A remarkably vivid recreation of one of the world’s worst man-made disasters, examining the human cost of a corrupt system’s lies, HBO’s Chernobylwas an incredibly ambitious project, requiring exhaustive research and an epic cinematic quality to match the scope of the events portrayed.
Despite designing his first feature-length project just six years ago, Luke Hull proved himself the production designer to take the series on. Honing a portrait of the 1980s USSR that has resonated widely, Hull understood that to creator Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck, the five-part limited series wasn’t “about making some kind of disaster movie or anything like this,” he explains. Rather than focusing on the disaster itself, Mazin’s emphasis was the human side of the Chernobyl story.
Nonetheless, Hull was responsible for recreating the Chernobyl power plant in its entirety—and through the combination of a real RMBK reactor and a number of sets, craftily devised within an unfinished Lithuanian film studio and an old carpet factory, the designer was able to do just that.
Working hard to hone a cohesive visual language out of disparate sets and locations, Hull also dealt with all the stranger-than-fiction details of the fallout around Chernobyl. In one memorable storyline, for example, soldiers are dispatched to neighborhoods near the plant to kill all house pets exposed to radiation, and bury them deep in cement. (While most of the dogs were actually “cuddly toys” made from fur and stuffing, the cement, nicknamed ‘Porridge,’ was created by the SFX team).
Demonstrating his mastery of super-sized storytelling withChernobyl, Hull earned his first Emmy nomination this year. Naturally, he will next design sets for the Untitled Game of Thrones Prequel, one of the most anticipated projects in the offing right now. Below, Hull discusses his process in designing the Chernobyl plant’s exterior, seeking artwork clearances from the now non-existent USSR, and his thoughts on crafting a prequel for HBO’s blockbuster series.
DEADLINE: What did you discuss early on with Chernobyl’s key creatives, in terms of the way in which you’d tell this story?
LUKE HULL: We all definitely wanted to be accurate. This is not that old of a story; there’s plenty of people alive who can remember that period, living through it. But the reason I like doing these kinds of TV things is that everyone’s got TV now, and I think it’s just as important to get a cinematic experience there as it is if you were to watch a movie. When I read the script, what was obvious was, it had a real sense of epic, cinematic story, and that needed to be represented in design.
I think the pitch I sent in for it was very ambitious, but it kind of grew from that, and production, HBO, and [executive producer] Carolyn Strauss were extremely supportive of that idea. They actually did a lot more than I think they originally had set out to do, in terms of what we recreated for the power plant, and how we would tell that story. But it’s such a complicated thing to explain that you wouldn’t want to cut too many corners.
It’s not necessarily about scale, in terms of big sets. It’s just about explaining the scale of the disaster, the scale of the power plant, the scale of the effect on the people. That needed to be put on the screen. Then, obviously, there were all these technical discussions on how we might approach and achieve that.
One of the very early things was knowing that we had potential use of a place called Ignalina, which is an RBMK reactor in Lithuania, although we never really knew that we could actually film there until pretty much the end of the shoot. So, we always had a backup plan for that, and we built a lot more than maybe we set out to do. But I think what Ignalina gave us was the ability to explain that this power plant was bigger than just the exploded reactor. It was three kilometers long, in total.
So, there were lots of things. But essentially, I think my pitch centered around the fact that what Craig had written was about people, about the individuals involved.
DEADLINE: What kind of research did you get into to prepare for this project?
HULL: With Johan [Renck, director] quite early on, we both brought similar references to the table. It was about finding a visual language for it that wasn’t going to be nostalgic or cliché Soviet Union, but also had this undertone of [sinisterness], I suppose. So, we were looking at a lot of photography that gave the right feel.
It was a real mix, really. We had a big collage on the wall at one point. It was a definite split down the middle of factual, historical research that ranged from videos on YouTube, to written accounts, and meeting real people who were involved. Soviet street photography was a great [resource], and I actually had a researcher who could speak Russian, so we were able to Google things in Russian and not just from the U.K. side of Google. Which is a huge advantage, because actually, there’s a wealth of imagery out there, when it comes to factual things. Then, it was people like Alexander Gronsky, who’d done various other projects that felt like they fit the mood and tone of what we were trying to achieve.
On top of that, it was about going to physical places. Every time we do a job like this, we come so informed by scouting. I mean, we knew Lithuania, but we also knew the limits of Lithuania. It didn’t have the scale I had in mind for some of the more Moscow-like interiors, so we started broadening and went to Ukraine. We scouted Kiev, Moscow, and I think Kiev was particularly exciting because it sort of lived in its own bubble. So, when we were in people’s apartments, even, it was just starting to form this aesthetic that felt right.
Johan and [I] really enjoyed being able to put an aesthetic on the screen that was about clashing pattern and color. You know, it was not ugly, but that’s how you could describe it—this aesthetic of sickly, churning greens and things like that. They look great on camera anyway but they also really help tell the story, I think. This was difficult because you’re dealing with things like Pripyat, which was supposed to be a kind of propaganda town for the Russians; it was supposed to be kind of an aspiration, but it was still built in a rush, with the same sh*tty materials and all of this, so it’s finding that balance between trying to [foster] these contrasts, but have this overtone of something not quite right.
