'Revolution': The production design of NBC's hit post-apocalyptic show
NBC’s new hit drama Revolution is the narrative answer to a big “What if?” Creator Eric Kripke and fellow executive producers J.J. Abrams and Jon Favreau have taken a close look at how much our society depends on modern technology. The resulting TV show presents the answer to the chilling question “What would happen if all electrical power ceased to work?”
Also playing the “What if?” game is the show’s production design team, creating a new landscape that manages to be both futuristic, speculative fiction and period drama. It’s a world that is both eerily post-apocalyptic and “sometimes bizarrely beautiful,” said Zack Grobler, who oversaw the production design of the show’s pilot.
Current production designer Doug Meerdink said he was drawn to the project for “the challenge and the excitement of being able to build a world, one that’s somewhat familiar to the audience but also one that deviates from our normal lives.”
Meerdink had worked on projects with apocalyptic characteristics before, like War of the Worlds and Abrams-produced Cloverfield, but the post-apocalyptic world of Revolution was new territory for him because “it wasn’t an annihilation or destruction of the world,” Meerdink explained. “It was sort of a soft re-correction…. It’s as if nature’s reclaiming society to some degree.”
Read on to learn about the designing and the making of specific sets and props on Revolution, from Miles’ broadsword to an action sequence-spurring steam train to the all-important pendants.
NEXT PAGE: Vines, flowers and weeds everywhere
In a world without electricity where most people have fled the cities, a defining feature of landscape is the wild overgrowth of plants. Vines creep up once-majestic buildings like the U.S. Capitol. Weeds sprout up through concrete on every city street. Flowers crawl up a now non-functional Ferris wheel. (The show’s intro segment displays a time lapse of the growth of this greenery.)
Meerdink and his team did a lot of visual research into how natural greens can overtake buildings, streets and vehicles. They didn’t have to go far for a valuable resource available on the subject – in Wilmington, N.C., where Revolution is shot, the vines of an invasive species called kudzu cover unkept areas everywhere.
“It sort of provides a little research laboratory for us to look at and study, and then we take that and make it our own,” Meerdink said.
Revolution’s striking shots of recognizable buildings like Wrigley Field covered in greenery have reminded some fans of a History Channel series called Life After People. The 2008 series depicted what the world would look like in the years after a hypothetical, sudden extinction of humanity, revealing just what would happen to iconic buildings if they fell into neglect. Meerdink noted that the series “was referenced when I first started [working on the show]. That is a great sort of template for what our world might be.”
NEXT PAGE: The automobile in a post-blackout world
Cars, of course, don’t run in Revolution, but that doesn’t mean there’s no use for them. In the pilot, a Prius had been re-purposed as a plant potter. A VW bug had been transformed into a horse buggy.
“Cars are useless in their first form, but the chassis and the wheels would still have value of some kind,” Meerdink said.
Though people in the show’s post-blackout world have found new uses for cars, traditional wood-wheeled wagons, like the one Miles steals in a recent episode, tend to be more practical in the world of Revolution since things like rubber tires would be more difficult to replace than wooden wheels.
NEXT PAGE: Transforming a real-world suburb
The Mathesons’ cul-de-sac
Fifteen years after the blackout, Ben Matheson and his children are living in a Midwest suburb cul-de-sac that has been transformed into an agricultural village. Corn, cabbage and other crops cover what were once driveways. Goats and cows are housed within pens made of wood planks and rubber tires. Above, check out the EW exclusive concept art by Grobler.
The show converted a real Georgia cul-de-sac into this Revolution village. Residents of the six houses on the block were paid for the loan of their homes. Production ripped out their lawns and outfitted the street with everything villagers would need in a world without electricity, which Grobler said was quite the involved project, though just as big a job was returning the cul-de-sac back to its real-world original state.
NEXT PAGE: A brave new world of weaponry
The Monroe Militia has outlawed civilian ownership of firearms, so most people living in this post-apocalyptic America resort to defending themselves with broadswords, knives and crossbows.
