Production design is always important to film and TV. Environments, props, set decoration—it all provides a fuller picture of the story and the characters within it. But if you have a film with a very limited cast—an isolated protagonist—and essentially no dialogue, production design comes even more to the foreground.

If a character can't tell you who they are, what they like, or where they're from, audiences are going to start searching for clues around them. In the case of the Hulu sci-fi film No One Will Save You, viewers might spot trails of ribbons, hanging stars, crafting supplies, and family photos—all signs of a happy homeowner named Brynn, which makes the secrets revealed during this alien invasion tale all the more surprising.

Ramsey Avery was the production designer tasked with filling in the blanks of this world in collaboration with writer/director Brian Duffield. This wasn't Avery's first foray into sci-fi, with previous credits including 10 Cloverfield Lane, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. He also designed The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

So it was an honor to hop on Zoom with Avery to discuss No One Will Save You and all the details he used to bolster the story. Beam yourself up!

No One Will Save You | Official

Editor's note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: I would just love to start with your process on this project.

Ramsey Avery: It always starts with trying to dig into the basics of the story. Everything that I try to get in front of the camera comes from discussions with the director, oftentimes with the DoP to figure out how we're going to create an environment that supports the story.

In this particular case, the thing that I found really interesting about this story is that we learned throughout the movie that Brynn is exceptionally disliked in her town.

And the question for me was, why does she stay? Why doesn't she just pack up and leave? Because she clearly could. There's nothing in the way the world works these days that she couldn't go anywhere, because all she's doing is making dresses in her basement. She could do that anywhere. So the thing that I really wanted to figure out was, why is this particular place so important to Brynn?

So my process almost always starts with asking those types of questions in terms of the environments. How do the environments support the storytelling? What is it that we want the environment to both help the characters in the movie experience, and how do we want the audience to experience that with the characters? So, through a bunch of research and trying to figure out what a young woman who'd had most of her formative years stripped away by being stuck in a jail of some sort, what her experience of the world would be and where she would have come from before she went to jail.

Long story short, it was to try to figure out where her grandparents were, where her parents were. And we came to a conclusion that this house was bought by her grandparents. It was actually picked up and moved to this particular location because the grandmother liked the location, and the grandpa wanted to be as far away from people as he possibly could, and [Brynn's] mom was raised in this house. When her grandparents passed, her mom moved in with her husband, the husband left, and then her mom raised her as a single mom.

All of that background gave us a basis. The house was built at a certain time, it was moved for a certain reason, it looked this way because of ... so there's a logistical reason behind all of that. And then we looked for the emotional reasons about it wanting to be a place that was very comfortable for Brynn. Not only did it have her history, but it also supported her emotional needs, that it was a nest for her.

And then we looked for ways to express that emotion and that feeling within the architecture, that it is a warm environment. It's filled with things that reflect all of that history back from her grandparents. We decided that Brynn's talents for making dresses came from her mom. Her mom had crafty talents as well.

We decided to represent that in that she was good at macrame. The whole thing about the birdhouses is a different story, but the whole reason is that we learned that she and her mom built these craft houses, these birdhouses, so that Brynn inherited this sense of craftiness.

All of those story bits found us a way into the narrative of why this place is important to Brynn. And then once we made those decisions, everything we made in terms of a color or a material or a piece of dressing had to pass the gauntlet of, did it fit that decision-making? Did it make sense in terms of that backstory? And did it make sense in terms of the emotion we wanted to convey to the audience?

And that's how I would approach anything, is finding those hooks that give us an opportunity to make decisions that aren't just, "Oh, it looks cool." Because it has some real basis in the storytelling that we want to get across to the audience, and to have the characters in the movie or the TV show experience through that environment.

Behind the scenes of No One Will Save YouBehind the scenes of No One Will Save YouProvided/Ramsey Avery

NFS: I have not had an opportunity to look at this script. I love Brian Duffields' work, but I can't imagine there was a ton of detail there for you to work with.

Avery: Because it's all stage directions, right? There's no dialogue. After you read 30 pages, it was like, "Wait a minute, nobody said anything yet," and you finish it. There was one phrase in the entire movie, and it's still 89 pages long, which is amazing.

But because it's that long, there is a lot of detail in terms of the action. There isn't a lot of detail in terms of the specifics. It was a process for me to try to figure out what was the background behind those actions, and then building that story with reference.

