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The Joy of Sets !

Guest Frankie

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From: Sydney Morning Herald 7/9/06.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of television this month, Michael Idato looks at the designs that give form to a show's fantasy.

The groovy circular sofa in Jeannie's bottle, the sprawling main staircase of the Bradys' living room and the shabby chic style of the Central Perk cafe in Friends - in television, it is not just memorable characters who achieve immortality.

The earliest style set by television is the standard American sitcom living room with two doorways, a couch and a staircase - the framework for what has followed for almost 50 years.

This style, says Ken McCann, production designer on Channel Seven soap Home and Away, has heavily influenced television production around the world.

"Leave it to Beaver and The Brady Bunch with the staircase, that was a pretty good standard and it's still done to this day," McCann says. "Up a staircase is one way of getting rid of people, as opposed to keeping them rushing in and out the doors."

The Cleavers of Leave It To Beaver, which aired from 1957 to 1963, became the first family of sitcom style with a picture-perfect suburban home, a custom followed by the Bradys, the Cunninghams (Happy Days), the Cosbys and the Barones (Everybody Loves Raymond).

The key, McCann says, was creating an environment in which characters can be trafficked into and out of the set - an architectural device that entirely serves the writing. It is not unlike the Holy Grail of production design. "Back doors, front doors and everywhere else you can fit them," McCann says. "Traffic is the key."

Set design is a crucial element in the construction of a television program. American design writer Diana Friedman says sets receive as much attention as scripts, actors and costumes in the pre-production phase of a television series.

"Decor, paint and artwork are all building blocks that are used to enhance the show's fantasy and fiction," she says in her book, Sitcom Style. The finer points are crucial, she says, in the tapestry fabrics of Rachel's apartment in Friends, the marble surround of Will's fireplace in Will & Grace or the wood panelling of the Sheffield house in The Nanny.

They are also - as with most television tricks - entirely deceptive. Will's fireplace, for example, is not marble; it is treated rice paper.

When a new series is in development, the drawing board is rarely blank, McCann says. In addition to two long-serving stints on Home and Away, McCann's CV includes Neighbours for Ten, Family and Friends for Nine and a handful of feature films.

"You're always given a brief of some kind and you go from there - rich, poor, family of four, whatever," he says. "You're also given a location and the exterior of that location dictates, at the very least, the entrances and exits. Sometimes even the architecture, Federation or modern, will dictate the interior."

Many sets are made entirely out of wood, paint and imagination in Hollywood studios. Other fictitious interiors are clearly based on real-life exteriors. The Filoli mansion in northern California (www.filoli.org) was the exterior for the Carrington mansion in the 1980s soap Dynasty, for example.

Desperate Housewives' Wisteria Lane, on the other hand, is entirely false. The street, even the neighbourhood, is part of a back lot known as Colonial Street at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. Before it was Wisteria Lane, Colonial Street featured in many films, notably Tom Hanks's The 'burbs.

The backdrop to Desperate Housewives is postcard-perfect yet the look for Home and Away had a cartoonish quality, something McCann says he was conscious of when he initially designed it - "that is, it never rains in Summer Bay and, as much as I can make it, it's a happy outlook in regards to decor".

"Invariably, you try to make it family-orientated, in as much as using things [viewers] recognise ... even to the point of going to a Target-type store because that's what the audience might identify with."

Designers are also known for their little touches - the desk of the head of the Counter Terrorist Unit in 24 was modelled on the desk of Jeff Tracy in the 1960s children's series Thunderbirds and the fine-print on the console displays in Star Trek: The Next Generation were replete with in-jokes - so many, they are known informally as Okudagrams, named for the show's production designer, Michael Okuda.

McCann says the most influential Australian set designs include the ABC dramas Phoenix and Wildside. "They had a look that was comparable to anything on film." Recent stand-out US designs include The O.C. and Desperate Housewives. "They have captured a look that is totally theirs."

Perhaps the greatest art direction job of all time, he says, is Citizen Kane. "The man had no money and a lot of black and he made that work."

Iconic Australian designs include Mother and Son and, "dare I say it, sometimes Home and Away. It started out as the Fletcher house and it's still there 20 years later."

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Because Australian television is ruled by American trash at the moment unfortunately, hopeful it’s a trend and Australia will regain its individuality within the industry again, but until then, it’s the O.C all the way… <_<

It is interesting to read about the ‘behind the scenes’, it has always captured my attention. Summer Bay House is definitely my favourite.

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