I was blown away when I watched The Umbrella Academy for the first time over the winter. While I loved the characters and the story I found myself awestruck by the retrofuturistic and architecturally eclectic look. The Umbrella Academy‘s production design by Mark Worthington and Mark Steel, not to mention the bold and impressively layered set decoration by Jim Lambie and his team really took my breath away.
After watching the pilot, I raced to IMDB to see who was involved in making those gorgeous sets and sure enough, it was shot in Toronto, and I knew some of the people involved. I realized I knew Jim Lambie through the grapevine, and we’ve been following each other on social media for years, so this was the perfect opportunity to meet in person so I could wrap my mind around how they completed such an exciting project.
Jim Lambie has been a set decorator here in Toronto for over 25 years. In addition to The Umbrella Academy, Jim decorated notable films and television shows such as Heaven on Earth, Chloe, Enemy, Transporter: The Series, Heroes Reborn, and American Gothic working alongside directors Denis Villeneuve, Atom Egoyan, Deepa Mehta, Denys Arcand and Olivier Assayas to name a few.
Jim and I sat for hours in a coffee shop mulling over the details of The Umbrella Academy production design aesthetic and talking shop. We will have more with Jim this summer, but I think what you’ll find below is what you want to know about how they accomplished the look and tone of Umbrella Academy as well as some of the furniture sources and the thought process behind the set decoration. I’m still smiling over Jim’s DIY answer to the pendant lighting in the donut shop and those eyeballs in the research facility.
BEWARE: THERE WILL BE MANY SPOILERS AHEAD.How They Created The Epic Sets of The Umbrella Academy with Set Decorator Jim Lambie Click To Tweet
The Umbrella Academy Production Design: Q&A with Set Decorator Jim Lambie
Recently I was reading about Robert Boyle, the renowned production designer for Alfred Hitchcock, who used to teach that the set decorator is the personality of a set. Do you agree, and how did you put the personality in the Umbrella Academy sets?
It’s funny, someone posted a photo on Instagram this morning saying that architecture is the bones, and decor is the heart. That’s exactly right. It’s the clearest way of describing it. What I do would be so out of context without what the production designer has created. These things, these objects would have no grounding, but when we’re cohesively working together, it becomes a wonderful thing.
Mark Worthington really created a magical world in the Academy. It included the two-story living room and great hall, the kid’s area which was an old butcher shop located in the basement of an adjacent building, and the myriad of interconnected hallways and bedrooms which were meant to be converted tenement apartments. The idea was that Hargreeves owned three brownstones that were side by side and interconnected, with walls blown out to accommodate access between the spaces. This labyrinth world was a pretty fabulous foundation on which to build.
Did you read the comics before you started and did they influence the look of the set decor?
I had heard of them but had never read them. As far as influence, absolutely, they were an integral ingredient in the design aggregator. They have a very distinct visual style that can be felt in our work.
How much description was there in the script? Were things really fleshed out?
A fair amount but typically not down to the minute detail. We definitely had the freedom to create. There was a basic roadmap, like ‘west is that way.’ The script would point us where we needed to be, but we could still go into detail, create a backstory and elaborate. Our showrunner, Steve Blackman wouldn’t limit us by describing the make of the stereo and what kind of cabinet it’s sitting on, but there would still be enough to riff on.
Steve is very detail oriented. In our very first conversation, we discussed in depth about the importance of detail and how much should be brought to the table. A requirement for him was to build characters through objects as well as surroundings. He’s still very much into that.
Which time period does The Umbrella Academy take place?
It was always Steve Blackman’s intention to never land on any specific time. We were using a lot of old technologies. No flat-screens at all. Tons of rotary phones. Certainly, no cell phones. It was that type of anachronistic thing. Where it really began was the idea that we would create our own technology that was a synthesis of the past and present and therefore it’s time on Earth not defined. We wanted to have this completely unique technology that was more in the realm of Blade Runner in terms of feel and use, but we ran out of time to achieve this as well as financial constraints, so we ended up shelving the idea.
What we stayed true to, and what was just as effective for us was the juxtaposition of the late Victorian exoticness of Hargreeve’s world to the timeless tenement feel of the kid’s bedrooms and hallways and Vanya’s apartment to the high ’70s donut shop to the ’70s/’80s style motel rooms. A real mashup of eras coexisting harmoniously. I feel we really succeeded in collaging these elements together.
I felt that it was successful and effective too.