I always do a lot of reference. I pull a lot of scrap. I usually hire a researcher for at least a short period of time. In this case, I think I was able to hire her for a week or two. Lizzie Klein, she's fantastic. She finds all these left-field things. I ask her questions, and she brings back these really interesting ideas, and then I'm digging at the same time, and we combine all of our ideas.

That visual reference is always the base point from discussions with illustrators or with the director, with the DoP. What he did write, in a lot of cases, were sound effects. There were a lot of specific sound effects, and those sound effects also help create the world.

When something's going across the floor, you're going, "Okay, what is that surface that makes that sound?" When it stops, it's like, "Oh, it went onto a carpet." So there has to be a hardwood floor, and there has to be a carpet, and then things having to bang around or floorboards going creak. There are all these sound effects that he wrote into that, which were clues to the environment as well.

NFS: I was looking at the photos and your renderings. Was that house a build?

Avery: It's a build. We found the exterior. We spent a couple of weeks looking for exterior. The script was actually written to be someplace like upstate New York, but because of tax credits, of course, we ended up in New Orleans, which looks nothing like upstate New York.

One of the rules is, when you go film someplace, you're supposed to stay within 30 miles of your stages or your offices. It's called "the zone" because if you go outside the zone, you incur additional costs for the crew. So you're always supposed to stay inside the zone. Well, everything inside the zone was swamps, and we thought, "It's already a spooky movie. We don't want to have the environment be spooky too."

So the whole trick was to try to find some environment that was friendly, that supported that idea of Brynn, and we ended up having to go outside of the zone, which is a whole argument with the producers all the time. But we worked it out. It was the right place.

We found a house in the right type of setting. It didn't have everything we needed. The yard had been pretty much eaten up, munched up by a hurricane a couple months earlier. So the roof was a mess. We actually repaired the roof for the guy who owned the house. We cleaned up his yard for him. We had to recreate that entire back garden to tell that story about Brynn. We added the dormer windows on it so that we could show that there were bedrooms in the upper floor and put the chimneys on it to make it a little bit more friendly.

So we did some work to this exterior, but all the action is so specific, we had to design the interior directly to the action that's written in the script.

The interior was a built set, and it was built in three pieces. The first floor going up to the landing is one set. The stage we were on was too short to put it all together into one set. So then we had to build the second floor raised up on a seven-foot platform that gave us enough room to start down the stairs, and then worked with the DoP, Aaron Morton, and the visual effects teams to figure out how to tie all of that together.

And then the basement was an entirely different set, which we actually ended up having to build at the last minute. They decided that we had to put it inside a garage at the location so that we had a set, it's called a "cover set" where you go for cover in case it rains. So if it was raining when we were supposed to be shooting on the outside, they wanted us a set that they could go and shoot on the inside. So they asked us to build that basement set inside the garage there at the location. We had to figure out how to repurpose some of the garage walls, tuck a staircase up into the rafters, cut some windows, and make the windows a little bit bigger so we could get some light. So it was all built.

Behind the scenes of No One Will Save YouBehind the scenes of No One Will Save YouProvided/Ramsey Avery

NFS: The whole film has this feeling of whimsy. I'm interested in how the team landed on contrasting that "Main Street USA" feel with this alien invasion.

Avery: It came from a couple of sources. Initially the idea is, if you're going to land aliens in a town, you want the town to feel more or less real, right? You want it to have a sense of reality so that the aliens really impact that reality, and also that we can kind of imagine ourselves in that same environment that it feels like at least a nostalgic or a stereotypical small-town America that you can identify with on one level or another, for the audience to emotionally invest themselves in the movie.

So it was important to Brian that there was a level of reality to it, but it is a genre movie, and you do heighten that reality. The whimsy came from Brian's voice when he writes. He's funny, and there is this sense of, "Can you believe I'm actually writing this?" kind of sensibility in his writing, and it's really fun.

I latched on to that. As I was looking into the research, I found these images of cottage-core, people painting things inside their house, and I love the idea of that.

There's an important moment at the end of the movie where Brynn gets herself thrown up into the ceiling, and I wanted to make sure that she was not just in a flat ceiling, that she could get anywhere, but that she was really trapped. She was in this gable point. So that became a point, and then I thought, "She's being thrown up into the sky, but she's in her bedroom."

And I thought, wouldn't it be interesting if we painted trees on the sides of those gables so that we feel her being thrown up into the sky? That also relates to the idea that she's seeking this sense of freedom, but she's trapped in her bedroom.

