It’s easy to fantasize what the world might look like 200 years from now, but creating a concrete, believable aesthetic is another story. That’s the task put to production designer Tony Ianni, who is charged with creating the designs for Syfy’s hugely ambitious series The Expanse. The show’s second season premieres with a two-hour special on Wednesday night.
The first season set up the unique look and rules of a universe, which tracks a ragtag crew of people caught up in a potential war between Earth, Mars, and blue collar workers who mine asteroids. It is gritty, but also futuristic, and it requires an aesthetic that is unique but also works with our collective vision of a distant space age. Inverse spoke to Ianni about what he changed for Season 2 and making sure viewers don’t see his work onscreen.
Is there an aspect of production design work, especially on a hard sci-fi show like The Expanse, that viewers might take for granted?
We don’t want the audience to see what we’ve done. We definitely want them to appreciate what we do, but if they notice the work then it kind of makes it feel fake. We made a new ship called the Scirocco this season, and when I design a set like that, it should be so real that the audience feel like it’s an actual spaceship. If it’s invisible, it’s natural.
The Expanse has such a distinct look, but did you want to make different visual statement about each of its worlds?
One of the most important distinctions we made early on in visual clues were the color schemes as well as texture. A Belter ship in Season 2 is in browns and greens and yellow tones. Martian ships are gray and red. Next year when we get to U.N. ships, we wanted to base them on the blues and grays of U.S. naval ships. It makes my job so much more exciting to be allowed to go down three different kinds of creative avenues.
How has that aesthetic changed in Season 2?
The mandate that we had at the beginning of Season 2 was that we wanted to make the show grittier than it was last year, and we pushed that forward this year. All of the spaceships are a bit more beaten up, there are more texture and aging to them, there’s more detail in every one that wasn’t there last year.
The Rocinante is like the Millennium Falcon of the show. Did you dare not go and change a real fan-favorite like that in the second season?
The Rocinante is hugely important to us. We focused a lot on that because we’re on that ship for the majority of the show. It’s our flagship setting so to speak, so we wanted to make sure it’s working well all the time.
When a battle happens early on in Season 2, we decided to actually use that to make a few design changes to things on the Rocinante that were problematic from Season 1. The producers let me do some damage to the set, and it added a lot of texture. We felt that it was a little too flat or soft in Season 1. We haven’t changed the architecture or layout of the ship in any way. They’re subtle changes, not massive.
This is a huge TV series, but it obviously doesn’t have the budget of some $200 million blockbuster. How do you maintain a balance between huge production design ideas and creating them within workable TV series parameters?
My first responsibility is to the look of the show, but shortly below that is my responsibility to the budget of the show. I have art directors and construction coordinators that help me with budget control, and everybody helps ensure we don’t go too far one way or another.
For Season 2, we decided that we’d build sets that we’d be able to convert into different ships. One is a cargo ship called the Guy Molinari, which we made from reassembled ship parts from Season 1. We went in and made it look completely new by creating different color schemes and surface textures. We also saved the Season 1 set we made for the Medina level of Ceres, and we converted that into three new sets this year: Phoebe Station, Eros, and Ganymede.
We don’t have $250 million, but we were able to control the budget using techniques like that.
The show is filled with seemingly benign future technology that isn’t perfected yet. Is that difficult to work with from a design standpoint?
It’s wonderful to work with real sciences that are actually happening today. A probe actually landed on Eros. We have aerospace companies right now developing ship technology to do a flip and burn to land vertically.
We get to break it up a bit. The show allows us to ask how would we improve this or add to that if they have a certain level of technology 200 years in the future. Maybe they’ve come back a year or two later to incorporate something new into it. It lets us constantly think of new things we can put there to change them.
Is there an idea from Season 2 that came out exactly as you planned it from an idea to the screen?
Two things, actually: the Ops-Flight deck of the Scirocco and the main corridor of Tycho Station.
We had our set designers do a 3D architectural drawing of both, and we then sent them to the concept artist and they put the layers and light and color on them. Then we handed those to the director. The model sketches, the concept art, then the shots on the set itself are from the exact same angles. It’s lovely to see that go from what we thought up in the art department through to the final vision on set.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.