Production design of “Altered Carbon” – interview with Carey Meyer

August 4th, 2020

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my delight to welcome Carey Meyer. In this interview he talks about his approach to designing his productions, the changes in the world of visual storytelling since he started in the field in the early ’90s, embracing accidents, and how much may change on the other end of the current Corona break in the productions. Around these topics and more, Carey looks back at his earlier work on “Firefly” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, and dives deep into creating the lavishly intricate worlds of the first two seasons of “Altered Carbon”.

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

Carey: My name is Carey Meyer and I’m a production designer in the film industry. I’ve done a couple small features, but I mostly do episodic television, and it’s been quite good.

Going back to how it started, I was always an artist. I found myself enjoying design and architecture, and I went to a school of architecture – a program called “design studies” that had a broader reach compared to a bachelor of arts degree. We studied all fields of design – environmental design, graphic design, architecture, product design, etc. We got a broad concept of how design processes could be applied to all those different fields. We were learning a process that wasn’t dedicated to one specific thought within design. I enjoyed breaking it down into those specific fields, focusing on training and understanding them.

In that college we had a film club, where a bunch of friends and I would do theme events for the school of architecture. We would typically base them off of a film like “Brazil” or “Blade Runner”, and that was my first spark in film. I started seeing it as a field that requires a lot of design, not just production design but also cinematography design, direction design – in a way, it’s all a design process.

Obviously, I fell into mostly production design, although I have directed quite a few episodes of television as well. And having been at the helm on a few episodes of television made my design process much more specific and edited. You have a much more nuanced idea of what is important as a designer. You are able to have those conversations with directors, to know and understand that they are going to take a specific nuanced tone with a scene that might be the crux of the entire tone of the whole piece. It might be a feature film, or an episode within a series.

Production design of “Altered Carbon” by Carey Meyer, the view going “up into the clouds” of Aerium in Season 1.

Those conversations are critical in television. You’re trying to create with a multitude of directors and multiple cinematographers. What is the tone of the piece? You’re trying to design and build things in an efficient way. You’re breaking down a script and deciding what’s going to be a location, or how you’re going to design this to match with the location, or if it’s going to be built on stage. There’s a myriad of reasons why you would do things on stage vs on location. A lot of it has to do with schedule, especially in television. You’re trying to marry bits and pieces of the puzzle together, and so you might edit the script a little bit to get those pieces to fall within a schedule in a construct that makes sense for the production.

As a production designer, that’s one of my main focuses – to start having those conversations. I’m talking with the director and the showrunner, who’s really the main steering partner, and we discuss that specific tone that holds for the rest of the series. Then it evolves and morphs into other things, and that is a lot of fun. The tone of the piece that emerges from those conversations ends up affecting what you build and what you design.

Kirill: When you talk with people outside of your field, is it easy or hard to explain what you do for a living?

Carey: It’s hard to give them the nuance. That’s what this position is – it is nuanced. I’m not just trying to design a pretty room. I’m trying to have the conversation about what room do we really need. What does that mean to you? How does it fit together with all the other pieces? You can’t just go ahead and start designing a room.

We have the conversations about color and lens choices. How dark is it going to be? What pieces do we really need to have in there? What is our critical wide shot, and what’s the focus on that scene? Can we build a wide shot that is meaningful so that we can then go in and create a lot of cinema within? Maybe we don’t necessarily need the whole ballroom. Those are conversations that I get excited about. When you start having that conversation, you are immediately cutting out half the work, because now you’re not having to necessarily create the whole thing.

Of course you do have the bigger environments, especially on TV series, that will play for the entire show. Those are well thought out and fully realized. But you also have the bridges between those scenes, and those structures can have more plasticity to them. You don’t need to fully structure those bridges. That all comes down to the cinematography, the edit, and the tone that the director is going to take with those scenes. You build the trust with your director that they are going to follow through on the idea they have in their head, be it a storyboard or not. And of course, you find great stuff on the day too.

I hate the old adage of the smoke and mirrors, but using those gags and gimmicks to create fantastic images does have a big part to play in the process.

Illustration of the Psychasec Lab for Season 1 of “Altered Carbon”, courtesy of Carey Meyer.

Production design of “Altered Carbon” by Carey Meyer, Psychasec Lab in Season 1.

Kirill: Do you find that much has changed since you started working in the early ’90s? If I had a time machine, and I brought you from 1990 straight to 2020 (ignoring Corona of course), would the young you feel at home in 2020, or would you say that things have changed significantly?

