Production Designer Rick Roberts has answered your questions!

Posted on Jun 21, 2010

Rick Roberts Q&A

I sent Heartland's Production Designer, Rick Roberts, twenty questions, and he has provided some very thorough answers which will give you insight into what a production designer does. Rick has a large team, and he has credited some of the other excellent behind-the-scenes crew members. Click on through to the blog post to read!

I've also included some awesome photos of some of Rick and his crew's work. There are four shots of the interior of the Ranch house, in order - the living room, the kitchen, Amy's bedroom and the view from Amy's bedroom down the hall towards the living room. Plus there is an exterior shot of two of the Dude Ranch cabins and an interior shot of the cabin seen on the left.

So enjoy Rick's answers, and I must give you a warning... reading his favourite comfort food may make your mouth water!!

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Q: Hey Rick! I love Heartland, and of course the sets and scenery make it spectacular!!!! My question is, in the show Lou says to Tim that she bought most of the "Dude Ranch" decorations at yard sales, flea markets and the attic. Was that true, or where did you buy most of the decorations? Thanks! Posted by Jann on June 7, 2010 3:53 PM

A: I wish that were the case; however, my Set Decorators ( Lorraine Edwards, originally, for Seasons 1 & 2, and Laura Cuthill- Luft, currently, for Seasons 3 & 4) following consultations with myself which involve looking at examples, colour swatches, etc. pursue their sources and contacts which include antique dealers, furniture makers, private collectors, the "net"and even perhaps flea markets and garage sales. So the script was somewhat accurate in its tone, but the process was less "Lou" and more my staff...

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Q: Hello Rick! Heartland is a great show!! The sets are wonderful! Now, my question...Oh! When you were designing Lou's office, did you just print off a bunch of computer papers and stick them to the wall, or throw everything anywhere? How did it end up that the "neat-freak got a messy office", or was that just Marion? Posted by Janet on June 7, 2010 3:59 PM

A: The process of designing a set includes creating a furniture plan which the Set Decorator will use as a point of departure in decorating the set. In the case of Marion's office, which I believe you're referring to as "Lou's office," we had an interesting challenge. Marion was with us only briefly in episode 101, but her presence is with us through her family, and so we try to evoke that character in the decor of her space/ office, ie: her barrel racing, horse training, interest in equine homeopathy, etc. And she was a busy rancher with other priorities than "neat freak," perhaps with eclectic tastes and interests.

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Rick Roberts Q&A

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Q: Hi Rick! Out of all the sets you've designed, what has been the most fun or creative set you've designed for Heartland? Posted by Kitty on June 7, 2010 4:02 PM

A: Of course the original design process of creating the Ranch and ranch house was great fun and challenging as we were creating "the world of Heartland" that would support and accommodate the story lines for seasons to come (while not knowing the details of those stories at that point in time). I can tell you of two sets that were great fun challenges to do (and very similar in requirement / process / & solution!) Think about last season's scripts... can you guess?

The horse transport accident in episode 301 required the creation of a highway wreck of a transport hauling a "national team" of equestrian players. We had to select the rig that would be seen as the "good one" rolling down the road, designing and applying appropriate graphics, etc. Then we had to find a "junker" trailer that matched the original in size and configuration, paint and graphic it to match, and then attack it with a track-hoe to crunch it, flip it on it's side, re-built rear doors as ramps to match and crunch them also. Then haul it all to site (a piece of highway that we could own for the day) have a wrecker flip it on it's side into position, scatter debris, shavings and manure, some cosmetic "blood," etc. Add people leading horses away, fire / rescue personnel, flashing red and blue lights, and unplanned for but effective, an overnight spring snow fall. I thought it worked well!

The other, similar set piece, was the plane crash from episode 310, when Scott and Ty go down in the bush while crossing the Rockies. Again the process was first to find a salvaged Cessna 172 (which we did with the help of Stephen at Global Aircraft Industries in Villeneuve, AB). Then we had to bring it to our shops in Calgary and set to work, again matching paint and graphics to the existing "flying double," and cut it up and crunch it further as appropriate to our scenario and story points. We actually had to "adjust" some of the damage from this Cessna's original accident as it had run out of fuel, nose planted and flipped straight over on its tail, a serious kink in the rear fuselage and tail that wasn't appropriate to our "crash".

We then hauled it to our "crash site", craned it into the forest, and arranged it in position as though it had glided in, shearing off some wing sections, running gear, etc. and nosing into an existing bank with already downed tree. We clipped the tops off spruce trees in the appropriate trajectory to it coming in, scattering debris on the flight path, scarring tree trunks where contact would have happened, etc. On the day we had some mist rising in the forest, we created some steam/ fumes rising from the engine compartment and sound provided the clicks and ticks of hot metal cooling in the still of the woods.