On a feature, you know where you’re going from the beginning, and you can plan for that. You can map it out. But in TV you typically don’t have the foresight, let alone the time. We might be presented with a location that was never planned that we’d have to completely retrofit using resources we could never possibly afford or turn around in enough time. We would never be able to second guess and say, ‘let’s build a hundred of these very specific Umbrella Academy televisions, or let’s build 50 of these particular telephones. We’d end up sitting on a pile of very expensive stock that could possibly steal away from more practical and achievable ideas.
So that’s how we ended up moving away from creating new technologies and instead used various period styles and their technologies to sell a timeless show. It became more subtle, and I really feel it worked.
Is it supposed to be New York, or is it supposed to be anywhere?
It’s supposed to be ‘Gotham.’ It’s that classic nameless northeastern American city. Is it New York? Boston? Chicago? We were never that specific. Occasionally you’ll notice things like American mailboxes, and the occasional newspaper box but nothing that linked you to a specific place. We also avoided flags.
In the opening when they’re marching in that sort of Wes Anderson style shot with the Prams. That has a bit of a Central Park vibe and a little Chicago. We riffed on New York and Chicago for the really general references.
What was your experience like working with Mark Worthington and Mark Steel?
I really like Mark Worthington. He has an incredible wealth of knowledge and experience, along with a fabulous eye. He also is hilarious and understands the process, so it’s that great and often rare mix of talent, experience, skill, education, and fun all mixed in. I liked the process a lot.
Mark Steel and I have known each other for many years, and I consider him a friend. He has worked in the industry for years and has just recently begun designing. Mark was a decorator who turned art director prior to designing. He is incredibly savvy to this business and has worked with some incredible people along the way. Because he’s worked his way up, he also really knows his stuff, and it shows. Mark can navigate through all of the hurdles that slow the process down and get you into the world of decision-making quickly.
It was an exciting process because production design typically is a bit more contemplative and set decoration tends to be a bit more reactive, so I find it’s my job to find the balance in that. I think that in the beginning, Umbrella Academy was so new, and so big and so theoretical, that we all had to consciously work together to balance that relationship, and ultimately you can see the end results on the screen. I enjoyed working with them immensely.
The Umbrella Academy Bedrooms
How did you work with Mark to create the various bedroom spaces of The Umbrella Academy?
Well, we had to think about the story in a different way and by that I mean create our own backstory. There are all these kids, and they’re all living in this house, and they all go through puberty, and they all grow up to be these dysfunctional adults. You sort of explore how their spaces should have evolved.
With real parents, which they don’t have, there’d be some family history, and there’d be other things that would help mould them into who they are as people. They’d go to a traditional school, and they’d have all these things from their classes, they’d have hand me downs from across the generations, they’d have extracurricular activities, you know, normal things. We would latch onto that, and their worlds could begin to be created that way, but we couldn’t do that since they never went to a regular school, they had no family history, and they never attended swim class.
So to land on a design direction that made sense in our world, our backstory was that their mother, Grace – the automaton robot, went through the Sears catalogue for each one of them. She just picked out complete sets for each room- ‘this is a little boy’s room,’ ‘this is a little girl’s room,’ before they were brought to the house by Hargreaves and assembled by Pogo.
From there, I was able to create more of Grace’s backstory. Their father Hargreaves was disinterested but allowed it because he’d want them to have some level of adjustment. He’d want them to be socialized. He’d stay away from that initial decorating process so it was a robot’s idea of what a child should have and then each child would add their own flourishes as they were developing. Then we were able to flesh out their personalities.
So that came from you and Mark discussing together.
We would discuss, ‘how exactly would this happen? When would this have begun?’ So we found the beginning point of each space and created from that point on. So we would talk about that, and once we found a good idea, he’d leave it up to me to expand on it.
How did you work with your buyers on this?
We’d always do an initial pass so we would have an overall idea of what the set was, looking at a lot of reference and research. Then the buyers would present three or four pieces of crucial elements that would anchor the set. After that, once we were all on the same page, we would build from there. There was no check-in for every knick-knack, though.
Were you going to Mark as well with the key pieces?
If time permitted, yes. I put together a mood board for each set during this process as well. We would have the key pieces from the buyers, Mark and I would look at them together, we’d pick some fabrics, and we’d pin some materials up with the pieces of furniture. We’d then walk away from it and come back with fresh eyes. It really allows you to land on the look and feel and to contrast spaces to really begin to feel their individual style and relationship to the characters.
