Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy is based on the comic book by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba. It is about seven babies born around the world on the same day in extraordinary circumstances who are adopted by eccentric billionaire Sir Reginald Hargreaves. He then raises them as a band of superheroes, controlling and exploiting their powers. When Hargreaves dies, the estranged children (now adults), come together for the funeral and have to band together once again in the hopes of avoiding an apocalypse. It stars Ellen Page and Robert Sheehan as two of the Hargreaves children and Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton (brilliant in another Netflix show Mindhunter) as assassins on their trail. The show pops with comic book colour, has a killer soundtrack and stunning cinematography.
How much did you incorporate the look of the comic book into the design, particularly the colour and lighting?
We departed, somewhat, not radically, but we departed from the comic in certain key ways. In the comic, the academy itself is in the countryside, it’s much more like the X-Men academy, but the showrunner wanted to place it in an urban context. So, it’s a city like New York, we’re not explicit about that in the story. But he thought that was going to work better with the story he was telling. So we did depart there. I think in terms of some of the tone and the colour, we were looking more at the original comic for guidance there. But the digital context was a bit different than the comic.
I have to ask you first of all about the Hargreaves Mansion (the academy headquarters), because that set dominates throughout the whole series. What were the reasons behind some of your choice there, for example, the enormous double-height central area, with the archways and windows?
Part of that was just a response to Hargreaves’ character. We all saw him, to some extent, he’s a Victorian, in a way. Obviously he’s not living in the Victorian age, but he sees himself at the top of male dominance culturally. I think you can certainly say that and his narcissism, which is endemic to the comic and certainly our narrative as well, speaks to that idea quite well. He sees himself in a certain way – he’s scientific, he’s an explorer, he’s an adventurer, he’s a collector – he’s all of those things. Which fit very well within that kind of male Victorian model. Of course, it’s an idea, because he’s living in a contemporary world, contemporary to our time or even the near future, so the choices there were based somewhat on the mansions in the Upper East Side of Manhattan which were designed by Beaux-Arts trained architects at the beginning of the 20th century. They would be large architectural follies, like the Vanderbilt Mansion, which had more or less I believe a kind of renaissance exterior. But it had a Moorish room as a stylistic template for that double-height room. The entry hall is very Jacobean in inspiration, so each room has a different idea within the mansion, but that was sort of the template for that idea.
He needed a showcase for who he is or was, as a foil to what kind of drives the kids to be so resentful. They’re in this amazing, kind of beautiful world with all the surroundings of it – this amazing environment, but they don’t get to touch it, they don’t get to interact with it. It’s their fathers and their ‘father’ (in quotes) doesn’t allow them any real access or doesn’t let them into it. It’s such a selective arrangement – their spaces are much more like an East Village walk up. That’s the idea – it’s embedded in a block where the Hargreaves Mansion is there, it’s like he’s taken over the whole block, not that that’s really apparent from the outside. That was kind of the idea, to create that contrast between the kids’ experience of their environment and then their father’s environment.
How do you approach a set like Vanya’s apartment, for example, which is much smaller, but has to have such a level of realistic detail compared to something much grander, like the mansion?
I love that set, I mean that’s a real character set. I mean, we obviously know where Vanya’s going, so it needed to be highly realistic, it needed to be quite down in a way. She doesn’t have the means, she’s not scraping by, but she’s not certainly not wealthy. So the idea is that, again, in a New York context, they divided what may have been a brownstone – at one point has been divided into apartments. So there’s layers and layers of paint, we know that context very well. I also think there was something slightly ghostly about it to me. It’s not white, but it’s very light and we picked those lighter tones, as opposed to going darker because there’s something very lonely about her character. There’s something somewhat unknown, so there needed to be a tension there. So there’s a slight slylisation of that space to hint at that idea of her character, without being stupidly explicit about it.
I really liked the Griddy’s Donuts set, the diner. I loved that it’s almost like a space-age design, with the circular lights on the ceiling – they almost look like UFOs. What were your inspirations there?
Well, I live in Los Angeles and the architect John Lautner developed this style which is now called Googie for diner coffee shops and we were inspired by that idea and extending it, as you point out. The ceiling panels – we designed those and had them made, so they were custom for the space. We took over an existing space in Toronto for that. It was gutted when we came in, the walls were down, ceiling panels hanging – it was a mess. And we basically completely re-fabricated the entire thing. We designed and built the counter, the ceilings, the walls, the advertisements, the floor. The only thing we had was the windows were intact and the entry. What was great about that was that we could have that great interior/exterior connection cinematically. We didn’t have to resort to CG for that connection, which made it very dynamic and really fun – a playground for the directors to shoot in. Peter Hoar is amazing by the way, the director of the pilot, he’s fantastic – I want to put that plug in.
I loved the Commission as well – your influences there seem to have come from the 60s and The Cold War? I loved the design of the pneumatic tubes and that enormous space with all of the desks…
Those are inspired by 50s and 60s offices and movies like The Apartment – the sea of desks. It seems as if people behind the show were interested in the slightly retro feel to that, spending time in those sort of offices – those huge bullpens were pretty endemic particularly in America, of the office or corporate experience. They wanted it to feel corporate – all of that storyline is embedded with procedure, rules, you know the kind of stulfifying corporate procedural aspect that Hazel and ChaCha have to put up with and there’s so much comedy in that. Those spaces are inspired by that idea – yeah the tubes – there’s a weird analogue aspect to that and that way of communication, there’s an appeal to that in a really fun whimsical way. It gets at that sort of bureaucratic aspect to the entire thing, so all of that was inspired by those sort of ideas, yep.
