Production design of "Hanna" by Carly Reddin

Production design of “Hanna” – interview with Carly Reddin

September 8th, 2020
Production design of "Hanna" by Carly Reddin

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Carly Reddin. In this interview, she talks about working with multiple directors and cinematographers on episodic productions, what is involved in being a production designer, the current production landscape as the Corona-related restrictions are being slowly lifted, and what keeps her going. Around these topics and more, Carly goes back to her connection to the original movie on which she did set design, and dives deep into her work on creating the worlds of the second season of “Hanna”.

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

Carly: I was always artistic as a child, and I got interested in the theatre. I belonged to a couple of theatre groups, but I was always more drawn to the backstage aspect, as I wasn’t comfortable performing on stage. I just loved the magic of backstage, of creating worlds through set design, and the imagination that went into that.

After school, I was all set to go to Central Saint Martins to do the “Design for Performance” theatre course, but then I came across a course at Nottingham Trent University called “Design for Screen”. That summer I watched “Space Odyssey”, “June”, “Brazil”, and it opened up my eyes. I realised I could design worlds for film and TV for a job, and I was hooked.

So, I went to Nottingham Trent and did the degree there. The course leader from the National Film and Television School came to give a talk about their MA in Production Design, and I applied. When I was at that school, I was hoping the experience I was getting would lead to a job, and luckily one day I was invited to join “The Young Victoria” as their Art Department assistant. After that introduction to the big studio system I transitioned towards independent film, hoping it was a better route to becoming a Production Designer.

Production design of “Hanna” by Carly Reddin.

Kirill: Going back to that beginning of your professional career, would you say that it was right at the time where the industry started shifting almost completely to fully digital pipelines, including the various jobs in the Art Department?

Carly: When I started in the art department, the use of CAD programs for drawing up sets and 3D modelling was on the increase. We were taught these computer skills at the National Film and Television School, but we also learned the basics by hand, which is really important, as using a CAD program doesn’t just make you a draughtsperson.

Hand drafting is still a great communication tool, although you can’t beat CAD for making quick amendments. When I was on “Hansel and Gretel”, we were designing a Tudor town where everything is built of timber and wattle and daub. As these are organic materials, we found that drawing by hand was quicker and ‘freer’ than drawing in CAD. The hand drawing communicated the materials better.

Kirill: Do you miss the physicality of the pre-digital design process, unrolling that roll of paper, walking around that sketch, taking a step back to look at it from a different angle?

Carly: Not really… I’m more excited about the future than nostalgic about the past. These days, I don’t draft up sets myself, but oversee the drawings of one of my team members. I’m totally inspired by the technology that is available to us these days. StageCraft, the technology that was created by the crew of ‘The Mandalorian’ is a total game-changer, immersing cast and crew inside a CG environment in real time. You can even do scouting in VR like they did for “Lion King”.

Production design of “Hanna” by Carly Reddin.

Kirill: When you join a new production, when you get to those meetings and get on the set, is there anything that still manages to surprise you?

Carly: Yes, all the time. If you’re working on a new project, with a new director and team, the process and experience will be different from the time before. Every director has a different approach, for example; Some directors talk with you about the characters, and they’re open to your input. And other directors talk more about mood and tone, and they don’t talk about the characters’ back-stories. Each project is so unique, and there are always surprises. Because of all the wonderfully different people that work on films/TV, there is a different chemistry each time. It’s unpredictable, and I love that about my job. No two days are ever the same.

Kirill: Do you see people walking away, maybe because what they expected from it didn’t quite match that daily routine of this field?

Carly: Some people do find it difficult, because it can be very ‘full-on’. It’s not for everyone. You do have to find the balance between your personal life and your work. In a way, you’ve got to be built for it. The hours can be relentless, but it’s also really fulfilling. I certainly haven’t found another profession that can give me what this job does – in terms of fulfilment and allowing me to be so creative. I get to use both sides of my brain in this job. I have to balance budgets, track spreadsheets, build schedules, etc., and then on the other hand I get to consider colours, textures, mood. It’s a really great mix.

