With singular Netflix cyberpunk series Altered Carbon, production designer Carey Meyer spent over two years in contemplation of an incredibly complex sci-fi world, figuring out how he would bring scope, texture, and authenticity to the project.
Based on an acclaimed novel by Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon is set in the three-tiered megalopolis Bay City in the year 2384. As it happens, this awe-inspiring city epitomizes the depth and intelligence of Laeta Kalogridis’ series, which must also be broken down on multiple levels.
Set in a world where human consciousness can be stored on ‘stacks’—or miniature disks implanted in the neck—Altered Carbon follows Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), a political operative brought back from death after 250 years to crack a murder case. Above and beyond plot, the series is a meditative sociological portrait, examining the consequences of technological evolution in a world where the 1% has become the .1%.
In this world, there are three social classes: the impoverished Grounders, living on Bay City’s floor; the Twilight, serving at the whims of the ultra-wealthy; and the Meths who have inhabited the sky, building their elaborate living spaces amongst the clouds.
Encountering such a fully realized universe on the page, Meyer would have to figure out how to bring Bay City into reality—on a project where visual effects would be in play, but would not be the driving force. Coming across a massive Vancouver facility courtesy of Skydance Media, the production designer knew instantly that he’d found what he needed: A space within which he could build a world unlike any other on television.
In early conversations about Altered Carbon, what was discussed, in terms of the way the series would look and feel?
There was no clear dictate right from the beginning, but in my initial interviews with Laeta Kalogridis and [executive producer] Steve Blackman, it was obvious that they both had a strong visual style and understood how dramatic they wanted to be with the visuals. So going into it, I knew that we would be able to capture a cool look.
Of course, once [director] Miguel Sapochnik came on, we were able to start really drilling into the overall aesthetic of the show based on the initial pilot.
Did you bring any specific visual inspirations to the table, going in?
We were for sure living in a Blade Runner sort of world. Even though the story is quite different, there were definitely visual equivalents I felt in the novel, and in what Laeta and Steve were writing, and in what Miguel had in his mind as a model for the show. The novel has so much of a hierarchy of culture and architecture in it, and Blade Runnerreally fit a lot of the mold we felt.
But of course, there are lots of different things in it, as well, such as the looks of The Matrix, very modern architects, and to some extent, Ghost in the Shell. Zaha Hadid was a very influential architect in our research. We had a huge Pinterest board going on between the four of us.
What inspired the series’ wild, immersive color palette?
The color palette, I felt really got dictated in The Raven Hotel, and it took a long time to get to the Raven. In all of Laeta’s years breaking down the novel, that whole world that Kovacs lives in was, in the book, based on Jimi Hendrix. So they were going back and forth with that character.
We were just hovering along and not worrying about a color palette yet, just structurally trying to get things in line so that we would be able to make the show. Once we were able to lock down Edgar Allan Poe and start drilling into that character, understanding how that character was going to be part of the world that Kovacs lives in, the Raven started to take a central role in the continuity of a color scheme—and not just [in] color scheme and architectural style, but as a character that really envelopes the world Kovac lives in. We really wanted to work with the Raven, to the extent that we were also working the idea of fractal geometry, and great patterns that had a repetition to them, and a story within them.
The color palette is really the dark reds, and the ambers, and the black and whites, and gold, [though] an overall color palette was not specified. Obviously, going after Blade Runner, our overall color palette really became cinematographic, greenish blues and amber golds.
We didn’t dictate that all the wardrobe and all the sets had to be within a certain color palette, being that we also wanted to have outside of the Raven a world that was full of everything. We really tried to envelop as much color into that world as possible because we knew that it was going to be dark, as well—and we didn’t want to be completely down-and-out dark.
Can you describe the unusual space that Skydance introduced you to early on, and how it became Bay City?
In the early stages of developing the show, the space that Skydance had picked and decided to turn into a stage was an old newspaper printing press. In that huge facility, they had a space where all the newspaper printers used to stand. It was a space that was 400 feet long, 50 feet wide and 65 feet tall, and it had been completely stripped of all the newspaper printers. It was a space that, when you walked into it, captured your imagination just by itself. It immediately spoke to me like, “Wow. This is a street already.”
While we needed a street environment specifically in the pilot, we could’ve gotten away with shooting on a real street in downtown Vancouver, and then add a lot of green screen and visual effects to turn it into something. But I had this idea that we would be able to take this space that many folks had wanted to subdivide into maybe two or three stages.
It really wasn’t very wide. What was dramatic about this space was how long it was. So immediately, I just started getting sketches together of what this space could look like with its already existing scale, what kind of street we could turn it into. Because it had a lot of texture to it already. I was able to talk everybody into this concept of building the main street and being able to make it look almost endless, and then being able to redress and rebuild portions of it throughout the course of the season to get the multitudes of different places that are on that street in the show. That enabled us to start surgically figuring out what we really needed in the overall 10 scripts.
So we were able to take that street set and let it live throughout the entire series, which hadn’t necessarily been in the original 10 scripts when we were breaking it down. But as you get into a television show, where you’re trying to build a world for 10 episodes, without starting to have some limitations to that world, you don’t really know what you can and can’t do. What I definitely did not want to do was trying to go out to streets in Vancouver to create this future world, where you’re going to be replacing signage and parking meters and controlling the street. The setup and the breakdown of that were just going to be monstrously expensive.
[Bay City] became a space that we could go to and provide an exterior world that didn’t have to be stepped on in VFX as much as a real location, or even just a smaller set build. Because that space was so long, we were able to build backdrops at either end that were 50, 60 feet tall. Basically, if you tilted up you’d be able to do visual effects, but if you kept a little bit longer lens, you could just capture the entire space and there were really no visual effects needed. Of course, we were able to really scope out and get a lot of visual effects going, but it was a space that you could live in with no visual effects if you needed to.
That, for me, is not just an accomplishment, but it’s what a TV series has to do in order to give you scope. Because you can’t just go out and do all those visual effects every time as much as you can on a feature.
Could you explain your thought process in crafting Lauren Bancroft’s Suntouch House?
Suntouch House was obviously in the original novel of Altered Carbon. The meths live in these massive towers above the clouds, separating themselves from grounders.
The entire city is connected in an organic fashion, with all these buttresses and bridges and pylons. It’s all a skeletal structure that is not only keeping the city together but creating a base for these massive towers to grow above the clouds. We wanted to make sure that our main tower—Bancroft’s tower—had a distinct visual style. His tower was less of a building and more of a sculpture that he had buildings in or on. He’s so rich that he didn’t build a building and live in the entire thing; he built a structure that he would then put buildings on. There wasn’t necessarily a ton of living space in his tower; he would grab a nice deco mini tower and put that at the very top for himself to live in.
It became almost like an art piece, a sculpture for the rest of the city to enjoy, even though he’s really just sort of stomping on everybody. It had that sculptural, skeletal sort of feel, much like all the bridges and buttresses that keep the city together.
Even the stacks had a skeletal structure to them that’s similar to his tower, similar to the bridges and streets and buttresses in the city. But then as you delve into that stack at a microscopic level, there are all sorts of synapses, like in the brain. We were really going after a fractal design approach, from the interior of that stack all the way out to the height of Bancroft’s tower.
What was your process for designing the series’ energy weapons?
Laeta actually took the biggest step forward in creating the culture of the guns. She’s super, super into the weapons. So I took a bit of a back seat with the weapons design and let Laeta and the prop master delve into that. We did get some guns designed through Weta in New Zealand. But our prop master, Nevin Swain, was able to bring all of Laeta’s ideas into a physical world that was not only buildable but really fun and exciting to have throughout the series.