Carey: I’d definitely feel at home, and that rings especially true in television, because you cannot afford all the CG that might happen on a big feature film. And even on a big feature it has to be conceived, and everybody has to understand what those pieces are, down to costume and props. Everybody has to understand what that environment is, and at some point there’s going to be something that’s built, and it can’t just be random.

So the creation of all that imagery is really what’s important. Another important thing is that everybody understands what it is. From a production designer’s standpoint, you might leave on the table huge swaths of a script that are going to end up in a CG environment, but you still want to have a good understanding of what those environments are, so you can build and relate your built world to it and vice versa.

“Altered Carbon” was a terribly ambitious world that we were trying to create, and the size of the budget was absolutely the largest I’d worked with. I knew at that time that it was going to be the most intense design process, figuring out all those CG elements, and figuring out what that world needs to look like. That needs to happen so that you can communicate that to the entire CG department, so they would all get on the same aesthetic and start integrating that world that was beyond the shot lens, and incorporated into what we did shoot on camera. But you still have to build as much environment as you can, so CG can get even further and bigger for the storytelling.

If they end up creating all the background in most shots, then that’s where your money’s being spent. The first season was 10 episodes, and we created a large part of that world. We built a 300-foot long street to shoot on. We had the ability to make it feel like it was a different place in different scenes. We were more successful with certain versions of it, maybe less with others, but it was all one world. And we were able to control it and push the envelope on how it can look.

If you were trying to do a lot of that work on location, you’d end up with CG removing all kinds of signage, and adding bits and pieces to try to make it look not contemporary. And we didn’t want to waste our money doing that. We’re talking about a TV schedule. We were on a series schedule, still shooting on location all the time. It gets problematic, complicated, and expensive. We did a good portion of on-location exterior shooting to help extend that world, but we needed to have a real base station of the world that we knew we could always fall into.

Production design of “Altered Carbon” by Carey Meyer, exterior of the Raven Hotel in Season 1.

Throughout the process, we ended up building quite a few new scenes into the scripts to end up in that world. It also allows you to do all the stunt work and all the camera work in a fashion that you really want. You have the time to prep and actually shoot those scenes in that space. You can practice all the stunts and do wire gags. You’re inside. You’re completely controlling the weather. You’re completely controlling the night and day issues. “Altered Carbon” is dark, and you want it to feel like most of it is shot at night. That’s how we ended up doing that on that show.

Would I have felt the same coming from “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” to “Altered Carbon”? The process of my work was the same. We did a lot of effects on that show as well. We had some CG. We had lots of practical builds incorporating the CG elements. It was a much simpler process, but it’s still the same process. What are the parts and pieces? What’s being added as a visual effect – be it mechanical, camera or CG? You’re isolating out a piece of the frame and you know where those pieces go, where that action is going to happen. That process is almost seamlessly the same as it’s always been.

Of course, when you’re doing CG, you know the world is your oyster. You can do so much more with those bits and pieces. But the stitching of the on-camera stuff to CG is virtually the same. It’s the same conversations that we had back then compared to what we had on “Altered Carbon”. That process hasn’t changed. It’s the ability to do so much more that has.

Kirill: I keep on changing my mind about my own answer to my next question. Do you think it’s possible to tell any story on screen at any moment in time, from the technical standpoint? I watch a movie from the ’70s or the ’80s, and even though some effects might look dated, the artists of the time did manage to work within the limitations of that technology to tell those stories. Do you thing that a show like “Altered Carbon” could have been told 20 or 30 years ago?

Carey: Let’s keep talking about “Altered Carbon” for a moment, because it’s certainly a good example for this conversation. Could it have been made in 1982, like “Blade Runner”? Obviously, we’re riffing off of “Blade Runner” on this show. So, absolutely, you could have done it 30 years ago.

If you take us as a group of filmmakers, there’s new stylistic camera techniques and new technological equipment. It’s all digital now, then of course it was all film. You’re incorporating all these different bits and pieces into the process. But it’s really all the same. With all these new pieces, it’s easier to do it, especially now with CG. But you still are going after a certain aesthetic. You are trying to create a tone and an aesthetic within a little box I was talking about earlier. So that doesn’t really change. It can, and it certainly will, if it hasn’t already in certain films.

Illustration of the Suntouch House for Season 1 of “Altered Carbon”, courtesy of Carey Meyer.

