Loki production designer Kasra Farahani on the visual references you need an architecture degree to catch
Loki, the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe TV series from showrunner Michael Waldron and director Kate Herron, has stood out from previous MCU series like Wandavision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier in large part due to the show’s dimensioning-spanning setting and premise. Herron has described the show as, “a big love letter to sci-fi,” citing influences as far-flung and varied as David Lynch’s Dune, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and Jurassic Park as primary inspirations in the creation of the Time Variance Authority’s distinctive look and feel. In addition to the work of cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw, production designer Kasra Farahani has had perhaps the largest role in shaping the physicality and texture of Loki’s images and setting, from the brutalist megastructures of the TVA to the mauve-colored moonscapes of Lamentis-1.
Polygon sat down with Farahani to talk about what went into the creating the aesthetic of the TVA and the show as a whole, the influence of Midwest mid-century and brutalist architecture, the making of the Miss Minutes propaganda video in the first episode, and what designs he’s most proud that may go unnoticed by even the most eagle-eyed of audiences.
Polygon: Kate Herron has cited everything from sci-fi classics to architecture when it comes to the design of the TVA. What was the biggest challenge in creating the distinctive visual signature of this timeless interdimensional bureaucracy?
Kasra Farahani: Well, you start with source material; you start with the comics. There’s a kind of subtle mid-century quality even to the floating desks armada of the TVA you see in the comics. But beyond that, there’s the script and the creative brief from [series creator] Michael Waldron who in a very concise and evocative way referenced “Mad Men meets Blade Runner,” which immediately establishes a kind of visual spectrum that you’re going to fall on. Beyond that myself and Kate Herron, both even before meeting, were really drawn to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil as a reference for this; both because of the anachronisms that are in that story and because of the monolithic bureaucratic presence that’s in that, which is really relevant for for us. So then it becomes: What does that actually mean when you collide mid-century modernism with the gritty, industrial, analog future tech of Blade Runner? So for me, it was like looking at all the different permutations of mid-century modernism and brutalism.
London style brutalism was a big influence, as well as Soviet influence; Eastern European mid-century modernism, like those were big influences for these imposing monolithic, intimidating scaled spaces in the TVA. But there was a goal to create a contrast, almost a feeling of cognitive dissonance, by using the warm and whimsy of American mid-century modernism as a kind of skin. So you have these big monolithic, stoic space skinned in these warm pallets and wood tones and whimsical patterns to create this kind of paradoxical feeling. You walk into the receiving room, and it’s these beautiful warm wood browns and bright orange Saarinen inspired desks. But then, you also immediately realize that the doors all look the same and it’s a labyrinth; you’re trapped, and you don’t know how to get out the way you came. Or You walk into the time theater, and it’s these massive, concrete columns, but there’s also these bright, warm orange doors on the sides as well. So it was a matter of constantly playing with these two different mid-century influences.
One of the most striking aspects of the design of Loki is the diversity of show’s lighting and set design, particularly in the case of the circular lamps in the waiting room hall in the first episode that evoke allusions to the Marcel Breuer’s Met Breuer museum. What were some particular examples of real-life brutalist architecture that inspired the design of the TVA?
The design of the Miss Minutes waiting room was very much inspired by Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum. For the lamps, we created these dishes with bulbs in them. For us, we wanted to take it a step further, so rather than creating these floating dishes, what we literally did was cut holes in a hard ceiling and put these bowls of light above them to try to like almost literally make a big sea of eyeballs that are looking down to kind of tap into this motif of the TVA always watching you. On top of that, we slammed that ceiling down really low so the height is like seven-foot-six, which even like the cheapest apartment you’ve ever been in has an eight-foot ceiling or higher. So this ceiling was six inches shorter than the lowest ceiling probably anyone’s ever been in. And that was just to help create this like sandwich crushing kind of feeling that’s in there.
But we were looking at so many different things. Eero Saarinen was a big reference for us. Luigi Nervi, who’s actually earlier than mid-century modern. You could make the case that he’s an early-century architect that maybe inspired other mid century modern architects that came after him. He was definitely an influence. The scene where Loki and Mobius are looking out at the view of that crazy infinite expanse of the TVA was heavily influenced by the Brazillian mid-century architect Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasília designs as well as some really cool, obviously never built conceptual sketches of downtown Los Angeles that Frank Lloyd Wright did in the early part of the 20th century that had these bold colonnades and an almost quasi-Roman feeling. So those influences worked into what that expanse would be, which is quintessentially TVA in that it’s a place outside the physical world. There’s no weather, there’s no difference between an interior space and exterior space. There’s no roof. So when you’re looking at that expanse, it has this sprawling campus-feeling like Brasília, where walkways are spanning across crevasses that are going in and out of buildings.
