Television

‘Chernobyl’: Walking the Fine Line of Production Design on the Hit HBO and Sky Show

It’s been a busy few months for Luke Hull, a production designer on “Chernobyl.” Fresh from landing an Emmy for his work on the HBO and Sky hit series, he has been named one of BAFTA and Netflix’s Breakthrough Brits, a cohort of standout talent who get a year of mentoring and have their burgeoning careers fast-tracked.

The National Film & TV School graduate tells Variety about becoming obsessed with “Chernobyl.” “When you read a script like this, you say instinctively, ‘I want to be a part of that,’” he said. “What I did think was how much of this is real? Then when you start your own research, you realize it’s more real than you can imagine and worse beyond. Everyone, as they joined, became obsessed.”

Moving the show’s art department to Lithuania, and being in closer proximity to the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster at the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, ramped up the pressure to get it right. “Suddenly, it had another layer of importance because the people there had either lived through it or been affected by it, and it was a big part of their history,” Hull said.

Getting the look of the series right involved watching Russian- and Western-made films and then, ultimately, emulating neither. “What came across to me was [that] the Western ones had a parody vibe and the Russian ones had a nostalgia feeling,” Hull said. “We wanted to make something that made you feel sick in a way, made you feel awkward and uneasy, to convey the story.”

The research involved meeting personnel who played a part in the cleanup and even contacting the company behind the Joker robot that was used in the cleanup process and that appears in the series. While the costumes and fabrics were obsessed over, and the team at one point even considered shooting on Russian lenses, Hull said he “never pushed to make something look just right” in terms of production design. He added: “With any project I do, I’m very into sets that don’t look like museum pieces. They shouldn’t look like a pastiche of a period.”

Tonally the team was conscious of not making a disaster movie and not making a “Die Hard” film, which meant walking a fine line. “There were always points where you could step either side of that line, where it either becomes gratuitous or self-indulgent or commercial actually, because the material is quite rich in terms of visual potential….That was a constant dialogue,” Hull said.

He admitted that landing the Emmy – one of a haul for the Sister-produced series – was a “shock” in a strong field. “We had the ‘Game of Thrones’ team behind us and they were quite excited, so we wondered if they knew something,” he said.

Turns out they didn’t.

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