November is Native American Heritage Month, and we're highlighting Reservation Dogs, a Hulu comedy-drama series created by Native filmmakers Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi. The series follows four Native American teenagers growing up on a reservation in eastern Oklahoma. In this post, we’ll provide our top four production design secrets that showcase the creative inspiration, unique props, and set pieces of this breakthrough in Indigenous representation on TV, both in front and behind the camera.
Secret No. 1:
Uncle Brownie’s home features touchstones of Native art including a giant tapestry alongside posters for “The Thing” and “The Fall Guy” to make a subtle statement of how Native and Pop culture coexist.
Secret No. 2:
During the production design process, director Sterlin Harjo made everyone watch Friday (1995). He wanted to pull inspiration from the bright pastel color palettes used in this “ghetto and dangerous” setting to convey that although there are some dilapidated houses, the whole neighborhood isn’t like that.
Secret No. 3
When production designer Brandon Tonner-Connolly was scouting locations, he was invited into Native's homes in Okmulgee to observe the decor, including paint colors, Bible quotes on the fridge, and pop culture posters. This research helped him translate true personal details from the actual community to the set.
Secret No. 4
In the series, there is a flashback to 1982 at Big Murph’s Convenience Store. In this scene, potato chip bags were recreated to replicate what Ruffles and Cheetos packaging looked like in 1982.
Why is Production Design So Important?
A production designer is head of the art department. On board from the beginning, they work with the director + producers to help bring the writer’s script, director’s vision + producer’s plans together as a visual whole. The production designer researches or "scouts" locations, eventually securing + preparing it for shooting. They budget the cost of materials, track expenses, and typically oversee the art director, set designers, illustrators + scenic painters to develop a specific visual style for a production. From minute details to overarching themes, a production designer must consider every aspect shown on screen, regardless of budget, they must be resourceful and think on their feet. Viewers don't often realize how many people are involved behind the scenes and how much time and energy goes into a production like Reservation Dogs. According to IMDb, about 46 people have cycled through this series' art department over the past 2 seasons, working alongside Brandon Tonner-Connolly to bring this world to life. Reservation Dogs makes history by being the first American series to be created, written, and directed by Indigenous artists while starring an almost entirely Native ensemble of performers. It's no secret that this series and the world it has introduced us to will leave a lasting impact.