Back to “Altered Carbon”, we were making what we felt was a throwback, retro look. Yes, we were riffing off of “Blade Runner”, and we may have hung our hat a little too much on a couple of small bits and pieces of it, and that maybe felt too blatant to some people. But really, the built world that we created was quite different architecturally and stylistically.

From a character standpoint, the original “Altered Carbon” book has so many of the same and similar archetypes. It felt comfortable to land the show in a world that we created. It felt like that’s where the original source material generated itself from, at least in part. We could easily live in that world, and it felt right to us. That’s where we ended up. And absolutely, “Altered Carbon” could have been made 30 years ago, even as a TV series. Obviously the CG would have been less, but we tried to do so much in camera. The look may have been the same, but maybe the shots would not be as grand.

Kirill: You mentioned the book, and what I try to do with productions like “Altered Carbon”, and “Ender’s Game” and “The Expanse” before it, I read the book before watching the show. As a reader, I find myself building a certain vague notion of how that particular world can look like, but your job is to make it real, at least on screen. How do you approach making a world out of the very few words on the page?

Carey: My process on both seasons was similar, and then in second season it became a bit more focused. With first season, we didn’t have a template yet. We didn’t know what the show was, not just visually but also tonally.

So the first season really was about that process of breaking the tone of the show. We got together early on, myself, the Showrunners, Everett Burrell, Visual Effects Supervisor and the Director Miguel Sapochnik, and we were discussing what the look of the show was going to be, and what the different worlds that needed to be generated or conceived of as building blocks for that first script. The first script for the pilot went through lots of changes, and they were writing the rest of the series as we were designing the very first bits and pieces.

We had a Gantt chart with the critical path. It had all the environments in that script, whatever the script was at that point. This is where you start the process of editing and figuring out what are the important building blocks – out of that Gantt chart and out of that script. What are the pieces that are core to the show? What really is going to be the biggest bang for our buck, and give us an environment or a series of environments that you really want to use to tell your story going forward? If you’re going to put those resources together, you want to be able to use them for the season, or as much of them as possible.

When we were first conceiving the look of the show in those environments, we had a stage in Vancouver that was an old printing press. All the equipment had been stripped out of it, so it was this big long corridor that had been stripped bare of all the machinery. It was already massive and had scale to it. During the initial process of the show before I came on as they were securing this space and writing the first script, they thought of taking the space and rebuilding it into stages. So this one big long space had initially been conceived to be broken up into separate spaces to build sets in.

When I saw that space for the first time, I immediately realized it was everything the show needed. It already had scope and scale to it, and I saw we could essentially build an environment within it and just use the whole thing. As I was going through the first script, my mind was mapping out where to do each piece in that space. It was all these bits and pieces that fit into the model. Throughout the process of the season we converted and changed it, plugging CG pieces above a certain height of that set to take us where we want to go and create different worlds within the world that we were in.

Once you do that and you start designing that space, you start imagining all those different bits and pieces that are going to be within it. You start having the conversations with producers and writers and the director about all of it. You might have decided that you’re going to do a specific scene in there, but then you get a little bit further into the process and the schedule just doesn’t allow that scene to land back on stage with that set. This is where you take advantage of those moments, to take that scene and re-conceive it, even from a design standpoint. Maybe you tag it to a location and make it the second part of the day after you’ve shot a scene that you know was going to be on location.

Illustration of Harlan’s World for Season 2 of “Altered Carbon”, courtesy of Carey Meyer.

Illustration of Harlan’s World for Season 2 of “Altered Carbon”, courtesy of Carey Meyer.

This is where you start moving and pushing your pieces around. For example, the Psychasec lab exterior in season one could have been done there, but we found a great location, a piece of architecture that felt that it fit into our world. We were able to extend the scope of the show with that location. It gave us an anchor on what we called the three tiers of the world – the Grounders, the middle tier, this Psychasec lab, and Twilight, the Aerium above the clouds. The Bancroft ivory tower is where Kovacs goes right at the very top of that world. It was shot on location in an old building that we placed on top of that piece of CG.

All those real pieces were conceived early on. We didn’t necessarily have the locations that would fit into that puzzle, but we had the concept of how that tall ivory tower works, how it goes from the ground through the middle zone and then up to the top of the world. It gave us a structure where we could piece in a set or a location or another set. Everybody could understand how to build that world. It immediately made sense which locations to use. It gave us a fluidity to start the process of constructing the world.

