We all know that production design can elevate a production when it's done well. It's a silent storyteller, much like costuming, in that subtle hints of an environment betray important details. Who inhabits a space, and how does that space reflect its inhabitant?

This is something production designer Yong Ok Lee had to consider through the Prime series Expats, directed by Lulu Wang. The show features several characters living as expats in Hong Kong, and each of their homes has to show who these characters are. Settings also change as these protagonists are taken on the ups and downs of their emotional journeys.

Yong and Wang have collaborated in the past on The Farewell, and they carry their strong visual style forward here. We hopped on Zoom to speak with Yong about her design process, how settings demonstrate character, and more from the set of Expats. Dive in with us!

Expats - Official Trailer | Prime Videowww.youtube.com

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

No Film School: How do you start on a project like this, which is a little bit more expansive? What is your process as you start on a TV show?

Yong Ok Lee: It wasn't really a big difference, to be honest. I was a little afraid when I [started], of course, because I never worked on TV before. And then people say a TV work, the work process is way different than movies, and that it's a fast pace. And [that I] probably need to lose some detail, and it's just a different vibe, so I was afraid.

Also, it's a much, much bigger budget, so I don't know if I can deal with the budget and then everything. But, in fact, it wasn't really different. Of course, I have a bigger scale of the art department, and then the work process is much longer than independent film. Basically, there's no shortcut.

When I worked [on] The Farewell or other movies, it's so easy to just change things or adjust things because it's just me to do [it], or with a very small crew. For this kind of bigger show, because there are so many people involved, there's no way I can just go directly to shortcut, so it's more like a communication process than the creative part.

In terms of [the] creative part, it's the same. And especially with Expats, the director and DP work more like a feature than a TV show, so we don't want to lose any detail even though it's a TV show and we need to move fast. We want to make sure every set, we have all the details and the character.

The way we work, I'm sure it's a little bit different than other TV [shows], probably.

An apartment set from ExpatsBehind the scenes of 'Expats'Yong Ok Lee/Prime Video

NFS: You have several sets of characters who inhabit their own spaces in this show. How did you distinguish between the different apartments, for instance?

Yong Ok Lee: There's basically three apartments: Margaret's apartment, Hilary's apartment, and Mercy's apartment. And Margaret and Hilary's apartment [are] technically same building, same apartment building, so they're just different units. Their apartment should share all the material and then the design.

Those apartments represent the way [I] see foreign expat population in Hong Kong, so I want to make sure we show that world. But besides that, I also want to make sure Margaret's apartment has her own character. It reflects her artistic side ... but also practical with three kids.

And Hilary, she doesn't have kids, and then she probably lived in Hong Kong longer than Margaret, so she's willing to probably repaint the entire apartment with her skin tone. We want to make her apartment really belong to her, so we did camera tests with a different color, and then we chose the best color for her skin, kind of a similar tone.

And then I want to paint the entire space with her color except Puri's, the immigrant worker's, space. And also Hilary herself, I think she has lots of social masks, and her home is the only place that she can be comfortable, so I want to reflect that character a little bit on the set.

Those two apartments [were] designed that way, but Mercy's apartment is a tiny Hong Kong apartment, and probably the landlord divided the one space [into] two, three, or four units of apartments, so her layout is a little unit.

She has a long, narrow way and then [an] old kitchen. And then, in order to go to her bedroom, she needs to walk through the bathroom. That's her apartment layout, which could make sense because it's very common in Hong Kong. ... That's the logic to design for Mercy, but Mercy's apartment, I also want to show a little bit [Wong] Kar-wai-style romanticism. ... And lots of Hong Kong spaces, especially old spaces, reminds me [of] his movies.

So I want to make a little hint of how I style Hong Kong romanticism on her space with broken tile and then little funky color tiles. And also, [those] broken tiles show her lost soul. There are lots of details I kind of add up to show their character, so that's my design process.

The night market set in ExpatsBehind the scenes of 'Expats'Yong Ok Lee/Prime Video

NFS: The night market is a very busy space, so I'm interested in any work that you had to do there.

