Whoosh! Issue 54 - March 2001

By Bret Ryan Rudnick
Content copyright ©2001 held by author
Whoosh! edition copyright ©2001 held by Whoosh!
1911 words

Author's notes:

There are many people who are good at what they do, and a few who are truly super at what they do. Rob Gillies fits into the latter category. He is responsible for the design of sets on HERCULES, XENA, CLEOPATRA 2525, and JACK OF ALL TRADES. His imaginative, artistic skill and clever approach to achieving a specific look have resulted in some fabulous sets. He and his crew have pioneered new set design and construction techniques. In the midst of a new project, he took some time to talk about his work. This interview took place in November 2000 in Auckland, New Zealand.

PATH OF VENGEANCE, TO HELICON AND BACK, and Recycling Sets (01-06)
Tri-Board (07-10)
Challenges (11-12)
Upcoming Episodes (18-20)
Pre-XENA (21-22)
Art Direction (23-30)

An Interview with Rob Gillies (Production Designer)

These connect the dots pictures are tougher than they look!

Rob Gillies, in his natural habitat (his office at Pacific Renaissance Pictures)


I've built this little approximation (pointing to a scale model). I have a plan here, like a house plan, and from this guide we'll actually build something. You've been to the location ranch. That's our playpit, if you like. There are locations there we build and rebuild on. Right now for this project, there's a hole and some posts in, and the remains of a bridge. We're going to reuse some items we've made before to complete the set. We have a week and a half to get ready for the next shows [PATH OF VENGEANCE (127/614), TO HELICON AND BACK (127/615)]. We have to be pragmatic, so we will recycle things and change them. We'll work with it until we get a new thing.

Ideas for the 'Xena meets eskimos in Alaska' arc

Starting with a sketch...

The real trick is to find a flat surface for the coffee cup

...moving on to a model...

Rents for $2,000 a month in Los Angeles

Work proceeds in the field. Note the re-use of Dwork villager huts from CLEO 2525.

I've noticed over the seasons that if one looks carefully, one can see things being reused from time to time, as well as totally new things.

It's a two-prong thing with us. It helps with the money to be able to reuse things and get multiple uses out of them, and it also helps with the speed, especially when we have to do something quickly. For this particular project we're working on now, Rob (Tapert) just said, "We want something interesting for this fight to happen around". It will take us two weeks to finish this, but we won't be working on it the whole time. We've also got another Amazon village to build. We'll do all this together.

When I was out at the location ranch the other day it's interesting to walk around, and when you see things from different angles you can remember what episodes you might have seen this or that in. I see these huts here being sketched, and I wonder if you'll reuse some of the Dwork village from CLEOPATRA 2525.

Yes, that's exactly right. These come from basic shapes, building blocks, so you can mix and match, creating new things from basic materials. (He sketches some shapes and puts them together).

Future site of housing development when XENA wraps

By combining shapes and adding things on to a basic structure, variations can create different moods/themes.

[6] If you take these basic square shapes and put half-circle domes on them with the right items on top, you get a village with a Middle Eastern sort of flair. We have a big truck with a large arm on it that we use to drive around and lift and place things all the time. We'll use materials until they actually fall apart.


Do you tend to use a lot of light materials such as plywood, that kind of thing?

Curiously, we use a product that we've had a hand in developing. It's called tri-board. Traditionally, if you want to make a wall with a door and/or window in it, you have to frame it all up and that gets time consuming and expensive on material. But with tri-board we take a sheet of this and just cut out our door and window. It's a strong sheet of material we can stand up, and it doesn't need framing. It's fairly light—four men can work with one sheet. It's basically two strong laminated sheets with material in between.

(handling piece of tri-board) You can make furniture out of this stuff.

You can make anything out of it. Houses even. We started working with seconds from the factory that makes it. Now they make a slightly thinner sheet for us. It's saved our b*tts many times because of the speed factor. We can make a lot very quickly with a minimum of framing. It's got a bit of thickness to it, so we can apply things to it. We can tack on things to look like a brick or stone wall. With the material we used to use, we'd have to do more framing at the back. We're much less labor intensive now.

