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John Iacovelli: The Production Designer In-Depth

 
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The Design Process

Creating the Initial Drawings


 
"What we use as designers is a series of tools. It's like a language. We start with thumbnail sketches, asking 'How big could this set be? How much of the stage do we want to use for the Savoy Ballroom? Do we want to put on the exterior?' From that point, I'll think about hard scenery.

That's when I kind of become an architect for a few days. I'll sit down with the amount of room that we have onstage, move things, and create the ideal ground plan."

 


Detail of set plans

EnlargeA detail from John Iacovelli's plans for the set of The Old Settler

 

Finding the Look and the Mood


 
"I used my digital camera a lot to actually take pictures of the places before we did the sketches. We did them the old-fashioned way, with watercolor, to give a sense of mood, color, texture, and form."

 

Drawing by Sid BinghamDrawing by Sid BinghamDrawing by Sid BinghamDrawing by Sid Bingham

 
EnlargeA selection of watercolor drawings by John Iacovelli's sketch artist, Sid Bingham, created to convey the look of The Old Settler

 

Researching the Period


 
"I'll make up first production boards, which are just Xeroxes out of books. They give us a sense of what was there.

What was the Savoy Ballroom like? What were apartments in New York like? Just different elements: streetlights, signs on the street, vendors on the street. Wonderful scenes of life in New York."

 


Jitterbugging in Harlem, 1936
 
Jitterbugging in Harlem, 1936
by Sid Grossman
Museum of the City of New York, The Federal Arts Project

 

Building Models of the Set


 
"After that, I'll make a white model which shows in real physical terms what the set is going to be -- exactly where the walls are, the ceilings, the floors. The first thing Debbie and I did is start cutting up the model, moving walls around, saying, 'How about this? What if this kitchen is over here?' Then I rebuilt exactly what we talked about. It was the set we ended up with for the apartment."

 

Model of the set
EnlargeJohn Iacovelli's model of the diner set (left) and model of the set for Elizabeth & Quilly's apartment (right)
Model of the set

 
 

 

Building the Sets

Stretching the Budget


 
"We just didn't have enough money to do a period show. That's the plight of public television. So, we called in some favors. We got deals at the Paramount prop shop and at a scene dock that has collected a lot of scenery over the years. We brought things from our houses. If we had built the set new it would have been $200,000. We spent $30,000 or so renting stuff. I think you can't tell that it's a bunch of rented flats put together. We took the odds that were against us to make a really first-class looking production."

"The happiest thing for me was that even though we made many of the walls wild -- making a wall 'wild' means you can pull it out, put a camera there, and shoot into the room -- they hardly pulled any walls.

We had a little bit of trouble in Husband's room, the little pantry room, because it was so small.

Debbie said, 'Don't pull that wall. I want it to feel really cramped in there.' At the end of the day of shooting, she said, 'I just love my little room.'"

 

Husbands's Room

 
John Iacovelli in "Husbands's Room" on the set

 

Making the Set Feel Lived-In
Scene from the set
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The Living Room Set

John Iacovelli gives a guided tour of The Old Settler set

 


 
"One of the nicest compliments I got was from Phylicia. She came off the set one day and she said, 'You know, I love working on that set, because it actually feels like people live there.'

That kind of 'lived-in' look is something that Jason [Howard, the set decorator] and I tried to get.

I knew we were going to spend nine days shooting in there. That's a long time on the set. The details really had to hold up."

 

 

The Look

Capturing the Look


 
"So much of the time in television you have to fill the frame. It's the thing about television that's different from pictures. It's very important that your eye can 'rest' in a feature, kind of languidly seduced into the flow of the movie. We tried to make this show feel like a feature, keep it away from looking like just another TV episode."

"What was Harlem in 1943? America was deeply into WWII at that time. There was uncertainty in the country; there was a spirit of change.

To help set the period, Debbie, Johnny [Simmons, the director of photography] and I decided to keep a controlled palette."

"James VanDerZee was a well-known photographer of Harlem life during that era. His pictures were compelling to us because he was really trying to say, 'Here's a record of the life of these people.' There's a photo of a perfect Harlem kitchen that just broke our hearts. The whole set got based on that picture."

 


Livingroom set
 
The limited palette used in the show is evident in this picture of the living room on the set

 

Finding the Props


Newspaper prop

EnlargeA close-up of a prop newspaper used on the set

 


 
"You can't really tell what's right about a period room, but you can sure tell what's wrong. Part of the research was trying to find the real stuff. The set decorator, Jason, and I started going to flea markets and taking pictures of props and set pieces at Paramount and other places. Then we would give Debbie her choice."

 

Avoiding Anachronisms


 
"I think as far as anachronisms, we didn't have too many.

I found out later that a pop-up toaster would have been post-war, not pre-war.

