Why hammers and nails are important…. a look at Outlander’s production design


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Note: As you probably know I’ve been out of commission, but I felt like writing today, so I finished this piece I started awhile back!

So, I was on my iPad scanning for Outlander season two news. I’ve been anxiously awaiting a look at Terry Dresbach’s costume designs for Season two. Outlander in Paris was going to be so different from Outlander in Scotland and as lovely as the costumes were for Season one, we just knew the Paris court was going to be more wonderful than we could imagine! Even Terry thought she had “outdone” herself! So, when I saw a link on Twitter to our first pics of Claire in Paris, I quickly clicked!  I was a little startled to see this!

EW Claire Paris

My first response was ” what the? ” and the second “why?”.  The green screen behind the dress did nothing to flatter Caitriona Balfe or the dress she was wearing.  The situation was soon rectified and we were treated to a lovely picture of Claire in an appropriately French room.

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However, as it often happens in this fandom, the green screen pic started a flurry of rumors and conjecture.  Was Paris going to be CGI?! Why else would they have Claire on a green screen? Terry tried to get ahead of what she KNEW would happen by tweeting that all sets were created by Jon Gary Steele, production designer.

Too late…at least for my curiosity’s sake…I wanted to know more about that green screen.

I knew that green screens are widely used and with the advent of more and more sophisticated technology it is often difficult to even know when a green screen is being used.  It seemed to me the use of green screens provided some definite advantages for film productions.  The screen allows the production to move to locales without actually packing up the whole kit and kaboodle and going there!  It seems more cost effective. So, I wondered why it seemed important to Terry that fans knew the sets were created by Gary Steele? What advantages did hammer and nail sets offer a production versus ‘virtual” sets?

My research about production design started by drawing from my own early experiences watching theater. Overall, my experiences were very positive.  I saw a great version of Fiddler on the Roof performed on a thrust stage at Kent State and some great small productions in Pittsburgh and Cleveland where I was so close to the actors I could have touched them.  As I said, mostly positive experiences, except for…one… I was invited to see an Italian opera and…well…let me explain.

It was my very first opera and I was very excited! I knew I wouldn’t understand the language, but my friends assured me I would understand what was going on.  I’m sure that might have been the case, but for one thing.  For whatever reason, the production designer created  a malt shop for the opera and the performers were “teens” in poodle skirts and pompadours.  Believe me when I say this choice did nothing to advance or enhance the narrative.  I spent the entire production confused and baffled. I was really afraid the quizzical wrinkle between my brows wasn’t going to go away because I had REALLY tried to figure out why we were in that malt shop! Obviously, it made an impression on me, but not for the right reasons. What I learned that night was that production design can greatly impact the story being told.

I needed to know more about how production design affects the narrative being told so, I began reading. I very quickly realized that production designers have to have one of more difficult and yet, potentially satisfying jobs in film. These “jack of all trades” folks better be able to use both sides of their brains! Production designers are part architect, artist, McGyver, super collaborator, mathematician, expert on visual psychology and have the ability to see both the forest and the trees! These are the people who control the visual feel of a film. They can be the folks who talk the producers into malt shops and poodle skirts or…not.

Thank God.

Now, feeling a bit better informed about production designers, I set about to find the advantages and disadvantages of using a green screen vs hammer and nail sets.  During my reading, a theme began to emerge; actors and acting.

Acting is a craft. What determines the difference between a good performance and a so-so performance is the actor’s  ability to make us suspend our disbelief. We need to feel as if these are real people in a real place. There are things that help an actor with his/her craft like being able to play off of other actors (my fav Outlander scene is the fight at the river), costumes, being in a particular locale and performing on realistic sets.  These things can help actors create and stay in character and help them create realistic performances.  Green screens…it appears…aren’t very helpful in this endeavor. I read article after article about how difficult it was to act in a film that involved green screens. The following excerpt addresses the reality of performing on a green screen.

“Forget the scene partners. Forget steeping yourself in the atmosphere of the set. Instead, try rehearsing the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet opposite a tennis ball, because in today’s digital Hollywood, actors not only need to know how to relate to other actors, they need to know how to deliver an emotionally convincing performance against thin air, a void that months later will be filled in by a computer.”   HOW TO ACT IF YOUR CO-STAR IS A GREEN SCREEN  May 6, 2001, Micheal Mallory. Special to the L.A. Times

One of my favorite pictures of Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe is the day they first saw the set of the Great Hall.

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To me their faces say it all. Their reaction to the set confirms what it means for an actor to be acting on “hammer and nail” sets versus a green screen. They had to be excited to see the quality of Gary’s sets and feel what this would mean to their performances. They were going to be able to look around and feel themselves to be in 1743 Scotland. I remember Lotte Verbeek saying in one of the early promos that it only took her moments to get into character because the sets were so realistic. She said she would forget it was a set.

It isn’t hard to see why the reality of playing a scene in a set like this

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or this

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is more helpful to an actor than performing on a green screen.  I found this excerpt from an article about what it was like to act on a green screen very enlightening.

