While many people get to enjoy the finished product of a TV show or movie, it takes a lot to bring the story to life. That’s where Alexandra Schaller comes in.
Schaller works as a production designer. While writers and showrunners are writing out the stories for films and television, Schaller is on the hunt to figure out how to bring the story to life.
“Production designers basically design the whole world of the show and everything you see on screen,” said Schaller. “It’s a big job.”
One of Schaller’s most recent project is “Little Voice,” a new show on Apple TV+ that is loosely based on the life of singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles. The show centers around Bess, played by Brittany O’Grady, who is trying to make it as a singer-songwriter in the big city while struggling to make ends meet. The show is produced by Bareilles herself, along with Jessie Nelson, JJ Abrams and Ben Stephenson.
“Little Voice” takes place in New York City, so Schaller had to search through the five boroughs to find the right places to set the scene.
“[Sara, Jessie and I] spoke at great length about the show and we hit it off immediately,” said Schaller. “Since it’s a performance based show, we had the task of building stages within the sets for live performances throughout the season.”
Schaller sought to repurpose some iconic parts of the city to incorporate into Little Voice. They utilized local bars in the city, including Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg, which served as the spot where Bess would perform, and Freeman Alley in the Lower East Side.
“We used that spot as the back of the bar where Bess works,” said Schaller. “We faced the difficult task of getting all the art in the alley cleared for the show. We had to work with the artists to clear their work and created our own to maintain the authentic texture of the location.”
Schaller and her production team were also able to utilize Electric Lady Studio in Greenwich Village for some scenes in “Little Voice.”
“It’s really hard to film at Electric Lady, but we got it,” said Schaller. “Just being there, you can feel the history of the place.”
Schaller said that not only did the sets have to look the part, but they also needed to be able to pick up sound from live music recordings during filming.
“We had to create an environment that felt layered and real,” said Schaller. “All of the sets we built needed to look the part and act the part. The show called for doing the music recording live, so the sets also had to be acoustically sound.”
Overall, Schaller wanted to give viewers a full scope of New York City, not just the scenes of Manhattan you think of, as well as making the show realistic.
“There’s a lot of taking trains and crossing bridges in the show, and I tried to be very diligent about making it realistic,” said Schaller. “New York City can be super magical, but I wanted it to be as real as possible.”
Schaller worked on “Little Voice” for about six months. For art and production departments, they are still going out and finding how to put together the next episode of a show while the actors are shooting earlier episodes.
For those who are looking to get their start in production design, Schaller says there is no one way to get started.
“You really need to be creative and be interested in the world,” said Schaller. “If you want a career in production design, pay attention to the world around you, big and small. Start looking at the street performers, dog walkers — make it feel really real to you. On a practical level, you need to work really hard. The best way to start is to work your way up, designing music videos or short films, and wear all the hats of an art department.”
“Little Voice” is now streaming on Apple TV+.