“I think we really started with color, with the idea that the exterior of all these houses would be fairly uniform and beautiful pastels … And yet with our various Black families that had moved out to Los Angeles, their houses would all be extremely dark inside,” reveals “Them” production designer Tom Hammock about creating a suburban paradise in 1950s California that turns out to be a nightmare for Black families that move there. We talked with Hammock as part of our “Meet the BTL Experts” TV production designers panel. Watch our interview above.
“Them” is an anthology series, and season one tells the story of the Emory family, who escape the racist violence of the South only to find more violence out West. But the violence doesn’t only come from their white neighbors. It also comes from supernatural forces in their house. “A lot of the decisions really were based on the horror and the supernatural things that happen,” Hammock explains about his design choices. “A lot of the spiritual antagonists that haunt our characters because of their pasts are in there in black. And to see them moving in extremely low light situations … it was far better to have a pattern.” So that dictated many of the wallpaper choices.
He also wanted to create blind spots where visual information was hidden from the audience. “We worked at giving each bedroom a throat at the entrance when you open the door, so you can never see a full room. There’s always a blind spot. There’s always something casting shadows. You’re sitting in bed and you’re looking directly across to a closet that could open at any time.”
But then there’s an episode of the series where there’s no color at all: the flashback installment “Covenant II” is shot in black-and-white and required “lots and lots of testing … To get the depth, there are all the little changes having to do with aging, it’s more prominent. So we’d paint things as tests and then photograph it and do this again and again until we really got a look that worked.”
Perhaps surprisingly, one of the biggest design challenges for this series that delves into the history of redlining was the paperwork, “just endless paperwork these banks would produce, and trying to find the exact language that was used to describe these changing neighborhoods, the redline process, and the process of the codes and covenants in these contracts.” When it comes to capturing the racist horrors of American history, the devil really is in the details.
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