How ‘WandaVision’ Created Period-Specific Perfection

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Photo Source: Courtesy Marvel Studios

How do you make a TV show that’s basically nine different TV shows? For one, you stop thinking about it as a TV show altogether. At least, that was the way forward for Mark Worthington, production designer for the Disney+ and Marvel sensation “WandaVision.” Here’s how Worthington and the rest of the team worked together to create an aesthetic throughline across every television genre, era, and trope.  

Starting with “WandaVision,” when you had signed on and understood the scope of what you’d have to do, where did your process begin?  
Matt Shakman, the director, asked me to do the show. He’s an old friend; we’ve done theater and TV together, we've known each other for 15 years. He basically invited me onto the show, so we had time in the beginning. I was finishing up another show, and for over two weeks, we’d chat around lunchtime for three hours a day, just going through all the scripts we had—and not just for the visuals, but the whole thing, developing the whole idea. That was an amazing process that you rarely get. It was just such a luxury, and it really helped us develop a consistency and think of the thing as a single narrative. It ended up being six and a half hours, something like that, so you’re dealing with it as a single entity versus episodic, where you’re sort of getting the episodes in drafts so you can’t react creatively in the same way. We could develop consistencies and throughlines visually. 

How much research did you do to nail the different television eras? 
We did a mountain of research. Sometimes I won’t be happy with something, so I’ll dig in and see where I can find things, and it’s all hands on deck. It’s not only still photos, but going back and looking at episodes of ’50s sitcoms, ’60s sitcoms, and all the way up, so that you’re sort of steeped in the sensibility of it. It’s not enough just to look at the visual image; you need to understand how the story works, how the characters work, how the humor works, how the drama works, all that. Because sitcoms aren’t just comics, they’re stories about real people. Going all the way back to “I Love Lucy,” there are these moments where it’s about the character and something they’re going through and that’s endemic, which is also something that works so well for “WandaVison,” because we see this idyllic scene is just that: it’s covered over all this grief and PTSD, and that’s what makes the story so good. 

How closely were you working with the other departments to nail the different time periods as well as the aesthetic continuity you mentioned?  
Very, very closely. You have to, because a palette has to work. When we go to the palette—obviously, the first one and a half episodes are in black and white, which was a whole other process—but we spent a lot of time together. [Costume designer] Mayes Rubeo is, of course, brilliant, and just a lovely, fun person, and I could just work with her on every show. We were sharing palette texture to make sure that everything works. And then I spent days with [cinematographer] Jess Hall in our art department, just going through palette and checking everything off. We did three days of camera tests—it may have even been a little more, which, again, was a luxury. And you really had to, because even the simplest of lighting changes in terms of color temperature or lens change, filter change, will make a profound difference in the way that you see it. So, we put a lot stuff in front of the cameras with Jess, we talked endlessly about the style. He got equipment from across the spectrum to make sure that we were getting it right. 

And we never slavishly copied anything. It had to look real, like, Yes, that’s a 1950s sitcom, that’s “Dick Van Dyke,” whatever it is. Not that we landed on one particular show, but you can see the inspirations. I won’t even call this episodic television, because it’s not. I don’t even know what terms are gonna be used for what we used to call feature film or what we used to call episodic television, because it’s really like long-form and short-form, which I think is wonderful. Before, we were dealing with literature: “That’s a short story.” Why? Because it’s shorter. You’re talking about the narrative and the issues of the narrative, not the format, which is purveyed commercially. And I think that’s a good thing. But anyway, it was like doing a huge movie, and we took the period of time to make sure we were getting it right. 

How do you as the production designer navigate the line between doing great work and doing work that doesn’t distract from the story at hand?  
It depends entirely on the story. Some people say every single design, it’s as if you should never notice it. I don’t agree with that, because I think it’s simplistic. It completely depends on the story and tone and the style. In some cases, that’s absolutely true: You’re doing something very just realistic and it needs to be grounded in that. I can think of tons of examples I won’t give to you because I don’t want to insult anybody, where it’s like, “This design isn’t functioning because it is in fact attracting, and it’s over-the-top,” or whatever. And then, conversely, something like “American Horror Story,” where Ryan Murphy and the world he creates is lurid and extreme by choice, the design needs to support that set of ideas, so it’s much more foregrounded as an element, almost a character. That’s conscious, and that’s something Ryan wants. Some people may not like that, and, fine, that’s a show they’re not interested in, but it really is project-dependent.

Going back, how did you get into production design? 
I was actually a theater person. I had done theater after my undergraduate work and ran a couple of theaters in Portland, Oregon. I went to graduate school in costume design at Carnegie Mellon University, and the head of the program there was Cletus Anderson, who was the production designer for all of George Romero’s films made in Pittsburgh. So, I worked on a few of those while I was in graduate school with him, and sort of caught the bug. And then I started working in Pittsburgh; I worked for Catherine Hardwick, who at that time was a production designer for a couple years, and then ended up art directing the movie “Tombstone.” So that’s the short answer: I was more of a theater person, I kinda stumbled into it—and thank God I did. 

Many production designers I’ve talked to started in theater and, like you, somehow stumbled into film and TV. Should there be a more specialized effort as far as education goes? 
Yes, and I’m trying to do something about it. That’s why I teach at UCLA. We actually have a production design track at UCLA that I’ve been teaching for seven years. Because it’s adjacent, in the sense that theater educators are teaching a design frame narrative, which is fundamentally different from something like architecture, where you’re designing a space for a different use—which is in itself an amazing thing and there are a lot of brilliant production artists who come out of an architecture background. But, yes, we’ve started that idea at UCLA. Chapman also has [a production design program], but there are very few. There are some in Europe, NYU kind of has one, but there’s a paucity of that, and I felt that so keenly so I’ve tried to actually do something about it. 

I’m sure you discuss this at length in your class, but what are the major differences between scenic design for theater and production design for film and TV?
The core is similar, in the sense that you’re dealing with a text and you’re interpreting that. But then, technically, it departs wildly. Because theater, of course, is a single point of view; you’re sitting in a chair, you’re watching a frame. And you “edit,” in essence, as a participant, as an audience of a theater piece. You’re looking at things and choosing to look at them. Now, a great director will stage a show, and the actors will perform it in a way that keeps your focus where it should be, but it’s still a sort of unified frame. And then, yes, you can have scene changes and that sort of stuff which sort of vaguely mimic images in cinema. But in cinema, there’s cameras, editing, you’re dealing with a visual necessity that isn’t grounded in realism for the most part. It’s a very different sensibility, and it might sound pejorative, but it is bigger and more complex for the most part. You’re dealing with art departments; on “Star Trek,” I had an art department of 45 people, and with construction and paint and everything, it topped out over 300. You’re dealing with management issues you just don’t have in theater, which is both good and bad.  

Apart from taking your class, what advice would you offer someone who wants to do production design for TV and film? 
Watch a lot of TV and film. I know that’s clichéd, but just soak it in. And then as far as practically, depending on where they are in their career, contact people whose work you admire. You don’t have to get an answer 90% of the time, but just get that one person to sit and have coffee with you and talk to you, and say, “Oh, I see where you are. Here’s some advice for you.” And now you’ve made a contact. You may not work directly with them, but they may say [to someone else], “Hey, I met this really smart young person, and they might be great as an assistant for you.” Don’t be afraid to reach out. Don’t be a pest, but don’t be afraid to reach out to the people whose work you admire and try to have conversations with them. Not like, “Give me a job,” but just, “I love your work. Would you just sit and talk to me about it?”

This story originally appeared in the June 3 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the senior staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
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