Cross-Pollinator: Mark Steel

Mark Steel (Portrait by Stacey Brandford Photography)

Mark Steel

Production Designer at Umbrella Academy-Netflix/UCP

Mark has helmed art departments on many projects for major studios and networks such as CBC, FX, CBS, ABC and NBC Universal. His credits include What We Do in the Shadows, Star Trek Discovery and Heroes Reborn. He most recently wrapped production on the second season of The Umbrella Academy for Netflix.

I’m a little bit of an outsider to a lot of what I’m sure I’ve been hearing but I also hear a lot of things in common with what I do as a production designer, which is essentially interpreting design to tell a story. Most recently is The Umbrella Academy.


[In] my world as a designer, what I’m charged with is interpreting a visual language or a visual world for a story to be told. So that project came to me as a script. It starts with some words on a page and a pitch, usually a phone call and somebody telling me there’s a project that they’d like me to be involved in. I’ll get sort of a basic premise — which for me this production was pitched as The Royal Tenenbaums meets X-Men — and now that immediately starts a thought process for all of us involved the producer, the director, the writer, myself.

In terms of framing, what we feel this world begins to take on is a texture and a characteristic but specifically what we’re following is a guideline in the script, which is a description of the Umbrella Academy itself, which is the kind of core idea for the whole story. So from that brief, it sort of gives me a few notes about what we should be doing and I’d like to take you through how we interpret that sort of intention in the script to a finished product.

Through a lot of exchange and conversation with the creatives, we bring our own experiences with design to what we feel the look should be and my job is then to collate those ideas into what I call as a key frame. I will use an illustrator; we will develop an image that we try to express all of the attention of that one moment. In the case of the academy we had to start on the outside (the outside never really exists) and we needed to sort of explain the relationship of this particular building to the characteristics of its interior. And in the case of what we read in the little blurb the beginning, it’s a very sort of eccentric space.

From here, we start to discuss what kinds of influences we want architecturally on a space and then again, it’s another exploration with the creatives. I spend a lot of time exchanging imagery. We talk about places we visited, styles and trends that we find interesting, eventually what we did with this particular project is we settled on a Jacobian manor called Crew Hall in the UK as a really great inspiration in terms of scale and texture.

Once we’ve established a design idea or an influence it is my job to reinterpret it into the context of our story. So what you see here is sort of some reference imagery with a Victorian Pump House, some textures and colours that we found that really spoke to what we wanted to do then sort of quickly sketched into a sort of a composition that would work for our set and then a more illustrated keyframe, which is sort of showing the mood and the scene that would play in that. For all of the collaborators in this process, each of these steps brings us closer to focusing what we need out of the design. We’re constantly trying to distil all of these influences down into those moments.

As we go further into the story line, we start to realize that the space is more than just one room. We start to think about what the full look of the inside of this Academy manor is, we start to explore styles and finishes that we really find interesting and in this case, we used a Gilded Age manor. I think the top left is one of the Vanderbilt apartments in the Upper West Side from the Golden Age.

Then what we start to do is to push into a theme for a space through all these different influences and again try to reinterpret it again in an illustration which ties it to our storyline.

Then we get to the practical part of this process because these worlds that we build have to be sort of artificial. They’re really working models for our camera. They’re not for people to live in or exist. They have to be sort of pushed into volumes. We begin to develop the real practical space into in relation to all of the physical requirements of production. And what that does actually is gives us another sort of pollination moment where we now have to take back the influences and inspiration of the technicians and of the environment that we’re working in, which then starts to sort of inform the design based on this feedback loop that starts.

From there, we move into finishes, and finishes is an interesting moment for us as well. Because we’re doing sort of an impermanent world, finishes can become a really great ground for cross-pollination. What we ended up doing was the inside of this particular set. We wanted a sort of Moorish tile texture on the walls, which is, you know, very complicated to do with real materials. So what we ended up doing was using automotive vehicle vinyl wrap with a metallic finish and when we use graphic design to print out the pattern and then print the entire set as though it was a graphic so each surface was mapped out on a plan and printed and then applied in vinyl. So what I get to do is actually sort of corrupt the actual use of materials or borrow materials from other industries and apply them to finishes and find innovative ways to reinterpret them because I don’t have to worry about things like durability or access. All of this is temporary. This whole set is temporary. It will eventually be torn down. This only exists to be photographed.

So in the end through this process from the beginning when we have this interior entrance we end up with this piece, which is a standing set and on a stage which is the sort of becomes a sort of emotional hub for our storytelling it becomes the entrance into our story and all of the scenes and images you saw in that that trailer grows from this moment for us.

So to sort of wrap up for what I do is an incredibly collaborative process that really doesn’t have any rules outside of interpreting everybody’s particular relationship with design and then applying that to how we were going to try to enhance performance and story and bring the audience into that world.