Production design of “Warrior Nun” – interview with Bárbara Pérez-Solero

April 5th, 2024

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Bárbara Pérez-Solero. In this interview, she talks about the transition of the industry to digital tools over the years, working through the global pandemic, the potential impact of generative AI on the industry, and finding inspiration for her work. Around these and more, Bárbara dives deep into her work on the two seasons of the fan-favorite “Warrior Nun”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and how you started in the industry.

Barbara: It was not a purpose in my life. I come from a very creative family. My grandfather was a renaissance man and a pioneer in the advertising industry. He painted, wrote for newspapers, wrote poetry, played violin and piano, and he was designing all these incredible ads back in the ’30s. My father followed his path and he had his own advertising agency. So I was always surrounded by creativity.

I loved to paint since I was very little, and when I grew up, I wanted to study fine arts. I worked in contemporary art for a few years; I had a friend who was a movie producer, and she invited me to a shooting. She told me that I had everything that was required to do that job. I love literature and I love storytelling, and I did love cinema too. So I went to that shooting, and completely fell in love since the first moment. And I’ve been doing it for the last 32 years [laughs].

Kirill: If you look at how things were back 30 years ago and how things are now, what would be immediately recognizable in the art department and what would be significantly different?

Barbara: It’s all about technology. When I started, we didn’t even have cell phones. You were calling your boss from a public phone down the street, and all the phones were broken, and you were constantly out of coins [laughs]. It was a complete nightmare. You took pictures, and it took more than a week to develop them. And then it was down to one day, and then it was only two hours! The process was much slower than now. Nowadays it’s a fast world, and you have to react fast. You never have enough time even on the big projects.

We used to shoot on 35mm and film was expensive. You didn’t shoot as much because of the cost. Now you can be shooting for hours and hours, and it costs almost nothing in comparison.

We didn’t have any computers. Everything was drawn by hand, and then redrawn by hand to incorporate changes. Everything took a lot more time. Now I can be riding in a van, and sending images to my art director with concept design or whatever, and you’re moving and designing at the same time as you’re scouting.

Set builds on “Warrior Nun”, courtesy of Bárbara Pérez-Solero.

Kirill: Is there anything missing when the new generation comes in and it’s fully digital, using a stylus and a tablet without having learned how to put pencil to paper?

Barbara: I wonder about this every day. I’m turning 59 this month, and I did embrace digital when it came along. You have to embrace new technology, because it gets complicated if you don’t. It’s been years since I’ve done a concept drawing on paper myself.

I see young directors that are starting to turn their backs to technology. They don’t want WhatsApp, they don’t want that immediate exchange when they are in the field. But on the other hand, it’s useless to push back against technology. We cannot stay as we were forever, with that drawing table and paper. I wish we could. I’m nostalgic like everyone. Even the young people come around to loving it, but it’s not possible anymore. Technology is incredible. To be able to draw something this fast, and to share it with other people in that moment, and to have a conversation – that allows you to find the answer you’re looking for. You can work with your carpenter or your painter right there in that moment.

On the other hand, it is happening so fast now. That’s the worst side of it. You almost don’t have any time to think about anything. I used to smoke a lot, and it used to be that after I finished a set, I would go outside, light a cigarette or two, and take a moment for myself to think about how it feels, what went right and what went wrong. There’s no time for this anymore.

I see so many talented young people. I try not to complain, because I don’t want to feel like a grandma [laughs].

Set builds on “Warrior Nun”, courtesy of Bárbara Pérez-Solero.

Kirill: What about the artistic side of finding the right expression to tell that story? Is it more important than knowing your technical tools, or do these two go hand in hand?

Barbara: They go together, but the artistic part is very important. I do feel that some people that are coming after us have been less exposed to the culture. Maybe they read less, or maybe they don’t watch older films. One of my biggest sources of inspiration are movies from the ’40s and ’50s. But I don’t see that a lot with younger people. Sometimes they look only at contemporary things. It’s not just about the image itself. We make images, but these images must tell a story, and I’m seeing a lack of good scripts.

And I look beyond film. I look at architecture of the Greeks and the Romans, paintings from the 12th century, sculpture, photography – everything that is art. That is my source. I love film, but it can’t be the only thing that inspires you. I read and I do other things so I can get my inspiration from other sources. And I think that the young people are missing a bit of that.