So it was looking for these elements that told that storytelling. And the more I played with that kind of painted sensibility and thought about the quirkiness of this young girl whose only real relationship to the world—because she's locked out of talking to people in the town—it's online. She's looking through everybody's perfectly curated lives that show up online. And so those lives are all more perfect than they are in reality. So she just thinks that's real to a certain degree, and so she just wants to reproduce that, and that heightens her reality, and it gave her a sense of fun.

If she's fun, if that world is fun, then at the beginning, we don't think she's a murderer because she's fun, and we also want to relate to her because her world is fun.

So this slight sense of whimsy in the space came from that research and from that initial idea of trying to throw her up into the sky, then I found a whole bunch of pictures of birdhouses, and I really loved the idea of the metaphor of the birdhouse for her making her village. Originally, the script called out for Lemax ceramic houses, Halloween houses, and we couldn't use those because it's a proprietary thing, and they get broken, and they get used to kill something. So the legal department wouldn't let us use that.

So I pitched the idea of the birdhouses as both this metaphor for Brynn herself, and it also made sense. It also added that little heightened sense of whimsy that the Lemax Halloween houses started, a bit of whimsy already introduced, and then heightened that. And that became an underlying theme.

We called it "Brynn-ification." We would actually take places and Brynn-ify them. And that actually led to the very end of the movie where she's now taken over the town basically, and she Brynn-ifies the town. She paints flowers on the walls there, and we also did a whole thing where we pulled flowers from everywhere else in the movie other than her yard or specifically at the gravestones of people that she was relating to.

So, in the streets, riding her bike around, there are no other flowers. She brings all those flowers into that end story sequence. She's now the person that the town is for.

No One Will Save You | Official Clip - 'Red Light'

NFS: I'll ask the opposite question. The whole flashback reveal sequence is very different from everything else that you see, with the very stark red light.

Avery: Some of that comes from Brian directly. The red lights in the script, from the very first script that I read—it was important for him that the light told us something about the aliens. When the light slams into the house and breaks off the curtain, and it actually holds the frying pan up against the wall and then changes the shape of the frying pan, [that] says the light has a tactile characteristic to it.

All of that was in the script, that stuff that Brian wanted to have specific, that the light became a representation of the aliens. [We had] the idea of how we would try to play that light through the movie, where we start with more kind of warm and comfortable things. As the clouds come in, it gets grayer. Then the light is only about what light is being brought in by the aliens. That sense of how that light permeates the space and changes the characteristic of the space—it becomes a character in and of itself.

And that just shifts the movie as you're going. We're trying to make the movie tell the story all along, and the movie inherently just gets darker. As we learn more about Brynn, and we learn more about what she did and why she's here, there's this darkness and a harshness.

The value of that is, in the long run, it forces Brynn to come to terms with what she did and who she is now. All of that harshness and the darkness and the contrast, all of that is meant to help convey the sense of Brynn's journey into herself. Looking inside gets darker and scarier for her particularly. And that's where a lot of that kind of tonal characteristic, working with the DoP and Brian, we worked ourselves toward.

Behind the scenes of No One Will Save YouBehind the scenes of No One Will Save YouProvided/Ramsey Avery

NFS: Do you have any advice for someone wanting to get into the art department?

Avery: I think the way of the world is so uncertain right now, particularly in terms of entertainment, and in a lot of ways, in terms of production design. There are two, maybe three things. Hone storytelling skills, look at the world ... watch movies and TV shows.

Why do architects make the choices they do? Why does a place feel scary when you walk into it versus a place that feels happy when you walk into it?

Those are all clues that, as a designer, you need to look at the real world and figure out, and see then how you can convey that in the stories you want to tell. Then learn how to interpret a script to figure out how to tell that story. Where is the story? That's all learned stuff. You have to learn the observation and the thinking and the processing and the script analysis, that is all stuff you teach yourself or have somebody help teach you.

In terms of the logistics of the art department, I think if you want to be a designer more than maybe say a set decorator, then I think that you have to learn some technical digital skills. You have to be able to at least paint and draw and Photoshop—not that everybody does, but that's an entry into it. I think even more importantly, because of the way that the real world and visual effects and movie making and game design is all kind of converging, being able to do 3D design work, being able to actually have a real facility with 3D model building and rendering and lighting, being able to do things specifically in scale is important.