Part of my process is putting these images, patterns and fabrics on black foam core, pinning them all up so I can move them wherever I need to move them, labelling them as to which set they are, and putting them up on the wall. With this method, I could compare spaces, often borrowing pieces from one to add to the other than travel them to various offices when needed. Everybody would go through it and look at it and watch it evolve. For the pilot, we put together a digital presentation for the network and sent it off but the rest of the show we were mainly using our boards for various meetings and approvals. When the world is established, and they’re all giving you the thumbs up, you just go.
The Umbrella Academy Living Room
I loved the eclectic Moroccan details in the living room, and that there was a harmony of different design styles. Was that guided by what you were bringing in or was that decided by Mark from the beginning?
I think the design concept of the Great Hall living room set was Jacobean meets Moorish. Mark W. was riffing on a couple of ideas on what that was and the synergy of those things. It basically began there. Once the framework was created, we brought in fabrics, and furniture and the set and colour choices evolved out of that.
You mentioned that part of the decoration process was based on what pieces would be available. Was that solely due to time limitations?
There were limitations with time, availability, and budget. That is almost always the case. So there’s this great idea, and the ship is pushed from shore, and the set is being created. Then the Set Decorator has to scramble to make sure they can actually bring the appropriate things in at the right scale and correct quantity. Sometimes we promise big ideas without necessarily knowing how exactly we’re going to deliver them, but you just have to put faith in the fact that you are going to provide them because you always have in the past. Somehow it always seems to get done. We always remind ourselves of this. Of course, this great wisdom of ours doesn’t help to lessen the grip of anxiety you feel until they’ve actually shot the first scene on that set.
One of those questions on Umbrella Academy was, ‘Do you think we can get a gigantic antique Moroccan center fixture for the centre of the living room?” and my answer, of course, was yes. So then I’m back in my office thinking, ‘shit, where the hell are we going to get that?’ We were basing the idea off of these historical references and not out of a catalogue. When we finally located some and we priced them out, they were coming up in the 20, 30, and 40 thousand dollar range and not remotely available in our time frame, so there were a lot of creative things we needed to do, and compromises made that ended up not feeling like compromises at all. None of this is to say we didn’t have a healthy budget because we most certainly did, but we still had to compromise.
Where did you end up finding the massive light fixture that you mentioned?
That was from Badia Designs in LA. Kerri Wylie was the primary buyer for the Academy living room, as well as Hargreeves bedroom and office – three of my favourite sets. She has a fabulous eye. Kerri and I have known each other for a long time and have worked together before on Heroes Reborn. We are very simpatico with our taste and attention to detail.
After we landed on a look through all of our research, she located some great pieces from a variety of sources. It became a global thing. We finally landed on a place in LA that could turn it around within our timeframe, that was holding some stock, and had a warehouse large enough to house a large quantity and variety of these fixtures.
Was Kerri sourcing remotely from Toronto or did she also travel to find pieces?
Yes, she was sourcing from Toronto. Unfortunately, on Season 1 we didn’t have any big sourcing trips. We should have. We had the time in prep, but we did all of our sourcing locally and shipped in from other cities when necessary.
Another example where we shipped in is the beautiful round Victorian settee that Grace, the automaton, sits on up on the mezzanine while gazing longingly at her gallery wall. It was in the pre-vis and could really only be that specific piece. Nelson, another one of the fabulous buyers on the show who comes from the fast-paced and frenetic world of commercials, sourced far and wide through dozens of options and we eventually found the piece and shipped it in from the UK – the bones were perfect. It was precisely per the pre-vis renderings. It was the right piece for the space, but we still needed to modify it. The fabric was worn and incorrect, and we needed to make it higher – so almost perfect. We also altered the top half because a scripted CGI element comes out and plugs in to recharge her. So we reupholstered and raised it and changed the centre moulding so it would work with the colour and scale of the space and ultimately, story.
We rented a tremendous amount of our critical pieces from Wiseacre, the new prop house in town that had all the stock from the show, Reign. Wiseacre has a lot of pieces from CBS shows produced in Toronto, one of which I had decorated a few years previously. This ended up being kind of perfect for us. They have a lot of our Jacobean meets Moorish furniture and decor. And antlers! They have such great antlers.
Is that where you acquired a lot of the picture frames?