Leonard Peabody’s shop that he takes Vanya to in an early scene, is absolutely filled with furniture and antiques. I’m wondering how long it takes you to source something like that – do you just have to scour fleamarkets, how do you go about acquiring all of those objects?
Well, Jim Landing the decorator, he’s amazing, I’ll put in another plug. But yes, that’s what you do. The trick is you have to scour flea markets and antique shops. The thing about Toronto is there aren’t what we have
in Los Angeles – there are a great deal of prop houses that are associated with the studios and a great deal of private companies where you can go rent things. In Toronto – there’s some rental situations and that kind of thing but a lot of it you have to buy. Yeah – it’s a scavenger hunt. And at the Hargreaves academy as well, we had to have all of that richness of material there and Jim – not only did he scour Toronto, but he’s on the web and he’s finding stuff throughout Canada, throughout the United States and I think he even had some stuff from Europe as well. For a show like this, you have to cast the net extraordinarily wide to get the breadth of the world that you have to show.
Some of my favourite sets included: the department store where Five meets Dolores, which was dominated by blue, the prosthetic eye lab where Hazel and ChaCha dance and cause a fire, which was dominated by yellow/green and the Vietnam nightclub where Klaus and Dave first kiss, which was dominated by red. What was the decision-making process behind picking a signature colour for each of those sets?
I don’t particularly like symbolism in TV sometimes, I think it can be true on its own. So much of the time it’s about setting a sense of style and emotion, I mean obviously in the department store, Five connects with the mannequin (laughs) because he needs a companion – the whole thing, there’s something consistently melancholic – even though we have a big fight scene there, it’s very melancholic, his whole character is that way. He’s my favourite in a way because he represents the tragedy of what Hargreaves did to these kids in a way, more than any of the others. He’s a 57 year old man in a ten year old’s body, all of that and then he connects with this mannequin. So the blue gets at that emotional tone.
The more lurid colours in the eye lab gets at the strangeness of that whole idea, for one. And then Hazel and ChaCha are just spun out which is hilarious. It’s bizarre, it’s just “what the fuck are you doing?” So there’s something odd and chemical in a way about that – the strangeness of what all that is.
And Vietnam – part of it is that it’s powerful and manifests in a completely accurate way of that whole era. The red kind of hints at Klaus’ emotional tone. There’s a shift there, we really learn more about him. He’s another beautiful character. He’s starts off as frivolous, he’s a drug addict, he doesn’t really have a soul.
He has this thing he can do, but what does it mean? We find out later very much how powerful he really is but the whole tragedy of his character is all of that repression, because he can’t stand the power – it disables him psychologically – it’s nothing but hurt. So he’s this tragic character who escapes in these different ways. Red is such an interesting colour, it can represent so many different things – passion because that’s where he meets the love of his life, it represents danger and violence and all of the things that go into that. It’s a useful colour in that regard, because it has multiple meanings all of which resonate out of that set and that environment.
The apocalyptic wasteland – I know it’s not a set, it’s an exterior, but it still very much has design elements within it with all of the abandoned buildings – I loved the richness of that and I’m wondering how you go about designing something like that?
Well we start with – I sketch and draw, it’s good when you get the time to do that, we took a long time with that. Peter had very specific ideas about the process of changing Five and his aging process, for one. Seeing his development through his whole experience of being in this apocalyptic world. And it starts with the first one – there’s the immediate aftermath which is just utter disaster and fire and smoke. Part of that was we built a little exterior set which we had the immediate elements which he interacts with and everything else around it is digital. But we did specific illustrations and worked with visual effects specifically to get all of those looks and then we also get the digital one, which I think is my favourite, where it’s kind of a nuclear winter. It’s cold and desolate and he’s dragging the little that he has out and you see little bits and pieces of the destroyed city in the background. And he gets beautifully at that sense of isolation, which changes him really, changes him as a person and basically scars him for life, that whole experience. And then later – the gutted out library where you see the remains of that rotunda that he decides to hole-up in and life is beginning to come back at that point. You’re starting to see plant life, it’s warmer, by the time The Handler from the Commission comes and finds him and gives him the mission and so on.
When Vanya is kept in a cell – it looks like the inside of a cheese grater, like a Janet Jackson video. What were your choices there?
She has these powers which this environment, this cell is meant to prevent and Hargreaves obviously has figured out what the nature of her powers are, how he can control, how he can contain. So the space gets at that idea that Vanya is unable to project her telekinetic powers. The texture of the vault is like it’s sound-proofed. The idea is that people associate it with the idea of enclosure and sounds not getting out. And whatever those telekinetic powers – that sort of environment gets at that idea. Of course her powers are so strong, she can basically do anything, as we find out. So Hargreaves – he wants to control things and he found that the best way to do it was through drugs. When she was a kid, it worked but as an adult obviously not so much.