Production design of “Hanna” by Carly Reddin.

Kirill: When people ask you what do you do for a living, how do you describe this complexity and all of these different aspects of what you do?

Carly: I say that I work with the director and the cinematographer to create the settings and mood for the story to unfold in.

Kirill: Getting closer to “Hanna” which is set in the modern day, is it harder to “convince” people, if you will, that these contemporary productions need to be designed? That even though there are plenty of real-world training facilities and universities around Europe, there’s still a need to create something that works for this particular story?

Carly: If it is a documentary-style show, sometimes it can be almost ‘point-and-shoot’. But the world of “Hanna” is stylised and has to be created. It is also full of action and stunt scenes that need considered blocking within a space. ‘The Meadows’ training facility has two distinct moods, for example. The CIA world is sterile, sinister and darker compared to the Trainees world, which is warmer and more inviting and nurturing for the girls. That is achieved through the furniture, graphics, prop selection, colours, and lighting choices made in collaboration with the cinematographer… together, they create this feeling, it’s not something you just stumble upon. You have to create it by putting all the layers together.

Kirill: How did your involvement with “Hanna” start?

Carly: My agent and I were looking for the next project, and when I heard that “Hanna” was looking for a designer, I eagerly put myself forward. I worked on the original film as a draftsperson and as a standby art director, so I already knew the original story quite well. I’d already fallen in love with the world of ‘Hanna’. I felt quite at home with her story because of my personal history.

So, I put together a pitch for the job, and I got through to the second round. Then I had an interview with the director Eva Husson, and she picked me to collaborate with.

Production design of “Hanna” by Carly Reddin.

Kirill: Did you know in advance that it would be a design job for all the episodes?

Carly: Yes, I did. “Hanna” was my third episodic production. I had worked on “Aber Bergen” and “Top Boy” before, and those were full seasons with multiple directors. So I was already used to working with overlapping directors in different countries. I knew what it meant.

Kirill: So you’re no stranger to the differences in the overall production structure between the feature and the episodic worlds.

Carly: That was an adjustment I had to get used to, because I come from a film background. On a film you usually have one director and one shooting schedule. On an episodic production, I work with multiple directors, DoPs, producers, etc, and I can have multiple shooting schedules happening at the same time. I am the one constant person that works on all shooting blocks, so I am the overseer of the ‘vision’ decided upon at the start of the project.

Sometimes directors come on and they want to put their stamp on it, which is completely understandable. It’s fine to have some deviations in shooting style, etc. That’s what keeps it exciting. But the rules of the world do have to stay consistent, so as not to confuse the audience, and to keep everything coherent.

Kirill: I loved the transition between the two seasons. Even though the second season is so much deeper and wider in where it takes us, the transition into that bigger world felt seamless, especially as I was watching them back to back over the course of a week or so. You already mentioned that you were glad that it was “only” 8 episodes – is that because of the scope of the new story arc?

Carly: This season of “Hanna” was three blocks, whereas my previous job was four blocks with four directors. Coming into it, I saw it as the opportunity to not spread myself so thinly and to be able to give more of myself to the project.

We went to Spain for the last block, and it was great. It gave us a whole new visual world to put on screen, but there were logistical issues to figure out, such as setting up and running your team in Spain while you’re still shooting in the UK.

Kirill: You talked a bit about the two overlapping parts of the Meadows facility and shooting in Spain, and there are scenes in the forest, in different hotels, on the ferry, etc. How do you juggle all this complexity? Do you split your attention between these different places, or is it a more sequential process for you?

Carly: At the beginning, you focus on block one and getting the concept of the piece right. You do all the scouting for the main sets, and when you’ve decided upon them, you can design and make a plan on how to achieve the set look you want. Then, as you’re filming block one, the director of block two is starting and you repeat the process with them, whilst keeping an eye on the shooting of block one. It’s an over-lapping process and I have to be over everything.