That’s where we got almost all of the picture frames. That was a gigantic process too. Initially, there was an entire room of portraits but the budget prohibited that so it became a little niche on the mezzanine. It was kind of perfect because you could always have it in the background with its different colour temperatures, and it creates this beautiful depth through colour and light. The difficulty came with mapping out the gallery wall, clearing the art, and you know, finding the right weights and sizes for the frames, oh, and the lighting. Everything about that process was very involved.
It was such a big gorgeous gallery wall. I was curious if the art department created most of the artwork? How did you guys go about the artwork?
Some of it was from Reign so we could re-clear it because it was cleared initially by our clearance coordinator Cassidy Watkins which was very convenient and helpful. We also licensed and printed some pieces, and some pieces were original. We would license and reproduce and then add brush stroke texture and mount. The content was almost secondary because the frames really were the money, especially the intricately carved plaster ones with the classic capped corners which are antiques and are very expensive.
So did you purchase the ones that were hit by the shoot out? How was the gallery wall planned for the shoot out?
We bought some cheaper versions that we altered because you can’t really replicate the originals without a tremendous amount of time and money. Those frames were serious antiques that were carved, so we found gorgeous mouldings, but still not the same at all. We had carvers that would adorn them to a degree, but they weren’t nearly as exquisite as the original stock, which was breathtaking. So we did recreate some that we would use for the squib builds in the shootout. Speaking of which, that was an enormous challenge creating this costly world that we would need to destroy and come back to in its pre-destroyed state. We’re a time travelling flashback show so we had to come up with a lot of strategies as to how we would address that- how we could tell the story about a destroyed Academy and within a day or two days turn it around to its pre-destroyed state.
Wow, so you only had a couple of days to turn around the various states of the Academy?
Yes, we had 2-3 days. The scenics would come in first and construction to some degree and then we would go in and do a lot of clean up. There was a lot of top dressing debris, a lot of feathers and dust and some things we could sacrifice that we threw in. I don’t want to give away too many secrets, but we had pieces of the taxidermy that we sacrificed and other things we needed to help sell the story, but generally, it’s incredible what you can get away with by tipping some things over and throwing some debris on some items. Add some smoke and particles in the air and some great acting and stunt work, and suddenly you make it believable.
Where did you guys get some of these things? Where did you get the taxidermy and all those skulls in Hargreaves office and in the Academy living room?
We rented some of it from Wiseacre, some of it from Lock Up Props and the Prop Room but mostly from Cabinet of Curiosities. Cabinet of Curiosities had a lot of the tribal items, lemurs warthogs all the reptiles and the giant alligator skin that was in a niche upstairs and of course the emu and the giant anteater. There was actually much more than that. Their stock helped breathe life into Hargreeves’ world.
The sconces by the fireplace were gorgeous. Where did you get those?
They were from the same supplier as the chandeliers, Badia Designs in LA. They were perfect. They were that perforated Moroccan style and worked beautifully with the overhead fixtures. None of them were wired in any safe way, so everything had to be rewired and stepped out from the wall. Everything needed to be modified and required so much work to get it to a place where it could be used in safely on set. All of our chandeliers were on chains and motors for raising and lowering, there was an incredible amount of rigging involved – a tremendous amount of coordination and planning between one of my leads, Brent Kelly and numerous other departments. What you see of those sconces is excellent, but it’s a shell. It’s a cover, but it was something I could get in a quantity of 20, that was in stock and available. Even with the 20 or so weeks, we had of prep, we almost weren’t able to turn it around because of the approval process. A big part of the job is having options simmering until you can get the approvals to bring in what you want.
The main couches with the Moorish vibe in the Great Hall- were those custom built? The shape was so unique. I’d never seen that before.
The ones in the center of the room I had never seen before either. It was a complete fluke. Again, Kerry found those at Chic by Janssen. It was one of those incredibly fortuitous things. Those couches anchor the room, and we needed to figure out what they would be. We needed them to be the right scale and also to work within the fairly strict parameters of this world. We were looking everywhere, and the idea of it being eclectic was being thrown around, like, ‘if you can’t find something, maybe it could be mid-century,’ and I knew that was wrong. I knew that just wasn’t the way that room and Hargreeves world wanted to be, so when Kerri found these I was blown away by how perfect they were and not only did she find the couches, but they came with the matching large square coffee table with the beautiful curved leg and profile. They also came with the end tables, which were perfect as well. A total home run! The couches were originally upholstered in white, which wasn’t correct at all, so we began the process of determining colours. Within this process, we were coming up with all these fabric samples and upholstery ideas for them and all the corresponding pieces in the room. Then once approved, we could decide on the drapes, and after that, we could decide on the carpets. In this case, I decided to ground things on neutral carpets and let the upholstery and walls become the stars, which is what we ended up doing.
