Have you ever walked onto a set and felt the way you felt when you first saw the candy forest in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory and suddenly magic is real and this place must’ve always been this magical? Us too. Except this place was probably an empty parking lot last week, so who makes the magic happen? PRODUCTION DESIGNERS DO!
This week we’re digging into this world of witchcraft and wizardry with one of our favorite magicians: Los Angeles-based Production Designer Scott Moses! He’s been setting things on fire (in a good way…) in the television industry for years, but this month, things got a little more magical for Scott when he signed on as Production Designer on everyone’s favorite: The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Wow. Let’s chat with Scott and #ThrowItBack.
DFLY: So first, since it’s #ThrowBackThursday, I want to know about that pivotal moment when you began the transition from theater to television design? What was your first job in television?
SM: It started in grad school. I got some great advice from costume designer David Woolard who suggested that if I wanted to be a designer faster, I should move to LA. In NYC you’ll end up someone’s assistant for 5-10 years before getting big breaks. In LA, there are more job opportunities, both union and non-union.
SM: My first gig in LA was Lincoln Heights on ABC Family. I was the Art PA for John Iacovelli, who designs theatre, TV and film. He saw my work at Design Showcase West and hired me immediately. It was only a few months but it allowed me to see how the industry worked and how I wanted to specifically fit in. John continues to be a mentor, colleague and friend to this day.
DFLY: How does your experience in reality television and talk show TV compare to your experiences designing for theatre and film?
SM: So many people look down on reality TV. I get it! Sometimes the shows are less than mentally-stimulating. However, designing reality TV and game shows is more like theatre design than you’d think. Reality TV allows the designer to be more abstracted at times and to let go of traditional constraints. Very much like taking liberties in theatre, reality won’t hold you back from doing something fun and whimsical or dark and twisted. You just have to make sure your producers and directors like the concepts.
SM: Reality TV, game shows and talk shows are much faster-paced when it comes to day-to-day operations. In theatre, running your butt off is common and expected. Film, single-camera dramas, and sitcoms are a bit different. Yes, the core concepts of design are intact, but the pace is different. Film has a “hurry up and build it” momentum, then once it’s up…it’s a lot of sitting around and waiting. Sitcoms are a bit tricky. They have a very unique style and purpose to the design that is unlike other forms. It can be pretty cookie cutter. But it’s also one of the most stable positions in TV. Single-camera dramas are pretty sweet – not as much waiting as film, but they can also be fun to design if you’re on a period piece, a sci-fi show, horror, etc.
DFLY: What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about production design as a whole?
SM: Wow. Good question. I don’t think people realize how much we do. Let’s think about the grand scheme then get more specific. Larger picture: We design everything you see. Not one thing makes it on the shows, in the films, or on the stage without being run by the designer. So that’s pretty cool when you think of the main set.
SM: As you look further down you start realizing each script requires new swing sets, new props, new locations, games, graphics, or set dressing. This is all handled by the designer who delegates to the people under him or her. Next time you look at any TV show, movie, or stage show, find the smallest thing you would never even think about and realize that someone like me has thought about it, sketched it out, and had it made, even if you never knew about it. And it exists for a reason. Maybe it has something to do with the plot, or maybe it’s something we think belongs in the character’s life. But believe me, nothing goes on my set without purpose or thought.
DFLY: What was it like designing the compound for Utopia – literally without walls to constrain your imagination? What’s your process, I mean, how do you even begin concepting something onto a slab of raw land?
SM: Utopia was epic. It was by far the largest project I’ve worked on to date, although not the most expensive set. The best way to deal with this kind of project is to compartmentalize. What is it that we want to see? Talk with the producers and directors and get the scoop. Then start with your largest elements first. The one that is most important – design that. It will direct you to the other satellite elements. Then once all that is done…details. Work on each crazy detail from the most broad to the most specific as time allows.
SM: With Utopia, we started with design concept boards, just to get a feel for what the producers wanted the show to feel like. Then was the design of the main house. Then the barn, lake, waterfall, surrounding gate and water tower. Once that was being worked out with contractors, we focused on infrastructure. How the water and sewer works, how to get 130 cameras cabled and hidden, how to water the crops, how to light the space.
SM: After that we focused on landscaping and paint treatments. So on and so on until we were actually figuring out what little seeds to plant, what tools we should leave them, and how high I should hide the matches to see if they would ever find them (…top shelf on the built-in milk crate cabinets.) Every detail! But we started large and got smaller and smaller until they pushed me out the door and off of the set. I could have kept going. I guess a set will never truly be complete. But I was so happy with the end results.
DFLY: Was there ever that experiential moment in LA that was “so Hollywood” that it taught you how you shouldn’t act in this industry?
SM: Every day there are a million examples of how not to act in Hollywood. I see all too often people acting like you owe them something. I see people work you to death because it’s cheaper than hiring the proper people to do the job. I have always tried to be myself. I try to be good at my job, intelligent in the things I do or say, get all facts before jumping, treat others how I want to be treated, and have integrity for the things I do. I have a reputation for having amazing crews. But I think I have amazing crews because of my integrity. I hire people I want to work with. I would not ask someone to do something that I have not done or would not do myself. I also never get mad if someone doesn’t know how to proceed. It’s my job as a leader to show by example and to teach new techniques to those working under me. This creates loyalty and a collaborative work environment. And I’m reminded every day that not everyone has that option, although they should.
DFLY: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given about working in the film industry?
SM: No one is going to give you what you want. You have to take it. You have to work hard at it. But if you have determination, you will achieve it.
DFLY: And what’s your personal Golden Rule?
SM: “No” is not a solution.
DFLY: So, HUGE CONGRATULATIONS on Ellen! How did this opportunity present itself to you?
SM: A great friend and colleague of mine, James Connelly, had given my name to the producers over at Ellen to help them on a new show called Repeat After Me. They called me and asked if I could come to Warner Brothers in an hour despite the fact that I was on another job. I made it work and in an hour I was working on a hidden camera show with no time to plan out a design. The show was shooting in less than 24 hours so I pulled together my team of people and we ran up and down the aisles of the prop house looking for things for the first shoot. The next morning we pulled it all and set it all up. It was a showstopper for sure that we were able to pull it all together that fast. But my team did it and had fun in the process. All smiles.
SM: I did it again a dozen times or so. Each time, my designs were better than the last. And with each episode we finished, my team was still smiles. They threw a bunch of curve balls in the mix and we just rolled with them and made it work. A few weeks later I got a call to come in to interview to be the Production Designer on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. It was not expected. They told me it was because of how I kept my cool under pressure, never said no, always had solutions, and everyone working with/for me enjoyed my demeanor. I guess having a good attitude can take you places.
DFLY: Finally, since we’ve talked a little about your journey and how you got here, I want to know what’s next for you. I know you’ll be on Ellen for at least a few years, but do you have plans to diversify? Will you ever return to theatre? The people want to know!
SM: The future: My crystal ball is telling me that I’ll continue to take gigs during the down time on Ellen. Whatever comes my way, I’ll determine if it’s right and I’ll take it! I’m production designing the 2016 Art Directors Guild Awards as well as sitting on the ADG Awards committee. I think I’ll continue on with the ADG in some way or another in the coming years – maybe I’ll run for a council seat to get some changes in our industry. My husband Kenneth and I will continue working on our joint business together – Bring Me Sugar: a vegan, gluten-free and organic cupcake company that delivers in the LA area. And maybe we’ll have a kid or two while I’m out conquering the world. My crystal ball sees very little sleep in my future.
DFLY: That’s what’s up! We love you Scott!
Rachel Wilson, 2015.