So, programs like SketchUp or Rhino are critical. Programs like Blender are great because they allow you to light and texture things more realistically than SketchUp or Rhino do. And those are great communicative tools. Blender is not good in terms of being precise. And one of the things that is happening because all of this is converging is that you need to be able to represent things in real scale.

I was talking to a friend who did the Sonic movies. In trying to put everything in to introduce a digital character into a practical environment, you have to have the practical environment be absolutely accurately reflected in the visual effects world. And the same thing with our aliens. It's just that you have to be able to make sure that things that you're sending down the pipeline to visual effects are scale accurate.

Blender doesn't solve that. Maya really doesn't solve that. Those are all very useful tools, but figuring out how that blend of tools between SketchUp, Rhino, Blender or Maya, Photoshop are all very critical bits.

And then I think the thing that is becoming more and more and more useful is Unreal Engine. You don't model in Unreal, per se. You have to model elsewhere and bring things into it. But Unreal builds worlds, and in those worlds, you can do things—like one of the things we did on Lord of the Rings wildly successfully is that we would scan a location, we'd drop that scan into Unreal, we'd build our digital sets, and then we'd be able to actually light it. This is what the sun does on that day at that time, so that we could figure out the right placement of the set and the environment to make sure the light was doing what the DoP wanted to do.

We even did the same thing, even in No One Will Save You. That whole house, we did in Unreal in the exterior so we could do the alien chase and figure out how the alien was moving through the house and around the house in that environment. It's a tremendously powerful tool. It's a pretty complicated one, and I have no idea how to do it. I find people that are really good at it.

I think that those types of digital tool sets that help get the real world into the digital world are just absolutely critical.

Behind the scenes of No One Will Save YouBehind the scenes of No One Will Save YouProvided/Ramsey Avery

NFS: Do you have anything else you’d like to discuss?

Avery: We did have to make a movie that didn't have any dialogue in it. So that meant that whole backstory that we came up with, we had to figure out how we represented that visually so that the audience could see it, since we never got to tell them. And that's a whole team effort, right? That's working with the director in terms of how he's setting up the scenes, working with the DoP in terms of how he's placing the camera and what he's actually seeing in the lens. Working with set dec to figure out what's the right layering of dressing that goes into the environment. Working with costumes ... that whole idea of the Brynn-ification, how does that get represented also in the costuming? And the flowers that are important to Brynn, how did that get represented in the costuming?

All of those bits and pieces are all things that everybody comes together to get to work on. It starts from making the story that everybody agrees with, but to make it work, since we didn't get to rely on anything other than the visuals and the sound effects and the music—which is great—that whole collaborative nature of everybody coming together to make those choices in tandem was key, I think, to being able to have the audience get some insight and some way that they can grab onto into the storytelling.

NFS: And I hope for viewers, that brings more attention to what you do too.

Avery: In some ways, in this type of a movie, the house is a character, and it is important to relay that story to the audience, but you also don't want to bang your audience's heads with it.

It's a different thing when you're doing Lord of the Rings, when that's about very specific epic worldbuilding. You do want to have the scenery, to a certain degree, draw attention to itself because it's important. Tolkien drew attention to the scenery. He wrote all this descriptive stuff about the environment in his works. So you can just go back to the source and go, "Okay, the environment's important." And that's part of that movie-building process or that worldbuilding process for that type of storytelling.

Somebody said, "Oh, I thought you just found that house." Well, no, everything about that house was very specific, and we had to make it very specifically, but the fact that they thought it was a real house, that's exactly what I should be doing. The audience shouldn't be aware of all the levers I'm trying to pull. The audience should just be able to feel them as they're going on.

I think if we had overall made more of a deal of the production design—made it more abstracted or stylized—I think then you wouldn't have feared for Brynn as much as you do. You wouldn't have cared for her as much as you do.

So it's funny, you're right. Everybody understands costuming, right? Everybody has an idea about costuming. We all have a feeling about what goes on with visual effects because we're beat over the heads about visual effects and how much of our world movie-making is about that. Everybody talks about the DoP and the camera work.

People just do not understand production design. We've done an awful job as production designers and filmmakers relaying what it is that production design is and what it does for a movie. But, in some cases, part of that is because you don't want it to overpower the movie.

So it is an interesting thing that people don't really think about, and I wish they did think about it more. And I'm glad people like you help people think about it more. So I appreciate that.