Those were early conversations with the showrunners and the director, as the script was being rewritten. That kicked us all into what the tone of the piece was going to be.

Kirill: Given that the show happens significantly far into the future, did you ever find yourself scaling down the ambition on how the world might look like, so that it would still feel approachable and understandable for the viewer? I’m thinking about, let’s say, the brightest minds of the early 19th century, and how can you quickly explain that you can track somebody when they use a credit card in an ATM, without launching into the whole background of electronic money, GPS, connected video systems, etc. Did you want to ground some of the “Altered Carbon” technology in today’s world?

Carey: Absolutely. That’s one reason why we landed in a world not dissimilar to that of “Blade Runner”. We wanted to develop an environment that everybody is already comfortable with, something that they already understand. We had such a complicated story to tell, and we didn’t want to spend all our time generating a completely new world. We wanted to land somewhere that was comfortable and that made sense to the show itself, and to the source material.

It’s not that we wanted to remake “Blade Runner”. We had months and months of conversations about what that process was going to look like, how far into the world of “Blade Runner” we would go, and how far away we would stay away from it. When a movie looks like “Star Wars”, few say “oh it looks like Star Wars”. It’s a sci-fi environment that makes sense to so many people that you don’t have to question it. Obviously a lot of sci-fi aficionados will debate the difference between “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” and a multitude of other space odyssey films – which we were not. But we definitely felt like we were living within a world similar to “Blade Runner”. I feel like I went a little bit away from your question now.

Kirill: I’m thinking about the first season, and places like the police station, the prison or the fighting circle. They are as immediately recognizable to me as a viewer, as the same structures in our world today would probably be to somebody from early 19th century. Maybe the technology is a bit more fancy, but the core structure us the same. Because it was already a bit hard to keep track of multiple sleeves and bio-enhancements and what kinds of possibilities that opens up to people of means.

Carey: And that police station was in an old converted church. The interior of the basilica had been subdivided into different floors, and out of the background you just barely see the stained glass of an old church window. That concept was specifically in the books, and we tried to hold true to environments that were in the source material. In the case of the police station we very much followed exactly what is described visually in the books.

Then you have the shipping container Golden State Bridge, we re-conceived the bubblefab communities to be container villages on the Golden Gate Bridge. In this particular case, the show was not at all what was written, because what was written was much more sci-fi, much more complicated to understand and describe visually. We landed in a world that made sense in a San Francisco shipping town – what could have possibly happened in the future. If you notice, we have a massive dam around the bridge, obviously doing some sort of flood control because of oceans rising. You could imagine ships having crashed and people having access to all these shipping containers, and building a world out of that. So that specifically was a moment where we were trying to land in something that felt real.

Illustration of Bubblefab compound for Season 2 of “Altered Carbon”, courtesy of Carey Meyer.

It was called the bubblefab community in the books. We wanted to stay true to that name, we incorporated some of the industrial aspects of it, on the outside as well as on the inside. In the book it was a material that you could blow up, create a huge bubble, and live within. It’s complicated, not only visually, but also conceptually. So that was an instance where we dialed it back to something that we felt didn’t need to be described. You could see it, feel comfortable with it, and not have to worry about it too much.

And other times we didn’t do things because we couldn’t afford it. The transportation in this world is done with pneumatic tubes. The vehicle is a pill-shaped car piece, and you can link multiple PILs, (Public Inter Loop), together, create a train and travel through that tube system. And then mid-transit the PIL pieces can peel off and go down another tube. It can be a long chain of combined PILs, or a small single PIL with a couple of chairs that you could isolate yourself in and move through an environment. We have that concept working in the show. We see it in the background, but we couldn’t afford to build those cars. And we ended up not needing the scenes with the cars. It just became too expensive to push for them in the end, especially having already spent a sizable amount of time designing, building and committing to the Limo from the Pilot episode.

In season two you see it morph in a different way. We did build out a car that was a PIL as well, but not the concept from first season. We’re on a different planet, and we still wanted it to be part of the similar technology, but it’s slightly different technology on that planet. The aesthetics changed.

Production design of “Altered Carbon” by Carey Meyer, Bubblefab compound in Season 2.

Kirill: How much of the Raven Hotel which a major centerpiece of both seasons is a physical build, and how much of that is extended in CG?

