Despite CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’s Las Vegas setting, the series is filmed hundreds of miles away. Spread across four sound stages, CSI takes residence on the Universal Studios lot, also known as the entertainment capital of Los Angeles. With two stages devoted to permanent sets, one housing set construction, and another sheltering temporary sets, production designer Daniel Novotny keeps a busy schedule designing sets that look and feel as if they’re actually in Sin City. Novotny talks with CSI Files’ Shane Saunders about what his job entails, following in his predecessor’s footsteps, and previews his next big set for the show. Exclusive photos and video after the jump!
CSI Files: “Freaks & Geeks” featured a very high-profile (and very large!) sideshow circus set. What was most-challenging about constructing this specific set piece?
Daniel Novotny: I think the most challenging part of creating this set was the overall size and time frame. It wasn’t the most difficult or detailed, but as far as square footage goes this was the biggest. The exterior portion of the circus had to be tall enough to look real. We used actual circus tents which created an authentic look, but required special rigging and extra preparation time.
CSI Files: Was it ever considered shooting on location at an actual circus for this episode opposed to having to build a set of your guys’ own?
Novotny: Shooting at an actual circus was never an option. Doing so would have created different and more problematic circumstances. Building a circus on a sound stage allows us flexibility to create the style we want with the ease of controlling our environment.
CSI Files: How do you as a set designer determine what is built and what is done on location?
Novotny: While reading a script for the first time, I do a breakdown of each environment required to accomplish each scene in the episode. These environments can be built from scratch on stage, while others are modified on location. Determining what is built on stage vs. location is a balance of many factors. First thing considered is the vision that we are trying to create, which in turn tells the story given in the script. Second, balancing a number of factors such as: prep time, budget, ease of shooting, accessibility, safety and how many pages of the script are written within each particular environment helps determine how and where these environment will be created.
CSI Files: Did you have any source material that influenced your vision of the set?
Novotny: For inspiration we watched videos of circuses and freak shows and referenced a few photography books about circus history. We tried to keep a vintage style with modern accents. I love the look of the TV show Carnivale.
CSI Files: You recently shared with me how the art department is the largest department working on the show. How many people work with you in order to bring your visions to life?
Novotny: The Art Department is comprised of a few departments including: construction, paint, greens (plants), props, set decoration, drafting, and graphic design. Each department is unique, however when combined, we make up the largest department on the show. CSI: is the type of show that requires the creation of new environments for every episode. It’s not possible to achieve what we do every 8 days without a strong crew capable of creating new worlds out of thin air. In all, there are about 45 Art Department members that make this happen.
CSI Files: Do you find it at all heartbreaking tearing down your sets?
Novotny: Yes! It is easy to become attached to a set. We spend a lot of time discussing, designing, planning, and finally shooting. However, we move so fast and create so much we need to constantly make room for he next set.
CSI Files: Richard Berg was the production designer before you. How did you inherit this position?
Novotny: I was Richard’s Art Director from season 4 until he left the show in the middle of season 7. When he left, Richard recommended me for the position which I interviewed and was ultimately hired for. It was a fantastic opportunity and I was eager to make the move. To date, I have Production Designed about 107 episodes.
CSI Files: Out of your many years working on the show, what was the most difficult set to pull off?
Novotny: That’s a hard question to answer. I don’t think I have one set in particular that stands out as the most difficult. A few that come to mind as contenders for “most difficult” would be: train station, sewer tunnel, helicopter interior, a few hotel suites, a desert ravine with an upside down car submerged in water, a building basement on fire, and of course any of the sets from the “miniature killer” series. There are many factors which make a set more or less difficult. Building a 9000 square foot circus on stage sounds intimidating. However, it was a much bigger challenge to build a 72 square foot interior helicopter from scratch. Adding elements like fire, water, explosions, bullet hits, matching multiple locations, or a simple ‘before and after’ to any scene makes the creation of that environment more difficult.
CSI Files: In terms of upcoming sets, what are you working on?
Novotny: Two words: bullets & lasers. You’ll have to watch CBS at 10pm on Wednesday nights to find out.
You can visit Daniel Novotny’s official website for more information: dannovotny.com
Shane Saunders is a freelance writer and reviewer. His work can be seen on EDGE Network and ShaneSSaunders.com. Twitter: @ShaneSSaunders.