Mason Verger's bedroom set on "Hannibal". Courtesy of Matthew Davies.

Production design of “Hannibal” – interview with Matthew Davies

May 13th, 2016
Mason Verger's bedroom set on "Hannibal". Courtesy of Matthew Davies.

With its viscerally spellbinding world, immaculate visuals and an exquisite cast, NBC’s “Hannibal” gave us three unforgettable seasons. It gives me immense pleasure to welcome Matthew Davies who was responsible for the production design of this show. In this interview he talks about various aspects of building sets on stage and on location, working with VFX department on augmenting physical sets, the pace of production schedule in episodic television, physical safety of sets and people’s reaction to “Hannibal”. In addition, Matthew dives deeper into the particular set details of the FBI office, the Baltimore state hospital and Cappella Palatina from season 3.

On the set of Hannibal’s Palermo house in season 3. Courtesy of Matthew Davies.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your path so far.

Matthew: My name is Matthew Davies and I’m a production designer. I came into film through architecture. I studied at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. Towards the end of my degree I recall one of my tutors critiquing my work as being very derivative. He said that if I was going to emulate the work of other architects, I might consider a career in film where everything is copied.

It was like a light bulb going on inside my head. I went to the National Film School for another three years, and graduated again into a very tough industry. I was art-directing medium sized features; then there were the occasional design gigs on low-budget indie films; and in the gaps, I was drafting on big studio movies. Nowhere was I finding anything that combined the satisfaction of having a budget to spend with the creative autonomy that accompanies indie projects. The opportunities were very few and far between in the UK; it is a field oversaturated with talent.

Fortuitously, I ended up by chance doing a film with a Canadian cinematographer, Paul Sarossy, who is probably best known for shooting the movies of Atom Egoyan. He invited me to Canada back in 2002, and I’ve continued working in Toronto ever since. I started with indigenous Canadian directors like Guy Maddin and as the source of the work shifted, I moved on to NBC and cable shows that were being made here in Toronto.

It was this path that brought me into the fold of “Hannibal” and attracted the attention of Patti Podesta who had been hired to design the original pilot. She asked me to share in the design of the standing sets and I subsequently stepped into her shoes on “Hannibal”.

On the set of Hannibal’s Palermo house in season 3. Courtesy of Matthew Davies.

Still of the same set from the final cut.

Kirill: Taking you back to the beginning of your career in movies, was there anything particularly surprising as you got into the industry and saw how things worked on the inside?

Matthew: I was surprised how big it is. I don’t think anyone really appreciates when they watch a film that 95% of what they’re looking at is probably shot in a studio environment, including often street sets and exterior scenes. I didn’t really think about that up until I was in film school.

Once you get into a studio environment like Pinewood Studios in the UK, you appreciate how many crafts go into creating a feature, and all the hundreds of thousands of hours of labor and craftsmanship that go into building sets. The relationship between set design and visual effects has become more paramount, and it extends right from the very early stages of the pre-production up to the last stages of the post-production. I think that design has become a much larger and broader discipline than it used to be.

Kirill: Is it difficult in any way for you to convince the production that what you do is a necessary thing?

Matthew: It depends. Experienced producers generally know the profits of investing more into the infrastructure of the show. On “Hannibal” it cost production an estimated $40,000 premium every day when we were shooting outside of our studio. So, generally speaking, if a set cost less than say $40,000, it was an automatic green light to build. And that doesn’t even take into account whatever had been allocated to the art department. It was an economy for production to be based around the studio rather than on location.

Other shows are location-based, and it’s by necessity. They have a small shooting crew and small lighting packages; they are very footloose and can move quickly. But when you’re working with a large unit, everything is slower. The time it takes to set up and pre-light in a studio is a fraction of the time because it has already been done many times before, and everybody knows the ropes.

Whenever there was a budgetary pressure on “Hannibal”, the producers would generally try to force Bryan Fuller [show creator] and his writers back into a pre-existing set.

On the set of Hannibal’s office. Still from the final cut.

Kirill: Apart from budgetary considerations, do you have a particular preference between doing sets on stage and doing locations?

Matthew: Not really. Some locations pose such exquisite value for money that to actually reproduce them wouldn’t be worth your time. Working an art department budget is about trying to distribute your resources on a proportional basis to what is required by the script.

