Production Designer Ida Random David Barkham Jonathan Hely-Hutchinson
History Channel, A&E, Lifetime
“The truth can never be known. It can only be told in a story…” - Author Alex Haley The original ROOTS shocked and enlightened a nation, sparked a new awareness and underscored a need to know more. It had such a massive impact that the mini-series became a part of history itself. While as a nation, we’ve come far from the attitude toward and treatment of African Americans in the four decades since the now iconic series, recent events have shown that it was and is time to take another look.
There has been such an in-depth commitment to the production that when the new ROOTS premiered on Memorial Day, it was broadcast simultaneously on HISTORY, Lifetime and A&E, and pre-screened at the White House.
Once again, we follow the story of young Mandinka warrior Kunta Kinte who is kidnapped from West Africa by a rival tribe and sold into slavery in America, but in this depiction, we immediately learn more about his life at home and his community. As the story unfolds in the American South, we are given a more accurate portrayal as seen through an African-American perspective.
Essential to the storytelling were the sets conveying the life, circumstances and historical details from 1767 through 1865, with a glimpse of author Alex Haley in 1976 writing the story of his ancestral roots. Production Designer Ida Random tells SET DECOR about her collaboration with Set Decorator Alice Baker SDSA [12 YEARS A SLAVE] in the making of this updated version of an African-American’s epic journey to his ROOTS…
SET DECOR:Congratulations on this excellent historical reproduction, you truly did take us into the lives of these extraordinary people. And what an undertaking! There were basically 4 chapters/parts, each with a different director. How did you approach the project?
Production Designer Ida Random: Before we started, I had to create the concept for all four nights. This wasn’t as much reliant on each director as it was the historical era of each episode. Each two-hour episode had a different palette that I created, based on reading the scripts, creating picture boards, incorporating historical research, furniture research, etc. I would lock down the color palette and then showcase that to each of the four directors for approval prior to shooting.
SET DECOR: Had you worked before with Set Decorator Alice Baker SDSA, or was this a new collaboration? Please tell us about your method…
Random: We had never worked together prior to ROOTS, but we had an incredible collaboration. We printed out hundreds of images for inspiration for each episode, based on our research. We accumulated a lot of swatches of fabrics and collaborated on the historical color paint for each set. Alice would bring me pictures and materials that I would then gather and separate into color palettes. We would get specific furniture and then collaborate on the boards to conceptualize each set. As we went along, we learned that we worked together very well.
SET DECOR:Many of the interior scenes seemed to rely on practicals as the light source. We assume you were rather closely involved with the Camera Department and Director of Photography Peter Menzies Jr in terms of light and palette for the interior scenes…
Random: Yes, we did work together closely and provided many practicals.
SET DECOR:Was the entire series filmed in Louisiana, or were the scenes for the Mandinka village, Juffure, Gambia filmed elsewhere?
Random: The series was filmed in Louisiana and the Gambia scenes were shot in South Africa, with David Barkham and Jonathan Hely-Hutchinson in charge of the sets. Interestingly, the scene when the slaves first got off the ship in Virginia was actually shot in South Africa, so that scene could be a better representation of the Africans being portrayed.
SET DECOR:What can you tell us about John Waller’s farm where Kunta is first enslaved, meets Fiddler, and then is beaten for his resistance to changing his name?
Random: For John Waller’s farm, we had to make sure we duplicated the slave quarters I discovered in my research. We had books with period furniture, and we used Internet research and drawings and paintings from that time period.
There were enough similarities that we could duplicate it in Louisiana where we were shooting, even though it was supposed to be Virginia. For each episode, we just had to pick the right plantation that fit the look of the specific plantation that was part of that particular episode’s story. We amassed wagons and haystacks that fit the look. Each plantation had a unique look to it.
SET DECOR:We get a brief glimpse of a British encampment during the Revolutionary War . What can you tell us about this and the several other encampments to come?
· Confederate 2nd Calvaryencampment on the Murray plantation during the Civil War…
· Yankee encampment post-war, 1865, 1 year after massacre at Ft Pillow…
· George’s family encampment on their journey to new home…
Random: Good news for us was that there are a lot of photographs and sketches about those specific encampments, especially of the Civil War. For the British encampment’s tents and uniforms, we also had fairly clear depictions. For us, it was very important that we got the flags right.
In Episode Four, where we re-create Ft. Pillow, we had to go far away to find that topography, as it was up on a hill and Louisiana is completely flat. We had to travel to the countryside north of Baton Rouge, where on top of a hill we built a five-cannon enclosure and added the appropriate accouterments. We had great pictures and drawings of that, thus it was more a matter of tracking down the right location to ensure it was fully representative.
