Andrew Sloane served as both the art director and as a member of the production design team for Insecure season four. In many shows, the city feels like an actual character in the series. You feel this with Sex and the City and Manhattan, Dexter and Miami, and as season four wrapped, I felt like the same was true with Insecure and Los Angeles. Andrew’s work is incredible, and our conversation centered around the expansion of the scale they used to create this season.
I have never been to LA. Yet, as I rode with with Issa in Ubers, watched the block party take place, or walked the art installation, I felt like I knew this city. Over the years, Insecure grew in scope, and you felt that large scale nature in this season. Insecure continues to grow in critical success, and it is matched also with a growth in the stylization and production value. While it is not uncommon to promote brands and products relevant to the content of a project, what made this season of Insecure unique was the desire to promote artists and makers that are not only local to LA but also celebrate diversity. The team ensured that artisans were integrated into the set and the filmmaking process as if to create a meta-environment with a staged event.
Here, Andrew Sloane praises the large scale team production team he worked with throughout our conversation. He also highlighted the great working relationship he had with Issa Rae, Prentice Penny, and other artists who work behind the scenes. Insecure created so many iconic moments this season. Here is our conversation about the way production design played a critical role in launching this incredible Emmy-nominated series this season.
Awards Daily: The Block Party felt epic! How did you blend the intimacy of the story (using Issa’a script) and the large scale nature of the production?
Andrew Sloane: That is really such a great question and reveals to me, just how subtle your knowledge of production design is with respect to narrative. It is the marriage of story and set that is our obsession. So first off, through the lens of set design – the nuance of intimacy is something we often discuss with respect to mood and tone. In a classic stage set that is dictated by the proportions of the architecture and the source of light, color and texture etc. In an environment this large, a set that was essentially a sprawling 50K square foot ‘mete-event’ space – the intimacy comes from the blocking and staging of each scene by the director and showrunners, during a tech scout of the space – in this case which was done from plans and scale models.
Our tendency on a show of this scale, not dissimilar from Silicon Valley, the project I was previously art directing. We create an almost immersive, real world environment with NO fourth wall so that the director and actors can play within the space freely. More than anything, and certainly more so than the design – it was the lighting that created that mood. From practical sources like string lights and from traditional lighting. Our designer, Kay Lee is very intuitive when it comes to character. She knows instinctively when something is too grandiose or stylized in a way that is not consistent with the narrative. I would very often provide her with plans of varying scale and intricacy and she would then edit those into something that best catered to the character and story line.
AD: I love that the focus of the block party was centered on community engagement and giving Black folks a space to enjoy the community. Talk to me about the process of using the script and Issa’s style to create this festival.
AS: This was very much the result of Issa’s mission as both a character and a person; yet executed (hopefully) to not act as though the show is providing a service but rather an organic display of ‘Black Excellence’ to be observed and appreciated. We started first and foremost with the script. Issa’s character, the pre-existing featured locations and her personal style gave us clues as to which Los Angeles based vendors, businesses and artists would feel like an authentic choice. Next, Issa and the Writers created a wish list of diverse brands that the art department and set decoration Teams divided and began the outreach process – spearheaded specifically by my assistant art director Kirby Feagan. The response was immediate, and many of the top choices gave way to additional contributors and before long, we were in the position to be able to curate and edit into the most diverse, dynamic group. Then it was about perpetual communication and specifically high lighting companies that were specifically called out by the script for action/narrative reasons.
The location was also dictated by the script and was a conversation between the showrunners and our production designer Kay Lee. Many of the contributing businesses and artists also became extras. So the sense of community was fostered with a certain truth that was then relayed as fiction. Our set decorator, Amber Haley was on almost every season except season one, so her knowledge of Issa’s style and where to shop our decor is immeasurable.
AD: There were great moments of comedy that centered around the production design. Many of those elements added to the levity of the experience. How did you strike that tone with production design?
AS: To be quite honest that is something I am constantly impressed by – when a physical element be it set or prop becomes the source of dialogue as though it just occurred spontaneously in response to the environment. That is a 2-fold process. If we have done our job right, the set breaths in such a way as to be SO natural to the story line that it almost disappears – no matter how grandiose. One of my favorite experiences in art directing shows for/with incredible writing talent – is when the Sets then go on to inspire further script choices. There is always an ‘art imitating life’ scenario that happens between the two creative departments wherein one informs the other.
Working in comedy was not where I anticipated starting but getting to work on Insecure was a genuine privilege, and it helped me to grow. I learned a lot on this project. Comedy is almost counter to my own aesthetic I very much work in the realm of drama. I am moving in the direction of period and fantasy film, but creating these large scale pieces, and helping expand the world of Insecure and LA helped take me to the next level in my work.
AD: The series also took a stroll down honesty lane with Lawrence and Issa at the art walk. Talk to me about the use of the clouds brought these moments to life, and you all worked to enhance one of the most romantic moments of the year.
AS: Issa and Lawrence’s entrance into the art walk was heavily devised to create this visual magic. Our teams had JUST delivered the block party and begun to breakdown the next episode when it became apparent they wanted to continue the season at a similar scale. It was a seriously grueling couple of weeks but paid off immensely.
The cloud installation created on site by Set Dec + Construction Departments; erected and ready to shoot in under 48 hours. Director Ava Berkofsky (who is also our incredibly talented DP) asked for an ethereal and magical moment for the ex-couples reunion. Originally intended as a giant fabric installation, upon hurried camera tests and zero turn around for material, designer Kay Lee switched gears and asked for clouds. Set dressers and team fashioned an on-site studio to craft over 50 light-up clouds, added just hours before filming. Metaphorically and literally, it was by far one of the most magical moments of the season and yielded an image that I believe will stand-our for years to come.
AD: Toward the end of the art walk you get to see Issa and Lawrence looking through all this fantastic local art. How did you craft this space to culminate their experience?
AS: This was the work of our set decorator Amber Hailey and her team, and the outreach they did locally to source real LA artists with an emphasis on diversity. Of course, from the art and construction department stand-point, we created the ground plan with intricate detailing of each space so that when the art was dropped off, it could immediately be integrated into the space. I am so thrilled to report that as a show of gratitude to the artists whose work was featured in that scene as well as the vendors and artisans from the block party episode are now featured on HBO’s website with links to their websites and Instagram handles. There has been a massive outpouring of gratitude from these contributors that has been super exciting to fulfill.
AD: Many say New York is the fifth character in Sex and the City. You really made LA (and local neighborhoods) feel like a huge part of the show. How did you use your production design to enhance viewers’ experience?
AS: This is a directive handed down entirely from our producers, showrunners, and writing teams. They are very much devoted to authenticity and factual depiction of these LA-based sites and locations. Right down to trying to tie proximity from one place to the next as it relates to the characters actual timeline.
The way we use design specifically to enhance that is to go into any pre-existing space and make it as telegenic and camera-ready as possible. This sometimes means augmenting things for accommodating the shot, adding additional texture and character set dressing, creatively masking areas that are unsightly. In many cases we will actually much-improve a space with paint treatments or vinyls, window clings, and frost etc. that the business owners and location reps will actually request that we leave in place after filming!
As we become more and more global, and when viewers become more and more informed. My work on Silicon Valley was dissected, and viewers are too smart to miss some of the location production elements. You have to approach this as a process and not product.