I recently finished a feature called “Miss Sloane” that was directed by John Madden. It is about gun control and the lobbying industry in Washington. We had to make a decision on where we were going to spend the money, and in the end we built the one space that we knew we had to build – the congressional hearing room. From the start, it was the inevitable part of the art department’s effort.

The only problem was that, for European financing reasons, we had build the set into an existing location. It almost became kind of a Russian doll, a set within a space with only a few inches of space around. It was an interesting exercise.

Sometimes a set build is required because of the limitations of what you can pull off on location. In the case of “Hannibal”, gore wasn’t always appropriate to take into the real world. In one case we were actually thrown out of the Royal Ontario Museum between shoot days. They had asked for script approval, but didn’t really bother to read it until we had already started shooting our scenes there. Suddenly, they didn’t like the representation of a museum worker’s conduct in the show and they pulled the plug. We had to move very quickly to a new environment and redesign from scratch.

Kirill: You mentioned that the role of VFX in creating digital sets or digital extensions is more prominent these days. Is there any difference in the amount of VFX set work between stage and location?

Matthew: We had to build the interior of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo Italy for the Season 3, with all the intricate mosaics and gold leaf. That was not a location; it was two-thirds built in the studio. We built the first 24 feet of the altar, and the first 16 feet of the rest of it, and the rest was completed digitally using a model supplied by the art department to post-production. We had people on the ground in Italy that were photographing the interior of the real location with cameras on sticks. Periodically they were getting thrown out because of their odd behaviour. We were however using those images for tiling the interior of our model, extrapolating the detail to areas we couldn’t photograph. In that instance, creating such a space only became possible by the expediency of VFX.

Top – on the set of Capella Palatina in season 3, courtesy of Matthew Davies. Bottom – stills of the same set from the final cut.

When I was working on “Heroes Reborn”, everything was bigger and had to move at a much faster pace. I would get on the phone with the VFX supervisor, and we had to decide right there and then as to where the threshold would be between the digital and physical worlds.

Kirill: Do you get to shepherd that work in post-production, or is that done in pre-production?

Matthew: From my perspective, more of it is mapped out in pre-production than post. By the time they get to post, the intention is to have visuals provided by the art department that will allow for the post-production contingent to do their work without a lot of additional input. I actually think it is a problem that the production designer isn’t more involved in post.

One of the things that made “Hannibal” a very beautiful show was how well-groomed the show was, and how carefully the shots were selected to make sure that everything always had the same polish. Often when I’m watching other shows, you see loose threads here and there that could have been very easily fixed in post-production, but presumably there wasn’t the eye in the edit suite to raise the issue. Then the rough seams become embedded in the final version and that’s a great shame.

I think the best design comes from having a very singular vision for a show. It would be better if the designer were involved to a greater degree right through to the end of post-production, and often we are, but as unpaid advisors. It is work that you want to do because ultimately you want the world to see your work in the best possible light.

Kirill: If you compare your work on feature films and episodic TV shows, would you say that the main runner on a TV show is the show creator, and on a film it’s the director?

Matthew: The director on a TV show (beyond the pilot) is a really a guest of the show. They come in and they work within the house style. They can’t do something radically different or innovative compared to the other episodes. It needs to adhere to the template already laid out for the show. On features it is the director that defines the whole narrative, whether it’s visual or otherwise, and they generally drive the machine.

You’ll find that on a TV show the writers and producers will have far more creative input then anyone else, and they’ll tend to guide the director in a particular direction in terms of what has, over time, cumulatively become the look and the direction of the show.

On the set of Hannibal’s house in Palermo in season 3. Courtesy of Matthew Davies.

Still of the same set from the final cut.

Kirill: When you have such a strongly defined look for the show, does it limit you and what you can allow the director to do on a specific episode?

Matthew: It doesn’t so much limit my work because I’m involved in the very early stage of defining what the look of the show will be. Often it’s to my advantage to be able to have some leverage during the shooting process to argue the case for the sets being shot or lit in a specific way. And there were a few occasions on “Hannibal” where I’d need to ask the director very nicely to shoot the wide angles of the set in a certain way, really for the benefit of the show runner who had a very specific set of expectations.

Kirill: There’s so much cinematic quality in TV shows these days. Is there any difference for you as to how you approach building your sets and the level of expectations between your feature work and your TV work?