Production design of “Hanna” by Carly Reddin.

Kirill: How much work went into designing the rooms for the girls? My understanding is that each one had her own made-up backstory, and that was reflected in the room that was made for them.

Carly: We had a character synopsis for them from the writer, maybe a paragraph or two. I took that, and discussed it further with Eva about adding any more personality traits, and this is how these new identities are formed. Each trainee had an individual scrapbook, and we were lucky to have Nadine Kissack on our team who does scrapbooking as a hobby. So she was able to create brilliant unique scrapbooks for each of our hero characters.

Once we had the profiles, the dressing team was able to go out and find furniture and any props that they thought would suit the characters. We were always making sure we had enough light sources in the room. The walls in the rooms are painted dark blue, so we wanted to make sure we had enough graphics and decoration on the walls. That way, as the camera turns, you don’t see any dark corners.

Production design of “Hanna” by Carly Reddin.

Kirill: Who do I thank for the choice of dark blues and mustard in the rooms?

Carly: The colour choices were a collaboration between Eva, Ollie Downey the cinematographer, and myself.

Kirill: I loved how it brought all the rooms together. Even though they each have their own personality, it is a military facility. I think that the mustard colours are also found in some of their clothes, hinting at the undertones of perhaps not a uniform, but at least of a bit of uniformity.

Carly: One of the things we did early on was to design a logo for the Meadows. There is a Meadows flag in the canteen, but you can’t quite see it because of the way it hangs.

We chose the colours teal and mustard for the logo. The logo and colour references were shared with costume, so they could introduce it into the characters wardrobe, and it also influenced the colour of the rooms. You’re right, you can see those colours throughout the season and that’s how it was intended.

Production design of “Hanna” by Carly Reddin.

Kirill: I also do interviews on screen graphics, and I couldn’t help but notice how many screens that CIA control room in the Meadows had. Do you find that it’s getting more affordable to fill these big spaces compared to 5-10 years ago?

Carly: The Meadows ops room wasn’t a huge expense and it’s definitely cheaper to have screens in a set nowadays. Most of the time and money went to making the screen graphics, which showed the right information and were in the desired colour palette.

Kirill: What about the executive spaces in the Meadows, like the offices of John Carmichael and Terri Miller? Did those spaces exist, or did you build them?

Carly: The office space (known as the CIA OPs room) for Terri Miller existed, but it was a white room. We clad the walls with cherry wood panels, to give it a darker and more sinister feel, and put in the frame system to support the television screens. So the room was there, but we modified it. It was in the basement of the pyramid CIA building that we used. John Carmichael’s office existed as well. The wooden panelling was there, which we liked. We changed the carpeting, drapes and added furniture and lighting.

Production design of “Hanna” by Carly Reddin.

Kirill: How did you go about choosing the colours to set the more menacing mood in that part of the Meadows?

Carly: We chose the dark wood for the CIA ops room to bring the mood down. The existing white walls were too bright on camera. We couldn’t get a lot of natural daylight in there as the space has small windows and that suited us fine for the mood we wanted to achieve. You could have all the lights off and just have the screens on. There is something very sinister about the CIA sitting in the dark watching the girls on screen.

We chose a darkish green for Carmichael’s carpet and dark green is commonly associated with poison or money. Again, I wanted to make the space feel slightly sinister, but with a lighter touch than in the CIA OPs room. We custom-built a cupboard to house two television screens, so Carmichael could sit on his sofa and watch the girl’s from there. We mixed traditional and Art Deco styles of furniture and kept it fairly sparse, in contrast to the more homely world of the Trainees’ sleep quarters.

Production design of “Hanna” by Carly Reddin.

Kirill: Do you feel that when you do your job well, people don’t pay attention to it? Is that good? Is that annoying a bit?

