Culver City, California native Production Designer Korey Washington has designed for theatre, television, film and tours for the past three decades. His design projects include All American, Rectify and currently Ambitions for the OWN Network. He also spoke exclusively with us regarding his work on the TV series All Rise, including developing characters beyond their jobs, the emotional ties to the sets he built, and more.
PH: What was your first job as a production designer and what is it about designing that made you decide that was the career for you?
Korey Washington: The first thing I was a production designer on was the Kings of Comedy tour and the Queens of Comedy tour. But I was really interested in the environment that was created on television and film. I always tell my students “If I’ve done my job correctly, you can’t see my work.” What I mean by that is, I like to create environments that are immersive and believable, as opposed to sets. I was really intrigued at how involved a production designer gets in what is created.
PH: What falls under the responsibilities of the production designer?
Korey Washington: If you look at any film and television show, and you take all the people out, everything else is a production designer’s responsibility. Down to the cars, the location, the paint colors—it is the production designer’s job to make sure that everything except for the people are correct.
PH: How did you get involved in the third season of All Rise?
Korey Washington: Coming into All Rise, there was this little thing called the Pandemic, which threw a lot of shows into mayhem. I was on All American for four years, and our next-door neighbor was All Rise, so I knew about the show and its unique perspective—it’s a show about a black female judge in the Los Angeles court system. Around the start of the Pandemic, the producers decided to shelve the show, and then after the Pandemic, they decided to bring it back. When they brought it back they wanted to elevate the show—how it was represented culturally and things like that. So they brought me on.
PH: What was your unique contribution to this show as a production designer?
Korey Washington: My first foray into All Rise was to help develop the story of the characters beyond their jobs. I am from Los Angeles and have a lot of similarities to Lola, the main character, so I had a shorthand into her life—where she hangs out, what her house looks like, and things like that. I think I brought authenticity to the look of the show and gave it a deeper sense of value.
When it came time to build the set, I ended up making connective tissue between the sets, a first for the show—meaning that Lola could walk into the building, through the elevator, down the hall, and into her office. Before the set was all on different stages and she couldn’t do that. I felt like it was important for us to have real spaces as opposed to television spaces. I also expanded upon Lola’s house and really made it beautiful.
PH: You seem to build sets from an intimate place that services the characters in the story. Did you yourself have any strong emotional ties to any of the sets that you built?
Korey Washington: Definitely, Lola’s house, which is inspired by the homes in Baldwin Hills where I grew up. These are beautiful mid-century modern ranch houses that were built in the 60s and ’70s. There’s an expansive feeling to these houses, so I wanted Lola’s house to reflect that. I made her house beautiful—I made her a backyard, I made her bathroom bigger…Simone, who plays Lola, would just go there to hang out when we weren’t shooting.
PH: How can you tell when you have built an effective set that services the story?
Korey Washington: For starters, you can tell when writers like a particular space when they write to it. You can build a beautiful set, but if the writers don’t write to include it, your set’s not going to be in the shot.
What was great about coming onto the show was that I had the opportunity to talk to the writers and showrunners before I built anything. I was able to build up the arc from a scene standpoint so that we could paint a picture with design all the way to the end.
Sometimes I’d even take the writers on a tour of the set, so they could get a visual before they started writing their episode. That way, I knew my sets would be utilized and would serve the story and the characters.
PH: Were there any other design challenges that you came across while building the set for All Rise?
Korey Washington: When I first came on the show, I inherited about 45 truckloads of set, which was about 40,000 square footage in total that I had to cut to 20,000 square feet, because that’s the space we had to work with this season. So after I reconstructed and sorted out the 45 truckloads of set pieces, it had to be scaled down significantly. I ended up having to cut four feet off the top of everything—that was the biggest challenge. I had to redesign how everything fit into the scaled-down space.
Another funny challenge I had to deal with were these six poles on the soundstage that I had to work around. I had to rework sets so that the poles did not sit in the middle of the scene. I had one pole that was in the hallway, so I had to build a wall around it and block it with a water fountain, and it worked with the scene.
PH: What is the process like to create a scene? What does your day-to-day look like?
Korey Washington: The process always starts with what the needs are, and then it goes to what the wants are. For example, let’s use a traffic court scene. The actors will enter, then the actors will have a conversation at the bench, and then they will get a phone call and have to leave the room. I know we need a hallway, a courtroom, a bench area, and I go into the logistics of that.
Then I ask the writers if the scene will be recurring because I need to know if this is a set that needs to stay, or if I can strike it and use the space for something else afterward.
Then, when we get to the actual design of a set, I try to make everything have its own, unique visual appearance. Even though we’re working with courtrooms, I try to add subtle differentiating details to them. One courtroom may have gray walls, one might have blue chairs.
As for my day-to-day, over the course of an episode, I’m involved from pre-production to post. In pre-production for an episode, we do location scouting, we establish all of the sets that we’re going to need, and we design what those things look like and build accordingly. While that episode is being shot, I’m already getting started on the design for the following episode. When an episode is in post, it’s my job to make sure none of my sets are needed for any reshoots, and that the continuity of the sets is correct. The job’s a continuous overlap of things, and I’m involved all of the time.
PH: What else has gotten you excited recently?
Korey Washington: This week’s been a whirlwind. I just finished up work on a Netflix special for Mo’Nique, the comedian, three days ago in Atlanta. Then two days ago, I got a call from the White House to design a set for Vice President Harris’s town hall—I was really humbled and honored to do that.
I’m also the art director and production designer of a taped concert version of Kevin Hart’s Reality Check, which will film out in Las Vegas next week.
Then I’ll go home and sleep.