Bob Sher and his team do amazing work on Murdoch Mysteries. And, if they do it really well, you don’t even notice it. That’s because Sher, the show’s production designer, is tasked with creating wonderful sets like William and Julia’s Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home and lesser-known items like hiding road paint and parking meters when the show is filming on location.
Sher, who has worked on projects like Dino Dan, Schitt’s Creek and Traders, gave me behind-the-scenes scoop on how he does it and how—thanks to Benjamin Moore—Murdoch Mysteries fans can paint their home to look just like William and Julia’s.
What does the title of production designer mean on Murdoch Mysteries?
Bob Sher: It involves the fact that you have to do a lot of research. You have to go back to 1906 and even before that. And then, when we go on location … building sets is one thing because you can do whatever you want. But when you go on a location you have to change all the signs, make sure that the street lights are right, cover up all the parking meters. And one of the biggest things, if you can believe it, is covering up the white lines and yellow lines on the street. It becomes a bit of a conundrum to get it all worked out and make sure everything is period correct.
We have such a dedicated audience that they will see a bus stop and they will write letters. So, you have to be really diligent about research and making sure everything is period correct, right down to a chain link fence. Even though it was invented in 1845, not everyone might know that.
Where do you go for all of that research? Is it done online?
BS: We go online. I also have a bunch of assistants that work with me. We also go to the Toronto Research Library and look at pictures of what life was like back then. Fortunately, there was a lot of photography taken back then. But then, it’s all black and white. The challenge is what I think the colours were back then and what others think the colours were back then. I take a lot of my cues from San Francisco. I visited there many years ago and a lot of the buildings were painted very strange colours. Mints, yellows and light greens. It looked very odd, but you know what? It was all historical. What I’ve tried to do in the last couple of years on Murdoch is try and get us into brighter colours and better colours and not just brown.
I know that a lot of the show before was what we called Murdoch brown. To me, the lighting was a little darker. So, we’ve tried to lighten it up with the colours on the walls and I think it’s made a bit of a difference. I think everyone is saying the show looks different and a little bit better, fortunately, because I’m not just using brown.
And with Joanna [Syrokomla] in wardrobe, we’re sort of coordinating with each other and she’s doing really beautiful costumes. Between us, we’ve kind of put it together and come up with a palette of colours and have really enhanced the colours of the show. The world wasn’t black and white back then. They had colour. And, in fact, they had richer colours than we had in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s because they used dyes from plants. That’s what I’m trying to do with the show. And Benjamin Moore, which are the colours I usually use, have historic colours. They’ve done their research into what historic colours are.
You mentioned covering up parking meters, signs and paint on the roads. How do you obscure that stuff?
BS: There are a couple of things that we do. One of the things that I’ve done is put birdseed on the lines. Birdseed has different colours. The only problem with birdseed is on a windy day it blows off. Another thing that we do is that I’ve had my scenic [painters] paint some rubber and vinyl, cut them into strips and lay them down on the street. The biggest problem with all that is that not all asphalt is the same colour. And if it rains, the asphalt gets even darker. It gets a little tricky. The other thing that we can do is we can place a wagon over top to hide the lines.
Now, in St. Mary’s, Ontario, they were so happy to see us that I asked the locations guy if he could ask the city if they could just paint out the yellow lines. Which they did. They painted out the white and yellow parking lines for us and then repainted it. Kudos to St. Mary’s for letting us do that.
A lot of the coverups are masked with crates; we’ll place a crate or barrel or street dressing in a particular position that, based on where the camera is pointing, it kind of hides it. With parking meters it’s a little trickier because you can’t just take them off. So, when we shoot in Cobourg say, we made covers that went over the parking meters that looked like you could tie a horse to it. It was sort of tongue and groove and was painted a Murdoch brown colour. And we just slipped them over the top of these parking meters. And every once in awhile we’d have a guy with a horse standing near it.
I have to ask you about the Frank Lloyd Wright house. It looks amazing.
BS: I thought that was a great opportunity that the producers and the writers have given me to move William and Julia out of their hotel that they’ve been in and take the leap that Frank Lloyd Wright was around [the area]. I’ve always been a fan of the guy anyway and it was just a lovely thing to do to have a brand-new set that looks totally different than anything else Murdoch has had. We did a lot of research into what the stained glass windows should look like, the different things that he puts in his houses, the tables, the chairs, the desk, everything. Some of the things we had to build because they’re too expensive to buy and some of them we got a pretty good deal on. That furniture is still pretty popular these days.
Murdoch Mysteries airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on CBC.
Image courtesy of CBC.