‘Key & Peele's' Production Designer on the Importance of Authenticity

Gary Kordan describes the “the chaos that comes with being a production designer.”

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Jul 3 2016, 12:05pm

An elaborate pirate shanty set for a 'Key & Peele' sketch. Designed and built by Gary Kordan and his crew. All photos courtesy of Gary Kordan

Today the script calls for a pirate shanty, later this afternoon they’ll need a neon-lined aerobics arena, and a hospital, and a classroom, and... For television production designers, the list goes on and on. Gary Kordan has worked as a production designer on sketch comedy and variety TV for over a decade, with credits on Workaholics, @midnight, Time Travelling Bong, and the entire run of Key & Peele. After winning the 2016 Art Directors Guild award for Excellence in Production Design (and currently stumping for an Emmy nomination), Kordan describes to The Creators Project the hectic, rewarding life of a television production designer.

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1980's aerobics set for a Key & Peele sketch. Designed and built by Gary Kordan and his crew

The bulk of the work all happens around the action. “I think most people don’t think about production designers at all, unless you work in the industry,” says Kordan. Production designers turn notes in a script into reality on the screen, and the job is absolutely breakneck-paced. “You’re lucky to have one or two weeks ahead to prepare, because scripts are being constantly written and changed. So you have to be able to quickly conceptualize when the script says “INTERIOR DINER - NIGHT”—that’s all you get. And your job is to quickly come up with the tone, the era. Where are we shooting it? Is it a building or is it a location we’re augmenting? What is the budget?”

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Sewer set for an episode of 'Workaholics', designed and created by Gary Kordan, his crew, and Mack Sennett Studios

Processing all this information quickly helps create a starting vision for the sketch. And, as Kordan explains, his job as the PD also means “coming up with reference pictures, pencil sketches, a budget, and pitching that idea verbally, getting everyone on your team, and then coming up with a beautiful full-color drawing” which is finally handed off to the crew to build.

Sound like a lot of work? The real kicker is that the set will only last, “for one scene, that’s shot for half a day, in one day, and you are shooting 12 of those that week.”

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Ilana Glazer on the set of 'Time Travelling Bong.' Set designed and created by Gary Kordan and his crew. Photograph by Danny Feld

Though he’s interested in working in all genres, Kordan got his start in comedy and explains the importance of a good comedic set. “In the design of a set, or a prop, the more serious and real it looks, [or] the more authentic it looks... the funnier the jokes are.” Which is why the Key & Peele set for the pirate shanty sketch (a personal favorite for Kordan) is getting so much attention. He seamlessly recreates a movie-quality set which then the actors and writers can fill with ridiculousness.

Kordan and his crew worked on every season of Key & Peele, and he says the end of each season would leave them “floored, exhausted, fried, angry, upset, resentful, every emotion that you could think of because you’ve been through a blender for the last few weeks. And you’d say ‘I don’t know how I could ever top myself’ and then a year would pass, and here comes the renewal, and a new season, and a packet of sketches that would land in your lap, and you would say, ‘Oh I can’t let anyone else do this, I have to do it’ and you’d do it all again.”

Despite all the chaos, Kordan’s sticking with the genre. “It keeps the adrenaline going every day. I think I’d be bored on a show that had two hospital sets that we shot for nine years.”  

Highlight reel of Gary Kordan’s work on season four of 'Key & Peele'

For more of Gary Kordan’s work, click here.

Related:

Oscar-Nominated Production Designer Jack Fisk Talks ‘The Revenant’

We Talked to 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' Production Designer About Pastries, Postcards, and Taxidermy

How a Small Animation Company CreatedGame of Thrones' Greatest Battle Scene

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