The gateway set build on “Warrior Nun”, courtesy of Bárbara Pérez-Solero.

Kirill: The age of the Internet has compressed the attention span for a lot of people. But it, along with advances in digital tools, also has enabled so many more people to get into filmmaking and visual storytelling. Sure, not all stories are amazing, but there are more opportunities for way more people to be bringing their stories to our screens.

Barbara: It’s true. It’s better organized, and more open than it was before, so more people can succeed. But on the other hand, the industry is in the hands of big studios and big platforms. That has changed our world in the last decade. It’s a challenge.

Kirill: Getting to “Warrior Nun”, how did it start for you? How did you find it, or maybe how did it find you?

Barbara: Production Designers go through big ׂcastings׃ now, you have to be selected and there is a lot of competition. Normally you have an interview with the showrunner, and you see some of your colleagues there as well. Simon Barry and I got along since the moment we met, and I was lucky to be chosen.

Kirill: Did it feel that Spain and “Warrior Nun” were a match made in heaven, given the rich history of Catholicism in the country, and the deep tradition of architecture and art?

Barbara: It’s our legacy. For some people, Catholic iconography or references are attractive and exotic, but I was born into that world. I went to a French nun school in Madrid, and I grew up in that world. I know that world, and I love the artistic part of it. There’s an incredible legacy of art work given to us by the Catholic world. Simon fell in love with Spain and with the team, and that’s why “Warrior Nun” is one of the most special jobs I’ve done in my whole life. I don’t think it’s going to be easy to have it happen again.

Set builds on “Warrior Nun”, courtesy of Bárbara Pérez-Solero.

Kirill: How did you approach bridging the modern world of Arq Tech and its futuristic technology with the two thousand year old tradition of the Catholic Church?

Barbara: That was the biggest challenge and the most beautiful part of “Warrior Nun” for the art department. Mixing these two worlds was thrilling and enjoyable. Simon gives you an absolute total freedom to work, and it doesn’t happen very often in our industry. It was great to be able to converge and to create these two worlds.

Kirill: How big was your art department?

Barbara: Around fifty people. No matter the size of the production, there is never enough money. I don’t know why, but it’s true. I try to work with the budget we are given. In this case it wasn’t an enormous one but we managed to do pretty well.

Fifty people includes everybody: construction, materials, and then you have the set decorating team, which was quite big with their own painters and buyers, you have assistants, you have art directors, you have set designers, you have coordinators. We were fortunate to have enough money to make this amazing team.

Set drawing and on location for the Pope holding cell on “Warrior Nun”, courtesy of Bárbara Pérez-Solero.

Kirill: You work with the showrunner on all the episodes, and then you have different directors coming and going, with not much time for you to change something significant for one of the sets between different episodes. How do you approach that?

Barbara: You have to understand human psychology to be able to please all the directors. Each one has his own style, but they also have to understand that you work for the whole show. You don’t work for them specifically. They need to accept that some things on the set are already established, and they cannot be changed which is a delicate matter sometimes for a director. You try to explain, you try to lead the conversation to be between certain lines and to not go outside of those.

The finished set for the Pope holding cell on “Warrior Nun”, courtesy of Bárbara Pérez-Solero.

Kirill: Your first season got a bit lucky as it wrapped before Covid hit, but the second one was right in the middle of it. How different was your schedule between on these two seasons?

Barbara: Covid made everything more difficult. People were positive on Covid and the whole organization of your team was a whole mess.They needed to be replaced. Everything slowed down. It was a bit of a nightmare.

Kirill: Did you want to do major changes between two seasons, or more continuity even though it happens in different major locations?

Barbara: It was different. The first season was in Malaga, and working there is different from working in Madrid. Malaga is easier, because it’s a smaller city. Even though you have a greater choice of locations in Madrid, everything is much more difficult. We were lucky and we found very good locations. We shot almost everywhere in Madrid. We shot in the Prado Museum, and it was amazing. To be there alone at night with Las Meninas by Velazquez is a gift of God [laughs].

Kirill: Can we talk about the main church in season one? What went into making that?

Barbara: Our producer and location manager took me to this incredible church that was desacralized. It was so much easier to work in there because it didn’t have mass or anything else in it. It was a great location, but it was all white. You look at the scripts, and you think about how much time you’re going to be looking at all the actors with the white background behind them. It was not possible for our world.

