To transport “Project Blue Book” viewers into the top-secret world of the U.S. government’s Cold War-era U.F.O. investigations, production designer Ross Dempster and his team were tasked with conjuring a moment in time—from scratch. The drama series, in its first season on HISTORY, is based loosely on the real-life story of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a brilliant astronomer recruited by the U.S. Air Force to scientifically scrutinize the growing number of saucer sightings, alien-abduction claims and more during the early 1950s.
HISTORY talked with Dempster, whose credits also include the recent reboot of “Lost in Space,” about how he creates environments that bring mid-century history to life onscreen and evokes the anxiety of the Atomic Age and the mystery of the unknown.
What does a production designer do?
Production design is the world in which our characters inhabit. It’s my job, along with the director and director of photography [DP], to make sure we come up with something creative that pushes the story along, makes it believable, and absorbs the audience.
How would you describe the setting for ‘Project Blue Book’?
We’re in 1951-52, so you've got this post-war thing that all the characters are living in. Rather than making it scream out as stereotypically '50s, I wanted to keep it in the realm of reality and show the time periods before that. In Dr. Hynek’s house, for example, there are antiques in the bedroom that were meant to be pieces that might have been handed down to the couple by their parents. Alongside that, you have modern furniture that they've purchased more recently. All of that tells a story, and makes the characters more real.
What mood were you trying to evoke in the key sets? Were you given a specific brief?
Other than the script, I didn’t have a brief to follow. I wanted my set design to evoke the period: the Project Blue Book HQ shows government frugality—plain enough with just enough period details to keep it visually interesting. For the Majestic 12 meeting room, the inner sanctum of the secret government team investigating the UFOs, we created a robust circular design with four entrances and heavy blast doors, evocative of the fear and planning, made from that fear, that would keep the seat of power intact no matter what happened in the arms race above ground.
The UFOs that appear throughout are all designed with the period aesthetic in mind so that the audience doesn’t feel removed from the moment. Again, people were scared of these saucers and lights, and my challenge was to reference the designs seen in comics but ensure they weren’t comical to a sophisticated audience. I wanted our audience to also be afraid of these ships.
What is your research process for a project so rooted in history?
I cover the walls in the art department [with period ads, artwork, movie stills and such]… I live in that world, and it is a constant inspiration. It's especially important when you're doing a period piece, that you understand the nuances of the period, the finer details.
The internet is a great source, but it doesn't cover all the specialist stuff. We ordered up a whole bunch of period interior magazines, Arts & Architecture, from 1935 into about 1955, to see where things were culturally and aesthetically, and where they were headed. We had a clear idea of everything that was going on in that period: curtain fabrics, laminate choices, appliances, all those kind of things. The look of films like L.A. Confidential and the Hong Kong-based In the Mood for Love [helped inform the design, with their rich evocation of] secrets, the good kind of historic nostalgia—and the mystery and look of a noir detective story.
Can you share a specific ad and how it ended up in the set?
To illustrate some of Mimi’s frustration with society’s expectations of women, we created an ad for the Hoover vacuum (“Moms Love the Hoover Upright”), that appears [in a store window] in the first episode. That fit with numerous references from the period—[specifically, all the ads we saw extolling how home appliances would bring happiness to women].
Any artists whose work informed the design?
Edward Hopper’s wonderful use of light and strong color in the darkness [was something] I wanted to apply to the scenes. The best example is the gas station scene from the “Abduction” episode. I also took color palettes from his work and used them frequently in the show, for example, in the backstage green room of the radio theater in the “Lubbock Lights” episode.
This is such an interesting transitional period, design-wise, when modernism is starting to creep into people’s lives. Where did that aesthetic best serve the story?
I approached the Blue Book Headquarters, which were on the air base, to look like something that had been built earlier, beginning in the '30s into the '40s, this federal Art Deco look. In contrast to that, I thought the Hynek house could be a lot more modernist.
It also fits in with Mimi’s character...she was finding herself—it was the beginning of women freeing themselves from the home. I added in the idea that she had this modernist eye, and the furniture items that she picked were the beginnings of her emancipation. Those are the kind of details that a designer creates a story around. Then you push it forward and run with it.
Are there any specific pieces that illustrate that part of her character?
