IFC’s Portlandia has been a favorite of mine since the moment it first aired. It combines two of my favorite people (Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen) with one of my favorite cities (Portland, Oregon) to create a hilarious sketch comedy series that lovingly pokes fun at some of the groups, movements and trends driving the culture in some of the country’s more liberal/progressive/hipster-heavy cities. Though Portlandia could easily be about Brooklyn, Austin or parts of San Francisco, there is something uniquely — and wonderfully — Portland about the show. And that is thanks in no small part to the show’s amazing art & production team that works with local artists and companies to create the scenes we see on TV every week.
I’ve always loved getting to hear more about the way a show’s look and feel comes together (we got to peek behind the scenes of Mad Men back in 2010), so I was thrilled to chat with Portlandia’s production designer, Tyler B. Robinson earlier this week. Along with the show’s art and costume departments, Tyler works to design and build sets, props and environments that will be used to both inspire and bring to life the sketches created by the show’s actors and writers.
Tyler has an amazing story that involves time spent serving in the United States Army as a weapons specialist (be sure to check out the amazing Cupcake Cannon he created), hitchhiking through Europe and eventually landing in Portland where he’s been creating some of the most creative props and set designs I’ve seen. It was such a treat to talk with him about Portlandia, and I hope you’ll enjoy the interview. xo, grace
*Stay tuned tomorrow afternoon for an interview with Portlandia’s Carrie Brownstein.
The full interview (as well as photos, videos and clips from Season 2 of Portlandia) continue after the jump . . .
Design*Sponge: I love that your website describes you as being inspired by “rust, dust, stains, scars, grunge and sludge.” How would you describe your personal style?
Tyler Robinson: I’ve always been attracted to that sort of [rust and dust] style. Ever since I was young and saw Road Warrior, it’s been in the forefront of my mind. I think the film Waterworld did a good job describing the type of world I’d want to live in.
I’d love to do more post-apocalyptic, end of the world stuff — I really love that type of work. I also really love the zombie trend happening right now and that people are thinking about that style in general. In some way I even love the white trash side of that look — cars on blocks in people’s yards.
I’d also say I’m pretty MacGyver-y, which is important to a show that moves as quickly as this one. Often we won’t even see a space until we arrive on set on the shoot day. Eric Schoonover is the on set art director who handles props, too. He is great under pressure, so a lot of the time it’s just the two of us improving sets and props together as Fred and Carrie improv the scripts. We try to keep a few tricks up our sleeves for those situations.
D*S: Your background includes three years of service with the US Army as a squad leader and weapons specialist. How did that lead you into production design?
TR: There was a period of time between the Army and when I started in production design. I spent some time bumming around and hitchhiking through Europe first and then eventually landed in Portland in 1998. Thanks to the GI Bill, I was able to go to school and did a program in web design. At the same time I was finishing that program I was starting to realize that I didn’t want to do that, or sit behind a desk for 10 hours a day. At the end of the program we were required to get an internship, so I took an internship at Food Chain Films, which was then run by David Cress (who is the producer of Portlandia). I learned film production from the ground up and towards the end of the internship they asked me which part of the film process I wanted to be in, and I said the art department. So I started working on that and rose through the ranks to be a freelance art director.
I find my military background, which David shares with me, actually helps me with film production. Because sets run almost like a military operation with all these different groups of people working toward a common goal.
D*S: How did you get involved with Portlandia?
TR: David Cress put my name out there when they were shopping around for crew for the pilot. He’d signed on as producer and mentioned my name with a few others. I happened to be in LA where the Portlandia offices were at the time, so David set me up with an interview there. I interviewed on the Universal lot and came in, Portland style, in jeans and tshirt, into this very LA type of world. I think I felt very “Portland” in their world, and they liked that. I have few tattoos and one is 503 on my arm, the area code for Portland. That was exposed when we met, and I think that punctuated the Portland aspect for these LA guys. So that might have been a selling point [Laughing].
D*S: How did you go about sourcing the materials you used for the sets?
TR: The very first thing we do is start researching and reaching out to local companies for product placement. We try to feature a local product as much as possible, so any time you see something onscreen, from food to products, we do our best to make sure it was produced locally.
In addition to researching, we put out a call for local artists for art and products we could use on the second season. We learned from Season 1 how difficult it can be to get clearance for all the art you see in the homes on set, so we did an open call in Portland. We got over 1,000 responses from local artists, so we had to assign one person just to handle that process of looking through art. We’d carry that art with us all the time on set so we could go in to a new space and take down the existing art and put up the local art that had been cleared to use.