Analysis of the reality, selectivity of the details, practicality of making it shootable... that's the challenge of creating effective set pieces.

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Q: hey. I find you do an awesome job! my question for you is: how long did it take to make the house? Posted by alexandra on June 7, 2010 4:12 PM

A: In the Spring of 2007, after selecting the location and then following a design process of a couple of weeks, my Construction crew, under the direction of Dave " Grizz" Borley, Construction Co-ordinator Ian Wallace, Carp Foreman, and Simon Perrault, Lead Carp, built the Ranch House - Exterior in three weeks, along with re- configuring the corrals and the barn Interior, adding the barn office, etc. This included paint and landscaping. They then moved to the Calgary Studio and in two weeks we had the barn interior completed, and in three more weeks the Ranch House interior, complete with paint, furnishings and backings (the back drops for views out of the doors and windows).

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Q: Hi Rick! I know there must be many ways, but what's the number one way that you make the buildings such as the ranch house look so much older than they really are? Posted by JumperCowgirl on June 7, 2010 5:08 PM

A: The two basic ways of giving structures the look of some "age" are - 1) Alter the lines of the structure so they are no longer "true" ie. sag a roofline, wrack the whole building to bring the angles off 90 degrees (within reason, to avoid a cartoon look. This takes experience and judgement) and 2) Paint and texture to create the effects of time ie. build up of paint layers, softening of hard edges, weathering surfaces, effects of sun, crackling, flaking, gray aging of raw wood, exposing under layers of finish. The Heartland sets wouldn't look as authentic without the talents of Scenic Artist/ Paint Co-ordinator Tom Johnson. The aging process on exterior sets is never complete without the magic supplied by the Greens Dept., under the leadership and talents of "Big" John Dambraskus, in adding over growth around building bases, re-sodding with "long hair" sod and foliage of all size and type, both dead and alive.

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Rick Roberts Q&A

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Q: Hi! When you got the job as the production designer for heartland and they first gave you an insight as to what the ambiance or the feel of the show would be how did you figure out what would work best? For example did you already have some idea or did you have to do some research etc. Thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy schedual to answer our questions! Posted by Free Spirit on June 7, 2010 6:53 PM

A:Generally in the design process, the script material gives you the physical requirements for staging the story, and then in conversations with producers, writers and episode directors leads to an interpretation of the tone, style, ambiance and mood that you wish to support or help to evoke with the sets and furnishings. If you as a designer are not familiar with the details of the world that you are creating, you will then do some extensive research on the subject, place, period, fashion, style, etc. to layer on to your interpretation of the "vision." Personally, as I am a westerner, born and raised, and in my career I have designed many "Westerns" (both period and contemporary), I know the world that Heartland inhabits pretty well, so little additional research was required. But by helping create and understand the history of the Bartlett / Fleming clan and the community of Hudson, it enriches the vision of the world we create for the characters to inhabit.

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Q: Hey Rick, Well may I say, you guys are awsome :D Have you done any other shows besides *Heartland* ? Posted by Calli on June 7, 2010 7:23 PM

A: I've been working in the film industry since the late 70's and as a Production Designer since 1986, I've done some feature films, lots of television movies and pilots. Much of it has been in a Western cultural genre. "Heartland" is the first television series I have designed. I had the good fortune to Art Direct (2nd in command of the Art Dept.) on some notable American projects, such as "Unforgiven," "Legends of the Fall," "Cool Runnings" and "Into the West."

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Q: My question is, How many stalls are actually in the barn?I love the design of it! Posted by Carly on June 8, 2010 12:16 AM

A: The Barn has 4 box stalls, a tack area, a feed area, and the stairs to the loft on the main floor plan, the design of which was based on the post configuration of the existing barn at the ranch site and what space requirements would allow. We built on the barn office addition to accommodate the script requirement.

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Q: Howdy from Australia! Great job on the show, especially on the ranch. How difficult is it staying the budget for the show? Posted by Natalie on June 8, 2010 4:15 AM

A: Really, not at all hard, I must say! Originally, in Season 1 we had some compromises to achieve what was required in the initial builds, but there was a lot to build in a short time to get us up and running. In subsequent seasons there have been major projects. In Season 2 we built the dude ranch and in Season 3 we had to move our interior sets to other studio spaces and we improved our Backings. Episode by episode, the budgets fluctuate to accommodate the demands of each different script, but we meet the challenges appropriately, creatively and responsibly...sometimes alternative solutions are presented, but in the end, creative producers make the ultimate decision in what gets spent, and it goes on the screen!