Matthew: Television has been through renaissance of late, and subscription channels have upped the bar in terms of people’s expectations. Certainly, when I read the scripts of Season 3 on “Hannibal” and saw scenes that were set in Italy but would
inevitably be shot here in Toronto, it made for a much bigger challenge of shooting such a project within an 8-day timeframe which is generally what we had for each episode.

At any point in time we were prepping an episode, shooting an episode and wrapping an episode. It was like being spread across three and sometimes four episodes at once. And to have tight control over every specific set and to deliver those sets in a particular way made it hard for me to be in so many places at once.

In features you have a lot more time to create the environment and the level of layers and texture that are necessitated by the whole big screen format. In TV, because you’re designing for a smaller screen, it’s a slightly different approach. In Toronto it’s the same crews that are working on TV shows and big features, and they tend to drive everything in the same manner, and do the very best in the timeframe that they have. We are not given a tremendous leg up in terms of support or time or money to do it. It’s just part of the challenge of much larger writing of TV shows today.

“Heroes Reborn” was a very good example of a show that was written huge, and there wasn’t really a lot of time to work it all out. On that show we had two units shooting full time. I had two art directors and we were shooting scenes for two shows pretty much every day. An episode was supposed to take eight days, but it was taking more, so in order to make the delivery dates, they would start the next episode on time but continue shooting the preceding episode till it was complete. It meant you had two directors stepping onto unique sets every single day right from the beginning to the very end of the show.

“Hannibal” had different expectations, but I think the tighter budget and brief allowed the show to be most inventive in what it delivered. Bryan’s feeling, which I share, is that to reach for the stars and not quite succeed is far worse than choosing to do less but to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary instead.

On the set of Garret Hobbs’ kill room in season 1. Courtesy of Matthew Davies.

Still of the same set from the final cut.

Kirill: What do you mean by doing less? Doing fewer episodes?

Matthew: Building fewer environments, creating more contained narratives. “Hannibal” was an intensely psychological show. We had set pieces in every episode. The death tableau scene was always a set piece, and some of the environments were built or had to be found on location. I think that the general feel for the show was very psychologically contained.

Our cinematographer would use very narrow lenses to create blurry abstraction in the depth of frame, so that you were not distracted by all the detail of the sets all of the time. You were held very much within the mind of the characters themselves. And then we would have very brief glimpses of the sets on a wide angle lens, which were very tantalizing because audiences wanted to see more than they were ever given.

I can honestly say that we built more sets, and put more work and details into those sets than was ever truly transposed into the final episodes. The mandate of “Hannibal” was always to satisfy Bryan Fuller’s expectations in terms of what the show should be. We put a lot of attention into all the props and everything that would be featured in closeup on the show.

Kirill: Did you feel the need to be more detailed also because when you had fewer sets, the camera would spend more time in each one?

Matthew: I think so. For example, in the Hannibal dining room set we eventually ran out of new and exciting ways to show the space [laughs]. It became a creative goal of every director, as they entered those environments, to find new and unseen angles. I remember the therapy space which you’ll remember as the big marble mausoleum with yellow cages. It was revealed to the audience slowly over time since each director had their own unique approach to showcasing the space.

The second level of Hannibal’s office was often absent from the frame on narrower lenses. It didn’t play too much into the narrative, but I think it elevated the scope and scale of Hannibal’s environments when we did see it. This was something that we carried through the show. All of his spaces and environments were 10-15% larger to hint at his omnipotence, at his god-like status among the other characters.

On the set of Tobias’ gut room in season 1. Courtesy of Matthew Davies.

Kirill: We transitioned from DVD to BluRay and high-definition TV sets, and now companies are pushing 2K and 4K equipment. There you can see every imperfection and every seam, and everything stands out much more than it used to. How does this affect you?

Matthew: High-resolution tends to find contrasting edges a lot more easily which picks out much more detail. It differentiates between all the levels of shadow, and it tends to show a lot of information that used to be crushed down into the blacks of the image. I think the quality is mostly limited by the output. If you’re looking at it on a regular TV set, you probably aren’t going to get the same level of detail as looking at it on a computer monitor.

Shows today are broadcast and viewed across so many media and so many platforms. It’s hard to anticipate how they’re going to be watched. I think that the intention has always been to work to the expectations of shooting 35mm, and that is where it’s remained in terms of the technical crews. We shoot according to the standards of a 35mm feature.

