Ever wonder how the concept of hell was developed on the hit series Lucifer? That’s the work of Alex Hajdu, the brilliant production designer behind the series, as well as the upcoming reboot of the fan-favorite show, CSI: Vegas, which premiered October 6th on CBS. Lucifer is currently one of the top-viewed titles on Netflix, and Alex’s production design shines in the unique sets seen throughout the show.
For Season 6 of this beloved show, a standout set that Alex created was God’s throne room in the finale episode. He strayed from the Catholic depiction of heaven, and took unique inspiration from Gaudi and the La Sagrada Familia, and built the set using new techniques, including using a CNC machine.
Alex and his art department from Lucifer were also brought onto CSI: Vegas, ultimately designing the largest and most complicated set in Alex’s decades-long career. Hajdu designed 17 interlocking glass laboratories all dressed with various cutting edge forensic tools that overlook the skyline of Las Vegas. This took nine focused days to complete the design, in addition to 150 people working on building this permanent set.
He spoke exclusively to ProductionHUB about both of these incredible projects, and shared what we can expect from him in 2022.
PH: Hi Alex, how are you doing today?
Alex Hajdu: I am doing well, thank you!
PH: What made you get into production design? What types of jobs and experiences landed you where you are today?
Alex Hajdu: My family moved to Hollywood when I was about 6 years old. Our first home was on Gower directly across from Desilu Studios before it became Paramount. I used to scale the walls of the studios and wander around the backlots. Once I climbed over a wall near the cemetery to get autographs from my favorite show, Star Trek. I found my way to the stage where it was shot. It was empty, the crew had gone to lunch. It smelled of sweat and baking wooden scenery under the hot lights. I was mesmerized. I was on the bridge of the Enterprise. I sat in the Captain’s chair, realizing it was just painted plywood with vinyl cushions. I swiveled around and saw the helm where Sulu sat. I saw small colorful squares of plexiglass glued to the black plexi console that lit up during shooting. I had an epiphany – nothing looked real here, yet something happened in the transition from reality to the screen, some kind of magic. I wanted to be a part of that, to be able to create that magic.
I decided that I would work my way into the film industry somehow. I had no connections whatsoever, but I was willing to do any job to get my foot in the door.
While taking film and television courses at LACC, I volunteered on any student film or independent production I could, doing any job, to learn as much as I could. Eventually, I scored a job at a boutique commercial house as their in-house production assistant. While there, I assisted the propmaster on shoots and found I had an aptitude for art department work. I also was a still photographer, with the intent to train my eye and understand framing and how to know what the lens sees. This was 1976.
This led me to Roger Corman Studios, where I worked on Battle Beyond the Stars, Roger’s answer to Star Wars, and a year later, on Galaxy of Terror, his answer to Alien. I started as a prop assistant and quickly became Jim Cameron’s assistant art director. That was the boot camp film school experience you’ve heard so many people talk about. I learned creative problem solving with no time and no money, which has come in handy over the 40 years I’ve been in the business.
After the Corman years, I had a career in art directing commercials and music videos throughout the ’80s into the ’90s. In 1997 I got into IATSE when the cable series I was on, Perversions of Science went union. I continued to art direct and later production design for feature films and television.
PH: One of your latest projects was designing Heaven for season 6 of Lucifer. What kind of vision did you have going into production?
Alex Hajdu: One of the most challenging sets I was asked to design for Lucifer, was in the final episode of Season 6, ‘God’s Throne Room in Heaven”. When asked by the showrunners Joe Henderson and Ildy Modrovitch what my inspiration was for the set, I replied, “Gaudi”.
PH: What kind of research was involved? How did you put your own unique spin on what most of us have probably already imagined heaven to look like?
Alex Hajdu: My research in images of Heaven led me to a series of vague, cloudy environments with an Olympian image of white-bearded God in robes sitting on a marble throne, with some Roman columns and a long flight of stairs leading up – literally, a ‘stairway to heaven’.
The inspiration for my set was Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona. I had been to see it and other Gaudi sites, on a recent trip to Spain. Gaudi derived much of his architectural designs from nature. He was also a very devout man. He once said he got his inspiration for the interior of the Sagrada from a walk in the woods. The towering trees intertwining overhead, breaking the sunlight into shafts, made him feel the presence of God.
My design uses this metaphor and elaborates on it in a very modern way, using parametric architecture. “Parametric” is defined as shapes and forms that have a curving nature, often similar to a parabola or other flowing forms in the shape of arcs. These forms can include the arcs of entryways, or the entire shape of the structure can be in the form of flowing curves.
Good examples of these types of designs are the TWA Building and the Ingalls Rink at Yale both by Eero Saarinen. The works of Antoni Gaudi and the current day designs of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao Spain are other good examples of these designs.
