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Hijinx And High Style: Designing “I Didn’t Do It”

Production Designer Scott Heineman created Rumble Juice (left) and a giant pumpkin (right) for "I Didn't Do It" (photo credit: Disney Channel)

BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor

Judd Pillot has some experience tapping into television content that motivates a generation. A writer and producer on series including “Coach”, “Just Shoot Me” and “According to Jim,” Pillot recognized a potential to reach today’s youth marketing after reading a script written by newcomer Josh Silverstein.

“The life of the show was so vibrant. I thought it was really challenging, sophisticated and edgy,” said Pillot. “These kids are on an incredible journey; they get into all kinds of funny, visually exciting trouble and at the heart of it all is the love they have for each other and their journey through life.”

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“I Didn’t Do It” follows the adventures of twins Lindy (Olivia Holt) and Logan (Austin North.) The pair has entered high school along with Jasmine (Piper Curda), Garrett (Peyton Clark and Delia (Sarah Gilman), who have been their best friends since the third grade. Each episode begins with a mishap the group finds themselves in that’s revealed through flashbacks. While Disney was in favor of expanding into content with edgier scenarios, they were conscientious of protecting their brand of wholesome entertainment appropriate for younger viewers. Serving as Executive Producer, Pillot worked with the writers to maneuver the challenge of blending provocative scenarios while maintaining stories appropriate for all ages.

Second to finding this delicate balance was establishing a visual signature for the show. Scott Heineman, a thirty year veteran production designer with television credits ranging from “The Facts of Life”, “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” and “King of Queens” came on board to help flush out the perfect look for “I Didn’t Do It.”

“Disney is very involved in the look of their productions,” said Pillot. “They use the word ‘iconic’ – they want the look to be memorable and the locations places where other kids would want to hang out. Out of the discussions we have, Scott runs and comes back with these great designs everyone sees and wants to hang out in.”

Prior to designing any sets, Heineman does a bit of research to understand the trends, music, fashion and graphic styles appealing to today’s youth. Much of his investigation is done through internet searches as well as attending seminars Disney conducts for producers and staff to remain on top of tweens and trends. Keeping contemporary influences in mind, Heineman works to create fun, colorful environments that balance flash with realism.

“There have been shows in the past that had wilder, stronger color palettes, but we are trying to make the show fun and colorful without seeming like we are pushing colors too hard,” said Heineman. “I like having the space be fun for an audience to view but not become a caricature where the set looks like a Saturday morning cartoon.”

“I Didn’t Do It“ has several standing sets including the twin’s home and Rumble Juice, the kid’s smoothie café hangout. Heineman stayed within a fruit-inspired palette for the show’s most vibrant set, highlighting bright reds, yellows, greens and oranges. Each episode also has a number of additional sets that require construction and manipulation. Heineman generally sees story outlines three to six weeks in advance and has upwards of two weeks to design scenery prior to air date. He works closely with a staff of set dressers, painters, and carpenters, and incorporates as many natural elements (such as natural woods and fabrics instead of faux finishes) into the set to ensure the locations hold up under the hi def cameras. The greatest challenge Heineman encounters in production design for “I Didn’t Do It” are the weekly high jinx and stunt elements each episode revolves around. Designs have included pizza and soap falling from a ceiling or a snow-covered floor collapsing into the room below it. To prepare for these design challenges, Heineman collaborates closely with the stunt and visual effects coordinators to pull the gags off successfully and within budget.

“If it involves a scenic element or something that has to be built into or as an additional element to the set, the first person I collaborate with is the VFX coordinator. We then run the elements past the stunt coordinator to ensure we are building it in a way that is safe and that the stunt can be pulled off,” said Heineman.

One particularly challenging set piece involved a giant pumpkin the kids would fall into and punch their way out of. After discussing the scope of the scene with Pillot, Heineman created a full-sized cardboard mock up for the writers and producers to sign off on. He then created a 3D computer model illustrating the actors interacting with it that the carpenters used to build the framework. Foam was spread onto a chicken wire outline that sculptors carved both inside and out. The finished product was painted and ultimately filled with a combination of plastic grass, slime and hundreds of pounds of giant pumpkin seeds. The entire build was completed in three days. Due to time and budget constraints, only one pumpkin could be built, so all testing and rehearsal were done with cardboard mock ups.

“We do test it but we are limited in time because the entire effect or stunt isn’t put together until the week we are in production. We’ll do a cardboard mock up that will substitute for the main piece. We try to avoid building an expensive prop to destroy for the network to review,” said Heineman. “We don’t have the same budget as say a network show, so we have to find creative ways to give the show a network look.”

“Another great set Scott designed was a board room (for a skit that involved a “Shark Tank” parody). The kids had invented a spray that made food taste good, but (everyone in the room) projectile vomits from it. The VFX guys did a camera test with an iPhone in a back alley behind the stage to make sure the vomit projectile went far enough and was funny enough. We are working on a very tight budget and schedule, so every department will pull together,” said Pillot.

Both Pillot and Heineman are working with production challenges they’ve never experience in their many years of production, and both men would have it no other way. While Pillot is amazed at the professionalism of his young cast handling challenging stunts and upward of 30 set ups a week, Heineman appreciates designing elements he’s never created before.

“In doing as many years in television as I have, you see a lot of story lines repeated, but in this season on ‘I Didn’t Do It,” we had very original gags and story ideas,” said Heineman. “Our writers continue to amaze me with coming up with these great ideas for every episode.”

“I Didn’t Do It” airs Sundays at 8:00pm on Disney Channel. To learn more about “I Didn’t Do It” visit: http://disneychannel.disney.com/i-didn-t-do-it