Mini Up house by Darcy Prevost
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Credit: Darcy Prevost

Nerdy Jobs: These incredible tiny movie sets are an unsung key to making blockbuster magic

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Jun 25, 2019, 1:45 PM EDT

Darcy Prevost is a set designer and model maker who has worked on The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell, Gilmore Girls, Penny Dreadful, American Horror Story, and several other productions that may or may not include Muppets.

Her job is to design the layout and models for the sets of these shows, and while her hours are long (many go more than 12 hours), the magical worlds she helps create are well worth the effort. In what little spare time she has, Prevost also creates miniature models of her favorite fandoms, from Bilbo Baggins' Hobbiton home to the flying balloon-augmented house in Pixar's Up.

SYFY WIRE spoke with Prevost about how she built her career, some of her favorite celebrity encounters (which, again, may or may not include Muppets), and what a day in the life of set designer and model maker looks like.

Magic Castle skull by Darcy Prevost

Credit: Darcy Prevost

How did you get started in set design? Was it something you always wanted to do?

My career trajectory was definitely not a straight line, owing mostly to the fact that I had no clue set and production designing were real jobs. I've been interested in and producing art basically since I could hold a pencil, but I assumed I'd have to get a real job that just somehow incorporated art into it or keep it as a hobby on the side.

It wasn't until I took an "Introduction to Design" course in undergrad that I knew the word "set designer" and that it was an actual profession. I gravitated to the scale model making assignments in class…I was instantly addicted and reconfigured my career path from architecture to set design.

I used a grad school connection to land my first art production assistant gig. I started out on some interesting reality TV jobs — my first show was for TLC and called Kick Off, Cook Off, where NFL stars would cook dishes with super fans in a competition setting. It was hard work, demoralizing at times, and when I excitedly told my family and friends to tune in, it ended up not even making it to air.

I learned a little bit about the pace of television from it though, and became friends with a producer who ended up getting me a PA job on another reality show. This led to four seasons of work on the show Top Shot on History, and it's basically how I started climbing the ladder.

Could you talk a little bit more about the set and production design process? What does a typical work day look like?

I've worked on shows with 100 people in the art department and I've also worked on projects with four. As a set designer on a big show like Mindhunter and Penny Dreadful, my day would start with the art director giving me a set or façade to design, appropriate research images, and a basic footprint to go off of. I'd then go and measure the space I was designing for to make sure of my constraints — we call this surveying a location — and then I'd start making a 3D computer model.

American Horror Story Hotel set miniature by Darcy Prevost

Credit: Darcy Prevost

I usually print some views of the model when I think I've got the look down for feedback from both the art director and production designer, and I then turn the model into a fully dimensioned drawing packet to give to the carpenters to turn it into a reality. Some bigger shows like to start the design process with a white model made of foam core and card stock showing the basic design. I was able to make the white model for the American Horror Story: Hotel set, designed by Mark Worthington, and also made a 1/16-inch scale model of the new Penny Dreadful sets, designed by Maria Caso. Model making remains my favorite part of the job.

I know you make wonderful models on your own, as well. Could you describe the process for creating these?

Yes, I am someone crazy enough to come home after a very long day on set and then continue to do more work for fun! I love making models but I'm often a computer designer on my projects, and it makes me miss the tactile experience of creating something tangible with my own two hands. That's why I make mini paper models and sculptures in my "free" time — sometimes to sell online and sometimes as a gift for friends.

My favorite piece that I've made for fun is my scale Hobbit house that I designed after a visit to the Hobbiton sets in New Zealand. When I saw 36 Bagshot Row in person, I knew I wanted to make a miniature of the façade. I can say with full certainty that that project took me two full months of work Monday through Friday, 8-10 hours a day to complete. I designed it in the computer, built all the furniture, sculpted all the miniature food and wired it up with miniature dollhouse lights. I'm sure making a second one would take about half the time since I wouldn't be figuring it out as I went, but I love it so much and I'm so thrilled with the way it turned out.

Since completing that, I've been able to make a few other projects much faster. I had the idea for an Ernie music box playing "I Don't Want to Live on the Moon," which I pulled off in about two weeks, and I'm about a month away from completing a 1-inch-scale Muppet theater for myself to replace the last one I sold.

Ernie music box miniature by Darcy Prevost

Credit: Darcy Prevost

What's your favorite part of your job? The most challenging?

First and foremost, I love taking an idea, putting it onto paper and seeing it transformed into a piece of scenery by a team of talented craftsmen. The first set piece I ever designed in undergrad was a corbel from a Japanese temple in Rashomon. I designed it far too large as I didn't quite understand "scale" yet. But I remember walking into the set shop and seeing the finished (giant) thing there on the table exactly as I drew it, and it blew my mind.

I've never lost that feeling. Even today, when I walk onto a set that I had a part in creating, it feels like magic. I also love that every few months, or at least twice a year, my entire job changes. I'll be designing facades for a city in 1938 one week and an alien space ship the next. It's always new, always a challenge, and rarely boring.

I also love the potential for travel. Sure, I work 70 hours a week most of the year, but when a show wraps I have the choice to take time off before I look for my next project. After 10 months [of] working on Season 2 of Mindhunter, for example, I went on a three-week trip to Europe. I live to travel and because of the crazy hours I work, I get the chance to save up some funds to take my next adventure between projects. I may not be getting paid while I traipse around the world but I prefer that freedom over having to save up vacation days and plan one or two small trips a year.

The most challenging parts are the hours and also the deadlines. In my own personal experience, I'd like to get at least four or five revisions on a design before I feel like I'm doing it justice. But with fast schedules, I'll sometimes (oftentimes) have to settle on the second or third pass. It can be hard to be content with something you don't feel you were able to give enough design time to, but I'm getting better at it as time goes on.

Hobbit miniature house by Darcy Prevost

Credit: Darcy Prevost

Do you have any memorable experiences doing set design or model making that you'd like to share?

As part of the job, I have many celebrity encounters. They don't usually phase me at this point in my career, with one or two exceptions. It was late and we had just finished a long day on set. My carpenter asked if he could back his truck right up to the stage door to load up since no one was around, and I agreed. As he was backing up, I noticed someone walking our way from the right, and because of the sight lines, I knew neither of them was aware of the other.

I frantically raised my hand to the man walking letting him know about the truck and said, "Oh hold on a minute, sir!" He stopped, and then the truck stopped, and he thanked me and wished me a good night as he continued walking to his car. It was Paul McCartney and I think I actually stopped breathing for a minute thinking about if we had hit him. I also happened to be wearing my giant Beatles guitar pick earrings that day and was just completely star struck.

Working on the Gilmore Girls revival was an absolute fangirl dream. As a fan of the series, my job was to help restore the backlot at Warner Bros. to its former Stars Hollow glory. My boss would call me and tell me to come meet her at Luke's or Doose's Market, and I'd hop on my bike and pedal through Stars Hollow to those real locations. After the town was dressed for Luke and Lorelai's wedding, the lot was empty, and the twinkle lights were on, and a few of us just walked around the set. It felt like a dream. I'll never forget that.

On another project I was working with some beloved Muppet characters, dressing in some greenery as we prepared to start rehearsing. The lighting was perfect and Kermit the Frog looked down at me from his perch as I was placing flowers and said, "What do you think Darcy? How does it look?" I completely lost myself in that moment — I might as well have been five years old. He was so real in that moment, and it made all the long hours immediately worth it because I was able to experience a moment of true magic.