So the couch was shipped in from LA?
No, the couch was here in Toronto on the floor and available immediately. There were actually two couches and a loveseat. It was crazy. Could this be more perfect? The scale was perfect. Everything about it was perfect. All we needed to do was reupholster them. The only thing that we ended up doing was adding a Moorish detail to the console tables behind it because they were just plain black and we needed to tie them in. We researched, designed and CNC’d these details that the carpenters installed underneath as the apron, so it worked beautifully with the couches. I think we did bump the couches up a little for height which we often have to do, but it all really worked from the onset. Then we had these great Moroccan furnishings that were all original pieces rented from Wiseacre and purchased from The Door Store that were from the series Reign that we used as complementary pieces, a couple running perpendicular to the main couches, a few chairs here and there.
Then there was a scripted point where somebody jumps off the balcony and needs something to land on. It was never part of the original floorplan, but we were able to provide this beautiful caramel coloured tufted leather couch facing the sofa and these two massive wingbacks which became another arrangement. At first, I was worried, I thought it would block the sight lines looking towards the fireplace, but we found something low that fit perfectly both in colour and style that was available immediately from Kennedy Galleries, so we were lucky once again.
The Umbrella Academy Donut Shop- “Griddy’s Doughnuts”
Let’s move on to the donut shop. That set was a wow moment. I remember when suddenly the donut shop across from the Gladstone Hotel became Griddy’s Doughnuts, but I just figured there were new owners and it was a new donut shop. So that building is not there anymore.
No, it’s not there anymore. It was at one time an old donut shop, but it was long gone and completely raw inside. No ceiling, nothing. It worked beautifully from a location standpoint because we needed to connect to the exterior. It also had a great stand-alone look which they could shoot it clean, which was important.
Mark Worthington designed the set, and we ended up riffing on the ’70s with the orange and brown with a little bit of mustardy-gold. The ceiling was exquisite. We wired miles of LED ribbon, so the ceiling was just LED ribbon basically mounted behind milk plexi lenses. Each section was controllable in both intensity and colour temperature. A monumental task but well worth it.
So then there were the lights above the counter which were so incredibly specific. It was a whole process and very challenging. We found the right 18″ globes, so we ordered them, but they delivered 16” globes which were too small. Then we ordered some more, and they came, but they were broken. We needed a specific amount. Doubles were required because they were going to shoot up the place, so we ordered again, but even once they were correctly delivered, they were still just globes.
In the pre-vis rendering, the idea was that there was this top opaque colour element and then the globe element on the bottom. These lights definitely existed in 1970, but we weren’t finding them in any quantity, and I didn’t have access to a time machine. Once we got the right size globes, a light bulb went off, I decided to get some run of the mill aluminum mixing bowls. We painted these orange, and we laid them on top of the globes and hung them.
And you know what? It’s one of my favourite stories. It’s so DIY. It’s so cheap and cheerful. The only thing about the mixing bowls that wasn’t perfect was that there’s a quarter inch lip. So if you look closely, you can see it, but it actually becomes a design element that’s kind of nice. It kind of works. I think if it was an intersection of the globe and straight aluminum it may not be as nice. It needed a detail- a framing edge.
Then we had these light boxes on the wall, you know, bacon and eggs, donuts, hot dogs. The purpose of those was design and for a light source, but it was also for the shoot out to get maximum carnage. So the light boxes were squibbed, and during the gunfire blasts, pieces were flying through the air. They were used to really sell that scene when they’re shooting up the place without completely destroying the set. They also looked great in the aftermath. All shards and bare bulbs.
On the topic of lighting, we used a tremendous amount of practical lights on The Umbrella Academy. Maybe a little bit more than usual because we were shooting with an Arri 65 which is a 65mm Arriflex digital camera which, because if the large chip size can utilize a lot of practical lights as a source because the cameras are sensitive enough in low light to achieve that.
So everything else was custom built I imagine, the counters, etc. Where did you acquire the vintage seating and tables?
The chairs, tables and stools were sourced by one of my buyers, Nelson Sab, and were ordered as new products from a local supplier called ACQ Seating, which we then reupholstered in vintage colours to suit our pallet. I love the trumpet base on those tables, you know, very of the period. It was the game of ‘What arrives first?’ ‘There was a problem with the chairs.’ ‘Is it going to arrive?’ ‘What can we do if they don’t arrive?’ ‘Can we change the schedule?’ Again, even with that much prep, the decisions still aren’t made typically in enough time where you can have it all waiting for weeks, aged, and sitting there. We actually were still in there the night before.