Carly: The idea is not to distract from the characters too much with eye-catching furniture or brightly coloured objects that could draw your eye away from the emotion of the scene. I’m totally okay with that, as I see the value in always putting the story first. On “Hanna” we wanted to give the show a slick, stylised look. We meant the world to feel slightly heightened and we wanted the audience to take in the surroundings, but not to the detriment of the emotion of the scene.

Kirill: When the story goes back in the forest, or when Marissa is on the run in the open area with that truck chase sequence, how much can you change and control things?

Carly: It really depends. You always have to consider safety, heritage and cost. In the forest we also had the Romanian cabin that we built and then blew up. When there was a running scene in the forest, we sometimes had to clear a little shrubbery. We didn’t want to chop down trees, of course. We wanted to respect nature and work with it.

I also helped in the scouting of the forest, making sure it had the right look (the right trees and density).

Production design of “Hanna” by Carly Reddin.

Kirill: What’s the story of that cabin in the woods?

Carly: Hanna and Clara happen upon a cabin in the woods. Hanna returns further along the story when she is looking for Clara, and the CIA find out she is there. Within minutes, soldiers arrive and a shoot-out ensues. Hanna is trapped in the cabin and ends up hiding in the compost toilet just before the cabin is blown up! We then see her emerge from the scorched remains.

The cabin was an exterior and interior build. The scorched remains and ashes of the cabin was another build, positioned in exactly the same position of the original cabin. This set was a lot of fun to design and blow up!

Kirill: Did that bring you back to your work on designing the hut on the original movie back in 2011?

Carly: It did [laughs]. It was a lovely personal achievement, because I helped to design the cabin where Hanna is found at the start of the film, and here I was again, designing it for the TV series.

Kirill: Is it painful to watch something that you’ve built – like the hut – get destroyed in a controlled explosion? Or is that part of being in this field?

Carly: Sometimes it feels a bit painful to say goodbye, especially to sets you’ve built. If it’s a location that you’ve dressed, it’s easier to say goodbye, because the walls are still standing. If you’re striking a set you have designed and built something from scratch, you think about all the hours that went into creating it. But that’s the nature of it. What we do is temporary. At least the explosion was a fun way to say goodbye!

Production design of “Hanna” by Carly Reddin.

Kirill: Where are those scrapbooks now?

Carly: They would have gone into storage, somewhere in production’s care.

Kirill: How was the trip to Barcelona for you? Did you get to enjoy the city, or were you always doing something for the production?

Carly: It did start to get less busy towards the end of the shoot, so I did have some more time on the weekends to enjoy the city, which was wonderful. But it was still full-on shooting days. Sometimes we shot for six days, and that means I have to prep on the seventh day for the shoot the next day. I can end up working many days in a row and there were a few weeks where I didn’t have a break, but it was a great time. We finished the shoot in mid-November, and we were still wearing just t-shirts. For a Brit, that’s something quite unusual!

Kirill: Do you have an opportunity to be there when they shoot a scene, or do you always look ahead to the next set or the next block?

Carly: I am always there to see a set in, and to check that the director and the cinematographer are happy. I would rather be there if they want to move furniture for blocking or make any other changes. And then, unfortunately, I usually have to leave set because we are dressing the next set or my team need feedback somewhere else.

That’s the nature of episodic television. I’m being pulled in a lot of directions, and I don’t get as much time to be on set, as I would like. I do wish I could be on set more, as we commit these setups to camera, and I would like to be there to help compose the dressing, or to provide my input. On a feature film or commercial I can usually be more present on set.

Kirill: As viewers get accustomed to the increasingly sophisticated productions, do you find that you are asked to do more with the same budget?

Carly: The projects I’ve worked on so far have been quite reasonable about the costs. It’s about costing up the demands of the project, and then, once you have the prices and the quotes in, you can see what you have to play with. But I think that the budgets would never be big enough [laughs].

Kirill: What you want an infinite budget, or would that create an infinite sea of possibilities that you wouldn’t be able to get out of?