What can you tell me about the design and creation of the Miss Minutes PSA cartoon?
We were quite involved in creating that look and in designing Miss Minutes herself. Miss Minutes was inspired by early 20th century animation; the more spartan, austere versions of what cartoon characters looked like with no gradations, solid color fills, and limited range of colors like Felix the Cat or the early Mickey Mouse cartoons. The propaganda video itself was very much inspired by a video I had found, a US Air Force instructional video called Man and Safety which is on the internet and people can check it out. I think the animation in it is beautiful. It just struck me how strange it was because it was dealing with very serious issues and yet, it was very common at the time for instructional videos to be done in this animated, almost funny at times style. So this weird dark contrast between serious material and naïve visual language was really inspiring to us.
Based on that, we did a bunch of keyframe designs of what different parts of the animated movie should look like. So when we finished production and post began, they had a dozen or so keyframes based on this look. I’d say it’s almost a little bit more austere than Hanna-Barbera. The closest thing I could I can compare to it are the old Pink Panther cartoons, where the characters are walking on these abstract backgrounds and in some cases, the background is just like a color with a brushstroke of a different color on it. Some of that strange abstraction was what was appealing to us about the unknowable quality of what they were showing.
As the show’s production designer, what was your personal favorite prop or aspect of the show to create and why? Likewise, what was the most challenging prop or set to pull off from a design perspective?
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you my favorite thing yet, but there’s a couple. The first is the TVA itself obviously, which was an absolute joy to do. The best thing about the TVA, and actually most of the stuff on the show generally, was that most of these settings were 360-degree physical sets that we built. This is part of the great collaboration I had with [Loki cinematographer] Autumn. My desire to build these monolithic environments that had the lighting integrated into the architecture lined up perfectly with Autumn’s shooting style, which is super low and constantly shooting up into these ceilings. So as a result, we were able to build these huge, full 360-degree tactile environments that are actually there, which is super helpful for the actors but also I think is what is contributing to this look that fans of the show have responded to. There’s this tactile quality to it. Being able to build these like huge, imposing, Kubrickian kind of environments for the TVA that are fully there, where you’ve got this grid of lights casting these square columns of light in the time theater and actually having it physically be there 100 percent in camera, that was a joy. It really is so satisfying seeing how well it translates to the final product.
The other thing is the Loki palace in the fourth episode. That’s probably one of my other favorite things about working on the show, it was one of those places where we had a lot of runway, because the script only described it as a temple. And so we came up with this cool idea to propose the team where I wanted to make that temple a former bowling alley. I wanted to do this because everything in the Void gets deleted and dropped in and then devoured by Alioth and then more stuff gets deleted and dropped on top of that. The idea was that there would be these strata of deleted realities stacked on top of each other. So they go down into this buried place to find safety from Alioth and I thought it would be cool to have this fractured bowling alley where the floor is broken in two places, so what that gives you when you’re looking down is these lane lines just pushing your eye like a vector to this throne at the center. I thought it would be really funny to have the throne look as though it were raided out from a mall Santa display in some deleted mall somewhere. That was a lot of fun because narratively it was a microcosm of what the Void is, which is this salad bar full of disparate, deleted, aberrant realities just slammed on top of each other.
One of the things that I think I’m really proud of that I think is super fun is the city of Sharoo at the end of the Lamentis-1 episode. That was such a tricky thing to work out where all the departments were involved in a lot of elaborate choreography to make that, because it was 100 percent in camera up to 16 feet, because it had to be. That was a real joy. But also like I think we did something very new there, which is tricky to do in the MCU, because they’ve done so many beautiful alien worlds and the challenge was to come up with something original. What I’m very proud of is that we found this technique of using black light paints in Sharoo, where all the buildings have super elaborated striped patterns on them or graphic patterns on them. And these patterns are made up of a combination of black light paints and non black light paints. So when you shine a black light on them, it almost looks like they’re holograms. So it’s like a weird in-camera visual effect where it almost looks like maybe they’re even like 2D cartoons. Parts of the building seem to step forward from the other building and we did this with the entire town. It ended up giving a very strange and cool look that really comes across in the final footage. So that’s something I’m particularly proud of.