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Rick Roberts Q&A

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Q: Dear Rick: How do you make the inside of the house appear bigger than it actually looks from the outside? Also, how much does weather affect your sets? Posted by Cindy on June 8, 2010 2:59 PM

A: I guess you are on to us! By actually making it slightly bigger, mostly deeper than the exterior set actually is, but we don't usually see the exterior house close up from that side angle. It is sort of a false perspective in the service of economics - if we aren't going to see it, let's spend the money somewhere else where we are going to see it.

Weather doesn't really affect the core sets, as they are built to cope with 4 seasons of our environmental conditions and we continually tweak things, such as site drainage, leaks, etc. However, as much of this show does take place Exterior, or outside in the elements, weather can play a large role in the day to day shooting of the series, particularly continuity wise, as we tend to Block shoot ie. everything at the Dude for two back to back episodes will be shot on our one day at the Dude, and if it snows that day we're going to see it for two weeks, and it may not have snowed at the Heartland ranch set, " just around the corner and over the hill" so to speak. In the episodic sets we try to cover ourselves for weather possibilities by having an indoor arena somewhat close to wherever we may be working at an outdoor arena if a move is necessary, but we "pretty much shoot whatever way the wind blows, and what comes with it!"

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Q: Hey Rick,Heartland is one of the best shows ever!! Absolutely me and my sister's favourite!! My question is: does Heartland own the cars you see in the episodes? Like Ty's antique Ford and Ashley's BMW and Jake's Chev? Thanks for taking the time to answer my question. Posted by Suzy on June 8, 2010 3:38 PM

A: Heartland owns Jack's and Ty's trucks as they play in virtually every episode, as we have to have absolute control of all picture vehicles that we see on a regular basis. For others, such as Ashley's BMW, our Transport Co-ordinator Bill Jansen secures and rents these vehicles from "reliable" sources so he can get them back when they are next scheduled to play on camera. Jack's original gold Chevy was rented for the pilot (as one never knows if the show will be picked up) and was continued on a rental basis (from a private owner) for the first two years. Even at reasonable rates, it was decided that it would be better to own it, but we couldn't acquire it (The owner had a serious sentimental attachment, not unlike Jack!) So, in episode 303 it dies, and Jack acquires a new "old favourite" truck(the New Goldie) and we have to find a junker match to the original to paint to match the existing one, then put it up on blocks in the "back 40" and (with added history) the show goes on!

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Q: Hey Rick! I love Heartland, and am starting to realize how each person is so important in keeping the beautiful balance that we see every Sunday! My question for you is: did you ever study or have an interest in architecture or building? Thanks for doing a great job, and answering all these questions! Posted by Teri on June 8, 2010 6:26 PM

A: I guess I have always had some interest in architecture, but certainly not as a career. I trained as a theatrical designer - sets, costumes, and lighting (at the University of Alberta) and I practiced that profession for over a decade prior to switching to the film industry. I have also done architectural design, both new construction and renovation, commercial, agricultural and residential, for select private clients, some on a repeat basis, most in Southern Alberta.

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Q: Hey Rick! :D You do an amazing job on everything in heartland. If it was different, it would not be the same, and I'm sure it would not be better either. My question is: What was the hardest thing to deside to make on the set. Like, did you have a lot of ideas of what the ranch house would look, or the dude ranch cabins? Thanks so much, and keep doing an amazing job for seasons and seasons to come! (lets all hope!) Posted by Allison on June 9, 2010 9:58 PM

A: Just some thoughts to try and answer your question, Allison... One can have a whole lot of ideas, but my main responsibility as the Designer is to implement ideas that manifest themselves as solutions to challenges in telling the stories... stylistic imagery and spatial solutions that support the demands of the script.... collaboration with the director in how he wishes to unravel the tale! Perhaps the broad strokes, as the beginnings, are harder... the details follow accordingly!

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Rick Roberts Q&A

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Q: Hi Rick, love the show! I'm going to ask a random question because I feel random right now... what's your favourite pasttime when you're not working? Thanks for answering questions! Posted by Milly on June 9, 2010 10:27 PM

A: More Work! I would have to say spending the time on my own ranch, where the "To Do" list seems to be an endless scroll... especially when "Heartland" is an 8 month gig during the least frozen months of the calendar!