The decorator's friends said, 'We didn't really have colored towels before the War.' So we have one scene where we sneaked in a colored towel for some interest. We did find them in a 1935 Montgomery Ward catalogue. For the most part we've tried to stay accurate about things."

 


Kitchen props
 
A close-up of the kitchen on The Old Settler set. Note the post-war toaster that John Iacovelli discusses

 

Making the Sets Look Old


Wallpaper from the set
 
Iacovelli and his team gave the bedroom set an aged, 'lived-in' look

 


 
"When I first put up the wallpaper it seemed all brand new and screaming.

Literally, we took five or six steps of washing the wallpaper down with a milk glaze.

Even in the bathroom we had to create this sense of aging. A little bit of rust around the radiators, that kind of gritty reality. I think you really believe that that is a place that has been lived in for 30 years."

 

Making the Apartment Set Feel Real


 
"I have fond memories of New York, because I was actually a super of a building on 84th Street. This was in the 80's. As a New Yorker you have a completely different impression of Harlem than people from the rest of the country have. The wonderful thing about New York is the quintessential colors. The feeling of the hallways. The feeling of the apartments."

"I tried to create some depth in the apartment.

No matter where you were, you always looked into another room, saw into the window, or saw down the hallway into another room.

Johnny and I worked on that very hard -- a sense of life beyond that one room that the screenplay basically takes place in."

 


Debbie Allen on the set
 
Debbie Allen on the living room set. Note that you can see from the living room into the bathroom and Elizabeth's bedroom

 

Working With the DP


Hanging the mural
 
Members of the art department hang a recreation of the Aaron Douglas mural on the restaurant set

 


 
"I was really blown away my first day on the set because there was just this very beautiful, glorious light. The main sources of light are the windows. There is so much in the script about looking out the windows -- looking at the people in the hospital, looking down, throwing the key down. I think the time of day in this show is just gorgeous. You really believe it."

"Johnny saw that I liked Aaron Douglas, a Harlem muralist.

He had started out as a painter, restoring Douglas' murals. We found some common ground. Edward Hopper was one of the people we talked about. You can't do a show in a New York brownstone without thinking of those wonderful paintings by Hopper - that wonderful light coming through the windows."

 

Working With High-Definition Video


 
"High-Definition is going to be my best friend and my worst enemy. My best friend in that it shows detail beautifully. The color is accurate. My worst nightmare is that every little imperfection is showing. It's almost like going to film quality when you are dealing with the art direction."

 

 

Working With the Director

Bringing Experience to the Project


 
"I was nervous about working with Debbie Allen. You try to bring something of your own experience to whatever project you're going to do. And I'm not black, I didn't live in 1943 New York.

But we had to take a play that took place in one room and open it up, create more of the world. I had some experience with that."

 


John Iacovelli with Debbie Allen
 
Production designer John Iacovelli with Debbie Allen

 

Keeping Up With the Schedule


 
"You can't really tell what's right about a period room, but you can sure tell what's wrong. Part of the research was trying to find the real stuff. The set decorator, Jason, and I started going to flea markets and taking pictures of props and set pieces at Paramount and other places. Then we would give Debbie her choice."

 

Pulling from Debbie & Phylicia's Memories


Prop table
 
Dark furniture and doilies on the set

 


 
"I asked Phylicia and Debbie, 'What do you remember? You went to houses of people who lived like this when you were kids.'

Phylicia said, 'I remember dark furniture.' Debbie remembers doilies.

They both remembered little figurines of birds. Anything they remembered we did. Those memories are so powerful."

 

 

Design Roles

Managing the Process


 
"The real fun part about designing - doing the sketches, the ground plans - takes up a minute time period of what I actually do. It's more about managing time than having an artistic sense. Most of it's cajoling, scamming, and stealing. Trying to find the things that you can get to make it a good-looking show. How am I going to get it there?

What time do you need it? Are you going to go late, so I can't do my changeover?"

 


Changeover List

EnlargeA member of the art department's 'Changeover/To Do list'

 

Working With the Art Director


Set painters
 
John Iacovelli confers with The Old Settler's set painters

 


 
"The joke in the Art Directors Guild is that about a thousand dollars is the difference between a production designer and an art director. In some cases, the jobs are interchangeable. In some cases, they're not. The art director evolved as the assistant to the production designer. The art director [in this case, Chris Brown] is the manager of the art department. That really frees me up to worry about the look of the picture, the feel of the picture."

 

Working With the Set Decorator


 
"The set decorator, Jason Howard, I've worked with for eight years. He's responsible for getting all of the stuff for the set. He understands my sensibility and I understand his, though the crew got confused the first time we dressed the set.

He would dress a bunch of stuff, then I would wait for him to leave and move a bunch of it around.

Then he would move it back, until we both were fed up with it and he said, 'Are you going to let me do this?'"
 

 

 
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