On “Hannibal” all the surfaces and texture were genuinely detailed. There were specific situations where something would be featured in closeup, and we would create a much more carefully crafted facsimile of it. The way real materials sound and move is something to aspire to capture on camera.

The cathedral interior on Season 3 was entirely printed onto various applied surfaces. All the marble and all the mosaics were printed onto vinyl and primed MDF. And some of the other sets were similarly tackled. The most expedient approach was to print all the marble, print all the carpets, print all the curtains, all the wallpapers – to print entire sets from top to bottom!

On the set of Capella Palatina in season 3. Courtesy of Matthew Davies.

Still of the same set from the final cut

Kirill: What does it mean to print sets?

Matthew: You’re designing them as a graphic design exercise. Then, if for example you’re looking to reproduce marble, you’d print it to vinyl. The painters would strip the backing from the vinyl and apply it to the primed flats of our sets. So you would have your plywood sets with a very thin skin of paint and plaster, and you would take the seams and sand them to create a nice even finish. Then, once you have a very smooth surface, the painters would take the vinyl that we gave them and apply it directly to the set.

Usually the painters would add their own light ‘ageing’ over-top to tonally unify the materials into a whole. The cathedral was such a massive set, and we only had about three and a half weeks to deliver it from beginning till end of construction. It really was a race against time to get every last detail into the set. And the only way to do it was to print it. In the old days painters would do all of that work, but there simply aren’t enough painters in existence [laughs] to do as many shows as there are currently shooting in the province.

There are some situations, for example when you’re printing carpets, that hand-applied paint just won’t look the same. Printed ink goes into the weave of the carpet and looks a lot more convincing than latex paint that cakes on its surface.

Kirill: Does it help to have a monitor on set so that everybody can see how the camera captures the set, instead of waiting for the dailies?

Matthew: We always had video assist, even back when we were shooting 35mm. There was always a monitor in front of the director. There is a particular app that allows for people to pick up the image through a WiFi connection in the studio. You can have on-set dressers looking at the frame on their iPhones and tablets, anticipating where to make the corrections.

On “Hannibal” we had three video villages. One of them was exclusively for the cinematographer who liked to keep himself sequestered in a separate space. One was for the director, and the third one was for the benefit of the technical crew so they could get up real close and look at the image without sticking their head in the way of the director.

Kirill: You mentioned that the show had very strong visuals. Would you say that what you saw on the sets was as graphic, as revolting as what I saw as the viewer in the final edit?

Matthew: It’s funny. When you work on it, you don’t tend to be fully aware of just how graphic or visceral it is. When you see the edited version, you also have the benefit of music and story and the whole narrative build-up that makes it more suspenseful, dramatic and impactful.

In pre-production we would always create visuals, usually artist-rendered pieces for the show runner to approve for each of the death tableaux. He would have his own input into what they should look like. They were often very graphic, very beautiful images in their own right. The show had its own look and style, which always left a little bit to the imagination in terms of what was lost in the shadows of the frame. I think that tantalized audiences, when the menace and all the macabre spectacle of Hannibal appeared to grow from the shadows.

Human totem from season 1 – visualization on the left and final set on the right. Courtesy of Matthew Davies.

Kirill: You mentioned that you had eight days per episode, which adds up to around 100 days of shooting. How much time did you have for pre-production on a season?

Matthew: It was typically between six and eight weeks. The first week would be about crewing up the art department, setting up the space. The second week would be the art director creating a template for the show in terms of a production calendar, script breakdowns and an early budget. About five weeks out construction would start, and you would hope to have drawings and stage plans and everything else that is then needed to build sets. Construction continues right through the length of the show, but in terms of standing sets in studio, they would have probably have three weeks to build them.

That brings you up to two weeks before camera. One of those weeks is inevitably eaten up as contingency dealing with constructing over-runs and other issues that might come up, and in the very last week you would hope to see all the finessing, lighting and dressing of the sets – it’s when we get to create all the layers of dressing, texture and detail that make the sets look wonderful.

To be honest, it’s a very condensed, very tight pre-production period. On a feature production it can take a year or longer. It’s a very different beast, but as you said, the levels of expectation are surprisingly similar.

Kirill: As you move between the seasons, you have the recurring sets like Hannibal’s house, the FBI office and the mental hospital, and then you also have new sets. How does it feel to come back to the sets that you’ve already established? Do you want to bring something new into them on a new season so that they are more interesting for me as a viewer, as well as for yourself?

