Interview With HEROES Production Designer RUTH AMMON
Warning: While I try to keep spoilers to a minimum – some do slip out.
While HEROES is on a six-week hiatus we’re still working hard on making episodes that will air in January. Today, for instance, we had two units shooting. The first is in downtown LA shooting the last day of episode 14 - involving Milo Ventemillia and a new (exciting) character doing a NYC street scene. As night falls they will do a big stunt high fall into a Taxicab. The other unit is shooting day 3 of episode 15 – scenes involving new disturbing developments at Claire’s house – and later a scene set backstage involving Hiro, Ando and chorus girls. Today, I, personally, scouted locations and laid out scenes for episode 16 (which we prep now but begin shooting in the new year) – I also spent time in the editing room, first doing a visual effects spotting session on episode 12 and 13 and later with Tim Kring and Dennis Hammer reviewing and polishing the edit of episode 12 (which looks like it’s gonna be terrific by the way.)
This TV show is like a freight train moving 100 miles an hour. You have to jump on, dive out of the way or get dragged under the wheels.
So… While we try to catch up to get new episodes on the air for you ASAP, I thought I’d do a couple of blogs about the behind the scenes.
Today I’m going to talk about, and with, our production designer Ruth Ammon.
The look and design of the show, its sets and locations, are as big a star as the cast… okay, who am I kidding… The sets aren’t nearly as sexy and they can’t go on TRL. But they’re still good.
Ruth is the person who deigns and/or finds every set we shoot on and runs one of the biggest departments on the show
GB: Ruth, what’s your background? How did you get started as a production designer?
RA: I was waiting tables at the Jersey shore. I waited on a producer, Peter Schulberg (his uncle Budd wrote “OnThe Waterfront”) who was making an after school special called “Mystery At Fire Island.” He said that I should be in the art department. That day I quit my low paying waitress job for a no-paying gig as an art department p.a. They didn’t pay me but they gave me a moped.
GB: Wow, that sounds like a pretty bold move. Did you have any design background at all before that?
RA: Yes. I had just graduated from Muhlenberg College in Allentown PA. I had studied Art History. This was my summer job to make money. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with my life at the time – but I knew it was in the arts. That was my background. A year abroad at Oxford had also stirred me up.
GB: But you didn’t have a formal architectural background per se?
GB: OK so then what?
RA: From that experience the production designer, named Vaughn Edwards invited me to come to New York City and work for him as an art department p.a. I moved there, and by luck, someone I knew moved out of their apartment and I moved in. I was still working for free, but I also had a free place to live and free meals.
GB: Sounds like fate.
RA: Fate. 100% fate. Fate and destiny pushed me into the film business. My whole career has been like that.
GB: Yeah, but you grabbed ahold of it. I think that’s worth noting for anyone aspiring to be in this business. When an opportunity appears, go with your gut and grab it, even if it doesn’t look like it’s “good enough” or pays enough. My own career has certainly been from one chance event that led to a relationship with someone who could help which led to another chance event… etc.
OK, so then what? How did you go from p.a. to production designer?
RA: I was an art department p.a., which is very different from a set p.a. – but I moved from job to job and shortly, to early really, fate came in again. I was a designer’s assistant on a very low budget independent movie called “Hard Choices.” The designer got a better job and left, and suddenly, because there was no one else, I became the production designer. After that I had one credit. So I could use that to get more work.
GB: That’s wild.
RA: I know. I’m so lucky. I have a great job. A really great job.
GB: I’m glad you feel that way. I love my job too. We’re in a rarified field doing really exciting stuff. We work crazy hard. I know you’re here every day at 6AM or 6:30AM and you leave at, like, 9 PM – but it’s very satisfying work. Especially on a show like this where the visual design is encouraged, appreciated, and seen. So many shows live only in close ups of actors. On HEROES your work is really on display.
RA: Yeah. It’s great.
