How Hulu built an ocean liner on a soundstage for 'Death And Other Details'

Production designer James Philpott reveals just how much work went into creating the SS Varuna for Hulu's whodunnit

By Gabriella Geisinger 28 Feb 2024

How Hulu built an ocean liner on a soundstage for 'Death And Other Details'
Death and Other Details; Cr: Hulu

Hulu’s Death And Other Details takes place almost entirely on an art deco inspired ocean liner. “We were looking at the Queen Mary, and at an ocean liner called the Normandy which, in 1930, was considered the most beautiful ship,” says production designer James Philpott whose, whose job it was to recreate this mega-ship on a soundstage at Skydance Studios in Vancouver, Canada.  

“We had 250 carpenters working simultaneously,” Philpott reveals, praising the show’s construction coordinator Zbigniew Scheller for organising that many people on the build of the fictional ocean liner SS Varuna, prior to filming which took place in autumn 2021.

“When you would walk into the stages during construction, it was vast. We cut into the sound stage walls; we cut holes in them so that we could go into other spaces, so the actors could come in and out.” 

The “boat” as Philpott affectionately calls it was built across several soundstages at Skydance. He designed what they called a “LEGO” set, with a "super structure that would have the beautiful art deco posts and ceiling, and then we would bring in different walls that had different portholes.” They then would swap the walls around, as well as the different beds and vanities to create different suites. 

Set decorator Alex Royek “had a whole scheme that we developed together of different furniture. We swapped around a lot of the sets so that the ship [felt] bigger.” 

One set which did live up to the grandeur of the real thing was the dining room. One of Skydance’s soundstages was 450 feet long, says Philpott, which they filled with the extensive and exquisite dining room. “We also put a lot of our promenades, the [area for] walking at the side of the ship, into that stage.” 

So that the whole thing felt like a cohesive space for the viewer, Philpott and his team mapped out the entire ship: how many floors and decks it would have, how long it was, and drawing up floor-plans of the interior of the ship. This went down to even the small details, like each guest’s suite number and where those fit within the map.  

Transmitting grandeur wasn’t just about scale, but also about colour. Death And Other Details stands out for its vibrancy. Philpott’s decision to go for colour wasn’t just his own creative choice, but influenced by both the show runners and executive producers Mike Weiss and Heidi Cole McAdams as well as the research. “Most of the research we see is black and white, but fortunately there were some colour and colourised images. It was a very happy colour palette in a sense, but also an interesting mix of colours.  

“It heightened the environment and made it much more luxurious and much more open and accessible in many ways. The ships also have a lot of this really beautifully-polished woods. To have a lot of beautiful colour as a counterpoint to the darker woods was really interesting.” 

Deciding on aesthetics was all part of the vast construction phase. To create the various wood finishes, and “exotic woods inlays and different materials all mixed together, we did a lot of tests on how we were going to create that.” He credits set painter Billie-Jo Thompson with her patience for "My many requests for samples and samples and more samples." 

A Doll’s House 

The doll house is one of the first things we see in episode one. But it served more than just a prop purpose. Philpott pre-designed what the actual house-set would look like by designing the doll house. “That eventually became the real house in the show. We had to acquire all the furniture in advance of how we were going to dress the real sets. Every piece of furniture was LIDAR scanned and miniaturised and hand painted. And we even scanned all the fabrics that we were planning to use, and then miniaturised it and printed it on little pieces of cloth made the curtains.”  

It took much collaboration, which Philpott says is key to his over-all job. “My responsibility is the global vision of the show. How I and the art department interacted with all our departments, including the visual effects department, was [the goal of] creating the aesthetic.”  

Fittingly for the show, “There were a lot of details.” 

Death and Other Details was produced by US-based ABC Signature for Hulu. Marc Webb directed the pilot and executive produced alongside Mark Martin for Black Lamb, and David Petrarca.

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