‘The Underground Railroad’: How the Art Department Made Trains Run for Barry Jenkins

Consider This: Conversations highlight television’s award-worthy productions through panel discussions with the artists themselves. The above video is in partnership with Amazon Prime Video, produced by IndieWire’s Creative Producer Leonardo Adrian Garcia, and hosted by film director Gina Prince-Bythewood.

Stage production is rarely a simple feat in the realm of television, especially when your project requires you to get real trains up and running underground. Such was the case with Barry Jenkins’ acclaimed “The Underground Railroad,” which features a literal interpretation of the real-world underground network of abolitionists that helped enslaved Black people flee to freedom in America in the 1800s.

“Barry and I were talking about it he said, ‘I don’t know much about how the story is going to go but I can tell you that we need real trains with real people and a real tunnel,’” series production designer Mark Friedberg said. “It was a tricky thing. Steam trains don’t run in tunnels because they need oxygen and subways are electric. Ultimately what we realized is that you can’t shoot on public tracks, so you need private track. We’re probably not going to build trains but we can amend them. So we need a place where we can put real trains on tracks then put a tunnel on that. Making trains run isn’t something art departments do or something you do in a few months. We looked at all the train museums in America and one of the best ones was in Savannah, which was a large part of the reason why we decided to film there. The train museum gave us the trains and it became a big part of the campus — the (University of Georgia) Griffin Campus. Then those guys became our partners and got into it, helping us modify the trains and being our safety guys.”

Impressive set designs are one of many factors that has made Amazon Prime Video’s “The Underground Railroad” limited series one of the most acclaimed television shows in recent memory. The 10-episode show, which premiered on Amazon’s streaming service in May, is the first television series from Jenkins, the lauded director behind films such as “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk.” “The Underground Railroad” centers on Cora (Thusa Mbedu), a enslaved woman who escapes her Georgia plantation and sets out for the Underground Railroad, an actual railroad full of engineers and conductors who operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the South.

“The Underground Railroad” is historical fiction but doesn’t shy away from the displaying the ugliest aspects of American slavery. The key individuals behind the series, including editor Joi McMillon, strove to ensure that difficult scenes, such as whippings, prompted visceral audience reactions without coming off as gratuitous.

“When Cora and Chester are being whipped we do it in a wide (shot) so the sound of it is more impactful than seeing the whip come across their flesh,” McMillon said. “One of the moves I love that James (Laxton, series cinematographer) and Barry do is that they pan off of that and you find Caesar watching and you experience the rest of that whipping scene through the reactions. We also did the same with ‘Moonlight,’ when Chiron walks through a classroom and breaks a chair over his classmate’s back. We cut to the teacher and his actual visceral reaction and his experience of what is happening is more impactful than seeing the chair break. That’s one of the things we did throughout the series, we were very careful of how much we showed and how we presented these images because it is a very traumatic time in our history. The way we’ve carefully chosen to present it, it sticks with you and isn’t overly grotesque.”

Jenkins shot numerous portraits while working on “The Underground Railroad”; the fruits of that labor were released as a 52-minute montage prior to the miniseries’ release. Creating costumes for so many leads, supporting characters, and extras was a major undertaking for Caroline Eselin-Schaefer, who served as costume designer on the series. Eselin-Schaefer noted that though she had to work on a budget, that constraint ultimately ended up aiding the overall look of the many characters on “The Underground Railroad.”

“We had a budget consideration that happened and it kind of worked in our favor in the end,” Eselin-Schaefer said. “At first we were going to have different cuts of suits but we started limiting things and it kind of helped with the story. The men’s suits have only one cut in three fabrics. The day dress is one dress that we made with three different fabrics. The institutional dress had two cuts but only three colors. I wonder if people pick up on the fact that things were the same. You see it in the social; that’s one kind of dress for the ladies who dance.”

“The Underground Railroad” is available to stream via Amazon Prime Video.

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