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Emmy FYC: “Mr. Robot” Production Designer Anastasia White

By: Marjorie Galas

Anastasia White has come a long way in a short time. In under ten years, she’s gone from a production assistant and shop manager to an award winning production designer.  She approached her career with a two-pronged attack: work on small independent films as production designer will climbing the ladder in the art department on bigger budget projects.  Her big break came when she moved to New York and connected with art director Kim Jennings and production designer Mark Friedberg.  Friedberg was attached to the Emmy-winning television mini-series “Mildred Pierce” which Jennings was working on as assistant art director.  They hired White as an art department assistant, opening a door that included working on films helmed by the likes of Jodi Foster, Brett Rattner and Wes Anderson.

“They brought me into the film world, introduced me to great people, and taught me a lot of the skills that I needed to keep going,” said White.

White’s dedication to hard work while learning from supportive, inspiring people along the way lead her to Sam Esmail’s hit hacker drama “Mr. Robot.”  Working as art director for season one, White migrated to the role of production design for the series’ inky dark second season.  Her efforts resulted in her first Art Directors Guild nomination and subsequent win during the ADG Awards in February, 2017.  Variety 411 recently caught up with White to reflect upon her work on “Mr. Robot.”

Variety 411: You were the art director for the premiere episode of “Mr. Robot.”  How did you become attached to the show?

Anastasia White: I had worked with the production designer, Matt Munn as his art director on a few projects. He had built a great art department that I was happy to be a part of.

V411: What made it possible for you to transition into the role of production designer for season 2?

AW: Sam asked me to production design Season 2. I was thrilled but also a bit nervous because I knew the show would be quite a challenge. I had only designed one season of a TV show and a few very small films, so Sam and the producers were definitely taking a chance with me. I was very excited about the project and became completely immersed in it. 

V411:  What was it like working directly with Mr. Esmail to define the new environments in season two?  I know he is very particular about visual cues. Did you have a lot of creative freedom?

AW: We shared a lot of reference photos during prep, as well as worked together to create color schemes for the characters. We tried to keep the world as realistic as possible, but occasionally something odd would inspire one of us and we tried to work that into a set or story. Once in a while, a more stylized version of the world was appropriate for emphasizing an emotion. 

The great thing about “Mr. Robot” is that I can find visual inspiration in anything from a concert, to an art museum, to street art, and Sam is equally as open and excited to incorporate that inspiration. 

V411: Noting there are so many unique camera angles used: Are there things as a production designer that you approach differently noting how the shots are designed?

AW: The show is unique in that we see a lot of ceilings in the shots. So when scouting for locations or building sets, we really need to keep that in mind. The ceilings are as important as key pieces of set dressing or art on the walls. I look for symmetry, interesting light fixtures or texture. Anything that will add visually to the shot, but also not be too distracting from the actor(s) in frame. 

V411: Aspects of a visual tone were set in season one, with some locations, like the offices of ECorp and the “Fun Society” arcade, re-appearing.  However, season two offered a great diversity of settings, from Susan Jacob’s ultra- high tech house to Elliot’s bedroom in his mother’s house to the garden party dinner Elliot dreams about. What was your process in designing such unique settings with wildly diverse looks that tie into the “Mr. Robot” world? 

AW: It’s great to have the chance to design contrasting worlds. There’s definitely a difference between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, which we emphasize with interior sets. Through the exteriors, those worlds become merged. Being based in NYC really helps with that.  High end businesses and homes associated with E Corp are colder, reflective and polished. It’s a little bit of a generalization but I think that it’s more specific to New York City. It’s not to say that there aren’t interesting layers to the characters and stories associated with this world but they are hidden behind these surfaces. The contrasting spaces of the Townhouse, basement, or something like Cisco’s apartment sort of have everything out in the open. They’re exposed for the viewer to see the gritty details; even if they might be representing something else. The Adderall sequence was really fun because we had a chance to merge Elliot’s digital world with his day to day environment. 

V411: Locations played an important role this season, such as the basketball court, the scenes taking place in central park, and the exteriors of restaurants/buildings.  Did you work closely with the location managers/scouts to find the best practical locations that worked with the overall aesthetic?

AW: I do work very closely with the locations department. We are constantly scouting or researching. We did a lot of cold scouting around the city, popping into places that looked interesting and fitting for the story. We often looked at multiple options for a certain location until we found one that really felt great. I don’t like to bring Sam to a location unless I am excited about the place or its potential. The diner in Season 2 was one of my favorites. I was driving around with the locations department and we happened to pass this triangular shaped building underneath the train tracks. We turned the car around, ran in, and it was perfect.  

V411:  Season 2 is dark, not just in nature, but in many of its sets as well.  Was it a challenge to create environments that had so little light in them?  Did you work closely with the camera department to ensure necessary details had enough highlights, and that practicals were placed at just the right spots to enhance mood and actor’s outlines?

AW: During prep, I have a lot of meetings with Tod Campbell, the DP and Charlie Grubbs, the gaffer. We work together and talk about how he might want to light the sets and locations. I try to make sure that our practical light fixtures and windows both fit the lighting department’s needs and serve the design of the space.  

V411: Working with such low light in many sequences, I’m imagining lighting affected your color choices.  Would you speak on that process?

AW: The color palette that we used was based off of research and images that Sam and I shared pertaining to the characters. Anticipating low lighting in certain sets didn’t affect the overall character palettes, but I definitely keep it in mind when choosing paint colors and details. If I knew a scene had minimal lighting, I choose a color with a little more intensity than normal, to make sure it didn’t become too desaturated.  

V411: Where there particular designs that proved more challenging to you than others in season 2?

AW:  I think that living spaces are always sort of a challenge because they are so character driven and require the art department to think about all the details that this person would have. That being said, Elliot’s mother’s townhouse was a different kind of challenge. We were scouting for jails at the same time we were designing this set. The layout of the space had to reflect the actual place that it was representing, while also staying true to a typical Brooklyn townhouse.  

V411: It seems there is interesting symbolism one should always be watching for.  Do you, and your set decorators, really get to have fun incorporating elements into the overall design that provide symbolism, or give clues on what will happen to the characters as time moves forward?

AW: We really do try to infuse symbolism and easter eggs into the sets. Sometimes these are clues to foreshadowing, sometimes they are elements that call back to previous story points or characters. It’s another challenging layer that we think about when designing everything. But there’s a payoff knowing that the fans of “Mr. Robot” look out for and appreciate all of our details! 

V411: This past winter you received your first award nomination, and win, through the ADG.  What was the feeling like first to learn of your nomination by your direct peer group, and what was it like for you to hear your name called as the winner in a category filled with such amazing work?

AW: I was so elated to learn that I was nominated (and even won!) for the ADG award! The fact that my colleagues and many heroes were a part of the voting process makes it even more incredible. Any type of award nomination would have been amazing, but I am extra grateful that our work was recognized by art department peers.  I’d like to add a thank you to our graphic artists – Adam Brustein and Eric Bryant. The show is so visual and reliant on computer screens and printed materials. We would not be as successful pulling off the accuracy and look of the show without those fellas.