Director Ted Melfi and the sets for the Best Picture Oscar nominated breakthrough story of the elite women mathematicians who were a hidden but essential part of NASA’s leap into space!
Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, the film HIDDEN FIGURES uncovers the incredible, untold yet true story of a brilliant group of women who changed the foundations of the country for the better by aiming for the stars. The film recounts the vital history of an elite team of black female mathematicians at NASA who helped win the all-out space race against America’s rivals in the Soviet Union and, at the same time, sent the quest for equal rights and opportunity rocketing forwards.
Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson* are names not known to most people, even though their daring, smarts and powerful roles as NASA’s ingenious “human computers” were indispensable to advances that allowed for human space flight. Director Theodore Melfi brings the women’s rise to the top ranks of aerospace in the thrilling early days of NASA to life via a fast-moving, humor-filled, inspiring entertainment that illuminates both the gutsy quest for Earth’s first, seemingly impossible orbital flight and also the powerful things that can result when women unite. *[Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe play the 3 women] –Fox 2000 Pictures
“I wanted the film to explore the part of the story which is not documented at all, which is what it was like for three African-American women to be working in segregated NASA even as all these accomplishments were taking place,” says Melfi. “I love the double meaning of the title because so often women have only been looked at as superficial ‘figures,’ rather than as great figures. But these women were the literal hidden figures that changed the space race.”
“These women were so individually talented, but they rose together, standing with each other, and that’s what’s so beautiful. They empowered one another and everyone won because of that.
The father of two daughters, the director states, “I try to tell my daughters everyday that you can do anything on the planet you want to do if you put your heart and soul into it – and that includes math and science. I want them to know you have real value and you can create a satisfying life for yourself with your brains. I felt this was a chance to let girls know they can aspire to be a Katherine Johnson.”
“In this story, you see how skill and knowledge are equalizers. During the space race, when we put everything aside and said, ‘whatever race or sex you are, whatever background you have, if you can do the math, please help us get to the moon,’ something amazing happened. People were valued for their talents and in turn gave their country valuable and precious gifts. A country divided along any lines can accomplish little, but a country united and inspired to work together can achieve the very best.”
As can a team of top filmmakers, such as those Melfi gathered for his mission, including Director of Photography Mandy Walker, Production Designer Wynn Thomas, Set Decorator Missy Parker SDSA, Costume Designer Renée Erlich Kalfus and their teams.
Ted Melfi talked with SET DECOR about the sets that gave us a look at those Hidden Figures and their environments—the juxtaposition of NASA with their close-knit families and community life.
SET DECOR: The film is a work of heart as well as a commitment to history, and we definitely appreciate both.
Director Theodore (Ted) Melfi: Thank you. We spent a lot of time trying to get it right.
SET DECOR: Well, the whole concept throughout the film is this working together for a higher goal. Kevin Costner’s character, Al Harrison, states at one point, “We all get there together – or we don’t get there at all.” Which can be ascribed to filmmaking as well...
Melfi: Oh yes!
SET DECOR: Octavia Spencer says, “Ted came to the set having explored this story inside and out, and his exuberance was felt in every element. He’s truly one of the most collaborative people I’ve known.”
Those sentiments are echoed by Production Designer Wynn Thomas and Set Decorator Missy Parker SDSA. Could you tell us about how their work helped bring about your vision of the film?
Well, it started with just the general conversations with Wynn as to what we wanted to achieve, then it broadened out from there. So Wynn and I spent lots of time watching references, such as THE EYES ON THE PRIZE, the acclaimed civil rights documentary, and WHEN WE LEFT EARTH, a brilliant NASA documentary that traces the trajectory of the entire Mercury missions.
And then we looked through tons of civil rights photographs and books, particularly those by Gordon Parks, and everything we could get our hands on from and about that period.
The great thing about Wynn, aside from the fact that he’s a brilliant designer, is that he grew up in the era. He knew it really well, he had lived it, so he was able to draw from all these personal experiences.
We did a field trip visit to NASA in Hampton, VA and Cape Canaveral, and we worked really closely with NASA. They sent us an amazing amount of background stuff, including even the blueprints of the Mission Command parking lot where the capsule was! We got schematics of the capsules and of the inside of the capsules, and we got models of the Mercury capsules. We also got schematics and architectural designs for the Space Task Group, for NASA proper, the wind tunnels, just about everything. And that was all collected, compiled by Wynn’s team, and Jeremy’s. [Art Director Jeremy Woolsey]
We then made a production bible, which had every single scene in the entire movie storyboarded, over 900 frames, and behind those storyboards were all of our reference pictures as to what it actually was supposed to look like and feel like. Those reference pictures were from photographs and video and all the archival footage we had. And then there was also delineation of the actual physical location we were shooting in – stills, angles – and how we would achieve that look in that location. The production bible was probably the size of an unabridged dictionary.
SET DECOR: Obviously having it storyboarded and worked out to this degree allowed you to shoot so quickly, because it was a fast shoot!
Melfi: Well it was so detailed and so organized – Wynn’s team was just magnificent. We shot this movie in 43 days, for $25 million and we were given the look of a $50 million movie.
SET DECOR: Absolutely.
Melfi: And not one single day of reshoots.
SET DECOR: That’s amazing!
SET DECOR: Wynn has said, “For Katherine Goble Johnson, the Space Task Group is a place of wonder. I knew I could create that sense of wonder in that large circular room, a globe within a globe.” We so appreciated that. For the engineers this is a very serious situation, but there’s also that design and décor aspect that takes you higher with it.
