A married combat nurse from the year 1945, swept back in time to the year 1743 where she finds herself marrying a Scottish warrior, is the premise of the Starz show Outlander. Creating the worlds from both time periods was no easy feat and production designer Jon Gary Steele, known for About Last Night (2014), Footloose (2011) and Burlesque (2010), passionately embraced the project.
Steele had read the book that the series is based on years ago after hearing about it from costume designer Terry Dresbach, who happened to be one of his best friends. They had both thought at the time that it would be a wonderful project to design for. And years later, the two friends found themselves working on the series they had both been so fond of.
They began by working on an electronic look book filled with visual ideas and references for the look of the show and soon after they were in Scotland, preparing for the show. “Both departments, art department and costumes continued to do tons of research. We looked through tons of books, movies and online research,” Steele said.
Prepping sets, locations, props and costumes for an extensive 18th century series was not without its moments of difficulties. But Steele was ready for the massive task. “The challenge was finding enough 18th century location interiors and exteriors. There are tons of beautiful castles and stately homes in Scotland but lots of places have been modernized or it can be difficult to film in certain locations because we need working fireplaces, chandeliers and sconces. So a lot of our interiors are built on stage, which of course is the most fun part for an art department, because we can control every aspect of the sets, floors, walls, ceilings, fireplaces,” Steele explained.
Working on Outlander was especially fun and interesting, even with the challenges to overcome. It was in many ways, a production designer’s dream project. “We were all very excited to do the look of 18th-century Paris because this is considered one of the most beautiful periods for the design, art, architecture and fashion,” Steele said. There were many sets that were fantastic to build and work on. His favorites include the Paris apartment, which was an expansive set that had a cobbled courtyard with balconies that looked into the living, dining and bedrooms, and boasted of a grand curved staircase. “It was also really fun to build the apothecary, which was filled with period details. And the very upscale brothel was also great to build,” Steele said.
The mood on set was extra collaborative and Steele was especially grateful for the great team of amazing artists he worked together with to envision and realize the worlds that make up Outlander. “I would like to stress that it takes a village to design, build and decorate a show like this… The team always does a beautiful job and always goes far beyond what is expected to create an amazingly beautiful look for Outlander.”