Two Set Design Techniques From HBO’s The Gilded Age

The Gilded Age on HBO Max is a period drama that pits two nineteenth-century families against each other. The van Rhijn family represents “old money,” while the Russells, who just moved into a palatial estate across the street, represent “new money” gained from the Industrial Revolution. Below, Art Director Laura Ballinger Gardner shares two Gilded Age set design techniques that the production design team used to create their period 1880s backgrounds using Rosco SoftDrops®.

Photograph The Model Now – Stylize Later

The Gilded Age set design featured a mix of sets on sound stages and backlots to re-create New York City in the late nineteenth-century. The interior sets were built on stage at Gold Coast Studios in Long Island. The production design team needed 10 backings in total for their stage sets and, according to Laura, they wanted them to have the stylized look of hand-painted backdrops.

Top: original model, constructed by Concept Artist Hugh Sicotte.
Bottom: a first pass of a backlot model photo with edit notes from Laura and her team.

Seven of the ten backings needed were views of a backlot street that hadn’t been built yet. Without time to wait for construction to be completed, Laura sent us photos of the 3D models they had built of their backlot exteriors. Laura worked with the Rosco Digital Imaging team to prep and edit the backlot model photos in order to print seven Custom SoftDrops. The edits included adding details like fencing and trees, creating nighttime versions for six of the seven images, and this process gave the art department an opportunity to stylize their background imagery.  

Laura recalled how the production design team was inspired by the soft, stylized look of hand-painted backings and wanted the background imagery of their stage sets to have that same look and feel. This new technique of using the model as the base image worked perfectly for this approach as it gave her the opportunity to work with the Rosco Digital team to manipulate and soften the image as needed.

Gilded Age Set Design

Closeup shot of Laura’s hand that shows the soft, hand-painted style of one of the backlot SoftDrops.

Once the final art files were completed, they were used to print six Custom Day/Night SoftDrops and one Day-Only Custom SoftDrop – all of which matched the physical exterior sets built on the nearby backlot. Production Designer Bob Shaw, Cinematographer Vanja Černjul, and Laura had all used Rosco SoftDrops on previous productions. Relying on their previous experience, they all knew that SoftDrop was the best choice for creating the hand-painted styling they desired for their backdrops. “We all felt that the softness of the image, the matte quality of the material, and its ease of use made SoftDrop an easy choice for The Gilded Age,” Laura said.

A Rosco SoftDrop creates the period view for Cynthia Nixon as Ada Brook in HBO’s The Gilded Age.

A Two-Story House Requires Two Backdrops – One For Each Floor

The digital approach described above didn’t work for two of the window views they would need for their set design. One of which was a view of 1880s Central Park, which they re-created using a vintage, hand-painted rental drop. The other view they still needed to create was the backyard of a late nineteenth-century Manhattan brownstone. For this view, Laura and her production design team again turned to Rosco. This time, however, there was no model to photograph.

Top: Original image for the main floor SoftDrop. Bottom: Original image for the second story SoftDrop.

In order to create the backyard views of the two-story van Rhijn home, Rosco’s Phil Greenstreet shot an existing backyard in Brooklyn Heights, NY. Because the view outside the main floor window would not be the same as the second story view, Phil shot the location from two different angles. For the main floor, he shot the backyard at ground level, then he used a 12’ ladder to shoot down on the location for the second-floor image using the same centerline. In both cases, Phil made sure to frame the shot so that the horizon line on both Custom SoftDrops would be about five-six feet off the floor. He then returned later that evening and captured the same shots for the nighttime image.

Gilded Age Set DesignGilded Age Set Design

Once the images were shot, the team at Rosco Digital Imaging worked with Laura and her team to bring the van Rhihn’s backyard to life. “I worked with the Rosco team to digitally erase the non-period architecture, remove a few trees, and add leaves back onto the bare branches.”

A behind-the-scenes shot from The Gilded Age set with one of the backyard SoftDrops in the background.

Season 1 of The Gilded Age is streaming now on HBO MAX. Tune in to see all of the opulent settings Bob Shaw and Laura Ballinger Gardner created for the show. To see more examples of Laura’s film & television set design work, visit her website: lauraballingerdesign.com. To learn more about the backdrop solution used in the Gilded Age set design, explore the SoftDrop page on the Rosco website, or contact backdrops@rosco.com with any questions or inquiries.

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Joel

About Joel Svendsen

Content Marketing Manager: Joel's Rosco career began in Rosco's Hollywood office in 1999 – first in sales covering the Western US and the Los Angeles Film & Television market, and then as Product Manager for Rosco's Film & Television Products. Joel's knowledge about Rosco's products and how they're used in each of our different marketplaces makes him well suited for bringing the stories in Spectrum to life.