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Behind the Set

Bill Davis

Behind the Set

Q's BY JAKE STUMP
PHOTO PROVIDED

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William Davis watched TV on a sick day at age 5. When he saw the 1933 “King Kong,” he knew what he wanted to do in life. The classic monster movie pioneered the use of special effects, such as stop-motion animation, rear projection and matte painting. It inspired Davis, BFA ’85, Design and Technical Theatre, to produce his own Super 8 movies with dinosaur models and clay. In the 1960s and 1970s, Super 8 was a preferred film format that evoked a gritty, home movie-look. Today Davis is an artistic presence in film and TV with Emmy nominations and credits that include “Stranger Things,” “October Sky,” “Dawson’s Creek” and “One Tree Hill.” He’s currently working on a new “Swamp Thing” TV show that will premiere on the DC Universe streaming service in 2019.

How did you get into TV work?

I always wanted to do special effects. But there wasn’t a major for that. I took art, and after a semester, I was lured over into the theater world. I then realized that maybe I wanted to build worlds and create sets. I liked figuring out special effects, but I didn’t like the execution. The makeup and the blood and the gore – it’s sticky all day long. Everyone knows you’re going to make a mess, and it takes a long time to reset. 

I am indebted to [former theatre professor] Jim Brown with teaching me how to draft and draw architectural designs. It’s a skill not everyone has. It’s demonstrable. That’s the best way in. There’s not that many draftsmen.

How’d you get your foot into the door after college?

Someone mentioned Wilmington, N.C., of all places. It’s actually the second- or third-largest city for TV and film production in the country. I drove down there from Clarksburg, W.Va., and had a job two days later. I came in knowing they had a movie studio so I drove up to the studio gates asking for a job. They were looking for carpenters the day I showed up, and they hired 200 carpenters. So that’s where I started. They’d hire you as long as you could stand for 12 hours a day, regardless of experience or ability. You’d keep working until you got hurt or fired.

I didn’t know how the film business worked at the time, but on the studio lot you can wander around and see how everything operates. And you trick your way into an art department. I did three shows as a carpenter and then became an assistant to a designer. I worked on building sets and drawing.

How were the Christmas lights on “Stranger Things” made?

We built the interior of that set and knew we had to have a lot of control over it. Our prop master gathered the period Christmas lights and took it to the electrician to rewire them. Every strand of lights had to be rewired. We made them computer-controlled so the lights could do all sorts of different things. It was a ton of work. Fortunately, it was not our sole responsibility, but we collaborated on it. It  passed through several hands to get the desired effect. When the light board first lit up, I thought, ‘That’s a really beautiful thing.’ 

Any other memories stand out from “Stranger Things?”

We worked on the Void (the vast dark space that represents Eleven’s mind). It was mostly black space and water. That  set, in person, didn’t seem like it was going to be very good  but the director of photography had a vision and it turned  out stunning. We built it in the dead of winter. We had a 30-by-40-foot tray of water on the floor (to produce an  eerie effect). It was so shallow we couldn’t heat it, so poor Millie Bobby Brown [who plays Eleven] was walking in it  and freezing cold.