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With each season and each episode, we get to revisit what we’ve done before and make it better. It’s intense and fast-paced, but it’s fun.
Production design and set decoration are subtle and collaborative crafts. Whether we’re adding new elements to Heartland’s iconic Ranch House or Maggie’s Diner or developing a new set from scratch, we’re always working to create a plausible, realistic and breathing environment for our actors. We want every element to be so perfect, so believable, that it becomes invisible.
At the very core of our work, we’re filmmakers and storytellers, too. That’s what we studied at SAIT and it’s what makes us good at production design. Everything we do is centered on story points, plot-driven elements and character. As we add texture, colour and layers to a set, we walk through the entire journey of a scene with all aspects of production in mind — from lighting and camera angles to wardrobe. We scrutinize every detail down to the shape and colour of a coffee cup. They are little things, but we put great energy and thought into them.
Looking back at our careers, neither of us expected to become part of a Canadian cultural phenomenon. That’s the fun and the adventure of the film and television industry — you sort of fumble your way into your first job and somehow something sticks. We each found our individual paths and now, here we are together, creating the look of Heartland, an Alberta-made television series that is licensed in 120 countries and captures an audience of more than one million viewers each week. Fans are drawn to this frontier lifestyle at the edge of modernity — the myth of the West. There’s also something about its traditional family values that resonates with people — a value set that some people feel is fading.
To do our jobs, we’re constantly driving around beautiful southern Alberta. We research, draw, shop, build and manufacture. With each season and each episode, we get to revisit what we’ve done before and make it better. It’s intense and fast-paced, but it’s fun. There’s always this magic window in the hours before cast and crew arrive on set where we get it to ourselves. While trucks are being packed up and the sun is going down, we join the rest of the art department and stand where we think the cameras will be. It’s a chance to appreciate our accomplishment together as a team and to take in a job well done.
When we sat down with Chris Smith and Trevor Smith, they oozed with great appetite for the work they do, emphasizing the importance of collaboration in order to create the iconic look for a show that captures over one million viewers from around the world each week.
TS & CS: On a show like this, set decoration and design work hand-in-hand. So much of it is location based, it’s quite quick paced and we don’t have big budgets — we’re not building entire town sites from scratch. We’ve got to work hard to make our budget work and ensure that each dollar is the best dollar we could have spent on each set.
A lot of the work happens before crew or actors even get on set. We’re really looking into the future and asking what can we do to empower characters and help them to feel like they have a voice. So we take the time to review screen shots from previous episodes and we know the scripts ahead of time because there are important turning points in the season that we need to keep in mind.
As you add or take something away, you need to walk through the whole journey of the scene and try to be preemptive — we’re always thinking about what the director might be looking for down to the tiniest of details, right down to the cups the actors are drinking out of.
TS & CS: We’re responsible for creating the look of the story. Whether it’s a yurt, teepee village or a market on the street. The cast and crew are looking to us to sell it and make it believable, and we work hard at it.
We want to create a plausible, realistic, breathing environment for the actors, director and the cinematographer to appreciate. We want believability for them so they can sit down and be comfortable and immersed. But we also want to set the mood and say something subtly. It’s not our job to steal focus from the actors — especially in television.
Heartland fans will pick up on the smallest change, so we’re always aware of what they might be thinking. We have to ask ourselves, ‘Are they going to buy it?’
TS & CS: A location decision starts with Trevor as the Production Designer as well as the director, location manager and producers — they talk about high level story points, look and feel, plausibility and logistics. It starts with bold strokes and thinking about the big picture. Then, Trevor does as much research as possible. It’s his role to clarify details, set tone, mood and story for everybody.
Then, we have a team meeting — all heads of department sit together and talk about what needs to be shopped for or built, painted and any other details. Chris takes over and leads his team to gather, hunt and source whatever is needed, including back-up options.
Morning and evenings are big times for all department art directors to loop together and put together the pieces from the day — what we’ve discovered, any changes, what’s winning, what’s failing, what’s ahead of or behind schedule, what’s under or over budget — all of this is happening concurrently.
From a set dresser to an art director — everyone has to have the same energy. It can be such an intense job, with a lot of expectations and pressure that you have to leave room for levity and to create a family atmosphere where the whole team can have fun, laugh, cry and throw the hammer in anger together. We’ve gotten stuck in the mud, chased by cows and found out there was a grizzly bear in the bush we had just happened to be throwing rocks into. But that’s the adventure of it — we build and grow together. As heads of department, we have to be inspirational and aspirational — we have to motivate. If we’re not having fun, nobody else will. It’s our job to stay positive and aim high, and what a great challenge that is.
Photo by Jager and Kokemor