“Moving through doorways shaped like trapezoids without penetrating the scenery was a challenge,”…. “It was a bit frustrating to get the hang of paying so much attention to tape marks [and] hanging strings to represent your boundaries and still focus on being honest and truthful about your life as the character.” IT’S NOT EASY BEING GREEN By Ben Rock | Posted April 7, 2011

Ron Moore, executive producer for Outlander, said in an early promo that they were going to try and convince the audience that this really happened to Claire. His choice to film in Scotland and remain as historically accurate as they could was crucial to immersing us in that belief. Gary’s production designs then brought it all to fruition. He helped create the alien world of 1743 with hammer and nails and plaster and…vision.

I know there are times when green screens can be very useful in telling a story visually, Colum’s and Ian’s legs come to mind. However, I can’t help but believe that Sam and Tobias’ performance in that dungeon cell were enhanced by being in the dark stark space Gary created for that scene. It felt real.  The sets Mr. Steele created for Outlander must  be a gift to the actors.

Because the actors were able to move through real space, we viewers were able to take inventory with Claire in her surgery, help prepare a feast in Mz. Fitz’s open hearth, dance on stage with Claire or wait our turn to pledge fealty to Colum in the Hall. Gary’s version of 1743 Scotland was breathtakingly believable and I can’t wait to dance with Claire in Versailles and nurse along side Buton.  Green screens have their place, but i’m grateful that it has a small place in Outlander.

P.S. I have I told you how much I love this puppet show!



22 thoughts on “Why hammers and nails are important…. a look at Outlander’s production design

  1. Judy11

    Loved you assessment of the value of hammer and nail sets. Cait talks so much about how the costumes inform the character. I think the sets do the same things for the action. Thanks for taking time to share this with us.

  2. Beth, so good to read one of your well researched, enlightening pieces again! I’ve missed you and hope you are doing well. I think the “look” of Outlander is an important part of it’s success. I have always appreciated Terry’s wonderful costumes. Now I will be more aware of the set design, the important part it plays for the actors, and how it affects the visual experience for the viewers.

  3. @jackieincincy

    Impressed as always with your research. I am one who doesn’t always catch the details so I appreciate when someone brings them to my attention. Thanks! Glad you are back at it!

  4. donnakaylc

    The sets are so good–when I re-watch an episode, I try and focus on all the detail we are given in the background, in the costumes, etc.—I appreciate the attention to detail. Thanks for pointing it out to us all.

  5. beckym

    I too love the fight by the river. The dress is so much more beautiful with the set as backdrop rather than the green screen. I am really excited for season 2 for many reasons including the costumes and sets in France. Eye candy other than the gorgeous and handsome Cait and Sam. Thank you for again giving us an interesting and thoughtful take on something Outlander!

  6. Barbara Herman

    Thank you for homing in on a part of the production that tends to be overlooked BECAUSE it is so well done and fits the story so well. Otherwise, as you said, we would notice it for the wrong reasons.
    I do hope your convalescence continues well, and you are back to full ‘go’ soon.
    Barb from NZ.

  7. marglyns

    Thank you for a very interesting look at the difference between “hammer and nails” sets and green screen. I knew green screen was used in situations like Colum’s legs and Ian’s wooden leg but had no idea they might be used for whole sets. I guess I just don’t pay enough attention to what is around the actors. I’ll do better next time!
    Thanks again,
    Peg Lyons, Louisville, KY

  8. Rita Wood

    Thanks for another well informed article with insight into the world of the very talented Jon Gary Steele. Colum’s office, the great hall, the kitchens, so so many lovely sets in season one. Season two sounds as if it will far surpass that excellence. Glad to see you’re getting back on track Beth!

  9. Thank you for this article. I look for your informative writings every day and this one gave us insight to a different part of Outlander and how important the background is to the actors and we the viewers . And, thank you for giving credit to the people behind this superb show.

  10. BRAVO Beth! A couple of notes: The scene by the river reminded me of my first trip to Scotland. I marveled at how ferns growing EVERYWHERE added to the lushness of the landscape. Ira, Ron, Sam & Tobias all talked about the dungeon cell. It was claustrophobic, oppressive, dark. Cast and crew didn’t like spending any more time than was necessary in there. Gary…mission accomplished!

  11. Thanks for this, it was fascinating. How did you have to be at a Kent State production? I’m from Ohio and attended both Kent State and Hiram College.

  12. Janice

    Thanks, Beth, for this informative focus on Outlander’s rich set designs and the artist behind them. I’ve found that repeat viewings of the episodes (a happy addiction with us fans) helped me to better appreciate the sets and the lighting that contribute so much to this series. So rich and detailed. Hope your recovery is going smoothly and that you’re soon back to full capacity.

  13. Peigi

    Thanks for yet again shining a light on the details of such richness in OutlanderWorld and it’s artist creators! Be Well!

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