SET DECOR:For Dr. William Waller’s beautiful home, the palette seems crisper, brighter than his brother’s, and the interiors of the Big House seem to be of a muted, soft palette…
Random: In the story we know that William Waller is the well-to-do brother, a doctor, and John is in financial trouble, so therefore quite a difference had to be established. We chose nicer interiors, softer colors, it’s more well-kept. It was based on what a financially well-off doctor’s home would look like during that time period.
SET DECOR:There was a significant scene in the entrance hall at the foot of the staircase, which seemed to have a pastel green palette, emphasizing the “whiteness” of everyone except the young Kizzy – was that intentional?
Random: That was Director Mario van Peebles’s episode [Night 2], and he chose that color palette because it was a sadder hue. The scene is a somber scene so it wasn’t picked out for skin tones as much as it was for setting the emotional tone.
SET DECOR:Chapter/Part 3 takes us on another decade leap after we see Kizzy raped by Tom Lea, giving birth to her son and deciding literally mid-stream to ceremoniously name him, as her father had taught, and to survive. All of this is dark, very dark…
Random: Tom Lea’s character is an impoverished, philandering gambler. His farm represents that. It’s rundown and becomes more derelict through time. The slave quarters were also much more rundown. It’s the only slave quarters where there were spaces between the boards. It was so hot in the summer, it would let the air in. We wanted to make sure we replicated that.
SET DECOR:What can you tell us about the Chapel and Easter Sunday dinner in 1828, where Tom Lea responds poorly to an insult?
Random: That was a combo of using an existing church, which is a local tourist attraction and putting it into context. Once we found the location, we went by research of how the tables are laid out and tried to depict it as close to fact as possible.
SET DECOR:In Chapter/Part 4, we get a glimpse of 1849 Hampshire, England. Is there anything you would like to tell us about these sets?
Random: That was the luckiest break in the world for us. I had tons of pictures of big English country houses, but all of the houses in Louisiana have this Southern look to them. However, there was literally one house—a couple had built this huge mansion to emulate an English mansion! We were worried we weren’t going to be able to find a structure that fit this English style and then we found the most perfect house. We were very lucky.
SET DECOR:The story moves in time to the Murray Plantation, Alamance County, North Carolina. Besides the stately mansion, we see extensive slaves’ quarters and outbuildings. Please tell us about these, and how you distinguished between the quarters on the various farms…
Random:Murray is very wealthy. That was the one time we used an antebellum (pre-American Civil War) Southern plantation. The mansions in that style have the classic big columns. This is where we showcase the huge row of existing slave quarters. Sadly, the slave quarters that we used were from a real plantation.
SET DECOR:We get a glimpse into the Murray Plantation kitchen when Belle is denied to see her husband. Please tell us what this reveals…
Random: That was typical of the antebellum plantation house and that was filmed in an existing kitchen. During that time, the slave owners didn’t have kitchens in the houses, the slaves cooked the food outside or in outbuildings. There was usually a serving room next to the dining room. They also typically had a hospital room for the slaves to be tended to when they fell ill.
SET DECOR:There are many scenes of farm laboring, so we assume you had a huge greens department! Anything we should know about these?
Random: We did have a huge department and an amazing team! We made fields, gardens, cultivated rows…it was a huge undertaking. In addition to re-creating the plantations, on period pieces you are always covering up all kinds of things, so anything that wasn’t relative to that period was covered up with greens and ivy.
SET DECOR:Carriages, wagons and buggies… Were you and Alice in charge of those?
Random: Not in charge, but I had a whole research folder on every kind of farm wagon, horses and buggies, etc…and we worked with the team to ensure they were representative of the historical time periods.
SET DECOR:And, then of course the final scenes set in Alex Haley’s 1970s personal office/den! We love that the furnishings, particularly the lamps, are period, but not overmuch. And the subtle nods to tribal arts and patterns: the wastebasket, the sofa, the rug. Please tell us about these and the significance of the art pieces…
Random: The set was a build on a sound stage. We know he was into ships and boats and nautical pieces, so for the art, we took inspiration from those themes and his heritage.
Numbers! How many sets? Too many to count! How many shooting days? 117 How large a crew?
New Orleans – 416
South Africa – 334
Total Crew – 747
In 1976, Alex Haley, a seventh-generation descendant of Kunta Kinte, authored and published the Pulitzer Prize-winning ROOTS: THE SAGA OF AN AMERICAN FAMILY on which the series is based.
Kizzy teaches her son the naming ritual passed on to her from her father Kunta Kinte…
“Out under the moon and the stars Omoro completed the naming ritual...he lifted his baby up with his face to the heavens, and said softly, ...Behold—the only thing greater than yourself…