Netflix’s Space Force debuted late in the Emmy season, but it immediately made a huge impact on viewers with its stunning set design. Yes, this is a farce about a government space program, but for the comedy to work, the viewer has to believe the series is taking place in a real world. It has to be physically grounded in reality for the absurdist actions to provide that comic contrast.
Enter production designer Susie Mancini. She took series creator Greg Daniels’s initial directions about the series – think Dr. Strangelove – and fashioned an incredibly realistic and immersive world. Even better, many of her designs feature sly in-jokes about the government and how an ego-centric, militaristic view of space exploration would materialize.
Here, Mancini talks to Awards Daily about creating this realistic Space Force vision given the required size and scale. She talks about designing for Steve Carell and John Malkovich, who expressed great interest in the art of design. She also talks about why Moon Pies are prominently featured in an early pilot scene.
Susie Mancini is Emmy nominated for Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Contemporary Program (One Hour).
Awards Daily: Hey Susie! Congratulations on your Emmy nomination!
Susie Mancini: Oh, thank you, man. Thank you so much.
AD: It’s crazy to look at Space Force and think about all the things that you must have had to build for such an elaborate series.
SM: Yes, there are so many builds. It was pretty intense, but we’re all happy. We are thrilled with the nomination because we, you know, we worked really hard.
AD: Yeah, it absolutely looks like it. So is this the largest scale that you’ve worked on before?
SM: Yes, it is. Definitely, it’s a bigger budget. It’s a bigger concept. The challenge was to create something from scratch that belongs to our world, the real world. This is not sci-fi. It isn’t a fantasy. It’s real world in a branch of the military that didn’t exist yet or it did, but it wasn’t public. So nobody knew what it would have looked like, but it was going to be released very soon. So now you have something that people can compare it against. Thanks to a very difficult political moment we’re in right now, we knew that you would have had a lot of people that are interested either in the military or in NASA or in space or in politics that would have had something to say. So, you want to do something that looks real as much as possible, but we also wanted to emerge the audience into a cinematic-looking venue. So it was the marriage of these elements that made the the struggle real, but we were happy with the results.
AD: One thing that I’m really interested in is this line between making Space Force look real but then also understanding that this is a farce. I would imagine there would have to be some design elements that were a bit over the top to adhere to the tone of the series. How do you balance between creating a realistic world that also feels kind of a bit extra?
SM: Oh, yes, that was the first thing that Greg Daniels and I talked about on our first meeting. I didn’t even have the job yet. We were having coffee, and that’s what he mentioned. Knowing his comedy, I knew that the world would have been real, but he also wanted something different from his previous work. He wanted something more cinematic. He mentioned Dr. Strangelove, and so I took that note and used Kubrick and Ken Adams, who was also a great designer who did iconic movies, as my guideline to produce more cinematic elements. I found the perfect aesthetic was brutalism because it’s so majestic, but it’s also real. It’s something that exists, and there are many buildings all around the world that have used these styles in the past. It marries very well with something that is government based to create something rigid and very monumental and strong but also cinematic.
Then Greg added a lot of Easter eggs in the show. For example, I wanted to create some art pieces that had joke elements in them. Greg also agreed that the design would need comedy relief elements. For example, the major one is central in the cafeteria. It’s the moon landing, and all the astronauts are wearing weapons and guns on the side of their suits. Or there is another one that is the entire Milky Way with the full solar system, and each planet has the American flag on them. Or in the center of the plaza inside of the building, there is a statue, and it’s these mixture of metallic planets that spin around a central piece. It’s supposedly representing the solar system which should have the sun in the center, but Greg suggested to put the earth instead and make it wrong. Make it like the medieval concept of the solar system. It’s also very egocentric like someone else in our modern day America.
So there are all these little elements spread around that help create that enhanced look. Mark Naird, Steve Carell’s character, I wanted to emphasize him using something different because I think he’s such a multi-faceted actor. I’m a huge fan. I’ve seen all of his movies, and I think that we see a lot of the same side of him so I wanted to underline his physicality and his masculinity. So I used a lot of James Bond imagery and colors, color palettes, and structure. You Only Live Twice was my main focus for him. To create an enhanced masculinity version of Steve Carell is something different. We all know him. I just think that we haven’t seen that side of him before.
AD: Other than Steve Carell, when you look at the actors who are cast, such as John Malkovich, for example, does that influence any of your design?
SM: Oh, yes, it does. but not for everyone. But certain actors, obviously lead characters who you have more time with on screen. So you have more time to study them and to understand what we’re going to be seeing of them. You want to create their environments as reflective as possible of the characters that they are playing on screen.
With John Malcovich, he and I got along really well. He was such a fan of our work in the art department, and he was very vocal about it. He loved so many pieces, and we had these extensive chats about design and about what we were doing on set. He was always very interested and very appreciative. He has been our number one fan on set. He loves design and loves art and loves clothing and loves history. He’s such a well traveled and well read man. So whenever we had a chance to see anything of him, I wanted to use that part of him because he brought that on screen with this character of Mallory.
