Sara and I were fortunate enough to be guests at a recent taping of The Big Bang Theory. Before the show, we had the chance to chat with Ann Shea, the set decorator, and Scott London, the property master. They were both very nice and very generous with their time, and we had a lot of fun talking with them! If you’ve been following our blog, you’ll know that we have sent an assortment of NASA items their way. We’ve been really interested in the detail in the sets for the show, how they pick the stuff to include, and where they find inspiration for all of the sets that pop up in each show! Ann revealed all:
Maggie: What is your official job title?
Ann: I’m the set decorator, and so usually once I get the plans and the walls are built is when I start my work of providing the furniture and the plants and the artwork and all the cool objects, the floor coverings and the practical lights.
Maggie: Where do you source everything? Do you have to send out a crew to go buy things in different places?
Ann: I go out to the prop houses or online or retail stores, and I pick it all out myself, every single thing on the show, and it’s a lot of stuff. Then my crew goes and picks it up for me and they bring it back here and place it where we think it should go.
Maggie: Once the initial plans are developed, and things are shopped for, what are your duties show to show? Do you supervise how stuff is put on the set?
Ann: Yes! And people think that, “Oh, once you have the main sets done, you pretty much don’t have much to do, right?” But little do they know, every week sets come in and go out. So, Koothrappali’s apartment doesn’t sit here on the stage all the time. It goes out and comes back in. So just collecting all that stuff again is a bit of a job. But usually my lead man takes care of most of that. But every once in a while when we try to get stuff back, and it’s a rental, they’ll be out, so I have to find whatever items are missing off of our order. But also, we have lots of swing sets every week, that are new sets, that people don’t even realize. We may only be in there for 10 seconds, but yet I have to do the whole set.
Maggie: We know that Leonard & Sheldon’s apartment is always there but it’s amazing when you watch the show that Raj’s apartment and all these things come down and up, because they look the same every time. And I can’t imagine how much work it is to put the comic book store up and down, and it’s impressive.
Sara: They’re very rich – I can’t even imagine every item that has to go into them.
Maggie: Yeah, because there’s a lot of stuff, it’s not just like one shelf with three things on it. There’s a lot of detail in each set.
Sara: These guys own a lot of stuff!
Ann: The thing about the comic book store that’s funny is, I got it all done and I thought it was a miracle to get it done and to get all that stuff in there, and also its legal clearances and everything. And then after two episodes, one of the producers said, “Now this has got to change every episode, this has to be different every episode,” and I almost fell over because it was so much work! But we figured out a way. We’re all hooked up now, that we can keep circulating the inventory and keep new stuff coming.
Maggie: Where do you get inspiration as far as the science and technical sets? You’ve had universities and observatory rooms. And one of the little details everyone liked – was it in the Keck room, when Wolowitz was doing observations? – one of the monitors had PINE up on it, the email program, because a lot of us at NASA use PINE. That was a little detail we got, that we’re sure no one else would have. But everyone was excited to see the PINE window. How do you learn what to put in these scientists’ houses and workplaces?
Photo courtesy of CBS/Warner Bros.
Ann: Well, that particular thing I can’t take credit for – I wouldn’t put it past Scott [the propmaster], who I think you’re also going to be talking to. He probably thought of that because he’s in touch with the video guy and sort of in contact with him.
Mainly before the show even started, I toured some, well, at the time they were going to be physics students, not professors, and so I toured a lot of physicists’ apartments, and that actually was not as big a help as I hoped, because I’m sure they’re all always working, so there wasn’t that much in their place to say “I’m a scientist!” But what we did do was go to the physics department where David [Saltzberg, the science advisor] works and we took hundreds of photos and so I still refer to them all the time when we do new labs. And we just took tons of photos of the labs. And also of course for the Keck Observatory room, I just found whatever I could find online and luckily there were lots of photos. And so my goal is always to make it what it would be in real life and make it as authentic as possible, but make it a little cooler and a little more attractive.
Maggie: Did you have any inspiration in particular for Leonard & Sheldon’s apartment? And the science instruments on the shelves? Bill [Prady, executive producer and co-creator of the show] had told us that he (or you) wanted it to look like Leonard had gone shopping at the Pasadena flea market – where did you guys get that idea?