“It’s a variety of different weapons from the crude to the more sophisticated as you work through the more grassroots rebels to the advanced militia,” Meerdink explained. “With any given conflict, the opposing sides may have technologies that come from different decades. It’s allowed us to look back at the history of weapons from the last 150 years and pull from a variety of options.”
The choice of the broadsword for Miles Matheson was born of a request from the producers and stunt coordinator Jeff Wolfe.
“Early on, Favreau, Kripke and the stunt coordinator said they wanted a different kind of fighting,” Grobler recalled. “They didn’t just want sword fighting but lots of punching too.”
Grobler’s research led him to a World War I weapon called a trench knife that inspired Miles’ sword. Its metal knuckle guard on the handle is ideal for throwing a few bone-shattering punches.
Grobler also explained the thinking behind the show’s choice of crossbows, which many viewers have pointed out appear to be held backwards. Don’t worry – Charlie and Danny aren’t about to shoot themselves in the face. The prop master opted for crossbows with reversed limbs chiefly for their smaller size.
“Most modern hunting crossbows looked huge when slung over someone’s back. It dwarfed any person,” Grobler said, adding that the reverse limb crossbow is believed to have better accuracy.
NEXT PAGE: In the streets of Philadelphia
General Monroe has made Philadelphia the capital of his republic, which centers its operations in Independence Hall.
“Early on in talking with the writers, there was a desire to place Monroe in sort of the epicenter in what in the past would have been [a place of] power early in American history. So Independence Hall is obviously a strong choice,” Meerdink said.
The production design team modeled their Independence Hall sets off of the real American landmark.
“We researched and referenced Independence Hall and down to all the molding details and window details and finishes,” Meerdink said. “We were able to get the historic colors directly from the [National] Park Service that runs Independence Hall. So we stayed quite true to the look and layout of rooms.”
NEXT PAGE: An Atlanta landmark transformed into a bar
Charlie finds her uncle working in a hotel transformed into a saloon in the pilot episode. It was difficult for Grobler to find the colonial era buildings he wanted to fit the show where the old meets the new, since the pilot was shot in Atlanta, where many buildings were destroyed during the Civil War. But he finally found a location that worked for the interior of Miles saloon – a very high-profile location, the Georgia State Capitol. The bar was in reality the receptionist desk that’s outside the office of the governor.
NEXT PAGE: Catch that train!
Revolution is, in many ways, a 21st century Western. The fifth episode of the series drew most from the Western genre, which Meerdink says is a tonal influence on their “quasi-period show.” The episode, called “Soul Train,” featured a steam locomotive that the Monroe militia had gotten up and running, making way for an intense sequence that had Miles and Charlie chasing after the train on horseback then racing across the tops of train cars.
“In conjunction with the locations department, we located parts and pieces that had existed in terms of train cars, etc. But then we built several elements as well,” Meerdink said.
NEXT PAGE: The pivotal pendants
When Kripke told Grobler he wanted a teardrop-shaped pendant that had a secret compartment, the production designer had Atlanta-based prop designer Steven Spelman to create the pivotal pendant based on Grobler’s sketches.
The on-off button that glows on the center of the pendant is modeled after the traditional computer power button but with a few tweaks.
“We wanted to show that this is not a regular on-off switch. It’s something special,” Grobler said.
Spelman initially created three versions of the pendant: one that included LED lighting, one with the retractable USB drive and another solid one. Though now that it has been revealed there are 12 pendants, Spelman has created more.
NEXT PAGE: A homemade computer
The makeshift computer in Grace’s attic looks like it’s been cobbled together from pieces of several different computers – and that’s exactly what it’s meant to be.
“The concept was computers are not around anymore because people trashed them,” Grobler said. “So you’d have to find different pieces to make a working model.”
Part of the inspiration for the look of Grace’s computer – housed in a wooden box with internal parts exposed – was Grobler’s memory of a friend who had pieced together several computers in the early ’90s.
“He looked like this crazy madman with three or four computers wired together,” Grobler said.
Grace’s computer was built by Kelly Westmiller, who made such memorable props on Lost as the hydrogen bomb Sayid and Jack dismantle in Season 5.
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