GB: OK, so, the generally held belief is that the production designer is the person who designs and builds the sets, finds locations for the show and oversees the way the sets are decorated.
From your point of view, what is a production designer?
RA: The person in charge of the look of the film. Certainly that’s it in movies. In TV it moves so fast that you can’t really be in charge of everything.
For me, it’s about telling the story visually. Closing your eyes and pretending there are no words. I try to imagine how I can tell the story of the movie with color, architecture, surfaces, objects. How can a lampshade tell the story? How can a car? How can the color of a wall?
It’s crazy, but when I talk to the painters, we talk about the history of the wall. When was it built? When was it changed? When was it damaged? When was there an earthquake? What colors were in vogue when the wall was last painted? Where did water drip down and for how long? The painters love that. We have some of the best painters in the business on this show. Film or television included. Phenomenal painters and they are really into it.
GB: I notice you do talk with people in your department a lot about “character” which is actually, maybe unfortunately, unusual. I notice you wanting your designers and set decorators to be very specific about what objects a character surrounds themselves with, how and why they chose them and so on.
RA: It’s very important. You can’t just be generic and say, “She’s a grandmother.” You have to know what her background is, what her politics are. What she cares about. Why she does or doesn’t keep things around her.
I try to create a visual arc to the whole story… where do you want color or no color, what is the emotional impact of the scene visually.
I learned something important on this show - from you really - which is not to have preconceptions about what a set can or can’t be. We shot a room with four white walls and no windows and it looked great.
GB: Yeah. That was on episode 3, which I directed. The scene where Audrey first interrogates Matt. The schedule pre-dictated that we had to film the interrogation room the same day we filmed at Claire’s high school. And it had that white box of a room. I actually liked it because it had a viewing room attached and I had an idea (which wasn’t scripted) of someone’s hands in the foreground scribbling notes. I was also excited about shooting with the swing and tilt lenses and filming “flat space.” I embraced the space and so did John Aronson the cinematographer, who has a very bold untraditional point of view as well.
RA: It looked great.
GB: Back to you, you hadn’t done much TV before HEROES.
RA: Sketch comedy, “The State” – those guys do “Reno-911” now. And one season of “Without a Trace”
GB: Also the pilot of “Weeds”
RA: Right. My features were mostly comedies too, like “Drop Dead Gorgeous”
GB: So how did the Bruckheimer camp come to hire you for “”Without a Trace"?
RA: My book. And an interview. They were making a change at Christmas time – I think I was one of the few, the only, one available. Fate again.
GB: Your book is fabulous by the way. Beautiful. Without question it’s what got you the job here.
RA: Thank you. I worked hard on it. My book is very important to me. It’s my artwork. I take all my own pictures and I only take pictures if the set is lit the right way and from angles, which I feel, are cinematically the best angles to film from.
GB: Sounds a little obsessive.
GB: But always with great result. Which brings us to us. To HEROES.
RA: Again, I think I was the only one available.
GB: Not exactly. We were a little late hiring our designer. Many of the other shows that had been picked up already had someone lined up. But you got a very strong recommendation from John Aronson who was already hired as DP, and whom you’d worked with of “Without a Trace.” Dennis Hammer was already very focused on you. I had just been hired and was still feeling very tentative with Tim, and Dennis and Allen who had all worked together for five years and had shorthand. But they invited my opinion in. We kept using the word “real” – meaning, that we had to believe in the spaces that these people lived in and the words “texture” and “layers” because real people’s environments are built up over time.
Your book perfectly reflected what we were talking about.
RA: Good. I feel lucky. Because I only find I get hired, or even go up for certain shows – maybe I’m a bit difficult – but I find I only get hired on shows where the producers want someone who wants to be involved in all aspects of the visual design, and wants to get involved with all the other departments.
GB: HEROES is kooky big right?
RA: Kooky, kooky, kooky big! And on every level.