Matthew: We had a bad habit of building sets, and then, because we were short on space in studio, disposing of them. Then a new draft of the script would come out that would make specific use of the set we just destroyed [laughs]. We ended up rebuilding a lot of sets and specific sections of sets. Sometimes it’s necessary for re-shoots as well, or if there was a little narrative tweak that needed to be made in the edit.

I remember that Bedelia’s house was a phenomenally expensive location the first time we shot there. The intention was that it wouldn’t play again in the show, or at least I think that was the hope of the producers. Inevitably, it became a fixture of the third season, and we ended up having to build the whole space in studio. However Gillian wasn’t available to come in and shoot her scenes as scheduled, and we had to wait for many weeks until we could get her there to studio.

If you really watch and study the show closely, you’ll notice when we go from a location to a facsimile of that location in studio, there are subtle changes, and sometimes they are quite noticeable – in the scale or architectural language of the space. It is simply due to the factor of time or because space was extremely limited in studio. We had to adapt quickly to getting things ready for camera.

The one thing that the art department can never do is hold up the shooting crew. There always has to be a set ready to shoot every morning for the crew, otherwise the financial cost to production can easily run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. Consider also that big name actors may not be available later in the schedule.

On the set of the FBI building – stills from the final cut.

Kirill: If you’re talking about the big spaces, I’m thinking about the FBI office and the big presentation room, and the Baltimore hospital in particular. Was the intent to create spaces that are at the same time large but also oppressive, kind of hanging over the characters?

Matthew: I love concrete brutalism. That was something I really wanted to bring to the show. For me the golden era of the FBI would have been in the ’60s. I wanted to suggest the weightiness and the oppressive qualities of working for such a large and faceless organization as the FBI. The idea of having of low ceilings that were evident in the frame was very much part of that. I love late modernists, and I wanted to incorporate aspects of their work into the space, which for me had echoes of when the FBI was at its greatest.

It was however a technical challenge for the cinematographer who didn’t like ceiling pieces. We had these massive ‘cheese graters’ as lighting fixtures that were open above and allowed for the cinematographer to still get his top-lighting into the set. However we could still shoot low and wide, and see the ceilings without the danger of shooting up and through to the studio beyond.

FBI lab – visualization on the left and final set on the right. Courtesy of Matthew Davies.

In the case of the hospital we went towards the post-Edwardian gothic of the 1930s-1940s. The inspiration was an observatory up near Richmond Hill where we shot some exterior scenes. The entrance and everything beyond that point was a studio build. It was, again, the case of the show calling for something quickly, us finding the location that we all loved, and then that becoming the template to which we had to adhere for the rest of the show.

It was wonderful to have situations where the location was available to us and had what we needed. In the case of the observatory we had just a single hallway and an office and the rest of the infrastructure therefore needed to be created in studio. On the bright side there was an immense antique telescope there, which was featured prominently as a crime scene.

In earlier seasons we had shot Frederick Chilton’s own director’s office in the asylum on location, but in the third season the intent became to take its twin and make into Hannibal’s own final lockup facility – the secure space from which he could never escape. We had a high-tech glass wall that cut across the middle of the space with stainless hardware, infrared beams and fancy security detailing. One half of the space was created as a perfect white box, the blank canvas of Hannibal’s imagination, and the other half was old dark-toned wood-paneled interior of the old asylum. It was intended as a play on the two worlds of light and dark, heaven and hell, good and bad. Yet, it was entirely dictated by the happenstance of what had already been shot.

This happens on a lot of TV shows. In the pilot you end up making fast decisions, not knowing if the show will get picked up, and then once the show is finally green-lit, you often find that the same locations are not available or you’re shooting in an entirely different city. So the set gets reconfigured and built in studio, art imitating life I guess.

Baltimore state hospital cells – visualization in top row, sets in bottom row. Courtesy of Matthew Davies.

Kirill: Looking at the overall atmosphere of the show, it doesn’t feel like it’s rooted in the particular year that it started broadcasting. Were there any discussions about making the show less tied into any specific moment in time, apart from, perhaps, the technology in the FBI lab and Freddie’s web sites?

