How Production Designer Rachel O’Toole Created Upload ’s Brilliant Near-Future Sets

Fashioning sets for a TV production that takes place in 2033 might be the trickiest time period of all. It’s in the future but not the distant, so quotidian items still need to resemble their 2020 counterparts. But, with the speed at which technology moves, devices like phones, TVs, and SEO Jacksonville cars must appear to be significantly sleeker than what we see today.

This was the task that befell production designer Rachel O’Toole when she started work on Amazon’s new comedy series Upload. The half-hour show takes place 13 years into the future and was created by Emmy Award–winning writer Greg Daniels, who is also responsible for hits including The Office and Parks and Recreation. Upload, which premieres on May 1, follows a young app developer named Nathan Brown (played by Robbie Amell), who meets an untimely death after a self-driving-car accident. But, instead of dying, he is instead reborn permanently into the quasi-utopian digital community of Horizen’s Lakeview, a “virtual afterlife” for those with pockets deep enough to pay for it. In addition to constructing this bucolic environment, O’Toole and her team were also responsible for creating the more dystopian Brooklyn neighborhood where employees of the Horizen company work, as well as the refined world of upper-crust Los Angeles, where Nathan’s girlfriend lives.

<h1 class="title">1</h1> <div class="caption"> In the Brooklyn office of Horizen, where Nathan’s “angel” Nora (Andy Allo) works, the directive was to use dark colors and hardly any elements of the natural world. “We didn’t want to have things growing, and actually pulled the color green from that color palette,” O’Toole says. </div> <cite class="credit">Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video / Photographer: Katie Yu</cite>
In the Brooklyn office of Horizen, where Nathan’s “angel” Nora (Andy Allo) works, the directive was to use dark colors and hardly any elements of the natural world. “We didn’t want to have things growing, and actually pulled the color green from that color palette,” O’Toole says.

Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video / Photographer: Katie Yu

<div class="caption"> In the rarefied Los Angeles world where Nathan’s living girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards) lives, the sets are suffused with harsh light. “We did a brighter palette, as if the sun was overtaking [the city],” O’Toole says. In this scene, Ingrid is getting ready for Nathan’s virtual funeral. </div> <cite class="credit">Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video / Photographer: Katie Yu</cite>

Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video / Photographer: Katie Yu” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/N9uVbucdDrwigwu2haUt8A–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTQ2OS44NDMzMzMzMzMzMzMz/https://media.zenfs.com/en/architectural_digest_422/8ba2fb837c8f0e078e79c1c2fc2537c7″ class=”caas-img”/>

In the rarefied Los Angeles world where Nathan’s living girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards) lives, the sets are suffused with harsh light. “We did a brighter palette, as if the sun was overtaking [the city],” O’Toole says. In this scene, Ingrid is getting ready for Nathan’s virtual funeral.

Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video / Photographer: Katie Yu

O’Toole wanted viewers to be able to distinguish which world they were seeing immediately, and she achieved this division by using very disparate color themes for each. “Lakeview is all beautiful, manicured gardens and greenery,” she says. “It’s very clean and polished, like it’s an aspirational world.” Creator Daniels had always had upstate New York resort Mohonk Mountain House in mind for this location, so all the exteriors of the digital paradise were filmed there, while interiors were shot on soundstages in Vancouver. For the Brooklyn set, O’Toole wanted to go in the complete opposite direction: “There are not a lot of trees,” she says. “We didn’t want to have things growing and actually pulled the color green from that color palette.” And for L.A., the focus was on harsh light. “We did a brighter palette, as if the sun was overtaking [the city] and it was extremely hot, hot hot,” she says.

<h1 class="title">1</h1> <div class="caption"> Nathan’s luxurious suite at Lakeview was inspired by classic American designers like Ralph Lauren. “It's a real challenge,” O’Toole says of decorating hotel rooms for sets. “You have to pull things together that have the same scale and volume to coordinate when you only have two months to bring it all together.” </div> <cite class="credit">Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video / Photographer: Katie Yu</cite>
Nathan’s luxurious suite at Lakeview was inspired by classic American designers like Ralph Lauren. “It’s a real challenge,” O’Toole says of decorating hotel rooms for sets. “You have to pull things together that have the same scale and volume to coordinate when you only have two months to bring it all together.”

Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video / Photographer: Katie Yu

<h1 class="title">1</h1> <div class="caption"> The upstate New York resort Mohonk Mountain House serves as the exterior for Lakeview. Creator Greg Daniels had visited the property before and had it written into the script as the filming location. “He had found it a very peaceful, beautiful experience,” O’Toole says. </div> <cite class="credit">Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video / Photographer: Katie Yu</cite>
The upstate New York resort Mohonk Mountain House serves as the exterior for Lakeview. Creator Greg Daniels had visited the property before and had it written into the script as the filming location. “He had found it a very peaceful, beautiful experience,” O’Toole says.

Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video / Photographer: Katie Yu

While she didn’t look to specific architects or design philosophies to render her near-future world, O’Toole did find a lot of inspiration in researching the work of futurists. “I read a lot of Ray Kurzweil; he’s the guy that predicted the internet,” she says. “He talks about how fast technology builds and what to expect in the next few years.” O’Toole also researched weather protection, specifically as it pertains to how buildings in the future might insulate themselves from the effects of widespread global warming. In the Brooklyn set, for example, the Horizen building has environmental shields built onto the windows to protect it from extreme heat and cold.

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As a production designer, O’Toole sometimes also plays the role of interior decorator, as witnessed from the pitch-perfect luxury Americana interiors at Lakeview. “We were going for a Ralph Lauren look; that classic cozy environment with plush furniture,” she says. But, of course, furnishing a set is a different exercise than decorating a home or hotel: “There are challenges with budget and lead time; you don’t have the luxury of ordering four matching plaid chairs, for example,” she says. “But it’s incredibly satisfying when it all comes together.”

Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest

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