No individual piece speaks to this. It’s much more about separate items forming a whole—a larger picture—and together helping to push along a story arc. We sourced a period sofa and chose a fabric that was slightly more contemporary to brighten the mood in the [living] room. A lot of the fabrics in the period were dull browns and greens, and I wanted to have the mood lighter in the home than other sets. Warmer wood tones throughout also contrasted with the other main sets. We learn enough of Hynek’s character to guess that he isn’t the type to be picking furniture, so therefore it has to be Mimi’s choices. So it works on a subliminal level to the audience; when we see her character push for further freedoms in her life, it comes together to tell the story.
How much of what you’re sourcing is original to the period and how much is re-creation?
We try to get the real stuff wherever possible, but one thing you have to be careful of is in the period [of the show], they're supposed to look new. A lot of times you go around to second-hand stores, collectors' rooms, prop houses and there’s vintage stuff, but it’s in superbad condition. It's not going to look right.
For the Majestic 12 room, we wanted these leather and aluminum chairs, so we got in touch with the CEO of Emeco [a modernist furniture company founded in the 1940s], who is the son of the founder and is revitalizing that company. Emeco actually went back and remade the chairs especially for us.
What’s something you needed to recreate?
We have the Russian agent character, who was using the radio listening device. I always try and find pieces that are going to add something aesthetically. We knew about it on a Wednesday, I found [an image on the internet] on a Thursday or Friday, and by Monday my prop master had the device built and on set.
What are some original items you were able to source?
There were quite a few. The telephone in the Hynek house was something super-nice from the period. We got it from the widow of a collector of vintage phones—she supplied almost all the phones on the show, including a vintage phone booth. We’re always looking for stuff that stands out as a nice piece [like the iconic Kit-Cat Klock in the kitchen], but being careful it's not something that overtakes what’s going on in the scene. We didn’t pick specific designers for the Hynek house; we found stuff that was similar. We don’t want the audience thinking, "Oh, I recognize that as so-and-so’s chair."
Even simple stuff, like finding the correct oven: Storyline-wise, it had to work, so we had specialist gas fitters come in and make this wonderful vintage-looking piece actually work.
I have a wonderful set decorator, Janessa Hitsman, who loves to get into the finer details of things, making sure that a typewriter is exactly 1951 and not '52. We want to get it right. Sometimes you can get away with little things, but it’s all about making the period feel correct and keeping the audience in the story, believing where they are.
Lighting plays such an important role in the show; it’s so moody and noir-ish. How did you think about it?
Lighting is not something I completely leave to the DP; it becomes a discussion. It’s something I’m cognizant of from the beginning, giving them as many different tools in their box as possible to use.
That can be the difference between certain practical lighting on the desk or something that's a lot more built-in, such as in the Majestic 12 set. There's a very typical bulkhead light that appears in 100 different shows every week, but I didn’t want it to be like that… I wanted it to feel designed for that space, period correct and that it had something that made it cool and different. They're actually from old British trains [and salvaged from a factory in the Midlands]. They’re built bulletproof, they can withstand a bomb blast, and the Majestic 12 room is supposed to feel like a bunker, so they had an ideal aesthetic with all this protection around the light.
Coming from England, I’m a big fan of James Bond movies; Ken Adam is an amazing production designer [who designed the James Bond films in the 1960s and '70s and the famous war room in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove]. I wanted to pay some small homage to him with the Majestic 12 room, so we designed that light to be reminiscent of the one in Dr. Strangelove.
What other lighting elements were important?
Thinking about the lights on the desk, we wanted to give this vibe that there were several people in the room [whose faces you may never see], just unknowable people in the darkness. There are a couple of scenes when you first see it where they lean forward and reveal themselves in the light through the cigar smoke. It gave this secretive vibe to the whole room.
In the Hynek house, it was about using the windows and the skylight above the kitchen. I came across the work of several period architects, but one of my favorites was [Los Angeles modernist] A. Quincy Jones. There was a particular house [of his] that inspired the Hynek house, which had a skylight with a nice wooden grill detail over it. But there was actually a practical element to it; it meant we could light the characters without having to push them right against the sink and the outside windows.
What other practical concerns do you need to think about?
Film school taught me about cinema, lighting and angles, so I tend to visualize sets from within the frame of a camera, and plan for shots in my head. They don't always have to use them, but they're there. I'm planning ahead right from the beginning.