‘3 Body Problem’ Production Designer on Building Ancient Mongolia and Creating VR Headsets

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“3 Body Problem” production designer Deborah Riley is no stranger to creating epic environments — she won four consecutive Emmys for her work on “Game of Thrones.”

Netflix’s new series reunites Riley with creators David Benioff and D.B Weiss. “That show was vast insofar as cold and hot environments and in its scope and scale, but I had no idea what the term meant until ‘3 Body Problem,’” Riley says, comparing the two shows.

Adapted from the Chinese science-fiction saga by Cixin Liu, the series opens with the Cultural Revolution. Young scientist Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng) watches as her father is beaten to death in front of a crowd by the Red Guard. She’s sent to a top-secret base on the Red Coast where she learns that the Chinese government has been sending transmissions hoping to make contact. The genius mind suggests pointing it at the sun and so a chain of events unfolds, with meta world gaming playing a large part in it all.

In the present day, Jin (Jess Hong) and Jack (John Bradley) are among those who wear shiny VR gaming headsets that transport them into a cutting-edge virtual gaming world. “The headset was something we did early,” explains Riley. She looked at the history of headsets, particularly at NASA and how their designs had evolved. Riley adds, “It became clear that what the guys were interested in was very seamless. It had to be so technologically advanced that we would never be able to understand how it was made.”

Furthermore, Benioff, Weiss and Alexander Woo, also a creator, knew they wanted everything in the design to be fully integrated. Says Riley, “They wanted the earpiece all in one, so the sound and vision were coming in through one device.”

The headsets were made out of metal and dipped in liquid mirror coating. But the mirror surface then reflected the crew, so the visual effects team had to work to remove these unwanted elements.

John Bradley as Jack Rooney wearing a futuristic-looking VR headset made from metal.
COURTESY OF NETFLIX

When it came to portraying the Cultural Revolution, Riley knew she had an enormous responsibility to portray it authentically. While she had books on Maoist propaganda featuring posters and other images, Riley found it more valuable to work with her colleagues to build and capture that authenticity. She says, “I relied very heavily on director Derek Tsang who was able to guide us, and I was fortunate to have a Chinese art director Chapman Kan to work with.” For all the propaganda graphics in the scene, Riley utilized a Chinese graphics department that created the art.

Production designer Deborah Riley relied on the show’s Chinese graphic design team to create the propaganda images of the Cultural Revolution.
COURTESY OF NETFLIX

The virtual reality world was Riley’s biggest challenge.

When Jin and Jack advance to the third level of the game in the third episode, the duo are transported back in time to the 13th Century – Shangdu, also known as Xanadu, the capital of the Mongolian empire. This is where they encounter Kublai Khan, the emperor.

Production designer Deborah Riley created the balcony deck using practical sets. The rest was built via VFX.
COURTESY OF NETFLIX

Initially, she wanted to build the temple and its entire dome as a 360-degree observation deck. In the end, for production purposes, she ended up building only a balcony for in-camera photography; the VFX team populated the rest of the scene with crowd and set extensions. Riley researched books on Mongolian timber architecture for this set which became her guiding principle. The dome’s balcony was also one of her largest set builds.

Production designer Deborah Riley looked at Mongolia timber architecture to build a balcony.
ED MILLER/NETFLIX

Shepperton Studios in the U.K. became the base for a lot of Riley’s sets, but exteriors were also shot in London, New York, Florida and Spain.

Earlier in the third episode, when Jack and Jin are transported to a medieval world where they meet Pope Gregory, the scene was shot on location at Wells Cathedral in Somerset, U.K. “We brought in the canopy which the Pope sits under, and that was a gold leaf item that we were able to bring back later. But that canopy was something we tested a lot because I had to make sure the Pope could sit down easily on the throne, and I worked with costume designer Michael Wilkinson to see how the costume would fit,” Riley says.

Later, the set was recreated on a sound stage, and incinerated. “I lived for that moment, to be able to bring that canopy back for its burnt-tinged state,” says Riley.

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