Production design of “Orange is the New Black” – interview with Malchus Janocko

July 30th, 2019

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Malchus Janocko. In this interview he talks about changes in the world of episodic TV productions in the last decade, crafting the worlds for contemporary dramas, maintaining visual consistency across a season arc, getting attached to the sets, and what keeps him going in the field. Around these topics and more, Malchus goes back to his work on “Gossip Girl”, and dives deep into the last four seasons of Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” and various aspects of the production design of the show.

On the sets of “Orange is the New Black”. Left – Lee Malecki, set decorator. Center – Malchus Janocko, production designer. Right – Geoffrey Ehrlich, art director.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Malchus: My father took me to see “Alien” at an ungodly early age, and that’s how I started [laughs]. My father’s a physicist and my mother’s an art teacher. I always thought that I would want to go into art or architecture, and somehow I found myself heading into this, after a whole string of events. I have an undergraduate degree in fine art painting from Rochester Institute of Technology, and after that I applied to Carnegie Mellon as a scenic artist, thinking I could go to school to paint scenery for theater. I had done a lot of theater in high school and some during college.

I applied on a whim and I was accepted, but they accepted me as a designer – and I didn’t know that until I got there. I thought that I had been accepted as a painter [laughs] and I had to make a decision at the time, and decided to stay. I finished that program, moved to New York after graduate school, and I worked for a firm doing corporate theater, exhibitry, events, car shows, corporate meetings etc. We did a series of ice sculpted shows for Opryland hotels and all kinds of things. I worked there for 7 years, then I worked at an events company for a year as their design director, and then I had an opportunity to move into the scripted field.

I’ve worked with Loren Weeks for many years, and he asked me to come on to a straight-to-video Wesley Snipes movie that was shooting in Providence, Rhode Island. And I’ve been in narrative and scripted world ever since, which has been fantastic. I think that all of your experience leads you to where you want to be. I used all of that event experience on “Gossip Girl” during the 5 years that I’ve worked on it as the art director for Loren Weeks. I worked on “I Am Legend” for almost a year as an assistant art director. In between seasons of “Gossip Girl” and “Orange is the New Black”, I was able to work on “The Amazing Spider-man 2” and some of the Marvel “Defenders” for Netflix.

When “Gossip Girl” season 6 happened, my boss moved on and I was able to start production design on it. I’ve done lots of art direction, and I’ve been production designing for the last 6 or so years.

On the sets of “Orange is the New Black”. Courtesy Malchus Janocko. See notes at the end for full credits.

Kirill: If you look back at this span of the last decade in your career, do you feel that the productions demand more these days?

Malchus: Absolutely. I feel like the quality has gone at the same time as the amount of content we have out there. It’s not that the quality is going down as there is more content, at least as far as art direction, scenery and set decoration goes. Everybody wants higher quality work, or people just won’t watch. The quality of writing has also increased greatly. We have so many amazing things to watch now.

Kirill: Is that only on the technical side, as the cameras are getting better, or also on the artistic side to support the depth of the story lines?

Malchus: You can look at soap operas versus HBO, and how quickly they do lighting on soap operas. When we started “Gossip Girl” we had to move so quickly that we didn’t do full ceilings. We would leave the ceilings open and light through the ceilings, and it allowed the shooting crew to move more quickly. That was also good for the ability to light those actresses well, which wasn’t the same as how lighting in a grittier show might be done.

The high-resolution cameras made a big difference. I used to call it the HBO thing where you have these low angles where you see all of the ceilings. If you look back on older TV productions, you wouldn’t see a lot of low angles because there were no ceilings. Then things started to shift. My big shift was on “The Leftovers” – money-wise, budget-wise and look-wise. That was indicative of how everything has gone in that direction. There have always been really beautiful shows, particularly on HBO. I worked as an assistant art director for Bob Shaw on “Mad Men”, and that was a big influence on me.

Kirill: Is it hard nowadays to do a 22-episode season when it’s competing against shows that have between 8 and 13 episodes?

