Already hailed as the “feel-bad” hit of the early summer, the new miniseries Chernobyl has become the highest-rated series in history on IMDB—high praise for such dark, uncompromising work about a deadly catastrophe.
The joint HBO/Sky production recounts in grim detail the April 26, 1986 explosion of reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, an environmental disaster that devastated the surrounding region and helped accelerate the decline of the Soviet Union. The botched reaction to the crisis, and the nuclear and personal fallout from the mounting tragedy, is seen mostly through the eyes of chemist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), and whistleblower nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson).
In addition to excellent performances and immersive storytelling, what has truly captivated viewers is the ability to gain a palpable sense of what life was like in the Soviet Union. A viral Twitter thread by a Russian who grew up in the Soviet Union praised the show as a work of art “more realistic than anything Russians would have ever made about themselves.”
To find out just how filmmakers explored the true meaning of this epochal event, as well as the architecture, design, and art of the late Soviet period, Curbed spoke with production designer Luke Hull and producer Sanne Wohlenberg.
A painstakingly authentic vision of the Soviet ‘80s
The filmmakers tapped into numerous visual references that informed their gritty, dramatized vision of the history of the Chernobyl plant and the nearby Ukrainian town of Pripyat. Hull says two keys influences, Come and See, a brutal 1985 Russian film about fighting in Byelorussia during World War II, and documentary photos of a nickel-smelting plant in the Siberian town of Noralisk, helped shape the uncompromising look of the miniseries—often intense, stunning, and ugly in equal measure.
“Every time we shot a landscape or exterior, it couldn’t be a beautiful field,” says Hull. “There had to be a sign of man destroying nature, something that captured a sense of depletion.”
But the most important source of inspiration was the on-the-ground research conducted by the production team. The staff watched extensive video footage of the event, and scoured Lithuania and Ukraine for props and authentic period costumes, tapping into Ukrainian eBay and Saturday markets in the capital city of Kiev to find old ashtrays, plates, and polyester clothing. The wardrobe department scoured warehouses from Prague to Kiev to find forgotten stocks of Soviet clothing, even going so far as to make new articles of clothing from old fabric discovered in Belarus. In many of these countries, complicated feelings about the Soviet past—some felt resentful and wanted to forget the era, others held onto nostalgia—added to the challenge of souring.
Some of the biggest challenges came with recreating the scientific equipment of the era. Much of the dosimeters and radiological gear were simply custom-made for the shoot. These efforts helped avoid ‘80s pastiche, and ironed out the kind of “Americanisms” that often creep into other Western shows about this era.
“This is a period piece in a way,” says Hull. “Too often, those kind of shows come off too perfectly dressed and designed. Obviously, Chernobyl is designed. But it wasn’t made with any kind of ‘perfect look’ in mind.”
Recreating the look of an area now abandoned and overgrown
Right off the bat, filmmakers knew recreating Pripyat and the Chernobyl plant would be the biggest challenges. The production found many of its answers in Lithuania, where a new film tax credit, and a decommissioned reactor at Ignalina, provided a source for exterior shots of the titular location.
Recreating Pripyat, the now-abandoned town adjacent to the Chernobyl plant where many workers and firefighters lived, proved more challenging. The version seen on screen represents a digital hybrid of different locations, including various places in Kiev and tower blocks in Vilnius, Lithuania’s Fabijoniškės district, which, to the consternation of residents, had its parking lot paved over so the film crew could recreate Pripyat’s park and playground.
One example of the lengths to which the crew went to recreate the look and feel of Pripyat was the mouse statue found in the background of episode 5, which Hull called the “Soviet Mickey.” During a scene in the town of Chernobyl, where Legasov and Shcherbina are talking outside, viewers can spot a garish statue that looks like a poor copy of the Disney character standing outside an abandoned convenience store. Hull says the crew saw images of a similar statue when researching Pripyat; the statue stands in the background of a photo of kids building snowmen on a playground the winter before the accident. Hull says that screenwriter Craig Mazin had it shipped to his home in the U.S. after shooting, where it now stands in his garden.
The unique challenge of rights clearances from a Communist state
The fastidiousness with which the production focused on authentic Soviet props and materials ran into an ironic road block: rights clearances, and the challenge of intellectual property rights from a now-defunct Communist state.
According to Hull, all manner of statues, murals, art, and even the front pages of state-owned newspapers, couldn’t be used by the HBO/Sky team. Statues of Lenin’s head needed to be made from scratch. Maps proved especially challenging. Since the Soviet Union doesn’t exist, and doesn’t have someone to say “yes” to requests to use public artwork or the property of the state, the answer was often no.
For instance, the opening the second episode features a massive mural depicting the peaceful possibilities of atomic power, called “The Friendly Atom,” that graces the exterior of a research facility in Kiev. The only reason the artwork appears was dumb luck; filmmakers randomly met someone who put them in touch with the original artist. Other public artwork, such as the garish carpet mural of a power plant on the wall of a functionary’s office, was an abstract creation by the production crew.
Portraying politics and bureaucracy in design
Chernobyl didn’t merely highlight the horror of the nuclear accident; filmmakers deliberately avoided an action-focused, Die Hard-esque film with “sparks flying everywhere,” says Hull. Instead, the dread of politics and bureaucracy, which created the conditions for the crisis and stymied efforts at recovery, became a focus.
The best examples of these techniques took place in scenes that depict the machinery of government operating at the Kremlin. Hull recreated the Mikhail Gorbachev era of Soviet governance by trying to, in a sense, “visualize bureaucracy.” Scenes within the garishly decorated halls of power, evoked claustrophobia and fear, utilizing bright lights and uncomfortable blocking. Shots within courtrooms and meeting rooms evoked visual hierarchies, using seating arrangements to convey rankings of raw power. During the scenes where the Soviet Politburo debated its response to the Chernobyl explosion, crew pushed the table to the right side of the room, so those sitting behind it felt especially squished-together and uncomfortable.
Hull wanted to shoot in a way that felt off-center, that created the idea of “being trapped in a bubble of politics, and being cut off from the way the rest of the world was moving forward.” Along with the look of late Soviet decay captured by production and design staff, these kind of filming decisions underscore the tagline of the miniseries: “The cost of lies.” The look of Chernobyl shows just how much design, art, and architecture on film can be tools for storytelling, in this case, portraying not just the disaster itself, but the true horror of the Soviet state’s response.