How Set Design Shapes CW’s Supergirl Season 2

We visited the Supergirl set in Vancouver and talked to production designer Tyler Harron about how he created Kara's world.

So much of the work that goes into your favorite TV show is designed to be seamless, making the work of its creator invisible. 

My main takeaway from the annual CW/WB press trip that brings a group of TV bloggers to roughly 10 different Vancouver sets every fall is the massive amount of work that goes into the creation of these TV shows. Hundreds of dedicated, talented artists, craftsmen, and crew members work everyday to make these stories come to life and most of their work is designed to go unnoticed, to contribute to the illusion that these fictional worlds simply exist.

One of the most fascinating interviews we did during this year’s press tour was with Tyler Harron, the production designer for Supergirlseason two. (Harron is also the production designer for The Flash,worked as the production designer for this year’s CW superhero crossover, crafted the look for the Riverdalepilot, and has worked on countless other shows as a production designer and art director.)

We had the chance to pick his brain about the massive project that was moving Supergirlproduction from L.A. to Vancouver between Seasons 1 and 2, as well as what it was like designing new sets for Supergirlseason two (including his favorite: the new DEO). Here’s what we learned…

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Moving the sets from L.A. to Vancouver.

When Warner Bros. decided to move production of Supergirlfrom L.A. to Vancover, Tyler Harron was one of the very first to know. Harron recalls:

The day I finished Flash last season, I got a call from Andrew [Kreisberg], and he said, ‘So, we’re bringing Supergirl up. Nobody knows expect for you now. We need you in L.A. tomorrow to start taking an inventory of the sets down here and come talk to us about next season of Supergirl because, regardless of whether it’s going to be on CW or CBS, we want you to take it over.

Harron flew down to L.A. the next day to determine if it would be cheaper to pack up the sets they would be using (namely, CatCo and Kara’s Loft), ship them to Vancouver, and rebuild them there or to take elements from the existing sets and rebuild them in Vancouver from scratch.

After running the numbers, Harron decided on the latter, especially given the difficulty of having one crew pack the sets up in L.A. and another unpack them and put them back together in Vancouver. Harron took elements like windows and doors to bring to Vancouver, but left most of the larger elements behind.

Kara’s loft was pretty cut and dry. It is based on a location from the pilot and had to be rebuilt on the sound stage in L.A., so those drawings were actually pretty accurate. I gave those details to construction team, and we rebuilt it.

Harron said that Kara’s Loft is exactly the same, save for the exclusion of a bathroom. “I don’t put bathrooms in sets,” Harron said. “I believe in the Star Trek method.” CatCo, on the other hand, was a whole ‘nother ball game…

Redesigning CatCo for a new space.

Did you notice the changes between Catco Season 1 and CatCo Season 2? Because they’re there. Because of the difference in space available, Harron and his crew had to take three feet out of the set in one direction and expand it ten feet in another. Also, there’s a window missing. Harron said of the changes that needed to be made at the structural level:

The other issue that came up when we came into this building was, unlike a real sound stage, this was a converted warehouse and we were the first people in here.

There’s posts everywhere, and the posts aren’t on an equal dimension that actually accommodated the set to be put in place. So things had to be moved and shuffled around, but just enough that no one would catch it.

Of course, some of the set design changes were narrative as well. Harron told us:

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There was a whole new section of CatCo because James, we knew, was going to be taking over Cat’s position. Snapper Carr was going to be introduced this season, so we had to create a whole new end of CatCo that we really hadn’t seen within the space to create this whole new place for Kara and her new crew as a journalist.

For Harron, one of the most important things to consider when designing big sets is that the actors and crew be able to walk the entire set with camera. In other words, he wants to make it possible to film a walk-and-talk scene without anyone having to stop. “Otherwise, people just sits around,” said Harron, “and I don’t want to watch talking heads sitting around, doing nothing.” Likewise.

A great example of what this looks like when executed for an episode came in “Supergirl Lives,” the Kevin Smith-directed episode that just aired. Smith graciously invited us to watch the filming of the above scene, which has James, Kara, and Snapper walking through CatCo, all in one shot, something that might not have been possible in the previous incarnation of the Supergirlset.

Harron gets inspiration from some of his favorite sets. In addition to the Gothampolice precinct set designed by his mentor, the late Doug Kraner (who convinced Berlanti to give Harron his first designer position), Harron said his favorite set remains Deep Space Nine, which he had a chance to visit as a kid.

I loved that set just because how much more open it was. It felt like you were in a big, cavernous place. I actually got to visit that when I was quite young and it was actually smaller than you would expect. It wasn’t as vast because they would just recycle the same two corridors that were arched …

I’m always a fan of the Star Trek sets, and I really like the new Star Trek bridge, which I had an opportunity to see last year when they shot it beside Flash, but those were always just kind of rooms. Like a lot of my sets, like DS9, I like to have sets that you can walk around, very much like the police precinct on Flash. Two levels, the hallways interconnecting. Because it gives life to the set. You can keep the moment moving, rather than everyone, ‘Take your seats. We’re gonna talk about this.’

Creating the Alien Dive Bar set.

During our set visit, we spent the most time on the Alien Dive Bar set that is new to season two, getting a lot of play as Supergirldives further into the question of alien refugees and alien immigration.