Carey: All the interior is built, except for when you tilt completely up and you’re looking into the dome of that environment. That would become a CG element. That’s where we used that dome, the basilica of that space as a device to extrapolate information for Kovacs and Poe to help facilitate that by digitally creating the imagery for that he was trying to find clues in. But really that’s the only piece of that interior that was ever a CG element.

The exterior of the Raven on the street was on our big street. We built the bottom 20 feet and the full width of that storefront, and the front door so you go in and out of that. Obviously the tilt up was all in CG.

The suite that Kovacs lives in at the hotel is fully built out, but if you’re outside doing a massive shot looking out over the balcony and seeing him on the balcony, there’s only that little piece of balcony to place your actor on it. And then everything else is matted around that. So the interiors are fully built, and the exteriors were mostly CG.

Production design of “Altered Carbon” by Carey Meyer, interior of the Raven Hotel in Season 1.

Kirill: And on a related note, the Songspire Elder artifacts which are these blue glowing trees – how much of that was built physically, and how much was digitally extended?

Carey: In season one we only had that one tiny Songspire that Bancroft has in his lobby. That was built up to 16 feet, and really was just the trunk and the base. Once you tilt up and you see the little twinkly Songspire buds, we did create quite a few that we hung in the foreground to have an actor touch and interact with. And the extension of that tree is all completely CG.

Continuing on in season 1 episode 7, the Songspire becomes much more evident in the storytelling as a major piece of the puzzle, not only in how that world works, but also how the story was going to be told. And we also have a built set for the cave with that massive trunk built in it. That trunk was built up to 35 feet, all sculpted and fully conceived. That way you could photograph a nice shot and have that trunk in evidence without needing CG for the main bits and pieces. And as you tilt up, you do see the splendor of the massive tree.

Season two has that cave and Songspire, the flashback imagery where you start to understand more about the Songspires, how the root systems work and how they’re underground. That is that Songspire dungeon where Quell is held throughout season two in the flashback bits and pieces. It was a fully built space with all those roots. Of course, when those roots need to come to life and light up and move, that’s obviously a CG moment. But that entire root system was a sculpted set.

If you look at how the Songspire works in that space, there were all these scenes written that weren’t necessarily in that space. They were dreams leading into it as Quell is starting to piece together who she is, where she came from, and what happened to her. A lot of that is told in dream sequences that weren’t necessarily related to that set, but were related to Songspires or simply to Quell.

Production design of “Altered Carbon” by Carey Meyer, the Songspire tree in Season 1.

One of my big goals was to combine all that stuff that was either dream sequences or flashbacks where you didn’t know where you were, and conceive and construct that set in such a way that we could not only shoot those scenes in that set, but slowly morph the set and reveal that space in a real way. When it starts out, it’s amorphous. You don’t understand where you are. You are going down a staircase that is becoming the tree. You are in a dream with parts and pieces of the songspires that are there, but it is a door as a way to get out. It was all a metaphor for her being held in the cage that was underneath the tree. And of course, it all relates back to the initial moment and the crux of season two which is when the Elders are being killed in that space.

All those different stories had to be told, we didn’t want to build six different sets. You really needed to end up understanding the space in a way that made sense that this is where the elders were and where they were killed, where Reileen holds Quell. The storyline had to evolve and morph around these concepts of these spaces. A lot of that is conceived as we’re writing the script. I spent two months in the writers’ room going into season two to try to figure out what it was that we could build and incorporate from season one into the story, and then what were the bits and pieces that were important to a story not just visually but also anecdotally. What really was going to help motivate the story, but also help build the world and create a world that made sense?

Season two was incredibly dense. You have to create the world of the Elders, but then also create a world that our present day is living within. And it has to morph and make sense. From the design standpoint, season two was much more complicated than season one, that was made worse by having less money because the success of the show was not as blockbuster as Netflix had hoped. We re-conceived how we were going to construct the show. We took the concept of having bits and pieces from season one to land and tell the story of season two. A lot of that process was done early on in the writers’ room, I listened to what they were coming up with, then thought about places, ideas, bits and pieces I knew that we could build or get as a location and made suggestions to that end.

So the world for season two was built around having the one core center where all the stuff happens at the Needlecast tower and the offshoot streets that lead off of that space. The aesthetic of season two didn’t completely change, and you feel like we’re still within the show of “Altered Carbon”.

Illustration of the police station exterior for Season 2 of “Altered Carbon”, courtesy of Carey Meyer.

Production design of “Altered Carbon” by Carey Meyer, the exterior of the police station in Season 1.