D*S: I saw that call for designs when I was in Portland this summer and wondered if the artists were “in on the joke” so to speak. Especially because sometimes the art (like the “Put a Bird on It” sketch) is the focus of (playful) mocking. How did you deal with that in terms of art/design submissions?
TR: All the way across the board (except with one major exception), we made a statment saying we had no idea where the art was going or what sketch it was being used in. We needed people who would be ok with us using it as we saw fit. But in general, this art was used primarily as set decor, rather than the focus of a sketch.
However, there was one major exception. There’s one whole sketch that makes fun of art and that was a challenge because we had to create or come up with 100 different pieces of art that could be made fun of. The tough part was that it had to be able to be ridiculed without us knowing what Fred and Carrie would say. So rather than offending people who had submitted artwork and contacting them about using their work for this skit, we ended up working with a local art scout named Bridget who works with over 300 local artists. She put a call out for custom “bad art” that was created with the sole purpose of being teased. We ended up with 10 artists cranking out 100 pieces of “bad art” that looked like you might find it on the wall at a coffee shop. After filming was finished, we had Fred and Carrie sign about a half dozen of the paintings and we auctioned them off to benefit local charities.
D*S: What sort of styles/trends can we expect to see in Season 2?
TR: I think the idea of Americana, turn-of-the-century style (big beards and mustaches) is definitely there. More specifically than that, the idea of pickling everything is kind of this season’s answer to “Put a Bird on It.” I went to a Christmas party in Portland this year, and there were no fewer than three people gifting pickled goods. Everyone went home with pickled green beans and homemade soap.
I think the recycling sketch is related to a big movement here, too, and those efforts are taken really seriously. People come to Portland and are suprised to see fast food restaurants with three different bins for disposing of things.
D*S: How would you define Portlandia’s stye, and does it differ from Portland style?
TR: It looks like Portland honestly. As far as the sets, we let Portland be Portland. We don’t play it up or ramp it up. The style comes from the wardrobe a lot of the time, and our costume designer Amanda Needham gets a lot of credit for that [Amanda won an Emmy for her work in Season 1]. She sets the tone of the piece, and as far as the sets go, we try not to over-design anything.
D*S: Do you have a favorite set/scene you designed for this season?
TR: I Do. I have an absolute favorite this year because I got to play with that grunge look I like. I had that opportunity twice actually. First there is this zombie-style scene in the “Everyone’s a DJ” sketch. I got to build that alleyway with all the DJs in it using found objects and alley debris. But my favorite is from another sketch that hasn’t been revealed yet [it's in the final episode of season 2] and it’s my favorite Portlandia set I’ve ever done. So you’ll have to wait and see that one. I really enjoyed both these sets because I had a real hand in building them and not just explaining to the crew what I wanted and having them build it. I like to get my hands dirty.
Also, there’s a scene with Jeff Goldblum as the owner of an artisan knot shop — that was another “trend” that was funny to do. We chose a location that looked great but it needed to be filled with tons of knots. They had to look like super high-end knots that were displayed in glass cloches and frames. That scene was a great example of how we rarely “design” the set, but rather design props and use other found materials to transform something that already exists into something that suits the feel we need to create.
D*S: What are some of your favorite sets on TV or in films these days?
TR: Well I’ve always loved Road Warrior — that’s so classic and untouchable. I also love Waterworld. Those sets are absolutely amazing.
I think The Walking Dead is doing a great job for the zombie look, too — cars clogging the roads, entire cities emptied. I love the zombie look in general — 28 Days Later was amazing, too. I also really love the dusty 70s look and feel of The Devil’s Rejects and I draw a lot of inspiration from that film.
D*S: What projects are you working on now?
TR: The one I’m most excited about is a film that was actually completed in the summer of 2008 but is coming out this March or April. It’s exactly the type of stuff I love to design and build. It’s called “The FP” and it’s sort of like The Warriors meets Double Dragon. It’s about two rival gangs fighting for control of Frazier Park by playing a game like Dance Dance Revolution.
In terms of the production design, it’s a timeless project that plays with that post-apocalyptic feeling and pushes it toward that sort of white trash look I like. It’s completely over the top and ridiculous and unlike anything you’ve ever seen. I built some pretty amazing sets considering the budget we had, and I’m really excited for people to get a chance to see it.
I’m getting ready to work on another zombie film, but I’m also still working on my own projects which involve building functional fantasy guns. I built a cupcake cannon for a Johnny Cupcake video and a gatling gun that shoots Sundae ingredients for a Best Coast video.
Tyler’s Cupcake Cannon (Built for Johnny Cupcake)
Tyler’s Gatling Gun built for Best Coast’s Gone Again video