The work of Antoni Gaudi can be seen as an early example of designs based on these types of curves, which can be graphed based on a set of “parameters”, much like a parabola or other conical cross-section would create. And while Gaudi may not have used the mathematical approach to achieve these shapes, he did create the forms of Sagrada Familia based on the catenary curve by hanging chains from the ceiling of his design studio to determine his designs. By using these hanging chains, he then inverted these arcs to define his designs and essentially based these shapes as a physical connotation to the mathematical equivalent of these parameters.
Parametric design is an essential part of CAD architectural software. I’ve been using CAD for my design process for a long time, so developing a 3D computer model was especially apt for this set. Working with my talented team of set designers, Tim Wilcox and Tom Wagman, we tackled the design. The concept was to keep it minimal, airy, and open. This was to be the highest point in “The Silver City”, as Heaven was referred to in Lucifer. The set was made of sweeping round beams that intersect and form arches in multiple directions, making chambers and anterooms. These round ‘beams’ end in organic column bases that suggest the sturdy trunks of trees. The entire set is encased in a thin gauzy scrim with a subtle ornamental latticework printed on it.
Everything is painted reflective silver, and the entire set sits on a mirrored plexiglass floor, representing frozen water, which is encased in a white limbo ‘tent’ to create an infinity effect. In Heaven, the throne room is perched on top of a massive column of water, accessible only to winged beings.
PH: What were some of the challenges you faced when creating Heaven?
Alex Hajdu: The fabrication was challenging. We found a company that could take the CAD files and extrude the massive beams that made up the arches out of foam. These had to be suspended by cable from the perms of the stage and blended by hand where they intersected. My talented construction department let by Duke Tomasick, assembled the pieces of the set. The painters, led by Frank Oliveri, used oversized stencils to create the lattice pattern on the scrim material, that had to be stretched between the beams.
God’s throne was another challenge. With the help of illustrator Guy Gonzales, the throne was modeled in 3D, using gothic elements and organic shapes. It was cut on a 5 axis CNC machine from foam, hard-coated, and painted silver. The tall Dias it sits on had a milk plexiglass base, to help with the lighting.
The set was so transparent, that there was no place to hide lights. I reached for another Gaudi element from the Sagrada to help. In the nave about the altar, Gaudi designed a massive flower-shaped lightwell to channel the light. I used this idea as inspiration for the silver flower over the throne, as a place to hide lighting, and as a kind of ‘crown’ over the throne.
Everyone was challenged by this set; the design, the fabrication, and the shooting of it. Tom Camarda, uber-talented DP, and his lighting and grip department stepped up to the challenge of a completely encased white limbo set with a mirrored floor. The Room of Infinite White was this white limbo set minus the throne room.
It was a complex process from start to finish, and we are all very proud of the outcome. Designing Heaven involved meeting the needs of the story and script, pushing for an original design approach that defined Heaven without using ecclesiastical architecture, and fitting that all into a television budget and schedule. It all came together because of the support of the incredible Lucifer production family, formed over 4 seasons.
PH: You also worked on CSI: Vegas developing a new crime lab. What was that experience like?
Alex Hajdu: CSI was challenging. We were tasked to develop the next-generation cutting-edge forensics laboratory in Las Vegas – with a Mid-Century aesthetic. The CSI:Vegas laboratory headquarters was supposed to be housed in a Mid-Century Building on the outskirts of Las Vegas that had been gutted to make way for the lab interior. While the labs themselves were to be modern, I was asked to make reference to Mid-Century architecture where possible. The entry foyer to the lab with the DNA-helix-inspired spiral staircase is the most literal example.
Stylistically, we were going for the next version of CSI – with advances in the forensic sciences bringing more certainty to criminal investigation, the importance of effective and intuitive detective work needed to be emphasized. The crime scenes had to be complex enough that merely having more scientific data had to be shown as just a part of the whole process, with people as the center of that process.
In an ironic way, Lucifer was a parody of CSI – it was a police procedural – what I called a ‘supernatural procedural’ – with crime scenes and a forensic investigator, and suspects being interrogated, but with tongue firmly in cheek.
CSI was on a fast track for the art department and construction right from the start. I was requested to take the project on by Jerry Bruckheimer as Lucifer was in its final episode. I jumped onto CSI along with my set designer Tom Wagman and hit the deck running. In 9 long days we had a Sketchup design of 14 laboratories complete with furnishings and lighting, to present to Bruckheimer Television. We continued to develop the plans, while also presenting the concepts in several design presentations to the network. Taking everyone on a virtual 3D tour through the massive model via Zoom was the method to introduce the design concepts to everyone. We had 7 weeks in total – design and construction – to create the 100’ x 200’ lab complex in a warehouse in Santa Clarita. This schedule includes the pilot sets and locations as well. It was extremely demanding, designing and building for a show with a pedigree and history that was aiming to outdo its predecessor in every aspect.
