From Click Farms To Alcatraz: A Conversation With “Silicon Valley” Production Designer Richard Toyon

To create Pied Piper’s new office, production designer Richard Toyon used concrete, exposed brick and a brighter color palette in HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” Featured Stephen Tobolowsky as Jack Barker. Photo credit: HBO.

By: Marjorie Galas

Creating the tech infused world of HBO’s comedy “Silicon Valley” is very serious business.  Upon discovering the concept was green lit in the trades, self-proclaimed “tech head” and Mike Judge fan Richard Toyon was determined to land the show’s production designer title.  Securing the position with his initial visual design concepts, Toyon’s diligently stayed on top of the ever-changing tech industry throughout the show’s three seasons: attending technology trade shows, scouting (the real) Silicon Valley and running details past scrutinizing techies, including his son.

“He was looking at one of the computer screens and noticed Safari was running in an older version of the platform,” said Toyon.  “I brought it up to post production and we were able to make the change.  We want to make sure what we are presenting is correct.”

With the fourth season looming in the horizon, Toyon’s prep has begun by taking in the latest innovations not just in the tech world, but in the design of tech campuses.   While the series does contain a fair amount of build outs and soundstage work, finding physical locations that stand in for the Hooli campus remains a challenging task.  Shot in Southern California, most technology buildings have ornate water features or large parking lots – elements not seen in the valley.  They also lack the green space used by headquarters in the valley for meeting and social interaction, so college campuses such as the student center at Cal. State LA and locations in Playa Del Vista and Venice have been stand ins.  Working off the ideas presented by Judge, Alec Berg and the team of writers, Toyon provides specific visual requirements to the shows’ location managers, allowing them to find the best examples for all physical location needs in the tight schedule.

“I meet with them as early as possible, sometimes even when the script is in outline stages because I have a strong sense of what Mike and Alex desire,” said Toyon.  “We’re working so fast, they can’t bring incorrect options.  We have great collaboration. This past season our location team was spot on.”

While Pied Piper found its way back to Erlich Bachman’s (TJ Miller) Valley-based home – all interiors having been well researched by Toyon who constructed a proper architectural replica that’s extensively aged with dry rot, water damage, rotting beams and flaking paint – the season opened with the team in a new office.  Toyon had the opportunity to play with an altered color palette, including infusing different greens due to the creation of the new company logo.  The office space contained all the key components of contemporary start-ups: exposed brick, glass features, concrete floors and wood surfaces.  Brighter hues work their way into many of the fabrics and textures seen throughout the office.  The upgrade remained contrasted by the monstrous appearance and darker color palette of the Hooli office, where Toyon and his crew found ways to physically elevate owner Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) in nearly every scene by adding podiums or stairs.  Although they couldn’t create a device for the board room sequences, he stands, towering above everyone else who is seated.

Toyon particularly enjoyed the challenge of converting a National Guard warehouse into a Bangladesh-based click farm.  The site’s pristine surfaces had to appear severely run down.  Toyon’s team covered windows, adding holes and splits to obtain fragment lighting.   A web of cabling was added throughout, along with a mish mosh of tables and furniture.  Computer monitors that were ten years old completed the transition.  The creation was capped by scouting locations with the show’s DP, Tim Suhrstedt, in Mumbai, India that were used in a bike ride sequence.  While this location was completely renovated and filled for the scene, a sprawling server storage facility was enhanced through the aid of visual effects.  Toyon created three fully outfitted server rows, spanning right and left, in a warehouse space.  A VFX team duplicated the image, providing the appearance of the servers extending into infinity.

Working on a ten day schedule that leaves five days each to prep and shoot, Toyon and has team have masterfully handled the designs of everything from a prison visiting area to a horse breading stable.  It is those surprise circumstances where ingenuity and teamwork really pull together to create something out of mid-air that Toyon feels most proud of.  One particular moment came in shooting the fifth episode on a Friday evening at 9:30pm.  About to wrap up at the Sony campus, he was informed a scene was being added where Laurie Bream (Suzanne Cryer) encountered Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) at a restaurant.

“We had already used the location.  We had twelve hours to conceive and create an interior that was visually different that was going to be used at noon,” said Toyon.

Toyon worked with the carpenters on the fly to build out the set.  When the call came in the morning that the time shifted to 10:00am, he and his crew had thirty minutes to complete their transformation.

“We were really scrambling. This crew is the best there can be. We work fast – there is a great joy in figuring things out,” said Toyon.

Toyon is motivated by refining the details of every aspect of the set, from the high tech surroundings to the extensive design of “Bachmanity Insanity” Bauchman’s Alcatraz- based Hawaiian-themed party that was built in a tower in the South Bay. (“It was a lot of fun.  It had to be big, there were so many fine details that went into it.”)  Fully aware not every detail his team painstaking creates will be seen, he’s always amazed at what inspires the show’s viewers, particularly the responses that come from the tech community on sites such as Reddit.  Proud of the visual aesthetic his team contributes to, he credits the show‘s success to its smart writing and talented actors.

“The actors are all so great and really bring these characters to life, and Mike and Alec have such a strong sense of satire,” said Toyon.  “Tech surrounds the story, but it is a human story.”