Malchus: I’ll be able to answer that at the end of this season. I’m doing the second season of “FBI”, and the last time I did a full 20+ episode season was on “The Mysteries of Laura”. It’s off to a good start and it feels just as rich, even if our shooting schedule is more abbreviated. On season 7 of “Orange is the New Black” we had 10 shooting days per episode, and on “FBI” we have 8 – even when you’re filling the same amount of time. Does it get the same amount of attention? It’s hard [laughs].

The other thing is whether or not every episode has the same scale. You may have one episode that’s up, and one episode that’s slightly smaller in scale, but the story should remain the same quality.

Set renderings for “Orange is the New Black”. Courtesy Malchus Janocko. See notes at the end for full credits.

Kirill: As you’re working on contemporary dramas such as “Gossip Girl” or “Orange is the New Black”, is it hard to explain to people what your job is? Do people expect that everything already exists somewhere because the story is set in the present day?

Malchus: I always explain that I’m in charge of everything that’s behind the actors, everything they interact with but not necessarily touch. It’s interesting to talk to people and find out if they think we’re shooting in a real prison that exists or someplace that we’ve built. I’m always happy when people think that it was a real prison. We built the whole thing from scratch for season 6. Those sets were two stories tall, and I think they turned out really well. It’s interesting going from being in prison to being on “FBI” where you’re putting people in prison [laughs].

Things that exist are certainly a part of what I do – finding locations with our location manager, figuring out how to make those places work for the story that’s been written. That’s the problem-solving aspect of it that people don’t understand. You’re dealing with the schedule and with what’s required of the story to make it work in the places that we shoot in.

Kirill: For “Orange is the New Black”, do you create a prison environment that is very much like a real prison or an environment that look like what people think that prison should look like?

Malchus: It needs to look like real prison but function for the camera. We have all of these reality shows about prisons, and I certainly watched a bunch of those to see the structural elements. But this is a dramatization, so I think that there are parts of it that are more dramatized than others.

Set renderings for “Orange is the New Black”. Courtesy Malchus Janocko. See notes at the end for full credits.

Kirill: You joined the show for season 4, and then you had the big new set designed for season 6. Was it more interesting to extend the existing world and have your a take on it, or create this whole new world?

Malchus: It was great to create the whole new world. We built a general population cell block for three different groups of women, and we also built an administrative segregation unit. That unit was specifically designed for the first episode of season 6 when Suzanne is off of her medicine. She sits in her window and operates a make-believe remote control, turning on the lights in each of the cells as we get little pictures of each of the inmates – in the way that she interpolated it being off of her medicine.

The research that we did allowed us to make a set that worked with what Jenji Kohanim wanted for that piece of story. It was a fantastic project to find the right stuff to work with how she wanted that story to be told. She didn’t give any specific directions, and building it from scratch was a real gift. If you look at how that administrative segregation set works, one guard down in the bottom would be able to see into every cell – because of the way the windows are angled.

Kirill: Do you have a preference between a director who is very detailed about what they want to see from the set and a director that says “Make it happen”?

Malchus: I’m detail-oriented myself, and I love directors that are details-oriented. Often it’s the ones that are directors of photography who have moved into it. Phil Abraham is a terrific director. He’s very visual and he’s always thinking about the camera moves and how to make our sets look amazing. Michael Trim makes our sets look amazing. They’re always thinking about creating movement, about the cameras and the character – rather than just trying to move through the day and get your shots done. They push the limits on every single set. I really enjoyed working with those guys very much.

Set renderings for “Orange is the New Black”. Courtesy Malchus Janocko. See notes at the end for full credits.

Kirill: Natasha Lyonne directed one of the episodes in season 7. How different was it to work with an actress that used to be on the other side of the camera?

Malchus: Natasha was amazing to work with. She has an amazing visual sense and she’s a terrific story teller. The Emmy nominations that “Russian doll” received are very well deserved.

Her episode of season 7 is great. She worked beautifully with camera, we had great details and perfect storytelling. I’m so excited for everyone to see her episode. She’s a very talented director and I cannot wait to see what happens next, particularly with “Russian Doll”.

