Man of the Hour
Is it Kiefer Sutherland, aka agent Jack Bauer—or Carlos Barbosa, production designer for TV’s 24?
Paul Young -- Interior Design, 5/1/2010 12:00:00 AM
What do the world's most clandestine government agencies look like? They might be difficult to imagine. But they're all pretty much the same in the mind of production designer Carlos Barbosa, who created the set for the current season of 20th Century Fox Television's real-time sensation, 24. "Concrete and steel," he says. "Whenever you see them in movies or on TV, they're cold, gray, and bathed in blue light."Admittedly, that's never been the case for the Counter Terrorist Unit in 24 as it followed Kiefer Sutherland's agent Jack Bauer everywhere from a warehouse in Los Angeles to the South African bush. When the fictional setting moved to New York for the eighth and final season, producers tapped Barbosa, who'd handled the pilot before departing for CSI: Miami and Lost. His first suggestion for 24 was to place the CTU deep underground, at the tip of Roosevelt Island in the middle of the East River, the only access being an underwater tunnel and a helipad. He then designed a decidedly urbane office complex—it looks more like an Italian ad agency than the world's most secretive organization.
Glossy and transparent surfaces define the interior, along with burnt orange and dark brown. "There's an intensity about the spaces," Barbosa explains. "It mostly comes from the boxy shapes and the orange, which is like molten lava."
"Intensity" could be Bauer's middle name. By season eight, he's inactive with the CTU and is in the process of moving back to L.A. with his daughter and granddaughter. The day represented by the 24 episodes starts to go wrong when he gets pulled back into espionage, thanks to a nuclear threat and an assassination attempt on the president of the Islamic Republic of Kamistan.
Barbosa points out that most spy shows, from Mission: Impossible to Get Smart, are "basically about paranoia and control. The best manifestation of that in design terms is a very rigorous, precise, formal structure. In my mind, that means a grid. Architects have always used grids." In fact, Barbosa is a trained architect himself, and he made sure that every element in the tightly rectilinear floor plan could be broken down into units of 2, 4, 8, or 16—even the flooring and the graphics.
Shooting with handheld 35-millimeter cameras allowed him to design tighter spaces and make better use of the 9,600-square-foot set, housed in a warehouse in Chatsworth, California. To open the space and create transparency, another thematic concern, he used glass for walls and acrylic for flooring wherever possible. However, reflections caused by glass are a cameraman's bête noir, and acrylic flooring produces static electricity. "At first, the actors were getting shocked like crazy," construction coordinator Phil Stone says. So Barbosa placed every sheet of glass on pivoting gimbals and covered metal railings with plastic to combat the static.
He worked with the photography director to position the lighting, mostly in walls to minimize down-lighting. "There are very prominent vertical strip lights in the hallways," Stone continues. "When the camera passes by, it's like the old train effect, enhancing the sense of motion."
Set decorator Cloudia Rebar put together a mix of production pieces and custom designs. But when you're working on as many as eight scenes per day, as she does, it occasionally helps to get lucky. "A funny thing happens in this business," she says. "We're required to find so many objects, so fast, with such specific requirements, that we almost manufacture them out of thin air." She found, for example, an all-glass drafting table for the CTU's director, Brian Hastings, to use as a desk in his subtly deco office upstairs. The fact that the glass was clear was very important, because Hastings and the camera would be able to look through, unobstructed, to the bull pen and digital screen below.
If the show's visual component has an unsung hero, it would have to be the projection screens. After all, 24 thrives on video surveillance, hidden cameras, drones, and technology of every sort, all carefully designed for their roles. "That's also why we went with the orange-and-brown," Barbosa notes. "It's great for skin tones, and people photograph really well against it."
The interrogation room, by contrast, is as bright, white, and stark as a bare bulb. In addition to having the set's most severe downlights, it's also the sole circular space. Barbosa's grid exerts its full psychological force here, clearly outlined in orange paint against the glossy white coating every visible surface. This is where Bauer gets rough with double agent Dana Walsh while trying to ascertain the names of the assassination plot's conspirators. He's just witnessed his love interest, Renee Walker, being killed . . . .
Photography by Eric Laignel.
HERMAN MILLER: CHAIR (INTERROGATION ROOM).
COOPER LIGHTING: RECESSED WALL FIXTURES.
HUMANSCALE: CUSTOM CHAIRS (BULL PEN, OFFICE).
SKYTRON: LAMP (LAB).
McMASTER-CARR SUPPLY COMPANY: SINK, SINK FITTINGS.
MODERN PROPS: DRAFTING TABLE (OFFICE).
LAMPS PLUS: FLOOR LAMP.
W.W. GRAINGER: CEILING FIXTURES (TUNNEL).