Inside The Dome—Q&A With Production Designer Chuck Parker

A set can never be overdressed
Posted on Jul 6, 2015 | 08:10am
Chuck Parker has taken the lead on production design for the big CBS summer adventure show Under The Dome. He took a few minutes to share some insights on what it takes to make Chester's Mill come to life.

Now that Under The Dome is going into the third season, when you look at the show, how is it evolving aesthetically?
I find this season to be much more interesting and aligned to my sensibilities because it's darker (both aesthetic and the written word), and I find darker work to be much more interesting to do. It's easy to do darker work because you're dealing with a city that doesn't have electricity anymore. There's no electrical lights here, except in a couple situations that have been allowed for in the written medium. 

You've got a unique character of sorts with the Dome. It almost seems to take on a life of its own. How do you use production design to help tell the story of the Dome and its evolution?
Any kind of visible existence of that Dome is created in post-production with visual effects. We will assist that periodically. For instance, when the Dome started contracting last season, we would show evidence of that in the ground—by either using earth-moving equipment or building what we call burns and the chasm beyond. The Dome itself is done with visual effects. We might churn up the dirt a bit to allow visual effects to grab it as an element and expand on it. Periodically, we might want to show someone walking up to the Dome or see their reflection, and then we'll use an element, say a large piece of very thick Lexan (one inch thick). This Dome is impervious so we can't have any raveling or anything. We'll use a large piece of that and hang it from a crane or an armature, but that's not done very often. 

Sounds like an interesting challenge.
There are all sorts of challenges. You might have a reflection of camera lights. You know, we found out that doing things at night just doesn't work! There's lots of trial and error. We had a scene where people came running up to [the Dome] and they had to pound on it desperately. Tat had to be thick, one-inch Lexan to stand up to an actor or an extra banging on it without rattling. That's once, a special armature. It's an expensive gag, but it was necessary to tell a little bit of story in the scene.

What's it like working on the set?
The set is fun to work on because the people here are fantastic. It's a very collegial set. There are some very good people working on this show, they've been doing it for three years and they care about it greatly. It's very professional, it's a lot of fun, and it's very interesting—particularly this year. I really like this subject matter. It's gone towards the sci-fi more, and it's much darker. 

How does the experience with Under The Dome compare with other sets?
I've been part of successful shows in the past, and this is a successful show—so this shares that. They're a lot more fun, they're a lot more engaging when the material is fun to work on and it's about something. This show, this season, is leading towards something. I don't know what the end of it is yet. But it's a fun ride to get there. 

What are you most proud of on this show?
The cocoons and the eggs were a lot of fun to do.

What was the inspiration for designing those?
The natural organic world was our springboard. That was something that the showrunner—Neil Baer—asked me to do, ground it in nature. So we did a search for different types of cocoons. Different organisms have different shapes and different methods of doing them. We finally came on one everybody liked as a springboard. We had to figure out how we wanted them to appear. First, we brought in some carvers, some sculptors, and we sculpted our shapes—three different sizes out of foam. Then we just tried to figure out, "How're we going to make these things?" We got a very large vacuum form machine and started doing tests. When I say we started doing tests, most people in other businesses have some time, but in television, we really don't. We had to do this quickly and make our judgements quickly. Then we pulled pieces into vacuum form and glued them together. We used the dye to color them, but not too much because working with lighting, we wanted them to glow a bit. Then we had to figure out how we were going to put people in there, and do we poke holes in them so they could breathe? There were a myriad of concerns.

What feedback did you get from the people who were inside?
It was claustrophobic. We made it large enough that they could lay in there, and I actually, before I asked anyone to do that, I got in myself. An interesting aside is that when we had these placed in the caves, someone came up with the bright idea that we wanted some ground smoke, so they used dry ice [frozen carbon dioxide]. One of the actresses was like, "Guys, I can't breathe in here!" so they had to cut the dry ice. There was never any danger, it was just a by-product.

How many people were involved in making these cocoons?
Oh my goodness, I probably had 12 people just involved in the carving and casting process. And then I had a couple people figuring out the engineering of this large vacuum form machine. There was always engineering going on. And then there's five or six painters involved, figuring out how to color. Then there's three or four special effects people. Then on-site maintenance of it, and then lighting people. We probably had as many as 30 or 35 people involved in this process, on and off, over a three-to-four week period. Different disciplines, you know. Had this had been a picture, we'd have been working this out for two-to-three months. Instead, we have three-to-four weeks. And those of us who do TV, we're used to that.

