Embark on the new Apple TV+ series Hello Tomorrow! through the past to the future, starring Billy Crudup as a hack salesman for Brightside, a company that sells condos on the moon. The show’s take on a 1950s sci-fi retro-future take is one of its most striking elements, so io9 was thrilled to speak with the show’s production designer, Maya Sigel.
What follows is a slightly edited and abridged version of our interview conducted via video chat.
Cheryl Eddy, io9: Hello tomorrow! is set in an idealized version of the 1950s. What was your research process like when figuring out how you wanted the show to look and feel?
Maya Sigel: The amazing thing is that there are so many resources for this time. From the minute I read the script for the first time until we started filming, and throughout the entirety of shooting, the research process never stopped. It was just about constantly finding things and digging up things that would be interesting for the show. There was a lot of stuff from that era that kind of looked to the future, which is cool to look at and look up. [Showrunners Amit Bhalla and Lucas Jansen] mentioned these Tex Avery cartoons that we took inspiration from for some of the gadgets. I looked at old photos and catalogs from World’s Fairs; Many of the big art companies and home appliance companies were making concept cars or concept kitchens or “homes of the future” that were good to lean on. And for me it was a lot about street architecture and the Googie movement. [The show’s central location,] the Vista Motor Lodge, this hotel is roadside, and [I looked at] what attracts people from the street. There’s a lot of that. And yes, all the retro space-age furniture and architecture -[I looked at] Decoration books from that time, postcards from old motels. Inspiration came from everywhere.
io9: Did you study and watch movies or TV shows from that time?
Sigel: Of course I love movies and I’ve seen so many movies from that time and I thought it might be worth revisiting some specifically for that. But I have to say that the films weren’t as much a point of reference as the photography and the architecture and the catalogues. Also, in my process I sometimes find it nice to reference other cinematic things, but I feel like I always want to get away from that because you want to do something unique. I definitely haven’t seen anything filmed recently, but I went back and re-watched some movies from the 50’s and 60’s.
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io9: You mentioned the motel, which is the main location of the show. How much of it was already there, or did you build it all? What about the interiors – were these elements created specifically for the show?
Sigel: When I read the script for the pilot episode, I thought, “We’re shooting this in New York? I very much doubt we’ll find a space that really works since that’s where we’re going to focus this season.” So it always felt to me like it was probably going to be a build. We did a little scouting for locations but it became apparent pretty quickly that we would need all of these areas and it would be best if they were connected – so you could do these walk and talk scenes, and that it would just give the writers room to create whatever they wanted for the duration of the season.
Here’s how the set was built; It was the lobby and the bar and the diner, and then the conference room is attached to it. And then you could walk through those double doors down a hallway into one of our motel rooms, which has been rearranged a few times depending on what character was in it. The exterior was a place we found and made a number of changes. But a lot of our furniture has been custom made; I liked the idea of designing the architecture and the furniture together and having built-in things in each room. George DeTitta Jr. was my set designer. He is great. He and his team have really sourced furniture, fixtures and materials from all over the world, and much has then been re-sourced from us [color] Palette.
io9: The gadgets in the show are one of my favorite parts: the “holo-table”, the hover cars, the hover briefcase, the video phones, the robots that perform a variety of tasks and functions. Obviously some of that has to come from the script, but how much freedom did you have to design those elements and what was that process like?
Sigel: Amit and Lucas wrote a lot of gadgets in it and they came up with really funny names for all of them. We sort of scaled it down because it was important to everyone that we make as much practical as possible. So really everything was built, things lit up and they kind of worked – and later on the VFX supervisor came in and helped whenever we needed it, cleaned up and improved things, which was great. It was really a big collaboration, but there was a lot of freedom… a lot of it was brainstorming and thinking, I was doing a lot of art deco era industrial design. That was a big inspiration.
The gadgets were really fun because it was that place where we could just be really whimsical and daydream about what would a dopp kit look like if it fed you your shaving cream, razor and toothbrush? Everything [was] rooted in the 1950s, but some of it, you know – it’s kind of silly and redundant, but also just really funny. I think they all feel like they have weight; Importantly, they were also a bit clunky and didn’t always work the way they were supposed to.
io9: One of the things I personally love to see in sci-fi is the depiction of food – like all the weird food scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But this show has so many good examples: the bartender robot, the portable popcorn popper, all those casseroles…
Sigel: The idea with the food was that there was nothing really fresh. You don’t really see people eating fresh fruit and vegetables on the show. You can really see it at Hartoonian’s, our market; my graphics team created all these graphics [for the packages on the shelves] and it’s all those fun, gross, freeze-dried or frozen or canned foods. In the 1950’s people ate a lot of ready meals and microwaved things and boxed things – you know, it seemed like that was the future and that kind of work liberated people. So that was a big part of it.
A very rare fresh fruit moment on Hello Tomorrow!Image: Apple TV+
But yes, there is no connection to nature and it is not the people who prepare it either. It makes you feel like you are removed from nature and you are removed from other people and everything is automated and served to you by a robot or machine. “Kernel Fresh” is the popcorn popper – I wanted to add the dome to a lot of our devices, so it kind of fits with that [the dome enclosing the Brightside development on the moon]. So we use the plexiglass dome on top and it pops your popcorn and you open it. It’s funny – a lot of these things feel like a company needs to pour a lot of money into something that’s so specific and really only has one function.
io9: The interface of Hello Tomorrow! is very sci-fi and shiny, but underneath it all lurks a torrent of sadness as almost every character is hiding from some truth or other. How did you go about capturing and conveying this mix of brightness and melancholy in the production design?
Sigel: I really approached it by making it a drama and not a comedy. The only things that were somehow quirky and funny were the gadgets. But other than that, the world looks and is lit very much like a drama. I think it’s important that you see these people who [have to face that] you can’t escape You have nowhere else to go to escape your problems. You can have all the appliances and the house and all that – like [Alison Pill’s character] Myrtle, really, you’re stuck in that gold gilded cage that was the design of her house for me. It’s just this golden cage. I think there’s also something about being this slave to capitalism and this endless consumerism and feeling that nothing is ever enough. If you’re only interested in getting the next thing, you’ll never get enough. I think you see that in the world. I really wanted it to be beautiful and a fun world. But there is a much darker side.
The first four episodes of Hello Tomorrow! are streaming now, with new episodes arriving Thursdays on Apple TV+.
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