Kirill: You spent literally years working on the two seasons of the show. How much do you obsess over all these details? Is it all-consuming? Do you have any mental space left to think of other projects, to read a book or enjoy watching some other show? Or is it the only thing you can think about?

Carey: Yeah, pretty much, and that’s what I enjoy about it. I’m constantly doodling on other things that aren’t necessarily related to the show. Typically it’s not about another show, unless it’s near the end of a series and I’m trying to interview for something and design concepts for new shows.

But if I’m not doing that, then I’m completely engrossed in it. I love the process. I love being on set and in production, and breaking down the show. I love being part of the process of constructing the sets. Mishaps happen all the time. You didn’t know that you couldn’t necessarily build that because it was too expensive, or you may have gone down the road already with certain things and you have to re-conceive. We might build something that wasn’t right. Some people would scrap it and start over, and that’s when things get expensive.

I love being there in the infancy of those mistakes, and being able to redirect those resources in a way that work better. You end up with happy accidents that you’re able to incorporate into the design process and juxtapose something that maybe you weren’t going to do. So I try to be fluid and find those moments for which some would consider a mistake, and use them as a benefit. I try to use specifically that mishap as a point to pivot. Then it becomes something that maybe it wasn’t originally going to be.

Illustration of the police station interior for Season 2 of “Altered Carbon”, courtesy of Carey Meyer.

Production design of “Altered Carbon” by Carey Meyer, the interior of the police station in Season 1 (notice support arches and stained glass windows in the back).

That process is not just specifically a mistake on the build. It might be a location that pops up and nobody saw it. And suddenly it gives you an idea that we don’t even have to build that whole sequence. You see that we could do that whole scene in a space like this. It’s being open to it not being exactly what everybody was necessarily saying it was going to be, and creating an atmosphere with my crew and with my department head peers to help create an environment where everybody’s comfortable working that way. When it’s too rigid, it becomes hard for a lot of people to put all their stuff together and have it work well together. If you’re able to let your world pivot and morph a little bit in the process, then you end up with a more detailed, nuanced look and feel.

That is true not only for design, but for filmmaking in general. It’s a process of figuring out what the importance of one scene is, what is the crux of that scene, what do you really need to do to create that moment in the show.

Kirill: You mentioned that “Altered Carbon” may or may not have fulfilled Netflix’s expectations, but perhaps it might be a little bit too early to judge that yet. Looking back at your earlier work, and more specifically “Firefly” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” that have maintained a cult status for a long time now, does it feel sometimes random what captures the zeitgeist and what fades away?

Carey: It’s funny. I feel that “Altered Carbon” will have that imprint down the road. It feels real, it has a unique story to tell, and it’s a world that people definitely do enjoy jumping into – as complicated as this story was. You definitely want to try to figure it out. It was visually interesting enough to go back to it multiple times and not necessarily be bored and see something new.

“Firefly” was a complete critical failure at the very beginning from Fox’s standpoint and then it quickly became a cultish sort of thing. And obviously, to a huge extent, “Buffy” was successful and has the same cult. All of which has to do with Joss Whedon, of course.

First model built of the Serenity ship on “Firefly”, courtesy of Carey Meyer.

I just finished season two of “Doom Patrol”. I was in talks with the folks that were doing that show from the get-go, but I was too involved in season two of “Altered Carbon” at that time to jump on “Doom Patrol”. So when I got off of season two of “Altered Carbon”, season two of “Doom Patrol” was coming around. I didn’t know what it had become, so I grabbed a couple episodes and started watching it, it immediately had this feel of a cult show. It feels it’ll have the cult status of “Buffy” or “Firefly”, and hopefully “Altered Carbon” hits that same note at some point.

I’ve done a lot of stuff that doesn’t have that cult status as well. I’ve done a lot of network television, which is great and fun. I love doing that. But it’s definitely fun to get on a project where you know that you’re doing something a little bit different, a little bit specific, and a little bit special.

Kirill: Do you see the light at the end of this Corona virus tunnel, specifically for your industry?

Carey: We got shut down on “Doom Patrol” with three days left to shoot on episode 10. The show was re-conceived and edited a little bit to finish the series in nine episodes, and I still don’t know what we’ve actually done with episodes 9 and 10 to combine and tell those stories. I’m not sure what lived and what didn’t, so that obviously was one change right there – and we haven’t been back to work since.