We needed to have it painted, and we had several meetings with the Heritage to get their permission. I wanted to have frescoes on the bottom part, and we did a test to show them how and where we were going to do it. Thankfully, they were convinced after they saw it. We had a genius painter. He’s retired now, and I don’t think there’s another like him. He worked on all these films that Charlton Heston did in Spain back in the ’50s. He can paint the whole church by himself, with no scaffolding [laughs]. He took a team of three more people, and they did 17 meter high walls of the church and 7 meters of the frescoes. I was so happy with my church.

Kirill: Going to Arq Tech, what was your approach to make it modern, and to push it a bit info the future with technology that doesn’t exist yet?

Barbara: As you asked me before, the most interesting thing on “Warrior Nun” was this convergence of the two worlds, the old historical world and this futuristic world. One was slick and metal and glass and chrome and white and pure. And the other was frescoes and iconography and all the legacy of many centuries. That was the beauty of “Warrior Nun”. From the first moment I saw it clearly, the way the texture and the material of the two worlds work together beautifully.

On the first season we had an empty laboratory location that gave us the base to build on top of. Then in second season the lab is gone, and we go to Jillian’s home. She has this beautiful old home in the middle of a Spanish field, and she installed these little pieces of high tech in there. That’s another mix of the new and the old.

Kirill: The biggest location on season two was probably the Crown of Thorns Cathedral. Was it one place external and internal, or was it two different places?

Barbara: It was two different places, one was built and the other one was real. When I read the script from second season, I immediately thought of this place in Madrid called the Crown of Thorns building, built in the ’70s by the architects Fernando Higueras and Antonio Mir—. It’s a beautiful brutalist building. And even though the script said that Adriel’s cathedral is Gothic, I insisted that we had to use this building. It’s beautiful, it goes with the story, it’s a perfect metaphor.

We went there to see if we could shoot inside, and it’s the head office of Heritage. In the past you could shoot there, but not anymore. But it so happened that the CEO’s daughter was a super fan of “Warrior Nun”, and she was willing to accept us. It was beautiful and we loved it, but it was difficult to shoot action scenes there. So we decided to do a mix, use some of the exterior and the roof, and then build the interior separately – as well as part of the roof for the fight.

Set drawing, set model, set build for the Cathedral on “Warrior Nun”, courtesy of Bárbara Pérez-Solero.

Kirill: How much shooting time did you have per episode?

Barbara: Two weeks per episode.

Kirill: Was there any color that you wanted to stay away from?

Barbara: There are some colors that I never use in my palettes, unless they are required by the script. This is one of the things that has changed in the digital world. First it was the difference between how it was on set and how it looked on screen, and now even that doesn’t matter because the colorists can change anything in grading. Now you can paint it in one color, and they make it a completely different color in post production.

The finished Cathedral set on “Warrior Nun”, courtesy of Bárbara Pérez-Solero.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as your least favorite or most favorite colors?

Barbara: I try to avoid pure white as much as possible. I don’t like purples. I love the greenish blues. I like gray blue. In general, I try to avoid pure primary colors. Patina is extremely important for the aging. Painting is so important, because you can build a whole set, but if the paint is bad, you are in trouble.

Kirill: Have there been any advances in paints recently?

Barbara: Not in paints, but they have new materials. I try to stay up to date on new materials. They have incredible vinyls with great imitation of wood texture and plants. But it’s the aging of the paint what gives the authenticity to any construction or furniture. It shows the story behind it.

Kirill: Do you still prefer to use physical materials versus VFX, because VFX has gotten so much better in the last couple of decades?

Barbara: It is good to work together with VFX. Apart from the money limits, you can think as big as you want. You don’t have as big of sets as they used to build back in the ’50s. It doesn’t happen as much now. Maybe if you have the budget of a Marvel movie, you can afford huge builds.

Kirill: Apart from these big sets that we talked about, you had dozens of others of different shapes and sizes. Is there such a thing as the most challenging set to work with, or maybe flipping it, the most enjoyable one?

Barbara: We enjoyed the cathedral and Jillian’s house. And then you have the whole end part where we built these huge metal things like that tall cross. It was an incredible location, and it was like a stage to us. We built a lot of hallways, the prison, the elevator, the ramp and everything else.

