Swarm Production Design: Riffing on Beyonce posters, tickets, etc

From posters to magazine covers to lanyards, production designer Sara K White discusses the details that went into creating Ni’Jah, the pop icon to die for.

“Swarm” does its best to ground its story of toxic Internet fandom in the real world — even as Donald Glover and Janine Naber’s exploration of the horror satire turns out to be as wild and conspiratorial as the toxic Internet fandom. But the key to this was creating a pop diva worthy of Dre’s adoration, whose career was wide-ranging and long enough to inspire a killer road trip in her name. Someone likes, say, Beyoncé—but definitely not Beyoncé. In the Prime Video series, this is Ni’Jah.

Creating the memorabilia and press coverage of the music icon’s decades-long Grammy-winning career fell to production designer Sara K White and her props and graphics teams. For a Ni’Jah-level superstar, the team needed so many periods thing that the creation of it all began before White even officially joined the project. “We started the preparation for Ni’Jah at the very beginning,” White told IndieWire. “Even before I was actually in it, I was like, ‘Okay, we need to gather this information and create timelines.’ Finding a pop artist as long and influential as Beyoncé required a lot of research into how Ni’Jah’s style and star persona evolved over time—and how fans treat memorabilia in the real world.

“If you look back to the 90s and that visual is very different than it is now. But (Beyoncé) was always on top of what was going on,” White said. “So we spent a lot of time going back and researching these elements to make sure we understood not only the album covers, but all the magazine covers, all the accessories that come with attending the concert, especially in the VIP area. concert. We didn’t necessarily think Dre left as a VIP, but we had a feeling he might be the person trying to be the last person to leave the concert. And if someone dropped a swag, he caught it.”

Beyonce's Swarm by Dominique Fishback, a show on Amazon Prime Video

Dominique Fishback in ‘Swarm’

Courtesy of Prime Video

Those looted memorabilia visually signaled not only her devotion to her idol Dre, but also her inability to find the relationships she craves outside of the Ni’Jah Superstars. Dre’s obsession makes it seem like he’s everywhere, and White incorporated that contrast into the sets. When we first meet Dre and his roommate Marissa (Chloe Bailey), there’s a stark contrast between their bedrooms, Dre’s walls covered in Ni’Jah’s swag. Dre adds Ni’Jah memorabilia to the walls everywhere — a room isn’t really his unless Ni’Jah (Nirine S. Brown) is there.

This strange and alienating dedication is key to how “Swarm” tells its story. The parasocial lens through which Dre views the world is at its strongest in Fishback’s performance, aided by production details such as the “vomited” green walls of Dre’s motel room in Episode 2, which White says was a fantastic way to visually (and visceral) comments. About Dre’s lack of basic physical comfort in the world. We see it in the scene where Marissa is working on Dre’s makeup for work, where White built a security camera and monitor in the bathroom. “You watch him watch himself, and the audience sees him from this dual perspective,” White said. “There is often stratification. We often see things through windows and there is a lot of frame in frame (composition).

The bedroom is set "Swarm" Episode 2


Quantrell D. Colbert/Prime Video

But production constraints dictated the release of some series. In creating the concert environment for the show’s finale, White and his team balanced Beyoncé’s stage designs with decidedly non-arena-sized filming locations. “The area where (Ni’Jah) enters the concert and exits the concert: these were in a fairly standard concert hall, not a large arena. But we brought in some set pieces and the crowd, and just as we captured those moments, we made sure it was as great as it needed to be,” White said.

“The concert itself, which we filmed in this gigantic warehouse. So we brought in all the stage elements and worked with the choreographer to determine exactly how big this stage needed to be to allow for these dances. You know, we were also fighting with budgets, so it was like, “Okay, so the frame is going to be this big. How about making this stage that big? And just have enough room to really sell what we create.”

White wanted to bring to the fore elements of the concert series that evoke Beyoncé, which meant building a stage capable of accommodating the dynamic lighting elements of an arena tour. “We (wanted to create) something that gave us a lot of light and texture and shadow and the ability to hang these big lights for the concert from the structure and add dynamic lighting in the show,” White said.

And just like “Swarm,” which based the murders on bizarre real-life events, White and his team made sure their content could spark the same fevered enthusiasm as the remains of fans in real life. “It was a really interesting journey to see the dedication of the fans in the real world,” White said. “There are people who specialize in this: ‘These are all concert tickets. I have attended all the concerts and will review and post them all. It’s amazing.”

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