Do you have  single favorite tool, or anything that you think is the most important thing to have on-hand when you're on set?
My most valuable tool, if I had to pick one, is really old school. It would be paper and a pencil. Coming in a close second is my computer. Actually, the tool I use more than anything right now is my iPhone! I think that says everything about the world we're in, just because of the ability research and take photos. On another show, I took a picture with an iPhone when we needed a mural and we blew that photo up 12 feet wide and five feet high.

What would it have taken, say, 10-15 years ago, before we had smartphones and things like that? You said the cocoons might take three to four weeks whereas it might be a couple months or so if it were for a motion picture.
The research process would've been different. I think it would've been slower. I would revert back to times when I worked on movies like Godzilla, where we were doing that type of research and that would've definitely [taken longer]. What would we do without Google now? Just think about all that we take for granted, just in the last five years, how it's completely taken over our research process. What would I do, and how would I do it, and how long would it take?

I'm picturing you at a natural history museum having to check for things instead of just a quick Google search.
Exactly, you know, if you think about in Silence Of The Lambs when she goes to see those two weird guys who study bugs. She goes down the stairs to that place and there's all these cocoons there. That's what you'd have to do.

Do you remember the very first things you designed or created?
I can remember back when I was a kid! A few months ago, I was at my brother's house and I found a drawing that I had done. It was about how these Muslim guys who [call worshipers to prayer] the top of the minarets get up there. I had drawn this exterior cage and a pulley system, being pulled up by an elephant, where the guy went up a cage and got out at the top and got in the minaret. So I've been doing this and thinking like this awhile! The title was "Istanbul" or "Constantinople."

Do you try to leave any sort of hallmark or signature when you design?
No. There's a few designers like me that started out on the floor, either building or painting. We didn't come directly from design school into designing or into the art department. I actually built sets for 12-15 years before I ever art directed. I'm comfortable with that. I know how these things are being built and I think my designs show that. So, you know, the actual physical hands-on process is important to me, and it's something that I have in mind all the time, because costs are very important. I like to think that we get a lot for our money.

Any specific types of art or design—or designers—that have inspired you, or that you personally admire or enjoy, when you watch shows?
Oh, yeah. There's a bunch of them! There are people whose style and MO I like. There are two people in particular whose styles have influenced me. One is Lawrence Bennett, and the other one is a man named Paul Eads. Larry Bennett used to do TV, he only does movies now. He's inspired me a lot, he's the only designer alive who has designed two pictures that went on to win Best Picture Oscars: The Artist and Crash. Paul Eads has done a lot of [Steven] Bochco shows. Both of these guys deal with things differently. Larry has a certain texture about him that I really admire in his work and can always recognize. Paul Eads has got incredible depth to his work. He's able to work with backings out the window in such a way that I really feel we're in the right place. It's a reel, it's two-dimension but it feels three-dimensional to me. I've always admired that about him, and I keep an eye on his work. Another person is a woman named Jeannine Oppewall, who works with color beautifully. I've always admired her work as well, I keep an eye on what she does. You know, you don't steal from people, but you see what are the design elements—line, color, texture, things like that—how do they use those? How does that inform their work and how can I improve mine?

What's the question as a production designer that you get asked the most often?
People ask me if I know the stars. I have very little contact with the actors. If I start a show at the pilot, and it gets picked up, you start building camaraderies. But I don't have that much interaction with the actors. I do seek them out many times, because if they're occupying a space I kinda' want to know what their hopes and fears and wishes are. But I'm not on set everyday, I'm not like the DP who's interacting with them constantly. The other thing that people ask me about is travelling and being in different locals for long periods of time, getting to know other people and how they live. And how does my family handle me being gone so much? As my daughter says, "We're a virtual family, dad!" We Skype. Right now, this day, my son is in LA, my daughter is in NYC, my wife is in England. We're spread all over the place. But this will be over in another seven weeks and we'll be back together.

At the end of the day, what does your job boil down to?
My key concern, the thing that I'm always dealing with, no matter what show, no matter what story: How do I convince the audience to suspend disbelief? How do you convince a subjective mind? They know they're watching a two-dimensional image on a screen. How do you convince them to enter that reality? That is something that is always on my mind. We do that by doing our homework, by creating the illusion of depth. 

Watch Under The Dome on CBS.