For example. On every episode you always do a set list. Which is just a list of the sets the characters will be in, in the episode. On most shows there’s just a handful and most of them are recurring from pervious episodes. On HEROES it’s almost always a full page and always at least half of them are brand-new sets we either have to build or find.
We shoot more sets per episode than any other show. I’m sure of it.
And we’re building so much. We build 3 or 4 sets per episode and a lot of them are really big. And we still have to develop the character of each set (like we’ve been talking about) as we go. Our construction coordinator was voted MVP by one of our producers.
Right now, I think, I’m in a fog I have no sense of when an episode begins or ends or what show we’re shooting or what day it is.
GB: Let’s talk about a couple of sets specifically. The clock repair shop where Sylar worked in episode 10 was very popular.
RA: I know… I know…
GB: But I always sensed you were disappointed with it.
RA: I wanted it to be bigger. But it became smaller because of financial restrictions and space restrictions. When I knew how small it was going to be, I painted the walls shiny black.
GB: I think people really liked the glass window with the big clock in reverse and the hundreds of cabinets and clocks.
RA: That’s it. The set became all about the set dec. But that’s New York. That’s a place I know. A place I’ve been in. So it was easy for me.
Also, I think if it worked visually, it’s because I designed it to allow camera movement without pulling walls.
GB: Ok another one that impressed me. The Odessa police station where a lot of episode 11 takes place. Peter’s cell, hallways, interrogation room. A lot of the episode happens in it and it feels big and real…
So, from the time you knew we were going to build it, to the time it was shooting on camera… How many days was that?
RA: I would say... eight
GB: That’s crazy.
RA: I know but I had it in my head and I wanted to build it and because of other things that were going on at that time there were less financial restrictions than on most of the other sets. I didn’t want us to shoot a Barney Fife police station.
GB: Still it looks great and to do it in so little time is phenomenal.
RA: It was fun. There are sort of two levels to our Odessa Texas. The old west traditional, like our diner, and the new generation – kind of a falsely optimistic world that’s over scale and perfect but will crumble in ten years.
GB: Like the High School.
GB: I love Claire’s high school.
RA: I knew I was going to enjoy myself on this job when all the producers liked that location – because it was a bold and not obvious choice.
GB: I love it. It’s very “Triumph of the Will.” It reflects a kind of grandiosity and menace that seems so appropriate for Claire’s story. It reflects what’s going on in her family life. It looks clean and strong and secure, but on closer look, it’s oppressive and a little frightening.
RA: I never read comic books and can’t keep up with some of you when you talk about them. But I’ve come to appreciate the strong graphic visualization that you guys love. We can push things over the top all the time.
GB: Really? But Tim has always mandated “real.” And I do think the show – at least the environments – feel “”real.” How do you think we balance that?
RA: Because there’s no style for style’s sake. Because everything’s thought out. We don’t punch holes in the wall for light to stream through just so it will look cool. We come up with logical valid reasons for our light sources.
GB: Speaking of… You think about light and design light into your sets more than any other designer I’ve ever worked with,
RA: Because that’s what you see. What’s lit or not lit is the first stroke of design. I try to build windows and lights into my sets because – it’s like painting, light is what shapes the architecture, light is what says what it is.
Besides if you don’t light it someone else will and you might not like the results.
GB: What else?
RA: Just that, my focus is also very much on having the set be the smoothest set for production it can be. Not just the look, but how easily the walls move so the crew can access it. How easily it lights. If the crew is happy and not fumbling about the set the actors can relax.
A well-finished set will get the best performances from the actors because they will believe in where they are.
GB: Awesome. Thanks for your time.
RA: My pleasure.
Ruth Ammon and director Paul Shapiro on location
A new little set that's being built - HEROES it's like a TV show only bigger
Set detail - it's all about the details
Ruth and her crew hard at work
Ruth in the ever popular van
Ruth with one foot in
Location scouting (with Alex Reid location manager) "I wuv you thiiis much"