We also dressed a little office set up in the back of the donut shop, and we had a small portal that we could shoot out of with a great camera angle. They never ended up seeing it, so we built that office section in the studio. Then we went back and used it at the very end when Mary J. Blige goes in and throws a match into an oven. We did that on location because they really needed to connect it to the exterior parking lot. So we had this little mystery of ‘Where’s the office?’ ‘Where’s the kitchen?’ We created this expanded world out of need. It was a great set. And to answer your earlier question, the explosion as all CGI.
Not to give away my age, but I’m a child of that generation, so I know it cold. I spent much of my youth in donut shops not that stylish but certainly with that feeling and those colour schemes, so I understand it. Visually it was an amazing contrast to the Academy. How those two cut together is phenomenal.
How did you guys decide on the televisions? There were the televisions right beside Acadia, in the hotel, and there was a television inside the ambulance. Was that you or was that props?
The television in the ambulance was props. It existed because it was the way they could tell that story of Klaus finding out that his father died. So, in that case, it was Mary Arthurs, who was the Props Master.
In the motel rooms though, we chose based on wood grain cabinets for that classic ’70s look- those cabinets with clunky hardware. It was something that Steve Blackman, Mark Steel, the directors, and myself would all just sort of say- that’s the right one, this is the right look.
In the beginning, after we decided to forego creating our own technology, there was a pitch session of ‘this is the look of all TVs’, ‘these telephones will be for banks and offices’ and ‘this will be the look of payphones’ type of thing. I had these eggshell payphone booths made that were more of a Japanese and European hybrid, which was a bit of a nod to the idea that the technology was different. You’d never see these things in North America, so we made them, but you don’t really see them that often.
In the storefront with the television where Vanya finds out Hargreaves has died, was that your work? I imagine there was a lot of conversation around those televisions and that window display given how pivotal the scene is to the story in the pilot.
Yes, a huge conversation. Every piece that was on those shelves had to speak to that. You don’t see a lot of it, but there was an entire window display, and it really spoke to that era. So we had a little bit of the late ’70s, and a lot of ’80s in there addressing that look.
The locations were a fun part of watching the show, seeing the familiar places around Toronto and surrounding areas. The exterior of the Academy was in Hamilton, right? Did you do much to the facade?
We did, we added in the doors and the gates and the lighting and cleaned it up a lot. There was also a lot of CGI. We dressed the area where Number 5 runs out, moves through time, and ends up on a short run from the Academy to the end of the street. We shot it several times as multiple seasons within the year and at different periods as well. We’d shoot it in winter and summer and then one of the stores we’d shoot it as their grand opening and another time you’d see it, it was out of business.
What was the hardest set and the most significant challenge on The Umbrella Academy?
In scale, probably the apocalypse. It was a big, big set.
How was the work distributed on the apocalypse set? Was it more construction or greens and set dec?
Greens, construction and paint departments. Mostly greens. I hired Walter Woloschuk as the key greensperson. He and I have worked together for years. So between Mark, his art department and Walter and I mapping it out, we were able to have it grow and evolve. In fact, the apocalypse continued to grow and evolve right until the end of production. We were on a site on North Queen Street, and it grew from a very contained shot of Number 5 running down a path in a canyon to being the demolished exterior of the Academy, to being the whole library set destroyed, and much much more… so it was a big job.
Amidst Walter choreographing the front end loaders and 40 dump truck loads of safe debris, I’d send in one of my lead dressers, Nitram Dass and a small army of set dressers to add the smashed up furniture, insulation, fabric and fallen lamp standards to complete that part of the vision. Then picture vehicles would bring in car wrecks, and we would integrate it all.
The Academy proper was also a huge challenge- the living room, mezzanine, great hall, kid’s spaces, that was big. There was so much detail and lighting in there and, you know, just finding that balance with scale, style and colour – all while working within a budget. It was pretty challenging, and it was also delivered really late because it was so big and complex construction-wise it almost became a bit of a panic, so that adds to the challenge.
If things aren’t working, we have to react more than nurture it. The thing is, it was all happening concurrently. We were doing the kids spaces and kids rooms, which were incredibly time-consuming because they have to be right. They have to be, you can’t just throw some stuff in there. These pieces have to make sense. We have to land the characters.