Kirill: As you work with different directors and cinematographers throughout the season arc, how much freedom do they have to have their own take on it versus the desire to maintain a coherent visual language?

Malchus: You want a coherent language, but the flashback structure of the show allows for the storytelling breaks. You’re not just stuck in prison. You want the quality to be there, but you never want the design to be there for design’s sake. You want to be designing for the characters and what the characters’ story would be.

Sometimes rules are made to be broken and I don’t hesitate with that. You certainly want to have a quality level that you want to maintain, but sometimes things change and you have an added piece of story which is told in a different fashion. You see a whole new element again in season 7. It’s probably pretty apparent that there is an Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] angle that’s been out in the reviews. It was also alluded to right at the end of season 6. I think that this aspect is done in the same vocabulary but with different means.

Juxtaposition is good too sometimes. Sometimes you really do want that contrast with your storytelling.

Set renderings for “Orange is the New Black”. Courtesy Malchus Janocko. See notes at the end for full credits.

Kirill: It’s interesting to trace the story progression from the first season when it started as a rather light-hearted take, a comedy with just a pinch of drama, and the evolved to tap into political and social hot topics of the day. Would you say that in the last few seasons it is a drama with few elements of comedy?

Malchus: I think it takes a big turn when Poussey Washington is killed at the end of season 4. The riot that it starts makes the whole of season 5 pretty dark. Season 6 is pretty sad, but elements of comedy are still there. You want some of that in every episode to bring up what is a pretty bleak story. There are definitely bright spots in this season, some happy endings and some sad endings.

Kirill: And a bit of absurdity, especially around the commercialization of the prison system. The CorrectiCon conference that you did on season 4 was exquisitely depressing in portraying how commercial the whole system has become. And it’s not even satire, as the whole thing is happening in the real prison system in the US. The system’s perverse incentive is to get more people in. 

Malchus: And the companies that are making the prison equipment, furniture and toilets for prison are using prisoners to make those things to make more profit. It’s a spiraling system.

The character of Linda from purchasing didn’t even have a last name for a long time. But she was in charge of the creation of this new private portion of the prison. It’s staggering when everything is being done with cost in mind. You can see that starting with the construction of a new wing of the prison that they are doing themselves in season 4. Jenji is fantastic in how she deals with that kind of story.

Set renderings for “Orange is the New Black”. Courtesy Malchus Janocko. See notes at the end for full credits.

Kirill: Do you participate in these discussions on how dark or light the storylines get?

Malchus: I’m sure that those conversations happen in the writers’ room. By the time it gets to us, you get to see those absurdist elements. We’ll get told that it has to be ridiculous – like graffiti that happens to be on particular walls. Poussey’s Memorial Library in season 5 is a bright spot. We were told that it had to be special and magical.

Kirill: How much do you hate the color grey now, four years after making all those walls, ceilings and floors?

Malchus: [Laughs] I’m ready for a little bit of difference.

I love the flashbacks. It’s that breath of air, so every time you go back into the gray you always have that little piece of outside. But yeah, it’s miles of grey and miles of tile. You talk to real prison officials and they’ll explain that they don’t want anyone to know where they are. It should be confusing. It’s better for people to not know where they are. It’s harder to escape, so everything looks the same.

It actually worked out in our benefit to have three identical cell blocks and never know where you are. We built one block and redressed it. You’ll see color coding from block B to C to D, and we changed all of the numbering. But it just wouldn’t be practical for how big that set is. It made a lot of sense to just build it once. I don’t even know that the actresses even register it. Not everybody necessarily pays attention to anyone’s storyline but their own.

Kirill: How much time did you have to design the sets for the flashbacks?

Malchus: We only get the script about 8 days before we start shooting. We did have the outline for the ’80s USSR flashback about two weeks before we started shooting that. I was teaching in Savannah College of Art and Design up until a few weeks ago, and I was doing a lot of research on to teach production design. I don’t remember how said that, but the gist of it is that being a production designer is becoming an expert at any particular thing as fast as you can.

