Set Decoration that is Timeless...
The time-travel series TIMELESS has the unique twist of visiting untold moments in history...and the iconic historical figures instrumental in these moments...as part of an ongoing race to prevent the destruction of the world as we know it.
TIMELESS tells the story of a three-person team of time travelers racing throughout history trying to save humankind: Lucy Preston
the historian, Wyatt Logan
[Matt Lanter], the soldier, and Rufus Carlin
[Malcolm Barrett], the engineer who pilots the time machine. The team, assembled by the Department of Homeland Security under the direction of Agent Denise Christopher
[Sakina Jaffrey], is working with the creator of a time machine, Connor Mason
[Paterson Joseph], initially to fight against Garcia Flynn
[Goran Visnic]. Flynn
has stolen the time machine from Mason Industries
in order to change history to fight against Rittenhouse
, an underground, ruthless new world order. Throughout Season 1, we learn the backstory as to why Flynn
has stolen the time machine. By the end of the season, we learn that the mother of one of the members of the team is part of Rittenhouse...
in fact, the family has been part of this nefarious group for centuries! In Season 2, we see the team join Flynn
to fight back against Rittenhouse
The challenge of presenting a different and specific era for each week of the series required extensive research and top teams. Production Designer John Zachary, Set Decorators Dena Allen SDSA International and Janessa Hitsman SDSA International share their “behind the scenes” work in a conversation with Chase Helzer SDSA International Associate (a loyal fan!)* and Beth Wooke SDSA International, who had the opportunity to work with Allen and Zachary for a few days at Los Angeles area locations...
Season 1, Vancouver...
Season 1 was filmed entirely in Vancouver, Canada. Vancouver is a modern city, which unfortunately tends not to preserve old buildings. This was challenging not only for the Set Decorator Janessa Hitsman SDSA International, but also for the Locations Department. “I really have to give credit to our Locations Managers Myles Lenning and Michael Roberts. They found great locations for all of these different periods.”
“The biggest challenge on Timeless Season 1 was neither building nor sourcing decor - it was the timeline.” 8 days of shooting and 8 days of prep for each episode. There were times it became extremely tight to get the set to camera in time. In an episode about the Apollo 11 Mission (1960’s), Hitsman was tasked at creating the mission control room
. The prop house she was planning to rent from was temporarily closed, so she suddenly had to have the console built. “Every switch, button, CRT and receiver had to be sourced locally in Vancouver...two dozen wireman working along with a dozen set dressers to get these control consoles ready for camera! I remember standing in the middle of the shop, feeling the energy, everyone giving it their all...” This made the Apollo 11
set one of her favorites of the season.
It was a large undertaking creating the TIMELESS world each week. “It was a difficult show, but a Set Decorator’s dream show.” She was able to rent set decoration from prophouses and antique stores. However, since rented furniture couldn’t be aged, she had to purchase much of it. As episodes went on, she accrued a massive inventory of stock, so she used a classic Set Decorator method to reuse furniture—she had it reupholstered and refinished, and on to the next era, the next set. “We also had to custom all of our massive drapery the whole show, as the drapery had to be so outrageous, and, due to the shooting style of Season 1, was featured so heavily. I kept 3 workrooms going solid the whole show!
Season 2, Los Angeles...
Production Designer John Zachary and Set Decorator Dena Allen SDSA International were brought on when the production moved to Los Angeles for Season 2. Having experience with period productions stood them well. Period television is always challenging, but TIMELESS has the added challenge, given that it doesn’t stick to one time in history, that each episode is literally a different time, ranging from the
17th century to present day. Research was vitally important in order for the story to be told as actually as possible. While Zachary and Allen and their teams dove into research for each period, the writers of the show also helped, “They gave us what they had and we gave them what we had, and we worked together for each episode,” says Zachary.
In television, there isn’t as much prep time as a feature film, and yet TIMELESS was like designing and decorating a different film each week. “For the season premiere, we had a considerable amount of design time, but it closes in really quickly as the season goes on,” Zachary wryly notes.
Allen had suggested in passing that perhaps there should be timeline created. Production Assistant Elisabeth Maines created an extensive timeline that wrapped around the perimeter of the Set Dec office. The timeline was a cheat sheet of sorts to keep technology paired with important dates in history. Since the story jumps around through centuries, it came in handy. “For quick reference, it was good to know when the first washing machine or the first computer came out,” says Allen. “It was truly an amazing thing to have.” As was her team! Buyers Eric Taylor and Jody Bergman, and Leadman Joe Grafmuller and his crew were a phenomenal help, “It was a huge task for all of us, and I really felt that we were a strong team the whole time.”