Matthew: I think it bothered Bryan that technology is overused in films and television. We use technological devices as an easy-out for writing. If you need to track down a character, for example, writers might talk about tracking his or her cell GPS or writing that their license plates were spotted crossing a bridge at the border – technology becomes an easy option for writers. I think that Bryan wanted to create something that was more ‘old school’ and more timeless, so it wouldn’t feel, as you say, rooted in 2015 or whenever it was originally broadcast.

I think it limits the value of a show and makes it very anachronistic when you come to view it a few years down the road. With “Hannibal” we wanted to create something that was entirely true to its own rules and existed within its own world, but didn’t quite exist in our world. It is a parallel reality that is both familiar and yet unsettling.

Baltimore state hospital cages, still from the final cut.

Kirill: Scenes like Hannibal’s dinner parties, or the big space with the cages in the mental hospital, sometimes felt like they were happening outside of time. It’s a pure psychological battle of minds between the two characters, with occasional intrusion by the supporting cast.

Matthew: The space certainly felt like a Greek mausoleum. The surprising thing about those cages in terms of their color and look was that they were based very accurately on what they use in present day Californian correctional facilities. We had references for similar cages arranged in a line with the therapist sitting at a safe distance. There is a certain degrading aspect to the experience, especially when Chilton gets to confine Will Graham to his own cage.

Kirill: What do you use for blood?

Matthew: It is stage blood. There are different versions of it, some more expensive and some cheaper. It used to contain cochineal, the ground-up exoskeleton of beetles. Some of the locations were so sensitive in terms of the porosity of their floors, that we had to use blood mats. That was only for in the background. Bryan in particular hated blood mats. They look like jellied latex puddles of blood that you can pick up and move around. They are not wet, they are just shiny.

Viscosity was really important – making it look realistic and looking at how it would drip from vertical surfaces and behave outside in the cold. That was all studied, and we actually created a gore bible for the on-set dresser. We took lots of images of real-life murder scenes and scenes with lots of blood spray, and made it into a big folder of references that the set dresser had for her own purposes when she was dressing blood on set.

Kirill: What about the food? You’re spending a lot of time on the set shooting a certain scene, and some food tends not to survive for a long time. Was that real food, or some kind of fake food made out of plastics and jellos and what not?

Matthew: Janice Poon was the food stylist on the show. She’s incredibly talented. She would come in with a small army of people. If it was pork loin being served, she would have twelve of them on standby, and they’d all be identical and they’d all be kept at different points of cooking. She could race in at any point in time with the pork loin that was needed.

The food on the table was probably treated a bit differently to the food that was on actors’ plates. I remember some of our actors were vegetarian or had food allergies, and Janice had to create facsimiles of other foods for their plate, so it would look like they were eating meat, for example, although they weren’t.

In a lot of instances Bryan would write about foods that we’d never seen, or seen cooked, and Janice had to go away and do her own research. She had a consultant chef in LA that she could talk to, but I think by and large she was left to her own devices to find the best way of conceiving and presenting the specific dishes.

Kirill: What happened to the food after the shooting was over?

Matthew: Sadly the same fate as all the sets, which is they were thrown away.

Kirill: As you’ve been on quite a few productions now, is it just part of your job to see the sets that you’ve worked on get dismantled or demolished?

Matthew: I don’t even think about it anymore. Sets are torn down and thrown into dumpsters, and that’s pretty much the fate of all sets. It’s one aspect of the industry that I don’t like. I don’t like the wastage, and unfortunately when you’re doing things in a certain way to a particular budget, this really is the cheapest way that producers feel that they can manage the process. If there was a cheaper way, they would do it.

Kirill: Is it about the safety of a set that doesn’t let it have long shelf-life?

Matthew: It actually has to follow specific safety codes. In the case of the labs on “Hannibal”, we had ceilings that resembled the inside faces of a four-sided pyramid looking up to big skylights. Those ran down both sides of the space. And the fire officer did come and visit the set – until we were able to reconfigure the lighting, the mandate was to install a full sprinkler system into the interior set.

We create two exits for every set, and observe a 4′ 6” fire lane clearance between sets and around the studio. Exit pathways need to be laid out on the floors of the studio. And we were routinely visited by the fire safety marshall, as I’m sure he was curious to see how a television show was made. Unfortunately he wouldn’t hesitate to point out if anything wasn’t to code. All of our fabrics, lumber and other materials are specifically fire-rated.