There is a lot of John Malkovich, and so I wanted to bring his eclectic and classy manner also into the show. We’ve already seen his office and a glimpse of his house from a FaceTime video. His office, for example, is heavily decorated with art pieces from all over the world. We have everything from African masks to Indian and Singapore origin paintings and prints from all over Europe and plants from everywhere in the world. He’s definitely someone that has traveled the world and has many, many interests. He also has his own clothing line in real life which I didn’t know about.
AD: Yeah, I mean he is such a renaissance man. So, I know so much is done through CGI these days, but when you look at the Space Force base itself, how much of that is brick and mortar creation versus CGI?
SM: It’s all in camera. If you see anything outside of Mark’s office, the window that overlooks into the desert that where you can see the the launch pad, that’s CGI. All the interiors are sets. 99 percent of our interiors are sets, even the gas station at the beginning of the first episode – that’s a set.
AD: Really? I wondered about that.
SM: Yeah, we shot the most of it on stage, and then we got lucky. The location manager found this really great university campus which is what we used for the exteriors. It’s a very large campus, and they have so many different buildings, many of which are really cool – very mid-century modern type of design. Then, it mixed with the ultra-modern, glass box type of building. Then there was the brutalist one, and that was the theater of the university which is what we used for our exterior. Everything else was built.
AD: So, going back to the the gas station that Mark stops at before he arrives at the base, I remembered being fascinated by the astronaut paraphernalia that’s for sale. Or the candy or a cookie or something…
SM: Yeah, with the moon bar. It really exists.
AD: Moon pies, maybe?
SM: Moon pies, bravo. Yes, moon pies.
AD: So that was that redesigned?
SM: Yes. That was redesigned, and this was an early idea of Greg’s. When we first started, there was not even a drawing of the sets. It was very early on, and for meetings, he just wanted to have moon pies to be served during the meeting. So, I got a graphic really early on just to do that, and then we just kept it for the rest of the show. That’s how it first started.
AD: It works so well. So was the Space Force logo influenced by the real world Trump administration Space Force logo, which also looks remarkably like the Star Trek logo?
SM: No, it wasn’t because ours came out earlier.
AD: Oh, right!
SM: So we had to come up with that ourselves, and I am a big fan of realism, especially when it’s married with comedy. We didn’t want to do anything that was too cheesy, or that wouldn’t have been able to look like what really would be on one of the government seals. It honestly took us a very long time. I wanted something that looked boring in a way. I wanted to be modular and each piece have a meaning but that, once you piece it together, your eye wouldn’t have wandered too much on it. You would have just accepted it that was something real, something that could definitely be there. I didn’t want these logos to pop out as something too new or too sci-fi or too modern. That was my challenge, to create something unique for the show that was cinematic but that could have looked real. And so it took a little bit, but we I think we did it. We are very happy with that, but we definitely took the time to do it. It was a struggle.
AD: So last question for you: you’re Emmy nominated for the pilot, of course, but when you look back at Space Force what is your most favorite design element visible in the series?
SM: You know, I don’t know honestly. Even just being nominated for the pilot itself, it just takes away so many great sets that we did that show up later on. If I have to pick a set, then I’m going to say the headquarters because it’s the largest one, and it contains so many things that I think we did great like the ceilings or skylights. Every set in the headquarters, they have shades that are cast on the floor. So you have this added texture of light. I’m really happy with that. I think even our moon lander was fun in the interiors, and it was such a crazy set to do with zero time. So either way, I don’t know how to answer this question. You don’t even see the conference room in the pilot, which I’m really bummed about. It’s a really cool room. I’m just gonna say the headquarters as my favorite in the pilot.
AD: And I lied, I did have one more quick question for you. At the end of the episode, Mark and Adrian are looking out into outer space when the Chinese destroy the newly launched satellite. That’s obviously CGI, but did you have a hand in designing the space artifacts?
SM: Yeah, we’ve done a lot of research. It was like a team effort between me and the post team and the special effects guys. It was really fun. There was a lot of back and forth of what would have looked the most realistic, but also you don’t really have access to anything Chinese. So you kind of have to play a guessing game. So then that’s where the cinematic comes in. You have to drop the idea of shooting a documentary. You’re shooting a TV show, so you do your best to do something that looks real. That’s what we tried to do with everything technology based. Even when it comes to the interior of the spacecraft that they’re using to go to the moon in the later episodes, we went to visit SpaceX. We saw what they were doing, and that was amazing. I’ve learned so much, and you can see that technology evolved in a way that aimed to minimalism. So the whole concept of a million things surrounding you was gone, and it’s just these two guys are sitting on a pilot chair with a large iPad in front of them. That’s all they need to go to the moon. We’ve tried to be as realistic as we could, and then again, we played the cinematic card and crossed our fingers.