We had two weeks or so to figure out how to do the ’80s Russia, and once I got the script, I immediately had some ideas of where we could do it. The location for the factory with the giant brutalist balconies and the giant Lenin sculpture was in my head the moment that we got the script. I’ve been in that space a couple of times, and it’s just so monumentally large as an enclosed space. I knew that we could do something great in there. But we built that phone booth from scratch,  because you can’t rent a period-correct Russian phone booth anymore. We had our carpenters build that, and I think that turned out quite well.

Flashback to USSR in 1980s. Courtesy Malchus Janocko. See notes at the end for full credits.

Kirill: Do you have either time or budget to do set digital extensions?

Malchus: VFX did the huge Lenin banner in that flashback. “Orange is the New Black” was one of the first two original shows that Netflix did, and it didn’t have a real budgetary model for that kind of storytelling. So we don’t tend to do that. Occasionally we’ll take out signage digitally, but we don’t tend to extend sets. That’s not the thought process for this show.

Kirill: Do you get attached to the sets that you build? Are they like your babies? Are you sad when they get torn down?

Malchus: Yes, absolutely. I’ve talked about the administrative segregation unit, and it’s hilarious that you get attached to a horrible destructive place. But when we found out that we weren’t going to use it past episode 8 or 9 in season 6, we were quite sad to realize that we had to start taking it down. Why can’t you write more things to this set? [Laughs] That wasn’t the story they wanted to tell, and we had the ability to move other scenery there that that helped the production.

When you take down a set, it’s a real heartbreaker. When the show ended, the grips send me photographs of the fully empty stages at the end, and it’s just amazing. But there is also a sense of what new can happen in there. It’s an empty blank page, but it’s still a heartbreaker. You put so much work and love into a set, even if it’s all gray.

On the sets of “Orange is the New Black”. Courtesy Malchus Janocko. See notes at the end for full credits.

Kirill: In a couple of interviews people told me that even though it lives as a moving image artifact on a disc, you can’t go back to it. Unlike architecture or sculpture, there’s nothing physical that you can go around and touch. 

Malchus: Netflix has this awesome new building in Los Angeles, and they have this giant LED wall in the lobby. They have taken great images of a lot of their sets from their shows, and you can go into the lobby and basically be in those sets – although not with dimensions. I think it’s pretty great usage of that space. They particularly have the cafeteria from “Orange is the New Black” as one of their lobby images that wraps around you.

It’s sad but that impermanence is also the joy of this kind of storytelling.

Kirill: On the other hand, it is permanent in the sense that it’s been captured, graded and edited to be presented from the specific angle to tell a certain story. 

Malchus: There’s a lot of work that goes into. It’s the way the light plays, the way the cinematographer takes care of things, the way the colorist grades the footage, and how all of that works together through editing and movement. It’s a living breathing thing, more of a moving painting than just a static thing.

Kirill: Do you want people to know how much thinking, effort and work goes into these seemingly effortless shows?

Malchus: I think it’s important. In my classes in Savannah I made everyone take photographs of the insides of their refrigerators and their junk drawers. I told them that we were going to talk about character and how you build it. My whole class discussed those photograph of the refrigerator to explain a character. It’s about how much work that takes. It might be that you only get that little glimpse of it, but you catch that and you notice things. All of that character is there, whether or not the writers have given us all of that information. We try to fill in the blanks.

You want the information to be there, but you do want it to appear effortless. You want to be proud of the amount of thought that went into it, but it should appear natural. It’s a funny place to be. You don’t want to just throw stuff into a drawer. You want to be thoughtful about it to make sense for the particular scene that has that character in it. That’s the dichotomy that you want to strike – that effortless vision with the detail of years of history.

Set renderings for “Orange is the New Black”. Courtesy Malchus Janocko. See notes at the end for full credits.

Kirill: Do you worry about your productions – “Gossip Girl”, “Orange is the New Black”, “FBI” – are going to age? Do you worry about they will be seen or remembered in 30, 40, 50 years?

