Interview With Production Designer Anthony Ianni

In this month’s instalment of our Member-driven interview series, DGC Ontario Production Designer John Dondertman (Orphan Black, Titans, Kim’s Convenience) chats with fellow Member and Production Designer Anthony Ianni (The Expanse, Mayor of Kingstown, The Book of Negros).

Anthony Ianni is a Production Designer and a trained fine artist who spent a year studying in Florence. He first joined the film and television industry by working in craft services before making the jump to the Art Department in the early 1990s. Anthony has brought his attuned visual eye to five seasons of The Expanse, navigating groundbreaking VR production technology and overseeing the build of a 4-storey spaceship. 

Blueprints courtesy of Anthony Ianni

John: From what I understand, you tried to base The Expanse on real science as much as possible. So, how does that compare to designing a non-science fiction show?

Anthony: The thing about a sci-fi project is it’s completely imaginary, no matter how much reality we put in. And we put a lot of effort into The Expanse. We worked hard to make sure that the props were correct and the gravity was right. But when working on a period piece like [the show] Copper, you do your research and then you know what that architecture in 1885 looked like. But with The Expanse, it all comes from people’s brains.

We were really fortunate to have the best showrunner I’ve ever worked with, Naren Shankar. You could approach him with any question, didn’t matter how small. It also helped that one of the authors of the Expanse series, Ty Franck, worked with us from the very first day of prep all the way through into post production. Ty was phenomenal. He and Naren have degrees in science and physics, so there was just a wealth of knowledge around us. It was so much fun to work with those guys.

Images from ‘The Expanse’ courtesy of Anthony Ianni

John: I understand you had a VR Room on The Expanse. Were you able to share that technology experience with creatives based out of another city? Or did you have to be in the room to benefit from it?

Anthony: The VR room was connected to the offices in LA. If a Director went into the room in Toronto, they could share exactly what they were going to do, in real-time on the large screen, with the folks in LA. They could take photographs not only of the model itself, but the camera would even allow them to pick different lenses. So, producers knew exactly what was happening and what they were going to get. It was a really phenomenal experience and a great idea.

John: How would you work through all of the lighting? Because obviously, you’re not lighting through windows the way you would do for a usual set.

Anthony: With The Expanse, our DP Jeremy Benning and I would conceptualize the set, then he would pick fixtures that he liked, and then we would work them into the set.  Often, we would build the frame, the fixture, and then Jeremy would put specific lights into them. On our flagship, the ‘Rocinante,’ there were several places where, if look closely you could actually see white sticks or the LED fixture up there.

John: How far ahead are you working on getting these sets ‘deliverable’?

Anthony: Season three was probably our biggest prep and production of a major set because a spaceship was due in block two. And this was a set that was four storeys high and had a functioning elevator. We started that about 16 weeks before we actually went to camera, and we took the entire first block and the entire second block to get the set ready. All of the engineering, the set design, the monitors, the control panels, and all that stuff, it took us that long just to get it ready!

Blueprints courtesy of Anthony Ianni

John: What do you think people, maybe even people in the industry, don’t understand about what you do as a Production Designer?

Anthony: I think people get the basics of it. They understand that I have to read a script and build a set before the camera shows up. But, I don’t think people understand the level of complexity that goes into knowing the script, knowing the characters, conceptualizing the world, watching the drawings being created, watching the sets being built and painted… I don’t think anybody really understands that level of complexity and the wealth of knowledge you have to carry when designing something.

John: What did you want to be when you were a kid?

Anthony: I remember being a kid and coming across a book of Norman Rockwell illustrations and flipping through that book and thinking, that’s what I would love to do. Like this guy drew for The Saturday Evening Post every week and lived this great life. And I thought to myself, that’s what I’d like to do.

J: What’s your favourite non-work activity?

A: As an artist, it’s just so easy for me to sit at a table or an easel and draw and paint.

J: Analogue or digital?

A: Definitely digital. I wouldn’t want to carry 200 albums around with me anymore.

J: Most recent film or TV series that really inspired you?

A: I like a lot of the stuff that’s coming out of Britain. I love The Crown and The Last Kingdom. They’re just beautiful productions.

J: Tell us about a favourite place you visited for a production.

A: I spent about four months in Cape Town working on The Book of Negroes, and I would go back in a heartbeat. I absolutely loved the people and the city.

This interview has been transcribed and edited for length and clarity.

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