Production designer Wynn Thomas has designed a wide variety of films from contemporary comedies to period dramas, but he finds research on the latter is interesting because he discovers things he never knew. In designing Hidden Figures, he discovered the little known story about a team of African American women who “compute” the math data for NASA’s first space missions, starring Taraji P. Henson (Katherine Johnson), Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan), Janelle Monáe (Mary Jackson) and Kevin Costner (Al Harrison).
Thomas had access to the historical footage of NASA’s Langley, Virginia campus, the primary location for the film, but he also had emotional considerations when depicting the era and personal lives of the women. Using the physical environment, he wanted to take the viewer on the same journey that the actor and character were going on.
When scouting locations at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, a large circular building inspired Thomas. He convinced director Theodore Melfi to use the structure for the exterior of the Space Task Group, which in reality would have been in a rectangular, cinderblock room, the type of architecture at Langley.
“Designers start with research, picking up ideas. We try to honor the reality of the research. With this film, the director gave me the freedom to interpret things,” explained Thomas. “The result of choosing that building is that I designed the huge circular room following the themes of the world is round. Astronauts are going on a journey around the world. There is a globe in the center of the room that anchors the room. What I wanted to do more than anything, was when Katherine Johnson enters that world, she is entering a place that she’s never been before. I wanted there to be a sense of wonder for the actor, and Katherine Johnson, and the audience.”
Another intentional choice in the design was segregating the black women computers in a basement room across the campus from the operations center. The idea was to put them in a space that was much more unattractive and oppressive, crowded with furniture that had lower ceilings and hard stone surfaces. The other parts of NASA were much more comfortable. Dark woods were used for some of the offices. There were shiny marble surfaces. Other spaces, such as the IBM room, were open, airy and big with lots of light.
“As a designer those are the tools that we have – color, line or texture – to tell the audience how we want them to feel,” shared Thomas. “ The colors and textures that I used for the black computers were more oppressive and darker. The space is more confined. I hope that the audience will see and feel that.”
The challenges on the film were budgetary. Studio space in Atlanta was unaffordable and limited, so the set for the Space Task Group was constructed in an empty high school gym across from the production offices. The location impacted the design. The height of Costner’s task force adjacent office was determined by the height of a stage at one end of the gym. Other spaces where used for the sets such as the cafeteria and the black computer’s room, turning the high school into “a de facto studio.”
The other design challenge Thomas faced was depicting how black people lived during segregated times. The company shot in Collier Heights a historic mid-century neighborhood, with large, well-maintained houses built for black middle class families. Thomas wanted to show that these women were middle class women who, like anyone else, did their best to live as well as they could. He wanted to communicate how well black communities lived despite the difficult times during segregation.
“Of course the viewer will never, or should never, be aware that I am making choices that are being determined by the physical space that we were putting the set in, but they were,” said Thomas. “Solving technical problems was really the challenge. It’s my job to make all that work. That’s why they hire me.”