Malchus: I think that they’re like a new piece of history. “Gossip Girl” is a time capsule, and I’m fascinated that there’s already a reboot for HBO Max that starts shooting next year. It’s interesting to see how people used cell phones and text, and how that evolved to lead to where we are today. It’s a soap opera, but some of those aspects and those relationships are interesting. The work is a period piece, and it will be interesting to see how it will look like in 30 years.

Kirill: I like that you’re calling “Gossip Girl” a period piece, because there’s so many contemporary stories from today that are documenting so many aspects of the “now”. In a sense, all of these shows are almost documentaries.

Malchus: When you’re taking art history classes, you always want to know what the political situation was when any particular piece of art was made. I think that is well shown, topical and timely in this last season of “Orange is the New Black”. You see season 6 and season 7 with President Trump in office, and it’s an interesting snapshot. Suzanne’s backstory shows her working at the superstore, checking out people buying automatic weapons at the superstore. These things are topical now, and they really do add to this piece of story.

I think that all of that will still be interesting in 30 years. I don’t know if there are going to be any other shows set in prisons.

Kirill: As an artist, does it feel random at times when you see what does or does not strike a chord with audiences?

Malchus: The idea of this kind of prison drama being such a popular show on Netflix is wild. I worked on “I am Legend” which was based on a book, but was more of an interpretation of it. It was interesting to see it getting popular because it isn’t a superhero movie. It was amazing to see “The Leftovers” becoming such a big hit as it was.

Set renderings for “Orange is the New Black”. Courtesy Malchus Janocko. See notes at the end for full credits.

Kirill: Do you have a definition of a success for yourself? Is it close to the critical acceptance, the mass acceptance, the acceptance of your peers, or something else perhaps?

Malchus: Success is an everyday sort of thing for me. We’re doing something different every day, I feel like I get to succeed every day. There’s like a little success every day, and it’s because I have a fantastic team. You get a text or a call from set saying that they liked what we put together. We had had it with a couple of great compliments from our director this week, and that was a huge success. We’ll see how it goes with this last season of “Orange is the New Black”, but I know that we were successful throughout the season and I feel already like a success.

I can’t believe I get to do this as a job, so I feel like that’s another success – getting to do something this creative every day. I can’t believe they pay me to do it. Even with the long hours it’s really a joy. It’s amazing to be solving problems, making cool and artful things, and telling great stories. I could not be more lucky.

Kirill: My last question was supposed to be what keeps you going in the field but now I’m going to rephrase it. If you won the lottery would you still be doing what you’re doing today?

Malchus: I probably want to sleep for a week [laughs]. That’s the only part. I wish there was a little bit more time in the day. I love spending time with my children, and it’s challenging working in this industry. It’s many hours, and because it’s a money-making venture, they try to squeeze the most story out of the fewest number of days. All of that makes it difficult personally.

But do I love what I do. Would I do it if I won the lottery? I think I’d come back and do it, because I really enjoy it. I’d want to try and figure out how to spend more time with my family though. I think I had a pretty manageable schedule on “Orange is the New Black”, and I’m hoping that it will be manageable on the new show as well.

And it’s not all on me. We’ve put together an amazing team, and everybody gets to add their own creativity. Part of the feeling of success is in the creation of the team, in bringing a bunch of people that work together well. I’m proud and I really love what I do.

Notes for Season 6
Assistant Art Director: Benji Cox
Art Director: Geoffrey Ehrlich
Production Designer: Malchus Janocko
Renderings: Benji Cox and Malchus Janocko

Notes for Season 7
Assistant Art Director: Lucy Pope
Art Director: Geoffrey Ehrlich
Production Designer: Malchus Janocko
Renderings: Malchus Janocko

Prison yard on “Orange is the New Black”. Courtesy Malchus Janocko.

And here I’d like to thank Malchus Janocko for taking the time to talk with me about the production design of “Orange is the New Black”, and for sharing the supporting materials. The last season of the show is available now on Netflix. I’d also like to thank Andrea Resnick for making this interview happen. Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.