Interestingly, the Alien Dive Bar set was never supposed to be an ongoing set, but was originally written and constructed solely for the introduction of the M’gann character. However, the Supergirlteam liked the look of it so much, it is now a recurring set for Supergirlseason two, generally used once or twice an episode.

[The Alien Dive Bar] was actually where the stunt department was originally. They wanted me to build on-stage, but because we were catching up with all the DEO stuff, we didn’t have time to build a new set there. So I said, ‘I got a perfect place to put a set.'”

Thus the Alien Dive Bar was born.

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You might recognize elements of the Alien Dive Bar set from another CW show. The bars, booths, and a few of the accouterments are recycled from The Tomorrow People‘sChinese restaurant set, which was the first design Harron did for a Greg Berlanti show.

For reference, here is The Tomorrow People‘s Chinese restaurant set. Look familiar?…

In creating the look of the Alien Dive Bar, Harron wanted to create a seedy feel.

The idea was to bring that in and then add this whole industrial, dirty, grungy place that people often don’t go and don’t find … I’ve been in a place like this and so it was really important to me to get really nasty texture … You don’t want to touch anything in here. You might catch something or something might catch you.

Harron and his team “sourced” everywhere from Craigslist to used furniture shops to find the most beat up chairs and tables. He didn’t want any of the tables to match and for them to feel dirty, like “there’s gum underneath.” (There’s not.)

Though the Alien Dive Bar set is very big, Harron and the rest of the Supergirlteam find ways to shoot it small, using corners and scrunching up furniture to create “vignettes.” The set in general is a product of the new, more alien-centric focus of the show in season two.

It’s very cool because the show’s going in way different directions than last season. We’ve got aliens coming in here. We’ve got a variety of different prosthetic-ed people who are becoming regulars. One of my favorites is Fishhead, who is the guy that drinks WD-40.

If you’ve noticed the Interlac peppered throughout the Alien Dive Bar set, then you have Harron to thank for that. He said Andrew Kreisberg and Greg Berlanti weren’t even aware of the DC Comics language before they saw it on Harron’s new set.

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When they first walked in the bar, Andrew’s first thing was, ‘That doesn’t say anything offensive? What language is it?’ And I said, ‘It’s Interlac … It’s a language that’s technically in the future, but which era, which universe?

What do the Interlac phrases say? There’s one over the Alien Dive Bar’s payphone that reads “Kryptonians Suck” and another scrawled on the wall that reads “Designed by Tyler Harron.” Harron mentioned the location of another Interlac phrase scrawled somewhere on set that no one has noticed yet, but I’ll leave that up to you to find…

Designing the new DEO set.

Harron calls the new DEO set his favorite set he’s done so far (and, guys, he’s done some cool sets). When Berlanti and Kreisberg first brought Harron on to design Supergirlseason two, they asked him to pitch them a new DEO. His take?

I said, ‘Let’s get it out of the basement, out of this weird place that kind of just seems very arch and very Dr. Evil-esque. Let’s move it and make it a more downtown location, urban, feel like a CIA … A little more Jason Bourne. A little bit more grounded in reality, as opposed to Dr. Evil’s lair …

The balcony was my first driving point for the set. We never got to see Supergirl land in the DEO last year. She always came around a corner. Well, she flies. Let’s see her come in, land, take presence of the room, walk in, and have a great, grand entrance for her every time she came in.

The DEO design was inspired by the layout of a cathedral with its “long, narrow high-pitched roofs,” “the command center at the end … like an altar,” “and then the whole procession down through.” Harron added: “Superman and Supergirl have always been the Christ figures, so it was fitting that there was a church built for them and their being the protectors of the world.”

Don’t feel bad if you don’t think of these design elements when watching an episode of Supergirl.As Harron puts it:

That’s the storytelling in design is you have to tell the story with the set, subliminally, so that people clue in on it, but they don’t actually know what that intent behind it is. And then when you actually do hear about what it is and you look at it, you go, ‘Oh, that’s right.’

Other cool details of the DEO set you might not be able to catch when you watch Supergirlinclude the responsive iPads that act as door locks for the secure rooms along the DEO’s main space as well as the alien-looking “insanium” material on display in the center’s walls. (For a closer look, check out the photo gallery at the top of the article.)

In real life, the “insanium” is actually called architechtural expanded aluminum foam and it’s used in government building to absorb bomb blasts. It took eight weeks to get shipped into the set. Harron said of its inclusion: “I thought, ‘Well, if you gotta build a building that superheroes can fight in, you better show that it’s got something behind it that’s strong enough to take a punch.’”

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— David Harewood (@DavidHarewood) August 22, 2016— David Harewood (@DavidHarewood) August 23, 2016

In total, it took Harron 98 consecutive days of work to make the new DEO come to life, but the end result was worth it. And if you were wondering if the Supergirlcast and crew are as nice as they seem, listen to the story of when they first saw the new DEO set:

I was here and Linda Carter was here. The first scene that was shot here was actually for Episode 2×03 because this set took longer than our production time, we actually shot it out of order. So, upstairs Linda Carter, Melissa [Benoist], David [Harewood], Chyler [Leigh] were up there and they just turned to me, and David had been through here already earlier, and he just said, ‘That’s the guy that just gave us our new home.” And I got a big round of applause.

Next time you watch Supergirl,spend a little time admiring the production design. It’s out of this world.