Melfi: Yes! Wynn said to me, “I think I have found the exterior for NASA.” And then he took me to Morehouse College, which you know is one of the amazing historic black colleges in our country. Morehouse has all those older brick buildings that were an exact match for what NASA actually was. In the center of that, the keystone of the campus is a round building, the Frederick Douglass Hall. It looks space-like, with that big dome. And Wynn told me, “That’s the Space Task Group exterior, and I can make the interior round as well.”
And that’s how it all started. I just went, “That’s brilliant, perfect, Wynn.” So he did design the inside to be round as well, which allows you to feel this sense of wonder...and everyone is surrounded, there’s no hiding. It’s huge, and there we felt Katherine Johnson could feel very small in the surrounding space, and have to fight her way to the edges to get her work done.
SET DECOR: It was perfect. And Harrison’s office being raised above was perfectly stated, as well. And the art Missy chose for the walls were actual photos from NASA.
Melfi: Missy! Her special ability to design and dress a set is like second to none. Every single thing in these spaces was authentic, from the phones to the artwork – like you said, she got artwork directly from NASA – to the desks, the metal desks. Her research was extensive and her work was just stunning. Everything was authentic, and everything functioned—the adding machines, for instance, they all worked. You know, she had to track down stuff all around the country, if the stuff still existed...
SET DECOR: And we see it in the variance of equipment, in the dichotomy between the segregated East Computing Group offices and the West Computing Group. The West Computing is in a cramped, claustrophobic space with old equipment, and yet there’s a closeness with that group, and not just the tight space. They’re working together, whereas the other one is more pristine, more contemporary, very set apart...
Melfi: We decided to show a huge difference between the two Computer wings. What we wanted out of the West Group was that even though they’re in the basement, it’s still their home. They always made the best of what they had. So they took that basement setting that was crammed and crowded, and outdated and antiquated, and they made it cozy and warm. And that’s where we went for them, but for the East Group, where the women were less connected and not much of a community, we went for a more NASA proper look, which you know is everything is perfectly in its place, with the greys, and metals and the white.
SET DECOR: Missy says, “We wanted people to see the fullness that these ladies had in their lives...”
Melfi: Yeah, it was very important for Missy and Wynn and for myself that we distinguish the difference for the women between NASA and home. These women were proud, strong, amazing mothers and amazing homemakers. All three of them made their own clothes and made the clothes for their kids. They lived in aspirational houses—they were proud. This is a proud middle class.
Their community in 1961 was no different than the white community in terms of housing, how they lived and what they aspired to out of their home life. These houses were proud and well kept, just a beautiful middle class, which has kind of vanished anyway, right? Back in the 1960s, there was a very vibrant middle class in this country, especially in the black community, with great houses and great care, really well thought out, well cared for. And so Wynn and Missy found locations that had a sense of warmth, of family. And then she dressed them in such a way that they always felt rich, in colors and pieces that exuded that warmth.
Dorothy Vaughn’s house, in particular, had that ambiance. The location was a famous civil rights leader’s house, in reality. So we were shooting in a house where Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy came to plan and attend events. And it added such a gravitas to the scenes, because we were shooting in the footsteps of our great civil rights leaders.
Each one of the women had a house that represented who they were, what station they were, what point they were in their life. So Dorothy, the oldest, and her husband, an undertaker, were well off. They were very solid middle class. Her house is the most aspirational. It was the house where they all gathered. There’s always that one friend were you gathered at their place, and that was Dorothy Vaughn. She took care of everyone, she had the biggest house, she had a car. She was the leader, in all aspects, of the group.
Katherine Johnson’s house represented the house of a single mother – a single mother of 3 girls. It’s smaller, it’s tighter, but it’s also cozier, warmer. Her mother lives with her, so the girls have to share a room, but the house is kept up and the girls are cared for on those late work nights because her mother’s there to help and it’s all about family.
And for Mary Jackson’s house, she’s the youngest of the group and she and Levi Jackson are just starting out their life together with their young children. So they have the smallest house. It’s on the outskirts of town, more of a farmhouse, so it’s the most lived in.
SET DECOR: We love all the color and mixed prints and wallpapers.
Melfi: Yeah, Wynn and Missy did a tremendous job...and that wallpaper! It was about the wallpaper. Wallpaper was huge back then and it’s actually making a comeback now, thank god. [He laughs] And you know they were very meticulous. Each person had their own color. Each house had their own color palette and wallpaper patterns.
SET DECOR: The houses and the community scenes did reflect a warmth and pride of place. Were there any sets that were exactly what you expected, or that were different than you expected, but worked?
Melfi: Well, when I walked into the Space Task Group station, my jaw dropped, and I said, “Wynn, thank you!” You couldn’t imagine the colors, the walls, the big chalkboards. It was just so beautiful and so well thought out. And so shootable! You know, we don’t talk about that but the best thing about a designer is that the set not only looks good, but it’s shootable. And that was incredible. We were able to fly around that station.
I didn’t walk into anything and think is was not spot on, with all the preparation and the prep before it.
It was just a true honor to work with people at this high a level. They took the story and made it their own. They treated it with such respect, such attention to detail. It was beyond design, it was about love.
Set Decorator Missy Parker SDSA generously shares some of the resources she used for HIDDEN FIGURES sets...
West Computing Group,
Dorothy Vaughn [Octavia Spencer]
sensed a brave new era in the making and quickly changed gears, specializing in electronic computing and FORTRAN programming, making herself and her co-workers indispensable...