of the Loki Palace. There are probably so many others, they’re deeply layered in there that I don’t think they’ll all be found. Like the fact that the barber shop that we spend time in, is not necessarily a barber shop for humans. They’re tiny clues that are in the background. So it’s just, there’s just a bunch of stuff. And then all the rich kind of discarded things from the MCU, that the visual effects team added into, into the background. There’s the Philadelphia Experiment naval ship that’s in the void. There are so many things there. If anyone’s really interested in these things, I think that’s the episode that’s worth their time to revisit.

Steven Prusakowski: I‘ll just ask you this question. We didn’t get to see this in the first season, but will we see Mobius and Loki on jet skis anytime soon? I’m not doing my job if I don’t ask that question.

Kasra Farahani:  I don’t have the answer myself. I think I think you’d be great. But I have no idea, honestly.

Steven Prusakowski:  I think fans are hoping that’s the final shot of the series, the pair of them riding off into the sunset,  like in an old western, but instead of on horses they are on jet skis. Thank you so much for your time and for your work on the series. And I’m going to rewatch it with a new perspective after this conversation. 


Loki is streaming exclusively on Disney+.

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Written by Steven Prusakowski

Steven Prusakowski has been a cinephile as far back as he can remember, literally. At the age of ten, while other kids his age were sleeping, he was up into the late hours of the night watching the Oscars. Since then, his passion for film, television, and awards has only grown. For over a decade he has reviewed and written about entertainment through publications including Screen Radar and Awards Circuit. He has conducted celebrity and red carpet interviews with some of the industry’s biggest names. He is a graduate of RIT film program. You can find him on Twitter and Letterboxd as @FilmSnork – we don’t know why the name, but he seems to be sticking to it.
Email: filmsnork@gmail.com

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