Ann: Well, I think we realized that these are not guys who are collecting art necessarily, so to Sheldon, the big DNA sculpture [in the apartment, see photo below] would be art. And we thought he would find that cool. So based on my conversations with Bill and Chuck [Lorre, executive producer and co-creator] and a couple of the physicists, I just tried to imagine what would be cool for these guys. And at the time, it didn’t seem like they really would have very much money, so yeah, we thought thrift shop, or Rose Bowl flea market, but where I got a lot of it was an Aerospace Scrap yard. It’s where I got a lot of the cool rocket parts and stuff like that and vintage electronic devices – and literally it’s a scrap yard. It’s like a junk yard. And so we were digging for days, excavating these things. Just the coolest things we could find. There actually are some rocket parts from famous rockets in there. Although they weren’t marked and now I can’t tell you what they were! But there might be an Apollo something!
Maggie: What was the find you’re most proud of for the set?
Ann: Oh, that’s hard! So many of them have been so exciting, how would I pick one? The DNA sculpture is up there. The periodic table shower curtain is up there. What else? I love the globe that you guys sent – or that we have…
Maggie & Sara: The WMAP beach ball?
Ann: Yes! That is one of my favorite things on the set, although I didn’t find that! Some of my favorite finds are things we use in the comic book store which are from Sideshow Collectibles, all the huge figures. They’re so cool and just beautiful. It’s not my style of what I would want in my house, but if I were into sci-fi…they’re so cool!
Maggie: Was there anything that was hard to replicate, like lab equipment when you do those sets? Or is that stuff available in prop stores?
Ann: No! At first we did have a hard time replicating things in Leonard’s lab, when he would have the laser set-ups. I was very concerned with having the table be right. And luckily we contacted [the company that makes the tables] and they sent us a real table and a real laser. It was fantastic! I love that our show now has gotten to be, dream up whatever you want, and they will send it to you! We have these fabulous, expensive telescopes. And I just said, “That would be cool, I wish I could have one of those, Chris, will you call them and see?” (My lead man.) And they said “sure!” and I couldn’t believe what they sent! I think it must be worth $15,000 or something. So we’re so fortunate on the show, that it’s as popular as it is because that’s part of the reason why I’m able to have such cool stuff!
Maggie: We’re just really impressed that you guys have captured the science workplaces and apartments.
Ann: Oh my gosh, thank you so much!
Maggie: You really have done a beautiful job with the sets. It’s one of my favorite sets. We visited in 2010 and after that I started paying more attention to other sitcoms and there’s just such a level of detail. And I really do want to live in that apartment.
Sara: You imagine if you opened a drawer it would be full of things. And maybe it is!
Maggie: It seems like a real apartment.
Ann: Sometimes on the swing sets I don’t have time to get there and if they’re not opening the drawer, I guess I would be wasting my time. But on the main set, for sure, there’s stuff in all the drawers, drawers and doors, and in the closets and everything. So it’s like someone really lives there. Almost.
I think one of the most exciting things for me is being able to use Star Trek and Star Wars stuff. Once we got to the point that we could use that stuff..
Maggie: I guess you needed to get a license to be able to have it?
Ann: Yes, and they were a little resistant at first. But luckily, as the popularity of the show grew, we got Star Wars, and then we eventually got Star Trek. And right about then, we got connected with Lord of the Rings. So that made a huge difference. Because, you know, how do you have, you know, that kind of a show without those things?
Another funny story about being on a show like this is that when Leonard Nimoy was on, he was just wandering around the stage apparently, and wandered into our gold room, and of course, what is there, as soon as you walk in the door, a big statue of Spock. He probably was walking by and was like, “Oh that’s interesting,” and so he came in and just looked around and was like, “Wow” (unfortunately I was there). But he was just like “Wow, this is quite a room,” and you know, so, it’s interesting. You can just be at work and Leonard Nimoy wanders in.
We do get astronauts from time to time at NASA Goddard, but we can’t say Leonard Nimoy has ever wandered in! Such a cool story and a cool job. We think she does amazing work capturing the lives and workspaces of scientists and engineers – quite a feat in Hollywood! Thanks so much to Ann for talking with us!
We’ll have an interview with Scott London, propmaster, coming up soon.