I start another show on August 3rd, which funnily enough is a third season of “The Umbrella Academy”. These two shows have shared viewership and similar storylines. I’m starting that show and it’s shooting in Toronto. We’re all, just now, having these conversations about how we’re actually going to produce the show. They’ve sought to get me into the country because the borders shut. There’s still a process of getting me vetted and getting me quarantined to get me over the border, and get approval so that we can work.

We’re all being asked to re-conceive what the design process is, what the filmmaking process is. Obviously we still need to get a certain amount of folks in a room, and shoot without masks. Because of the concept of people being sick and not knowing if they’re Covid-sick, our environments not only have to be clean from a bacterial/viral level, but they have to be clean from an aesthetic level. Visually, we’re not going to be allowed to use atmosphere anymore, which is basically a smoke that you put in the air to capture the light. It can irritate some and nobody wants to confuse a cough with that from smoke or some other illness.

Having a dense atmosphere within the space that you’re shooting allows you to sculpt the light. So that is a tool that’s going to be taken away from us. “Altered Carbon” is a smoky show, and it really depended on it. “The Umbrella Academy” maybe will be easier but when you tell a cinematographer that they can’t use atmosphere, it’s like you telling me as a designer that I can’t use any wood to build my sets. It’s a main building block and material used in the cinematography of any project. To have that stripped away from you is a huge thing.

Production design of “Altered Carbon” by Carey Meyer, exterior of the Raven Hotel in Season 1.

And then my entire crew, to the extent they can, are going to be working remote at home. All my set designers are going to be working remote. I’m going to be doing a lot of Skyping and Zooming and Facetiming, editing digital drawings, sending back and revising that way. That process has been started already. A lot of people work remotely, and everybody’s on a computer, so we’re not dealing with paper drawings anymore. I think that process can work quite well. But then actually building the sets, painting the sets, dressing the sets, and creating the physical world on a stage necessarily means that you’re putting all these groups of people together.

So that process is going to be disjointed, because they want to separate the construction crew from the paint crew from the setback crew. Typically those people, along with the grips and electricians, would all be working in the same environment together to bring everything to fruition. Now they want to segment all that, and have the batches of people working on their bits and pieces. You’d have a separate shift of painters to come in and do their work, and then the next day construction would come back in and do their work. Lots of the processes that it takes to create those environments necessarily need the blending of those crafts to happen throughout the time of the day. It’s obviously going to be much slower and more expensive to separate those work processes out into scheduled separate times.

That is going to be complicated. But at the same time, those spaces that we’re going to create are becoming more critical to have. You don’t want to be running on location, and in and out of locations. You have to prep and strike and do all this work too, because not only are you not dealing with all your crew, now you’re dealing with the public and the environments and cultures of people that are in those locations. The set spaces that we’re going to build on stage become even more critical, just from a safety standpoint.

Production design of “Altered Carbon” by Carey Meyer, interior of the Raven Hotel in Season 1.

Kirill: If you look at the first 30 years of your professional career, what keeps you going? What keeps you wanting to come back and do more?

Carey: You build a lot of friendships on these projects. Specifically, I’m coming back to “The Umbrella Academy”, because the show runner is one of the show runners from “Altered Carbon”. You try to stay connected to folks that you’ve worked with and who are friends. You build a lot of those friendships within the work environment that you’re going to be in.

I’m on location on Vancouver, or Toronto, or Atlanta where we just finished “Doom Patrol”. Sometimes I shoot in LA, sometimes I’m in Miami or New Orleans. You get to build all these great friendships and relationships with people that do live in those cities and work on all these projects. You’re just one of the hands coming in from out of town.

Building all those friendships and relationships with those different craftspeople in those communities is the thing that keeps me going. Finding awesome people to work with in every city you go to is fascinating and energizing. I’m not always in the same city so it opens my eyes to new ways of working as well.

It’s definitely been hard on my family. I have two boys who are 20 and 18 now. They’re both off to college, so it’s all hunky dory now. I’m starting to get bigger, longer projects that have more time off in between. So now as I started to get time off and to be at home, my kids are off to college and I still don’t get to see them. You love what you do and you pass that enthusiasm down to your kids.

Production design of “Altered Carbon” by Carey Meyer, the sunroom in the Bancroft house in Season 1.

And here I’d like to thank Carey Meyer for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design, and for sharing the supporting materials for the interview. “Altered Carbon” is available for streaming on Netflix. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.