Carly: I think I could handle an infinite budget [laughs]. It’s about creative choices and time. Some projects don’t need a massive budget. It depends on how much you’re building, how much is done in camera vs VFX in post, etc. When you’ve got all these brilliant people putting their heads together, there are ways of achieving things that don’t cross the earth.

Production design of “Hanna” by Carly Reddin.

Kirill: Did you get a chance to enjoy the show when it was out? Were you following the story, or were you focusing on your part of the production?

Carly: I must admit that what I’m looking at is the design, and I think that anyone who worked on the show would be looking at their contribution to see how it’s turned out.

It’s absolutely interesting to see what the director and the editor have done with the edit, the musical score and with the colour grade, etc. At the beginning, we do plan for the grade, because that influences the colours I put into the set. But it’s a good or a bad surprise to see how it turns out in the end [laughs]. It’s interesting for me as well to see the work of different directors and cinematographers, because I’m not always around for the shooting. It’s interesting to see the different framing, pacing, and the creative decisions they’ve made.

Kirill: Looking back at your earlier productions, what stays with you?

Carly: I like that I’ve experienced working on a variety of film, TV and commercial projects, and that I have managed not to be pigeonholed and stay in one lane. I am also grateful that I have worked all the roles in the Art Department, working my way up to be a designer, and that holds me in good stead now with my team, because I understand their roles.

Production design of “Hanna” by Carly Reddin.

Kirill: “Hanna” had a bit of good luck with the timing on wrapping up the shooting last November, and you mentioned that you just finished a commercial job in Vienna. Do you see the light at the end of this Corona tunnel? How much different productions might look like in the next couple of years?

Carly: I think some stories may be of a smaller scope in the short term, and take part in smaller worlds, making them easier and cheaper to shoot, but that the demand is too high for big stories and worlds with stunning visuals, and that these projects will be filmed next year.

A lot of commercials have been going abroad from the UK, perhaps because the jobs are shorter and they are easier to control. I was pleased to be in Vienna shooting a commercial recently, because I love that part of my job that allows me to travel to other places.

And then, whilst I was there, Vienna got put on the government list of people having to quarantine on return to the UK, so I had to quarantine for two weeks. I think it’s a bit of risk travelling aboard at the moment, as you don’t know which country is going to get put on the quarantine list.

Kirill: How do you see these bigger productions with hundreds of people working in close physical proximity coming back?

Carly: I imagine there’s going to be a lot of pressure to make face-swapping and crowd VFX more accessible. They can already do incredible things, but I would suspect this will become a more affordable option as it’s a risk to have large groups together like we used to – and even if the likelihood of illness drops it doesn’t mean that insurance companies won’t require a new, higher standard of health and safety. There may also be more set builds, as you can control the environment much more easily and remove walls or whatever to provide the airflow and space required.

Kirill: Ignoring this forced break, what keeps you going in the field, despite working long hours and being away from your family and friends for long stretches of time? What keeps you coming back for more?

Carly: I’m interested in storytelling and the craft of designing a world to support a story. That is what carries me through projects and keeps me in this career.

I did take some time out a couple of years ago, and I delved into the world of interior design, which was always my plan B. But I found that the pace was too slow for me [laughs], because I’m used to this fast-paced world. So, now I’ve exhausted my plan B and I know that’s not for me, and that Production Design for screen is what I do. It was actually quite freeing to get that bit of clarity about myself. I’m a lifer.

There has to be a balance though. I can’t go away on every job, because I do have a family who I want to be around. Sometimes I am able to take my family abroad with me. What I love most about this job most is the variety. You also get to meet interesting people and you get backstage access into amazing locations, and everyday people’s homes. The window I get to the world through my job is a privilege. It’s a hard slog sometimes, and you’ve got to have stamina, but the highlights make it worth it.

Production design of “Hanna” by Carly Reddin.

And here I’d like to thank Carly Reddin for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design. You can see more of her work on her Instagram page. The first and the second seasons of “Hanna” are available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video. 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.