So honestly, it all felt like one big set. It just felt like one big massive world because we were doing the kids space, the butcher shop, Vanya’s apartment, Hargreaves bedroom, Hargreaves office, and the rest of the Academy and hallways—we were doing it all at the same time.
Hargreeves Bedroom in The Umbrella Academy
Take Hargreeves bedroom, for example. In the script it says Hargreeves has taken to his bed because he’s ill, so immediately that becomes the focus of the space. They wanted his presence to be felt in his absence, and it was scripted that we can see his body imprint in the bed in this scene. We built a custom mattress and sculpted it to achieve this, and around it, it was all really detailed.
There’s a lot of layers in that set.
One of my leads, Sandro Loschiavo and set dresser Emma Geldart dressed that set over the course of a week and did a fantastic job. There are 8 or 9 different plates of food and half drunk tea and little bits of sandwich left scattered around the room and particularly, around the bed. His meals were brought to him by the monkey, Pogo, or by the robot, Grace, and then they weren’t always cleared out. In my mind, he shooed them away, so that’s the sort of Howard Hughes feeling that we created. He had been dead for a few days at least and recently removed when we go into the room to have that Diego and Luther dialogue so we still very much wanted it to feel like his presence was there.
Hargreeves office set was also very detailed and beautiful.
In Mark Worthington’s original pre-vis, that’s the one that evolved the most. A lot of these sets were much like the pre-vis renderings. They very much reflected the ideas and the research, with a healthy dose of interpretation and the personal touch. His office, though was meant to be something so much bigger. Originally it was going to be this two-story room and was going to be octagonal, and there was going to be pterodactyls hanging on chains and fantastical creatures and objects that existed across the centuries and on other planets.
What we ended up landing on was a location at 519 Jarvis Street, which was the old Massey residence beside a very popular steakhouse. We ended up choosing it for a few reasons, the budget was a big one, but also just the logistics. There is a space in there that worked well with the architecture of what we created already, so his office was born from that. I brought in those multiple layers – the science experiments, the antiques, the paper, the lighting and all the taxidermy, but we had lost the whole museum feel where we had originally wanted it to be, but as it turns out, it worked extraordinarily well.
At that location, we also shot the operating theatre where Luther is brought in, and Allison after her throat has been cut. It was on the main floor of the house, right next to the office set. Mark Steel designed that fantastic floor, and the existing panelled walls easily fit the language of the Academy. The dressing was a lot of period, vintage medical equipment and lamps along with side tables and operating table compliments of Medicine in Film and Jackie Fields of Tatti Productions Vintage Props. It worked out incredibly well and reinforced Hargreeves timeless Academy aesthetic.
I imagine shooting at the Elgin Theatre was a nice reprieve for you guys?
Kind of. We still had to build whole banks of chairs for the shootout that could be squibbed because we couldn’t squib any of their existing furniture. Even removing their original chairs was an ordeal because of logistical and jurisdictional concerns. Mark Steel designed a very elaborate backdrop for that stage- a physical background that had to be brought in and assembled on site. We had to light all the music stands discreetly, so it wasn’t a tangled mess of wires. So no, it was still really challenging.
Vanya’s apartment was a stark and obvious contrast to the environment of the Umbrella Academy. Was this location harder to dress because she’s not extraordinary?
That’s an excellent question. It was very hard to dress, and there was a lot of discussion between Mark Worthington and I about who Vanya was and what Vanya would have because it might reveal too much; it might spoil her narrative. So early on, we need her to seem very plain, and there were also really practical questions about what she could afford.
Mark’s idea was that Vanya’s apartment is in a New York City style brownstone, where larger spaces often get carved up with drywall, and they make multiple units out of a single large space. It was sort of a half apartment. It was stark, and it was really difficult to dress because it was long and narrow. A couch, the way it would want to be oriented, really didn’t work. To have a couch face the fireplace really compressed the space so people couldn’t really get around it, so it was a real process, that happened very early on.
Also, when there are only a few pieces, they have to be great. So we eventually found the right couch and recovered it. The chair we found locally. The blinds were reverse blinds, and I did rollers so we could do multiple layers. I like multiple layer window coverings, so we had 2” blinds. I had reverse rollers so that they could tease off the floor because we were right on the stage floor. We added drapes for texture and colour and to give her more warmth and dimensionality as a character.