We try very hard to be safety-conscious. Most of the time you’ll find a lot of people in studio stumbling around in the dark trying to continue their own work in the background while a scene is being shot. You have a lot of trips and falls in the back [laughs]. Although we double-plyed the floors of the studio before we applied the on-camera floor finishes, they often would creak or groan loudly if anyone stepped onto them during a take.

Hannibal’s bedroom, visualization on the left and final set on the right. Courtesy of Matthew Davies.

Kirill: Were you surprised to see how well-received the show was, and how deeply people loved it?

Matthew: The genre itself has a lot of fans, and all of the original novels were highly anticipated and well-received. And add to that Bryan Fuller’s own dedicated following that he has built over the years with his old shows. I think that “Pushing Daisies” was probably the show closest to his own heart, and he always champions that show in particular. I think he wanted to create a very distinctive look that would be unique to his name as well.

NBC were concerned about the inherent violence of Hannibal, but their reasoning was that if the violence was creative enough, exquisitely art-directed and elevated into a state of supernatural beauty, then it was OK. People didn’t react to it as truly real. If they understood – he wanted to the audience to crave this more spectacular and interesting world than reality.

Kirill: People watch TV shows and movies on such a wide variety of screens, all the way down to 4″ phones on the subway. Do you worry about how your craft scales down to those screens? Do you aim to address the ideal viewing environment?

Matthew: At the end of the day, the show is no doubt delivered at a particular resolution that defines and limits our own viewing experience.

I’ve never done a webisode or anything that is created specifically for playback on a smaller screen. Certainly the episodes were being reviewed in the edit suite on monitors of the highest quality – to show the most detail. Bryan has an eye like a hawk for picking out rough edges and loose threads. Anything that was close to camera was always very manicured. We would never use silk florals or reproductions for close-up, every prop was a uniquely original piece.

There were a lot of specific references in the show to the Harris novels, or to other aspects of Bryan’s work that we wanted to pay homage to. There were a lot of Easter eggs buried within the show, and not all of them have been unearthed.

Kirill: What makes people stay in your world? The schedules are compressed, the hours are crazy, money is never enough, and overall it might not be as glamorous as it looks from the outside.

Matthew: It’s a good question [laughs]. Certainly for myself it’s to create something beautiful, to do something really well, and to be a part of something that is great. In the case of Atom Egoyan’s last feature [Remember], it wasn’t a film that had any beauty, in fact, it was very much about the banal. But it was as much about the storytelling process, about working with new creative minds.

I think back and remember Sigourney Weaver in a little film called “Snow Cake” that I designed. We created her house interior in a studio in Toronto. Creating all the little moments and objects of fascination for an autistic person appealed very much to her methodology as an actor. We became pretty close during the dressing of the sets, as everything was organized exactly as felt relevant to her character.

That’s a fun aspect of our work. We get to work with interesting and talented people, but at the same time we have our own specific focus that makes us employable. If you can combine something creative with something you love, and make a living doing it, then that is what all aspire to.

Kirill: As long as the positive sides outweighs the negative.

Matthew: There is no shortage of very big personalities in the industry, and inevitably disagreements occur, but I think people will always revere and follow talent wherever they see it. True originality is very hard to come by. We explore a lot of very derivative themes and ideas in television, and when you find someone who can define a whole world and do it in such detail, it’s a rare and special thing.

I think NBC appreciated that, and I think that’s probably why they ran the show for three seasons. Ultimately it would exist as a collector’s set and have value to its fans. Notably, Bryan doesn’t work to a budget. To some degree, I think, he’s aware of it, but ultimately he’s not going to compromise for money alone.

On the set of Baltimore state hospital. Stills from the final cut.

Kirill: You mentioned “Pushing Daisies”, which I also loved at the time. We only had two seasons of that show and three of “Hannibal”, but perhaps it’s better to have very few great seasons than to see a show amble along into however many seasons it ends up having. You end on a high note and people have much fonder memories of it.

Matthew: I think that’s a sentiment for true fans. As for actual audience figures and the commercial mandate of selling advertising space, the show could easily have taken a more procedural format. The writers could have abandoned their more noble goals and made each episode a procedural about some grizzly murder taking place. Will Graham is the FBI agent in the field, bringing each case back to Hannibal Lecter in his impressive-looking jail cell, and they would solve the crime through re-enactment and Will’s ability to project himself into the crime scene.