Yong Ok Lee: The night market, we shot in a Hong Kong location. A real market, but it wasn't a tourist night market. It was the market more like Hong Kong local people go and then buy household stuff. Not really interesting stuff, decoration stuff.

So even though it's not so rare, we wanted to dress it in more vibrant colors and then different items, not only household items. So a mix, and then we add lots of umbrellas, like a parasol on top, because I know we have a shot from the bird's-eye shot.

I want to make sure this color and then not too busy and crowded. And then also, the night market is the moment they lost Gus, so it shouldn't be busy. And then a little bit like a narrow space and with lots of people. And then even all the stuff in the market like toys and everything, kind of busy enough.

So we dressed the entire market, we blocked the real market and then dressed it. And unfortunately, we couldn't finish in Hong Kong, so I needed to recreate the set in LA, as well. But that was the goal, to make it busier but interesting, more attractive to the people like expats. Otherwise, they don't want to go there.

NFS: You mentioned having to rebuild that set, and I think there were a couple of others. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Yong Ok Lee: Yeah, I mean, we did a lot. Originally we had planned to build both Hilary's apartment and Margaret's apartment in Hong Kong. So when I designed the set, because I knew we cannot build two different apartments, after we finished Hilary's apartment, I have to reuse that apartment [for] Margaret's.

So I designed the apartment set, something very easy to modify from Hilary's to Margaret's, because Margaret's apartment is supposed to have more room for kids and a little bit bigger scaffold. And then also the apartment hallway, too.

So we built Hilary and Hilary's apartment hallway in Hong Kong, and we ended up, [we] couldn't build in Hong Kong, so we have to build Margaret's [apartment] and then Margaret's hallway in LA.

Which was really difficult because when we were in Hong Kong, we used all real materials like marble and tile and everything because it's much cheaper ... because everything came from China at that time.

But when I went to LA, there's no way I can get real material because it's super expensive. So we recreate all the material because it's supposed to be the same looking, so it was a real big challenge.

And then also the noodle shop where Margaret and Hilary are dancing, that noodle shop, also we built in LA and then we shot the exterior only Hong Kong and then the noodle shop was in LA.

And there's one more. I did several set [builds] in LA, but there's one more big set ... Margaret is going to the her secret studio, the metal door is there. That was also built in LA, because that is actually [a] real location in Hong Kong, but there's no way we can shoot there under a pandemic, so we couldn't shoot there. And then Lulu really, really wants that space, so I recreated [it] in LA, that space. That was a big challenge.

Expats set designBehind the scenes of 'Expats'Yong Ok Lee/Prime Video

NFS: For people wanting to get into the art department or production design, do you have any advice for where they should start?

Yong Ok Lee: I don't have really an answer [to] this, because my experience is very different. I didn't graduate art school, and I didn't start in fine art. I actually worked in the fashion industry for a while before I worked [in the] film industry. And then I started my career as an art director in Korea, which is very rare. So everyone has different paths, their way to go into.

My only advice is just if they really want to be an art director or a production designer, just be ready. And then work hard. There's no other way, there's no shortcut, basically. But I cannot compare. Everybody has it their own way to go there, their goal. And my case is different, my friend's case different, so there's no answer to that.

NFS: Is there anything else you wanted to mention about your work that I didn't ask about?

Yong Ok Lee: There's one set I want to talk about, which is a picnic set. ... Episode five, there's a big, big picnic set, which is the immigrant workers. Filipino workers have a day off, and then they go out on Sunday and then picnic. And then we didn't build, but we dressed two, three blocks of location with tons of people, and then tons of stuff to recreate their picnic. And then also with umbrellas. And it was a really big deal for us because at that time it was still COVID, so everybody [was wearing] the masks ...

Fortunately, at the time in Hong Kong it was kind of a bubble because they quarantined. I quarantined at least two months in Hong Kong, three weeks every single time when I went to Hong Kong. But once you get quarantined, there's only one or two cases of COVID in Hong Kong, so it was very safe at the time in Hong Kong.

We were able to create our set with all the stuff, and then [it was] rainy, and it's just a crazy amount of work. And then my set creator, Lauren [Richards], she really recreated all detail with her crew, and I think the set looks really believable.