I had the pleasure of developing a new Morgue set, taking the familiar elements from past CSI versions into the future. My other favorite set was the Interrogation Room. I had also re-designed the interrogation room in the Lucifer precinct, adding heavy concrete texture and built-in lighting. I took the same approach here, creating a claustrophobic brutalist interior to break up the static nature of a small room with expositional dialog.
I must point out that without Joe DelMonte’s incredible construction, paint and plaster department, CSI:Vegas would not exist. We had to design and build simultaneously – which took a lot of frequent communication and a lot of logistics and skill on Joe’s and his team’s part to keep going while we worked out the details – of which there were many. In order to keep ahead, we hired up to 4 set designers at a time, to develop working drawings from the elaborate Sketchup model of the entire set. I brought on Sean Faulkner as a second art director to manage the location work for the pilot. Tim Eckel, my trusty right hand and supervising art director, rode shotgun on the stage sets. Karin McGaughey, my talented set decorator from the last season of Lucifer, had the enormous task of reaching out to the manufacturers of the varied and complex forensics equipment that was called for in the specific laboratories within the CSI complex of sets. These vendors sent reps with their high-end fully functioning equipment and oversaw the assembly and installation of the equipment. They helped to train set personnel and actors in the proper use of the gear, along with the CSI consultant.
Another complex requirement was to shoot two new backdrops of Las Vegas, one showing the Vegas skyline, the other to represent the location of the lab, somewhere on the outskirts of the city. These were to convey the glamour of the city, while also showing the urban setting of the lab. Three weeks of scouting and shooting by Philip Greenstreet from Rosco finally captured the required images. However, due to COVID affecting the supply chain, we very nearly did not get the backings in time from Germany. The shortened prep schedule was putting the crunch on everybody and everything, but we made the deadlines and hit the creative marks as well.
PH: How do you push your own creative boundaries and take risks for these types of set designs?
Alex Hajdu: It took me years to trust my instincts. I found over time that I have an innate sense of what is right for the design situation, to tell the story. It’s a bit of a leap initially and can be nerve-wracking. Especially when you are trying for something new. You have to have a clear internal idea of what the intent is, even if you don’t know how to get there yet. The story generates images in my imagination, some vague, some detailed. I’ve always had the ability to visualize things when reading, listening to music, or hearing a story told. I also collect images. I remember places, things, textures, colors. I have been a photographer since I was 17, so I think in images and see photographs everywhere.
I start by collecting images that resonate with me. The important thing at that stage is not to question or rationalize your choices, just react and collect. It’s almost a trance state.
PH: I’d love to hear more about how you utilize and work with your team of showrunners, directors, producers, etc. to make these intricate designs come to life. What’s that like? Can you give insight into what a day of collaboration might look like?
Alex Hajdu: After I collect the main aspects of the design, I share this with the showrunners, director, and DP. This could consist of photo references, concept art, floor plans, and 3D models. Their collective input guides the next steps.
It’s equal parts pragmatism balanced with a creative approach. I was an art director for over 20 years before I became a production designer, so I am always asking myself ‘how can this be built’ – I never just throw something out without thinking about the reality of how it will be produced.
Of course, this involves the entire art department. I always check in with my construction coordinator to test the feasibility of the design before I show it or commit to anything. I am prepared to scale back as needed. This creative collaboration is very important, and it relies on mutual respect and trust with your entire art department. I am nothing without my team.
“God’s Throne Room” was one the most difficult sets I’ve had to take from an idea to manifesting it physically on stage. I knew it had to be original and push boundaries, but it had to be affordable and shootable. I was a bit obsessed while working on it!
PH: What’s one secret (you can share!) that helps bring a script to life visually?
Alex Hajdu: Look for an angle, something unique, something that can characterize the setting to help tell the story. It can be color, it can be architecture, it can be the way the light is coming in a window… it can be anything that your intuition tells you will resonate with the viewer. Look for it in places you go, ask yourself what is unique about where you are, what makes you feel a certain way, and why. It’s being sensitive to your settings and your feelings about them – finding ways to capture that and bring it to bear on a creative project.
PH: What’s one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned doing your job?
Alex Hajdu: Situational awareness. Be alert, listen to what is being said, ask questions, and expect surprises. Be prepared for alternatives. My motto is: “Two solutions for every problem, ingredients for a third”.
PH: What does this upcoming year look like for you? Is there a certain type of project that you’d love to work on that maybe you haven’t yet?
Alex Hajdu: I’ve just emerged from a 4 year run on Lucifer, which was a creative high point in my career. It challenged me and made me grow in every way. I thrive on challenge, variety, and visually arresting scenarios. I am eclectic by nature and want to push myself as an artist. I’ve done science fiction, period settings, settings so real that people don’t recognize them as sets, they think they are in a real place…I love that! In the end, I am a visual storyteller. I just need stories to tell!