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Q: Hi Rick, Can you come and decorate my place! Just kidding! Seriously do you get a rough idea of what the set will be and then shop for it esp the interiors and/or are you always scanning yard sales, shops etc and looking out for stuff that would fit into the general Heartland look? I notice the bedrooms have changed with each season as it likely would with teenagers and yet everything looks like its been there for ever.â€̈Congrats Rick and team. Posted by meg on June 10, 2010 6:35 PM

A: I'm lucky to have an extremely dedicated and talented team in the Set Decoration Dept. who love to shop for this stuff, and after consultation, I'm happy to let them run with it.... see also an earlier answer.

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Q: Hi Rick, What's your favourite part of your job and what's your least favourite? Thanks for answering! Posted by Francesca on June 10, 2010 9:56 PM

A: Favourite: Payday Fridays, after a week of good productive work. The least? Wet weather Mondays, a potential crisis to deal with, and then mud bogs to repair!

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Q: Wow Rick, what a cool job you have! I must say that the rustic Albertan feel to the ranch and all the other locations are so extremely pleasing to the eyes, well done! I was wondering what kind of education is required to lead you to a production design job? and why did you decided to become a production designer? As always, keep up the awesome work, we're all looking forward to feasting our eyes on whatever you and your design team come up with in the new season! Posted by Dalaigh on June 11, 2010 2:06 PM

A: As mentioned in a previous answer, I trained at the University of Alberta in Theatre Design- Set, Costume and Lighting and practiced that profession for over a decade before starting to cross over. I did an apprenticeship as an assistant art director while learning the difference in media prior to gaining the position of Production Designer for independent feature film productions.

I also gained valuable learning experience as an Art Director working with noted Production Designers on major American feature films, such as the late Henry Bumstead ("Unforgiven") and Lilly Kilvert ("Legends of the Fall"). Basically I made the switch from theatre to film and television because I found the theatre for me to be limited in scope, financial resources to work with, and career return as a way to make a living, raise a family and maintain a lifestyle in Alberta, although certainly equal in the creative challenges. As a designer in either medium, I enjoy my role in collaborative story telling.

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Rick Roberts Q&A

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Q: hi Rick i am a huge fan of heartland it is the most amazing show ever! and you are so lucky that you get to be apart of it! My question for you is what has been the most challenging set to create while working on heartland? Posted by Ashley on June 7, 2010 8:32 PM

A: I would have to say that the creation of the Dude Ranch in both it's stages, both the original derelict ranch site of falling down barns, bunk houses, etc. in three weeks for episode. 202, and then turning it all around into the finshed renovated and new cabins, horse corrals, and dock, etc. in the next three weeks for episode 204, during a very wet spring, would rank as one of the most challenging experiences so far on the series.

The site of the Dude Ranch on the lakeshore also happens to be the main drainage for the little valley. All that rain was running right through the centre of our construction site which soon became just a mud bog in which you could sink in up to your waist if you got off the boardwalk path. The road access was about a quarter mile away as the planned approach couldn't be built while it was still so wet. Thus all materials had to be hand carried in, and it was southern Alberta monsoon season of June with rain every day for about two weeks straight (or so it seemed, looking back now). I really have to credit the guys for stickin' with it and getting it done "on time & on budget!" The people you work with on a day to day basis behind the scenes always come through in the crunch and get 'er done!

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Q: Hello Rick. Thank you for being in Heartland the 'look' of Heartland is great and so is the Flemming house. Well done. Heartland is awesome!! :) My question is: Do you use a sheet screen of a certain photo outside of houses/buildings when you're filming inside? To make sure you have the right look outside? Thanks very much for answering. Have a nice day. Posted by Firefly on June 8, 2010 7:56 AM

A: Currently the backing we use for the Ranch house Interior set onstage at the studio is 135 feet long by 16 feet high, wrapping right around the front of the set to cover all the window and door angles on the front side. Process Color Print Ltd., a Calgary firm, digitally printed it on a non-reflective cotton material. The process is an extension of the billboard advertising technology. We have 5 different sets of backdrops, both for the house and the barn, to accommodate the seasonal changes in the look at Heartland Ranch.

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Q: Okay, the person who normally asks this is M.I.A (ahem by the way Twe, where are you?! I'm doing your job here for you!!), so I'll ask it... Rick, what's your favourite "comfort food"?

A: Being an Albertan and a (part-time) rancher, my favourite food is medium rare beef strip or tenderloin, barbecued, and preferably my own, grass fed "natural" beef from 24 month old black steers with no growth hormones! Serve that up with home fries, baked beans and a Caesar salad, with maybe a little homemade pie for desert!

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Thanks so much Rick!