Bring your own statuary!

With tri-board, even massive looking structures are created with relative ease.
The 'stone blocks' and decorations are tacked on to the basic structure.


What were some of your most difficult challenges?

Rob (Tapert) always comes up with something. Just when you think you'll have an easier show, he'll say, "I've got this idea I forgot to tell you about". There will be some waterfall to go over or some pit to fall into. There's always a challenge from Mr. Tapert, but we like that.

Look, why don't we just order a pizza and eat in?

The interior sets for CLEO 2525 were a very different challenge.
Sets had to be designed with lighting very much in mind and places to put task as well as mood lighting.

Upcoming Episodes

Have they warned you about what you'll have to do for episodes ahead?

We have the scripts as they come through. There's a Wednesday lunch meeting where all the departments get together and talk with Rob about where he's at with the writing, changes, what's coming up.

[20] An upcoming scene we're working on was going to be indoors until just the other day we decided it would be better served by being outside. That suits me and, for my concerns, it's better to stage this stunt fight outside because our angles can be more extreme. We can look directly up at the sky. We're more restricted indoors, and it becomes a bit of a mission. So I'm happy with how this turns out. As we move into summer, we can spend more time outside anyway.

I knew I should have turned left back there!

A 'standing village' at the location ranch that has been redressed many times and seen in many episodes.


What did you do before you came to Pacific Renaissance?

Prior to this I was doing commercials. In New Zealand that's very nice. Clients generally want to make commercials in the most scenic part of the land, so it's nice to travel around and see the diversity. I did a few New Zealand movies, small local ones mainly. I doubt you'd know them outside this country. Prior to that I was a musician. The hall I used to play at is about to be demolished, I see. We had the HERC wrap party there. It's a wonderful 60's style architecture.

Art Direction

As a Production Designer, is there a particular style that appeals to you?

I do like Art Deco, but I enjoy everything really. I like all shades of the spectrum, wherever you encounter them. It's been great to do that on this show, and we've not been hampered by historical accuracy. We've been very revisionist.

Unlike the real thing, you don't have to clean up after it.

The Trojan Horse was a personal fave.

Have you been able to slip anything in you like personally?

I really haven't had the time. I don't have the luxury to be obsessed with some small piece or be too self-indulgent. It wouldn't go down well. I've managed to get references in there that are amusing sometimes. We did the Trojan Horse with a South Pacific flair [BEWARE GREEKS BEARING GIFTS (12/112)]. We did a haunted house like the Bates motel, and that was the intention [THE HAUNTING OF AMPHIPOLIS (114/602)]. We didn't have time to get it too close.

I noticed it.

It's good to know it's not lost on the audience. It's just background for flavor, really.


Schmoozer Spice Bret Ryan Rudnick
WHOOSH! staff
IAXS Executive Committee
"You can never have too much money or too many Amazons"
When he's not working for a big Science/Engineering company that (amongst other things) designs, builds, launches, and operates exploratory spacecraft, Bret writes fantasy novels and short stories. Bret is a man of many skills, having also previously been an Olympic-qualified archer, a drummer in the Butch Grinder Band, a news reader for Public Television Station KVCR, and a Deputy Sheriff for the County of San Bernardino, California. He also collects Japanese swords, armor, and art. He and his dog hunt down stray Bacchae in New England.
Favorite episode: HOOVES AND HARLOTS (10/110), WARRIOR...PRINCESS...TRAMP (30/206), and THE QUEST (37/213)
Favorite line: Xena: "What's this?" Gabrielle: "I'm... an amazon princess?" Xena (rolls eyes): "Great." HOOVES AND HARLOTS, 10/110; Xena after being goosed by Joxer: "Are you suicidal?" WARRIOR...PRINCESS...TRAMP (30/206); Joxer: "Ha. Ha." A COMEDY OF EROS (46/222); Autolycus: "I'm not just leering at scantily clad women, you know, I'm working!" THE QUEST (37/213)
First episode seen: CRADLE OF HOPE (04/104)
Least favorite episode: IN SICKNESS AND IN HELL (72/404)

Return to Top Return to Index