Production designer having a lot of fun

“Atlanta” creator Donald Glover has often flirted with surreal horror in his Emmy-winning FX series. But with his bold new limited series “Swarm” on Amazon’s Prime Video, he and co-creator Janine Nabers found a new way to represent the modern black experience through genre storytelling.

Following a pop idol-obsessed fan named Dre (a notable Dominique Fishback), “Swarm” dramatizes her slow descent into homicidal madness, and the thriller’s production designer Sara K White was on hand to help bring this look deeply. original to a troubled mind. life.

“Seeing this character, even written on the page, was very exciting because you just don’t get the opportunity to show a young black woman in a really challenging place like this,” White, who is no stranger to telling stories about complex women with the television. credits like “The Flight Attendant” and “Mrs. Fletcher,” she said. “The audience is invited to see someone who could be a really difficult personality to watch. What was especially attractive to me was that she wasn’t just evil.”

Dre’s descent is told over seven episodes, which play out like mini-movies, beginning with his dilapidated downtown apartment with his adoptive sister (Chloe Bailey) and ending when he finally meets his idol Ni’Jah. (Nirine S. Brown). ). The structure proved challenging for White and his team, as the series covers tight and expansive environments while transitioning from celluloid to digital. The latter comes in a deliciously funny episode that mimics the format of a true crime documentary, following a no-nonsense detective (Heather Alicia Simms) about to end Dre’s killing streak.

“They were shot pretty much in sequence because they were so individual and we didn’t have recurring sets,” White said. He added that he found it vital to explore Dre’s humble roots and trash-filled apartment early in the shoot; those scenes were filmed in Los Angeles before the production headed to Atlanta, which stands in for Houston in the series.

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Working on the movie was also a highlight. “It’s been so long since I’ve worked with movies,” White said. “It gives so much beauty and richness.” The film was especially vital in capturing the colors of “Swarm,” one of which is that deep blood red.

“The reds you get in digital can always burn, and working with something that has so much blood in a medium that is so generous with those colors was immediately exciting,” White said of designing with filming in mind.

“Swarm” is also notable from a design standpoint in the way its décor conveys its tone, a kind of self-awareness akin to Grand Guignol and “Scream”. This is particularly true in the fourth episode of the series, in which Dre is taken in by a merry group of cult women heading to Bonnaroo and led by a character played by real-life pop idol Billie Eilish.

Dominique Fishback
Dominique Fishback in “Swarm” (Amazon Prime)

“The ways in which different cultures are co-opted [in that story] it’s on the absurd side, how they’re using the sweat lodge and the tea ceremony,” White explained. “We really leaned into mental hospitals from the 1940s to create the look of her bedroom. [and] to create a little foreboding.

One of White’s biggest pieces is also one of his trickiest: creating the concert where Dre finally confronts Ni’Jah after murdering a ticket tout. “We were definitely doing some designs on a dime,” White said, laughing. The stage we see on the screen is smaller than it appears to the naked eye, and it has the necessary width for the dancers to position themselves in front of the camera.

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“A lot of what we do as production designers is really about tapping into the audience’s subconscious,” White said. “So if we can use something that’s fairly cheap to give an effect that feels a bit more expansive, that’s what we’ll do. We had standard scaffolding with lights coming down on it, and [we] he selected the pieces that were brightest to put towards the front or the stage so that when all the lights moved and hit them, they would bring a little life to create the space.”

When all is said and done, the real test might have been how much the “Swarm” team could accomplish without causing a hemoglobin eruption. Said White: “We did a lot to protect our locations from blood, that was very important to us. Because otherwise, we would have been restoring a lot of beautiful apartments that we couldn’t afford.”

“Swarm” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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