Friday, May 25, 2018
  • Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016
Insights Into Production Design For Amazon’s "Transparent," HBO’s "Lemonade"
Production designer Cat Smith has earned an Emmy nomination two consecutive years for "Transparent"
Cat Smith, Hannah Beachler discuss creative challenges, backstories relative to their Emmy-nominated work

For the second straight year production designer Cat Smith has scored an Emmy nomination for Amazon’s Transparent, this time for the episodes “Kina Hora,” “The Book Of Life” and “Man On The Land.” While her back-to-back Transparent nods are Smith’s first two as department head (her auspicious debut as a production designer came on the Transparent pilot), she is no stranger to TV Academy recognition, having garnered multiple Emmy noms over the years--the lion’s share of which were for her work as art director on True Blood. In fact last year she earned Emmy nominee status as both production designer on Transparent and art director on True Blood

Smith worked with production designer Suzuki Ingerslev on True Blood; the two teamed on six Emmy nominations for True Blood dating back to 2009. And Smith’s first Emmy nod came in 2007 for another collaboration with Ingerslev, for an episode of Shark. Ingerslev also figured in Smith getting the opportunity to production design Transparent.

“My world in this industry has been guided by women a lot,” reflected Smith. “I worked with Suzuki Ingerslev on multiple Emmy nominations for True Blood. She knew [Transparent creator] Jill Soloway through their working together on Six Feet Under [for which Soloway was co-executive producer]. Suzuki recommended me to step up and be the production designer on Transparent.”

Smith recalled being favorably impressed by Jill’s movie Afternoon Delight. “I thought it was different than anything I had ever seen, and I also found that Transparent was incredibly unique. That’s the way Jill writes. She wasn’t even born in L.A. but has such a great sense of place, space and character. At the very beginning I don’t think anyone would have predicted when doing the pilot that Transparent would become what it became. It’s been amazing and Jill is amazing to work with. Happenstance got me involved in this show. The work makes me happy. Jill passes on a sense of freedom, creativity and collaboration to every department.

Among the many challenges of Smith’s latest Emmy-nominated work was creating the Idyllwild Wimmin’s Music Festival depicted in the “Man On The Land” episode. The setting is electric and said to be loosely modeled after the Michigan Womyn’s Festival which ended in 2015 after a 40-year run. “It was big and ambitious, creating a festival from scratch within a big natural space,” Smith said. 

Smith shares her current nomination for Transparent with art director Macie Vener and set decorator Susan Mina Eschelbach. Vener is one of two art directors Smith has worked with on Transparent, the other being Maria Baker who was nominated for Transparent last year. Baker and Vener switch back and forth, taking on different responsibilities with one prepping, the other shooting from one episode to the next. “They both make invaluable contributions,” said Smith.

As for set decorator Eschelbach, Smith said, “She is brilliant, winner of three Emmys and nominated many times. There is nothing in season two of Transparent that I could have done without her amazing artistic vision. She brings so much to the table creatively.”

This year Transparent garnered 10 Emmy nominations, including for Outstanding Comedy Series, and Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series (Soloway for “Man On The Land”).

Earning her first career Emmy nomination is production designer Hannah Beachler for Lemonade, Beyoncé’s visual album which debuted on HBO. Beachler shares the nod in the Outstanding Production Design for a Variety, Nonfiction, Event or Award Special category with art director Chris Britt and set decorator Kim Murphy.

Lemonade’s storyline centers on the protagonist’s journey from alienation to forgiveness after a partner’s betrayal. Beachler observed that “the biggest challenge creatively was giving the 18th century plantations a modern language. For me, it was about reaching back into a time period that was not a place that holds fondness for African Americans. We wanted to flip it on its head, make it a place of knowledge and peace, which was also the best part about it.”

As for how she got the opportunity to work with Beyoncé on the project, Beachler said, “I worked on a couple commercials in Los Angeles with DP Chayse Irvin and when they decided to come to New Orleans, he threw my name out.  Kahlil Joseph, the director, gave me a call (they did not mention who it was for) and we talked a bit about the project and I was  curious and intrigued, so I signed on.  It wasn’t until I started working that I learned exactly what the project was and who it was with.  It was certainly a nice surprise.”  

Asked to reflect personally and professionally on what the Emmy nomination means to her, Beachler related, “It’s really wonderful to be recognized for your work.  It’s just amazing to me and I’m still a bit stunned.  I feel truly blessed. For me professionally, it’s an incredible milestone that I won’t soon forget.” 

Beachler adds an Emmy nomination to her growing stature in feature filmmaking, perhaps most notably serving as production designer on director Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, Creed and the upcoming Black Panther. She also handled production design for Miles Ahead, the biopic on jazz great Miles Davis starring, directed and written by Don Cheadle.

This is the 12th installment of a 15-part series that explores the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, animation and visual effects. The series will then be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmys ceremony on September 10 and 11, and the primetime Emmy Awards live telecast on September 18.