The term “world-building” gets thrown around a lot these days. It’s the goal of filmmakers to transport the audience to different places. To experience a reality that doesn’t exist outside of our minds. Of course, to achieve this, someone has to do the actual “building” part. Enter the Production Designer. As the head of the Art Department, it’s their responsibility to craft the visual style of the sets, the props, the costumes, the locations, the graphics, the color scheme, and on and on and on. Anything that is captured on camera first goes through the filter of the Production Designer.
To understand the influence a production designer has on a television show, look no further than Ruth Ammon. She was the Production Designer on Station Eleven and managed to create an entirely unique and fresh approach to the apocalypse. Gone is the bleak wasteland of Mad Max or The Road, and is instead replaced with a lush and verdant world full of new life and new possibilities.
How did she achieve such cohesive beauty to be captured on film? “I think it all starts with the script. And obviously, Emily St. John Mandel’s book had a feeling and a rhythm to it. The script informed what we were doing,” said Ruth.
“All the collaborators went into it wanting to not fall into a post apocalyptic world we were familiar with. We all started it before the pandemic. So it was something really out of our imagination, and clearly what Patrick Sommerville [Creator & writer] and Emily St. John Mandel wrote was resonant with all of us.”
The challenge for Ruth was distinguishing between the world before a flu wipes out 95% of the population, and continuing the story twenty years later.
“Because we started in Chicago in an urban environment,I was just absolutely thrilled to be in Chicago and use Chicago’s architecture for the last moments of life, as we know it. It’s very familiar for Patrick, but also because of the history of art and architecture in America,” said Ruth.
Ruth pulled from some of her favorite photographers, Joel Sternfeld, to capture the scale necessary for a show like Station Eleven, to accurately portray the absence of humanity on the landscape. The stillness of a world devoid of people.
“Everything that we were doing was meant to be cinematic and more on a big grid, a larger scale, a macro scale, instead of getting like, totally caught up in lots of details about cars and buildings and all those other things that you could just make yourself crazy thinking about. What I learned from those [Joel Sternfeld] photographs, and it’s something we really tried to employ when we were in Toronto, is to try and grab what’s in season. So especially Toronto and Ontario, there are seasons for every single flower and leaf, and we were trying really hard to find places where the growth was where we wanted it to be. And that was a big challenge, to find that. And then for me, it was also a photographer, Brian Ulrich, and I believe he is from the Chicago area. I actually contacted him because he inspired me so much. And he has done a lot of photography about another kind of stillness. And it’s the stillness of kind of commerce, and big box stores, and sort of like this emptiness in our world, in these empty buildings that are abandoned. Or rows and rows and rows of aisles. So that also kind of informed the supermarket in episode one, but also that kind of view of looking at these structures as almost huge architecture for all the following episodes.
And one of the things that he really inspired was, there’s a lot of these parking lots and kind of empty abandoned spaces. There was a photograph of a Kentucky Fried Chicken sign that had fallen down so this giant Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket and I called him and asked him if I could you know use the idea. But we had to change the name of Kentucky Fried Chicken to Sizzle Bird so we made it Sizzle Bird Chickens.”
Ruth loved the name Sizzle Bird Chicken so much, it’s now the name of her company.
“It’s just the idea of these giant sculptures falling down to the ground to me was a much more impactful statement than going down to suburban street and having trees growing through houses and laundry lines. And I just didn’t really want to mess with lots of details. It’s just that idea has already been done. And I think the stand back and observe a kind of cinematic landscape, which really comes from Hiro Murai (writer) and Christian Sprenger (cinematographer and producer). And I think also the way the rhythm of the words is not to jump into an overwrought situation, but rather stand back and look at it all.”
One of the most magical creations for Station Eleven was the Traveling Symphony, a Shakespeare troupe that travels around the Great Lakes bringing performance to the disparate tribes of humanity that speckle the landscape. The Traveling Symphony is an eclectic band of gypsies who carry everything on their backs. However, bringing these nomadic entertainers to life was no easy feat.
“I think that was absolute torture. Well, I really wanted to do it so badly. So it was just something that could go so wrong so fast. The idea of hippie beads in fabulous hats and feathers and stuff. I was like, ‘No’. Patrick always said that we had to make them smart. So they have to be really smart and efficient. And we you know, the costumes speak all the volume that we need to speak that the rest of them their crafts people. I’m a crafts person and my crew, we’ve done shows on the road where you pack up boxes, and everything has to be kind of efficient and smart. And then you use your scenery in a really kind of elegant way. So we used truck parts or truck embellishments for all of our scenery, rims of tractor trailers and the exhaust systems became light fixtures and the Two Thrones which you never saw hardly. they were all made from car brake lights. The lenses from brake lights, we’ve sculpted them into two thrones. That was probably one of my best moments of the entire show, because I couldn’t explain to my decorator what I wanted, I could only say what I didn’t want. And that’s very frustrating thing for other crafts people. And I just, I knew that I wanted to use these parts and I just I sat on a Saturday and taped this these two thrones to go into work.”
The thrones appear in the final episode as the Traveling Symphony performs Hamlet. The scene is a climax asf the character Tyler finally confronts his mother about his grievances, mirroring the journey of the Shakespeare protagonist Hamlet. It is powerful scene made even more effective by the fantastical design of the stage and costumes that feel organic and raw, yet still whimsical.
“I love them [the thrones]. They were like works of art. They were sculpture. And I think of that moment of me in the office, physically putting this thing together. One is sort of like the roots of where I came from as a designer, but also what I feel is what the Symphony did, they found things and they assembled them,” said Ammon. And I think if it had an overwrought design, that it would feel fake. And so it was about finding truth and simplicity and efficiency and being fun and mobile.”
Ruth’s work can (and must) be seen by watching Station Eleven currently streaming on HBO Max. And witness the subtle power of world-building in the hands of a talented artist.