Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan talks to Snowpiercer production designer Barry Robison about his favorite train cars on the TNT series and what light represents to the passengers.
Production designer Barry Robison has worked on a variety of different films, from comedies like Wedding Crashers and Fun with Dick and Jane to Academy Award nominated war epics like Hacksaw Ridge. But nothing could have prepared him for Snowpiercer (even if he did see the movie).
A sci-fi series about the last people on earth who board a train that circles the globe? The possibilities are endless when it comes to the 1,001 cars on the train, and Robison steered away from repeating what the film had already done by creating new, stylish designs for the TNT series.
I had a chance to chat with Robison about his work on the show, the graphic novel’s influence, and why Snowpiercer is a bit like a boat cruise from hell.
Awards Daily: You’ve worked on shows like Good Girls and movies like Pitch Perfect, but Snowpiercer has to be a lot of fun. What’s it been like working on this sci-fi series? It feels like it’s different from everything else you’ve done.
Barry Robison: It was. It was really different. Just a great challenge. One thing I did in my career, I made specific choices not to be pegged in a certain box, so throughout my career I’ve tried to do different things. When the agents brought Snowpiercer to me, of course I had seen the movie and loved it. Thought, “Wow, this is really a cool idea.” Then I met everybody and thought, “Oh, I have to do this. I have to be a part of the project.” Yeah, it was really different.
AD: I was gonna ask you if you did see the movie or if you tried to avoid being like the movie. The show stylistically veers away from the film.
BR: Yeah, it does, and to be honest with you, when I first came on, I had a meeting with TNT and the team and producers, I said, “I don’t want this to be a carbon copy of the movie, because it just couldn’t be.” And TNT and [director] James Hawes and [show creators] Graeme Manson and Josh Friedman were all so supportive of that. They didn’t want it to be a slavish copy either. When you really look at it, it’s not. We’ve got the basis of the idea. Graeme was able to take it into so many different areas so that it played out in a longer form of television.
AD: Yeah, I watched the show first before I saw the movie, which is kind of funny. I love the aquarium room. What was it like putting that together? It’s stunning.
BR: That’s one of my favorite sets. (Laughs) What can I tell you about it? It’s such a strange set. I think in the first two days, I was walking the studio with James, and in the pilot he didn’t like the way the sushi bar/aquarium had been interpreted. And I said, “I have this idea.” So I pitched him this idea, and he just said, “Oh, this sounds incredible.” My art director Tom and I had talked about this set with our construction coordinator. We wanted it to be more like a Japanese lantern than anything. There was this fantastic company that makes paper walls that can be lit from inside. So we got a sample, we tried it out, we fell in love with it, and the coolest thing I gotta tell you is those walls are made of paper, they’re accordion-like, and you can change the shape of them, and they become this amorphic shape. That was how we got to the aquarium sushi bar. We had so much fun. I’d never done really long-form television before, so for me, as a production designer, it was really exciting to be able to push the boundaries and then make suggestions.
AD: That’s so cool. How did you have the water and everything in the aquarium?
BR: The water is green screen. When you see the characters in the water, that is all done in a tank. We put the two things together, and there it is.
AD: That’s all beautiful. I love it. Were there any trains that you had ideas for that didn’t make it onto the show?
BR: Let me think. Most of them made it. I gotta be honest with you, I don’t think there was. We had some compromises for sure, but one set that I’m really super proud of is an area called The Chains.
It was something that I came up with. It had been written on the page as a car that a group of young artists had taken over. I kept reading it and going, “That’s not gonna work.” The train is 1,001 cars long, it’s over 10 miles. As the train has traveled over the years, dry food stock and supplies have emptied out on a number of cars, and so they’re just sitting empty in the middle of the train. Why don’t we have deviant people take over a number of those cars and turn it into this artist community? So I did some sketches and a model, and with my construction coordinator, we did a full-scale model, so we could show people. It was basically container cars that had been emptied out and the people had taken it over, had made a sushi bar in one area and a barber shop in another area. It had become like a Moroccan souk. We really pushed the envelope, and as a production designer, I was able to make a suggestion and was really accepted and embraced.
AD: Since Snowpiercer is obviously about class, what kind of touches did you make to demonstrate different classes according to the sections of the train? There’s so much you could do. Probably a production designer’s dream show! But did you have specific things you wanted to do?
AD: Yes, absolutely. I had started to analyze the train and because we know that the classes go from the tail all the way up to the first class, so the studio wanted to know exactly how I was going to proceed. Obviously we’re dealing with texture and light, two major elements in terms of defining design and the differentiation of classes. For example, the tailies are the lowest of the low; they’re the people that came on to the train at the very last minute, and they are really put into the darkest, dankest environment. They’re being held prisoner for the most part.
I had gone back to the original graphic novel to really influence my take on the design of the train, rather than going to the feature film. When you look at the graphic novel, everything is very, very robust, and really super strong. It really called out to me. So I had gone to Graeme and James and TNT and said let’s use the strength of the graphic novel and let it influence the design of our show. When you look at the materials used throughout the train, whether they’re high finish in first class or really robust, dark, dank, strong metals in the lower classes, those help to illustrate the different classes. But the most important thing I think is light.
You go from the tailies—dark, no windows—it’s all artificial controlled by the security on the train. Then you go into third class, and there are smaller windows. Then you get into second class, the windows get bigger. Then you go into first class, and it’s like, whoah, you get really big windows. There are a couple of ways to look at this. It’s not unlike living on an ocean liner. The crews are down below deck, in windowless environments, and then you go upper, to smaller windows. I was using all of those things to help create the differentiations of classes.
Snowpiercer airs on Sunday nights on TNT.