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On the job: Designing Heartland

Trevor Smith and Chris Smith on the Heartland set.
Go behind the scenes of Canada's longest-running drama with two people responsible for its iconic look.

SAIT Television, Stage and Radio grads Production Designer Trevor Smith (left) and Set Decorator Chris Smith (right) work almost as one to deliver the iconic aesthetic of Canada's longest-running drama, Heartland. Chris joined the show in season three and Trevor in season 10 and, although not related, the two have developed synchronicity and familial relationship by creating sets together like Ty and Amy's loft.

When LINK writer Ashley Naud sat down with Chris Smith and Trevor Smith, they oozed with great appetite for the work they do, emphasizing the importance of collaboration in order to create the iconic look for a show that captures over one million viewers from around the world each week.

"With each season and each episode, we get to revisit what we've done before and make it better. It's intense and fast-paced, but it's fun."

How do set design and decoration work? 

TS & CS: On a show like this, set decoration and design work hand-in-hand. So much of it is location-based, it's quite quick-paced and we don't have big budgets — we're not building entire townsites from scratch. We've got to work hard to make our budget work and ensure that each dollar is the best dollar we could have spent on each set.

A lot of the work happens before the crew or actors even get on set. We're really looking into the future and asking what can we do to empower characters and help them to feel like they have a voice. So we take the time to review screenshots from previous episodes and we know the scripts ahead of time because there are important turning points in the season that we need to keep in mind.

As you add or take something away, you need to walk through the whole journey of the scene and try to be preemptive — we're always thinking about what the director might be looking for down to the tiniest of details, right down to the cups the actors are drinking out of.

Why is every detail so important and how do know you've gotten it right?

TS & CS: We're responsible for creating the look of the story. Whether it's a yurt, teepee village or a market on the street. The cast and crew are looking to us to sell it and make it believable, and we work hard at it.

We want to create a plausible, realistic, breathing environment for the actors, director and cinematographer to appreciate. We want believability for them so they can sit down and be comfortable and immersed. But we also want to set the mood and say something subtly. It's not our job to steal focus from the actors — especially in television.

Heartland fans will pick up on the smallest change, so we're always aware of what they might be thinking. We have to ask ourselves, ‘Are they going to buy it?'

Production Designer Trevor Smith and Set Decorator Chris Smith are two of many SAIT graduates working on the set of Canadian television series, Heartland.
Production Designer Trevor Smith and Set Decorator Chris Smith are two of many SAIT graduates working on the set of the Canadian television series, Heartland.

How do your roles work together?

TS & CS: A location decision starts with Trevor as the Production Designer as well as the director, location manager and producers — they talk about high-level story points, look and feel, plausibility and logistics. It starts with bold strokes and thinking about the big picture. Then, Trevor does as much research as possible. It's his role to clarify details, set the tone, mood and story for everybody.

Then, we have a team meeting — all heads of the department sit together and talk about what needs to be shopped for or built, painted and any other details. Chris takes over and leads his team to gather, hunt and source whatever is needed, including backup options.

Morning and evenings are big times for all department art directors to loop together and put together the pieces from the day — what we've discovered, any changes, what's winning, what's failing, what's ahead of or behind schedule, what's under or over budget — all of this is happening concurrently.

From a set dresser to an art director — everyone has to have the same energy. It can be such an intense job, with a lot of expectations and pressure that you have to leave room for levity and to create a family atmosphere where the whole team can have fun, laugh, cry and throw the hammer in anger together. We've gotten stuck in the mud, chased by cows and found out there was a grizzly bear in the bush we had just happened to be throwing rocks into. But that's the adventure of it — we build and grow together. As heads of departments, we have to be inspirational and aspirational — we have to motivate. If we're not having fun, nobody else will. It's our job to stay positive and aim high, and what a great challenge that is.