DEADLINE: In your location scouting process, what were the greatest finds? The exterior you chose for for the Byelorussian Institute was memorable, and there’s a giant, orange mural at the beginning of Episode 2 that I found particularly stunning.
HULL: Yeah, that’s amazing. We had to fight really hard to use that. The problem with TV [is often], you’ve got to track down ownership of artwork. Or even if there’s public artwork, everything in that period was owned by the Soviet Union, which doesn’t exist anymore. So, to get clearance from the Soviet state, which doesn’t exist, is quite tricky. But that one was brilliant. That’s on the side of the nuclear research institute in Kiev. Funnily enough, we went to look at the interior of the building, because it was curious, and that incredible mural was outside, which actually was in a book that I own, as well. I can’t remember what it’s called, [but] it just kind of summed up the story at that point, visually.
Then, the Byelorussian Institute, I think that’s a university campus, and that building is the biology department or something. There was an option of going to Belarus to shoot the actual thing, but actually, I think I prefer that building. I mean, it’s so similar in its language [to] the real thing—not identically the same, but it just had a very good feel.
I think everything that was in Byelorussia, my plan was just to give it a slightly different look. All of those Minsk locations are very anemic, which was nice, so they had their own kind of look, compared to the streets of Moscow in the show, or various interiors in Pripyat.
DEADLINE: Can you explain the approach you took in recreating the Chernobyl plant exterior?
HULL: It was a bit of everything. We never knew if we’d get the practical location, and I looked at various ways of trying to do it on a practical location. In fact, we had a slightly different plan in the beginning. I think they’d done a feasibility study, taking pictures with a designer, and it really wasn’t the scale that I’d pitched, so I thought that we should build a lot more.
The way we started with it was to model the whole thing in 3D. So, we had a 3D model of Chernobyl, and then it was a bit of a detective kind of thing of working out what had happened in the aftermath of the explosion. Because there’s not a lot of footage. There’s some very good Getty images that we pieced together, and we realized that it was actually a pump room that was destroyed. You could see in the images pump rooms on either side of the reactor, and the whole roof of the reactor had gone. So, from a story point of view, that was what I wanted to build.
Then, it was a case of holding onto the fact that we wanted to be able to tell the story of the overall scale of the power plant. So, we looked at various other power plants that didn’t really have the right language; factories and things like that. That’s why Ignalina became quite important. Because although it doesn’t look like Chernobyl, it gave the scale of Chernobyl overall, when you want to get away from Reactor 4, and explain that there’s this whole other working power plant still happening in the background. So, what we did was, we modeled Ignalina, and we modeled Chernobyl. Then, we found a splice point, and from there, we worked out what we wanted to build, and built physical models of what we wanted to build.
I should actually add, there was another part of that. On the first recce [location scout] to Lithuania, I was shown a film studio. It wasn’t quite finished, and it was a bit like, “Well, you can’t really use it. It’s like a shell.” But it was kind of perfect for me, because when you stood back and looked at the outside, it had this great outline, and it fit the shape, roughly, of exploded Reactor Number 4. So, we clad the outside of the building; we created the destroyed pump room. We built a back lot, where we built other sets to do with the power plant, and also the mine that was then physically, geographically in the right place. Then, we were able to build through into the shell—into the stages. We had a set that went from exterior to interior, so you could have, in theory, shot the whole thing in one shot. That would have been very corny, but we had this destroyed part of the power plant covered, and it fit with the language of our location, Ignalina.
So, it was all kind of a package, wrapped up, that informed each piece. It was a bit of a puzzle. But I’ve always been a fan of saying, even of bad ideas, “Sometimes, it’s the right idea if you make it at the right time.” Because you could kind of break it down in a million different ways. Once you’ve latched onto a way that you want to do it, it’s just a case of then really pushing the button on it and going for it, to make it as good as it can be.
I think what I realized when walking around Ignalina was how much of the power plant is just really simple. I mean, it’s basically concrete corridors and stairwells, stacked on top of each other, rooms with equipment in them. Then obviously, you’ve got the fusion reactor, which is the science bit. Other than that, [there’s] the water pumping station, [which] had its own language anyway. It had a slightly spooky labyrinth kind of look to it, and then it’s taken through to the other sets.
Up next, you have the Untitled Game of Thrones Prequel—surely, one of the most desirable gigs in the industry right now. What can you tell us about it?
I can say we’ve shot the pilot, and that’s about all I can say. I’m temporarily unemployed, and we are hopefully looking to do the series soon.
How excited were you to take that on? Were you a fan of the original series?
Yeah, I was. I’ve certainly watched it all now, and it’s quite funny: It was one fo those calls and one of those interviews where I’m like, “I don’t know. Has this not already been designed?” Then, it was clear very quickly that we were looking to do something completely different. So then obviously, it became very exciting. I don’t do so well with trying to match someone else’s aesthetic; I’d much rather start completely from scratch. But it’s hugely exciting. [With] the people involved, it’s just a very different project, which was important. I really like to try and do something very different each time, so I was very lucky, actually, to be able to even interview for it, let alone get it.