Set drawing of the underground temple on “Warrior Nun”, courtesy of Bárbara Pérez-Solero.

Kirill: How unexpected was it to see such a devoted fan base for this show? Not every show gets that.

Barbara: I’m still so surprised and amazed of everything they’ve done. They are genius. They sent me some incredible art. I’ve never expected it at that level.

The show had no promotion, none at all. And surprisingly, you find all these people that are following the show, and they are devoted to the show, and they are fighting. I was almost in tears to see all this movement. I was proud to be part of it.

Kirill: If you look at some of the productions that you’ve done over the years, do you remember the good parts, the bad parts, or maybe a mix of the two? Do you have rosy glasses when you look back? What stays with you?

Barbara: You remember mostly the good days. To do this job, you have to be so much in love with what you do. If you do not, it’s impossible. We do it every day, and you don’t have much of a life outside of it. You never know where you’re going to be, or in which country ten thousand miles away.

Kirill: Some will say it’s a great thing to be able to travel the world while getting paid.

Barbara: Absolutely, that’s a fabulous thing about this job. I love to travel. Traveling gives you a lot of culture, and as we were talking earlier, culture is very important to me. Traveling teaches you how to learn from and work with other cultures. I mainly remember the good times, but I also do not forget the horrible times. You stay in this field because you love what you do. It’s a passion.

On location of the underground temple set on “Warrior Nun”, courtesy of Bárbara Pérez-Solero.

Kirill: Four years after the big Covid lockdowns started, do you feel that the productions are going back to how they used to be in terms of the pace, the setups, the expectations?

Barbara: The interesting thing that happened while it was still going, we had more money to work with because of the insurance issues. You had the opportunity to hire more people, and that is now over.

The platforms and the studios are changing their way of working, and Covid was an important factor in that. There was a lack of content, and then they produced like crazy, and now the machine is slowing down again, because they need to regulate what they’re doing. Maybe they think they need fewer shows, or maybe better quality, and each one of them is trying different things, they must have lost a lot of money after that Covid spike. It’s a difficult moment for film.

Final visuals of the underground temple set on “Warrior Nun”, courtesy of Bárbara Pérez-Solero.

Kirill: Do you worry about generative AI? Does it potentially pose a bigger threat compared to other technology changes before it, maybe around taking over human creativity?

Barbara: There is a bit of that. I’ve tried Midjourney and other tools, and that’s what they are. When Photoshop was introduced, it was an incredible tool. But on the other hand, it is scary as well. I don’t know what is going to happen. Maybe the machine will take over the jobs that humans are doing now, and humans will have to try and find something different as artists. It’s never been easy to be an artist, well before the rise of generative AI.

You have films that are done today on bluescreen, and you don’t need that full art department for physical builds on “The Mandalorian”. But you’ll always have directors that don’t want the bluescreen. And actors want to see a physical set to act with and react to. I see actors walk into a custom built set, and you see the emotions on their face as they connect to it. You have such incredible artisans in the art department – painters, carpenters, iron workers, blacksmiths, leather crafters – and I don’t know how their craft is going to look like.

Kirill: If you had a time machine and you could go back to when you started, what would you say to your younger self as one piece of advice to not worry about this one thing? What would this one thing that turned out to not be as important be for you?

Barbara: You need to be sure about what you want to do, and the second thing is your team. Any designer is nobody without a team. I cannot think about any other job that is more of a team job than making a film. It’s not just the art department, but other departments as well – camera department, lights, costume, sound, editing – everyone. It’s a team job, and no matter how good you are, if you don’t have a good team, the end result will not be good.

Kirill: What keeps you going in the industry?

Barbara: It’s the love for what I do, the passion of the design in film. I don’t know what else to do.

You don’t know when they will call you for your next job, and it’s hard to combine it with family, and everything is complicated. Sometimes you have to say no to things because of whatever reasons. It’s hard. But I love it so much. I couldn’t see myself doing something else.

And here I’d like to thank Bárbara Pérez-Solero for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design, and for sharing the supporting materials. You can find more of  Bárbara’s work on Instagram and LinkedIn. “Warrior Nun” is available for streaming on Netflix. 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.