July 5, 2018 | Kathleen Aycock, Digital Communications Manager
“How many architects can say they’ve designed a vampire headquarters, a morgue, a palace, and a plantation home?” Suzuki Ingerslev (B.A. Architecture ‘86) asked. Ingerslev has worked on award-winning TV series like Six Feet Under and True Blood as their production designer, creating sets lauded for their exceptional photorealism.
Ingerslev graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the College of Environmental Design and credits architecture’s iterative design process, all-nighters, and demand for detail with laying the foundation for her unique skill set. “Having an architectural background really helps you understand proportions. Drafting is second nature and you know how to build anything. It’s not just about some whimsical design that would never support itself,” she shared.
Ingerslev didn’t intially consider a career set design when she graduated from UC Berkeley. She was working at a small architecture firm in Vienna when she recalled the advice of her boyfriend’s father, a graphic artist at NBC. “When I was dating [my boyfriend] at Cal, his dad would always say, ‘You should be an art director in the film industry’,” she said. He arranged for her to interview at Days of Our Lives when she returned to the U.S.
Starting out as a draftsperson on Days forced Ingerslev to be nimble and thrifty on a show with rapidly shifting deadlines. “When you do an episodic television series [like Six Feet Under], you get anywhere from 7-15 days to shoot a one-hour episode. On a soap opera, you film an hour-long episode every day.”
She refers to this period as her “bootcamp,” during which she learned to apply her architectural design skills to an ever-changing stage. From Days, Ingerslev leapt to Mad TV, followed by Tracey Takes On..., then quickly landed a spot on Six Feet Under as their art director. Her talents made her a shoo-in for the coveted role of production designer when that position opened up.
A distinguishing feature of a Suzuki Ingerslev set is her application of layered room depth to increase the visual interest of a scene. “It would be claustrophobic and boring to just shoot actors up against flat walls. My construction guy used to tease me all the time, ‘Is that another Suzuki bonus room that we don’t really have budgeted, but we know you want for depth?’ I’m like, ‘Yep.’ That’s my signature.” Ingerslev also insists on reviewing photographs of her sets before she considers them complete.
Ingerslev’s eye for photorealism serves the dual purpose of immersing the viewer in environments like Southern gothic homes and war zones, and of supporting actors’ character immersion. When building the set of Merlotte’s Bar and Grill, a homey dive bar that served as the heart of HBO’s True Blood’s fictional town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, Ingerslev attended to each minute accessory. She revealed her penchant for adding details like Merlotte’s-branded matchboxes and other backbar elements beyond view of the camera. “The best compliment you get is when actors walk into your sets and tell you, ‘This makes me a better actor’,” she said.
Ingerslev recalled a time in which one authentically decayed set alarmed the show’s actors. “Once, we aged down a set so well with paint to look like mold and dirt that when the actors got there, they started freaking out,” she shared. ‘How could you let us work in these [moldy] conditions? Call HAZMAT.’ So I had to go down with before-and-after pictures of the location to show them, ‘It’s just paint,” Ingerslev laughed.
While her work demands exceptional design rigor, much of her day-to-day tasks involve managing the information flow between directors, wardrobe and props personnel, producers and other crew, as well as scouting locations in Los Angeles that will double for Louisiana, Oregon, or fictional towns.
Ingerslev notes the care she takes to ensure that she and the director share the same vision. “I can design the best set in my mind, but if the producers walk on stage and I’ve spent a million dollars and they don’t like it, then it’s bad. I do Photoshop renderings of the space the way I envision it. This includes furniture, colors and wallpapers. I try to get everyone thinking on the same page so it won’t ever be a surprise to them when they walk on set,” she explained.
Her eye for designing sets in captivating detail has made her a sought-after figure among the industry’s most celebrated directors. In her 23 years working in Hollywood, Ingerslev has collaborated with Alan Ball, Spike Lee, and Kathy Bates, among others, earning 13 Emmy Award nominations and three Art Directors Guild Award nominations in the process.
She has traveled the world, gaining access to exclusive mansions, abandoned government buildings, crematoriums and scientific research facilities. “When you tell people you’re in the film industry, the doors just open up,” she said.
When speaking about current environmental design students or recent graduates, Ingerslev emphasized the expansive nature and skill set of her architecture degree, particularly at an interdisciplinary college like CED: “There’s just so many avenues to design. You have no limits to creativity in the film industry.”
Ingerslev is currently working with Sex and the City creators Michael Patrick King and Amy Harris on Juicy Stories, a dramedy inspired by the founding of fashion label Juicy Couture. To learn more about Ingerslev’s work, visit her website at suzukiingerslev.com.
Photo left: Suzuki Ingerslev and producer Michael Patrick King