You may not think about it, the world changes around you in some obvious ways but also in subtle ways. When location scouting for the President Ronald Reagan Assassination Attempt
episode, Zachary noticed significant differences, “You may not think there is a whole lot of change from the 19
80s, but w
hen you look at photographs, you note…they didn’t have those street lights…they didn’t have handicap ramps…that didn’t exist.”
For Allen, the constant “off” on each location was thermostats. “They were all wrong, no matter what time period, they were always wrong, so Stephen Pleat, Visual Effects, had to budget a line item in every episode just to conceal the thermostats in post.” Who would think that thermostats would be an issue, but you usually can’t cover them, it would look odd, and you can’t remove them on a location, so here’s a great example of inter-department collaboration. Visual Effects were essential in completing the storytelling on screen. Another example: the Barkley Hotel in downtown Los Angeles was used for the exterior, Austin Texas 1936
. Only one street block was decorated when shooting the scene. Then Visual Effects in post-production created the rest, “They added cars and buildings, a lot details in the background and got rid of inappropriate street lights,” Zachary recalls.
The team shot extensively in and around Hollywood, including the Biltmore hotel in downtown Los Angeles to play as New York’s Saint Regis Hotel
in the 19th century. For a 1955-era dirt racetrack
in the episode The Darlington 500,
they built half of a speedway at Sable Ranch. They also filmed at the Disney Ranch for the battlefield of World War I
. “There had recently been a brush fire there, so we shot the burned out area as the ravaged WWI battlefield,” Zachary reveals. They filmed almost half the shooting schedule on the Paramount Studios sound stage and half on various locations. “We shot in the bunker
permanent set a lot, I would say at least two days an episode,” says Allen. Other sets that used the Paramount lot included the Women’s suffrage
episode, while one the easiest sets for John Zachary was the 1941 movie studio
, which was shot at Paramount Studios for Paramount Studios
, “That was pretty much a slam dunk!” Zachary laughs.
The largest challenge for both Zachary and Allen was, of course, nothing new to them: the budget. Yet somehow they were able to bring history to life each week. “We had to get creative about how we did it, making everything really authentic without breaking the bank,” Zachary imparts. Allen spent carefully, “From years of experience as a set decorator you learn to dress a set wisely, you know what is or isn’t going to show up on a TV screen. I’m never going to buy expensive sheets from France for a quick shot of a bed…that’s not money well spent. It’s that balance, you have to remember what they are going to actually see.”
From her long standing relationships with prop houses, Allen was also was able to work out special production deals. SDSAI Business member LCW rented her upwards of $300,000 worth of technical and period set decoration for a fraction of the price. “The set decoration for the bunker
set came from them, part of it actually off the series THE LAST SHIP. They gave us an amazing deal, they were very kind to me,” Allen notes. She also rented from SDSAI Business member Premiere Props for historically accurate military tents and medical equipment used in the first episode about World War I, plus the many crates and barrels it takes to fill a set! She worked with Business members Warner Bros. Studios and Universal Studios Property for high-end scenes, especially for the Presidential Suite
in the Women's Suffrage
For history buff John Zachary working on TIMELESS was a great experience. “The historical sets, were really the most fun... I’m a big scholar of the Civil War Reconstruction era, so I really enjoyed the Harriet Tubman episode
, but my favorite was the World War I
When asked what Dena Allen’s favorite set was, it was easy, “My all-time favorite was San Francisco Chinatown 1888,
for the last episode. It was really difficult. It poured down rain as we were shooting on the backlot of Paramount! The research was really interesting…from there, my buyers found fabulous appropriate elements, then it was about three days of our talented set dressing team layering it into the set. I was very proud of it and enjoyed the whole process of that Chinatown
TIMELESS is the type of show you can be immersed in the history lessons the script provides and yet be entertained all in the same moment. The big reason fans are so invested in the show, is that families, both young and old,
can watch the show and learn something new each week, with storylines and sets about historical figures and events.
At the time of these interviews, news broke that the show would not be renewed but the fan base, as well as, the show creators are hopeful that a movie version of the show will allow one more last trip on the time machine!
We want to thank Janessa, Dena and John for taking time out of their busy schedules to share their experiences via conference calls all over the country. Dena Allen SDSAI is currently working on THE RESIDENT, and, ironically, we discovered during this interview she will be working with Chase Helzer SDSAI Associate while filming in Atlanta! Janessa Hitsman SDSAI has completed production on LOST IN SPACE, check back to SET DECOR for that new article soon!
We look forward to continuing to follow the careers of these amazing set decorators!
*Photo gallery captions were written by Helzer