That’s the format of CSI and other shows, and it would probably resonate quite well with audiences because they could dive in at any point without feeling they have entered this world where everyone speaks a different language [laughs]. It’s a show that has a heightened atmosphere. It’s nuanced, and it’s hard for people to just dive into that. I recall some describing the show as being darkly oppressive, just in the way it was shot and how it looked.

I’m really only playing devil’s advocate here, but NBC as a broadcasting network has to be somewhat populist. I think they truly did finance the show as a creative endeavor, and that’s very rare for a broadcaster. We have to be very grateful for that, because truly there’s little motivation for networks if they’re not guaranteed a larger audience.

Kirill: I do have to say that at least the first half of Season 1 was much closer to the procedural criminal drama, and then it evolved into a psychological battle. I’m glad that I stayed through those first episodes to get to the really great stuff.

Matthew: I think it shows that Bryan didn’t want to make a procedural show, but he might have had a lot of heat on him from NBC to make it into that. And then at some point NBC stood back and let him have his full control. Bryan really wanted to recreate the storylines of the novels; the only novel that they didn’t have the rights to was “Silence of the Lambs”. That would have been a fun one to incorporate.

Visualization for the set of Lady Murakami / Murasaki’s house in season 3. Courtesy of Matthew Davies.

On the set of Lady Murakami / Murasaki’s house in season 3. Courtesy of Matthew Davies.

Kirill: You work on a show or a film for months and months, and you see the sets before editing, music and all the post-production work. Can you enjoy the final cut when it’s out? Do you look at your sets and how they are portrayed?

Matthew: I find it is more difficult generally to watch television or mediocre movies. If the design is flawed, the distraction will keep throwing me out of that universe; essentially it makes it harder for me to bury myself in the narrative.

One of the things that made “Hannibal” great was that I actually perceived an entirely different show when I watched it compared to when we were making it. The way it came together in terms of the nuances of the story and the character arcs was so fascinating that I stopped obsessing about the art direction of the show. If there was anything specific that would bump with me, I would notice it, but it was just a fleeting moment. The show itself was so engrossing, and that isn’t true for everything that I’ve worked on, but I think that it’s a testament to the writing of the show.

Kirill: Certainly I as a viewer I appreciate how much work goes into the storytelling in the episodic television these days. Maybe it’s not episodic anymore, as you can’t watch just one episode of “Game of Thrones” or “Penny Dreadful” – it’s almost a seasonal television now.

Matthew: What surprises me is how many shows are out there right now that are truly great. Ten years ago a show like “Hannibal” would have been the only show of its kind. But what we have now is a plethora of good shows that all have their own defined worlds. It has raised the bar and that’s the real contribution of shows like “Hannibal” to television.

Audiences now have much higher expectations of being impressed. It requires a particular vision and a consistency of vision, which is very hard to implement in reality, unless you have very forceful personalities behind it, which I think “Hannibal” did.

Kirill: Do you think that Hannibal and Will can live happily ever after, after that fall from the cliff.

Matthew: In the novels I think Will ends up fixing outboard motors in a marina and Hannibal goes off into the sunset. It’s a good point, and I noticed that in Asia, for some reason, there was a very homo-erotic obsession for the two characters. There was a strong homosexual tension between them.

I remember Mads himself accusing me of making his character look too ‘gay’ because of all the fresh cut flowers and interesting floral arrangements that we would have at his dinner parties, even though they often had big beetles, skull pieces and other macabre accents hidden within them. He was perhaps a little concerned about the feminization of his character. I reassured him that it was not deliberate, but in any case, it was Bryan Fuller’s show and it would adhere to Bryan’s own cues.

Kirill: There was certainly some tension between them, and Abigail was kind of an adopted daughter of the couple.

Matthew: I think so. It’s modern family [laughs].

Kirill: One of the nicknames they had on the Internet was murder husbands.

Matthew: Oh, I didn’t know that. That’s a good one. There was a great camaraderie among the cast on set. Hugh and Mads were both phenomenal actors to work with and authentic human beings. It was phenomenal casting from the outset.

And here I’d like to thank Matthew Davies for this wonderful opportunity to learn about the production design of “Hannibal”, and for sharing the wealth of background material for the interview. If you’re interested in more stories on how films and TV shows are made, click here for more in-depth interviews.