Then the space was aged. In fact, it was so aged that it went a bit too far and was pulled back so we could find the perfect balance of where it needed to be. It was still alluding to the fact that she didn’t have a ton of money and she was sort of on her own, but it didn’t want to be a complete shit hole. So there were still some nice things about it. She could still be there and be comfortable, but it wasn’t like this clean look with high-end finishes and a concierge.
Her bedroom, which you never see was really great. It had a metal rung bed, and it was very austere. I set up a lot of mirrors that would have been great for a lot of different camera angles and a lot of great opportunities where we could see lights hanging behind transoms, allowing incredible visual depth. We could always be seeing lights down the depth of the space.
The Umbrella Academy research facility with the eyeballs. Was that in Toronto? Where did you shoot it? What was involved?
It was. There were three spaces. The office itself was a location in the Thompson Hotel downtown, and we only had access the night before, so it was one of those crappy access situations, but it didn’t require a massive amount of dressing since it was only his office and some files. Then the lab was at the University of Toronto in one of their teaching labs where they also do some infectious disease stuff, which wasn’t an issue for us, but that’s what the space was used for. In the studio, we built a replica of the central, clean room that we shot within that space at U of T so we could burn it.
I’m curious about how you guys dressed the set so it could be burned. It was a very layered set, and I loved all the little details in that set.
It all had to be non-toxic. So, even though we had excellent smoke evacuation and we shot in a stage where we kept the doors open, everything had to be certified non-toxic, which is kind of impossible. For example, even the eyeballs, which were white gumballs, had vinyl graphics of lenses on top of them and could be considered toxic.
We had to get natural cardboard boxes and have it made into egg crating so we could fit the eyeballs in perfectly. Then we put some things on metal trays, and we used some metal rung metro shelving because of the burn. A lot of the materials used on the counter had to be fire retardant as well.
There were a lot of steps involved, and special effects were spearheading this. Darcy Callaghan of Lairds SPX was our special effects coordinator who was all over the safety of that set and how we needed to create everything as non-toxic but still maintain the look. It had to match the lab. We carried elements between both the location and the set to achieve this.
In the final version, there was a lot of fantastic editing between the location and them being physically in the build for the burn. A lot of the details in the build are obscured with the flame bars to help sell the illusion. These are provided by special effects also, so that’s how you sort of piece it all together. It wasn’t too obvious, but there are a few spoilers in there that will make you realize, yeah, this isn’t the right space. It’s pretty tight, and there were a few things we couldn’t replicate for safety and money and that type of thing.
What can you tell me about the Temp HQ? Was that all shot at David Dunlap?
It was split between David Dunlap Observatory and our stage. We needed to bring the work back because of space and time limitations. We looked at several options before landing at David Dunlap, but it was totally worth the wait! What an unbelievable space. So many interesting things to look at and totally believable as the hub of all things related to time.
When we first read the outline describing it, it was basically Jack Lemmon’s office in The Apartment. Perfectly aligned and ordered desks disappearing into the horizon. We started by looking for office and factory spaces that could accommodate that volume while at the same time looking for period furniture and equipment to dress it with.
One of my buyers, Friday Myers, managed to track down a prop supplier in NYC named Ron Fennick who owns and operates Fennick NYC. He had a large quantity of matching green and grey Steelcase desks along with filing cabinets and 20 beautiful matching blade base task chairs that he was willing to sell. This was great, but still not the quantity we needed. We still jumped on it and had them shipped up. Friday then tracked down 20 matching typewriters from the era which were integral to the scene and a favourite prop of our showrunner, Steve Blackman.
The job was then taken over by another buyer, Sandy Glud who finished tracking down all the remaining elements, including everything from the period correct mesh garbage cans to the matching black rotary dial telephones from Ringy Dingy, a Toronto prop house specializing in phones – full disclosure – it’s my company.
So, 20 desks it was. When it was determined we had gone as far as we could given the timeline, the rest was left to our visual effects magicians to add the volume required to sell that idea, and what a fantastic job they did. The result was what was written on the page and then some, with a giant telescope thrown in for good measure. Just another day on The Umbrella Academy.
Thank you so much for speaking with me about this beautiful show. It’s been a pleasure.
Thank you, Rose. The pleasure has been all mine. Thanks for the wonderful opportunity.
The Umbrella Academy Official Trailer
The Umbrella Academy Set Decoration Team
For Your Consideration: The Umbrella Academy is up for consideration for an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Production Design For A Narrative Contemporary Television Series (One Hour Or More).