‘Her’ Designers Barrett and Storm Talk Creating Warm, Retro Look

'Her' Designers Barrett and Storm Talk Creating Warm, Retro Look
'Her' Designers Barrett and Storm Talk Creating Warm, Retro Look

Turns out that red is not only the warmest color in Spike Jonze’s Oscar-contending “Her,” but that there was no room for blue in this cozy LA of the near future. That’s because the world building was retro rather than futuristic in exploring the conflict between emotion and environment, according to K.K. Barrett and Casey Storm, the director’s longtime production designer and costume designer.

Indeed, this warm and inviting world was central in developing the enchanting love story between Joaquin Phoenix and his OS (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). “In this case, environment and technology were there in providing comfort or in organizing your life and it’s the human condition that gets explored,” suggests Barrett. “One of the great things about Los Angeles is that you can spread out. It wasn’t falling apart. It was easy to get around in. So it made a bit of a contrast. Life can still have its problems even though your surroundings try to make everything wonderful for you.

“China’s the same way and the little bit that we used were mainly exteriors. Everybody clusters in dense cities. I think it’s a very good parallel and Shanghai’s the same age as Los Angeles. We weren’t trying to make a statement about China in shooting some of it there. We just couldn’t find enough variety in Los Angeles to make it unfamiliar yet familiar.” 

Color and light preceded architecture for Barrett, and in working very closely with Storm and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Interstellar,” ” Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), red became the iconic theme that defined the mood. 

“It’s a very powerful color in photographic compositions,” Barrett explains. “We got a little bit drunk in love with it when collecting images and it became an element in his environment and in his wardrobe. Hoyte, who was our Euro DP and allowed us to be more poetic, decided that we shouldn’t have any blue, and I felt we shouldn’t have any blue jeans or sports clothing.  And then, strangely enough, when we got to the poster, it was the same thing: red catches your eye.”

The mood then informed the architecture with wood and glass and lots of curves. There was a playfulness to the interior surroundings. “Light comes on and adjusts as you enter your apartment,” Barrett continues. “It’s different colors at different times. It’s an environment that follows you and wraps around you and takes care of you.”

Phoenix’s office was supposed to be a creative environment, similar to the Google office and some of the ad agencies where it’s free flowing and you’re not forced into a cubicle. It’s a comfort zone for him to get involved in other people’s lives.

Likewise, in designing the device that Phoenix walks around with that the OS sees through and speaks through, Barrett searched for a retro quality, rummaging through an Echo Park antique store with Jonze for inspiration. They found old fountain pens, cigarette cases, and address books, and Barrett came up with a device that looks hand-crafted and tactile.”Because it’s about one character, the other character has to be atmosphere,” he says.

When it came to wardrobes, a similar retro concept informed ideas for organic shapes, textures, palettes, and materials. But it’s a mash-up of individual pieces so it can’t be tied to one period. Colors were red, orange and yellow. 

“Style and fashion in clothing generally looks back to look forward,” Storm offers. “We landed on the concept of a future that became a more personal and unique experience that you could have. There are more options to refine your choices and make it a world you want to live in rather than a fake, uniform world.”

Jonze named Phoenix’s character Theodore after President Roosevelt and so Storm was drawn to high-wasted pants with a tapered leg. Shirts had stripe color blocking and either thin collars or none. In fact, the shirt that Phoenix wears in the poster was Storm’s with the collar chopped off.

“Few actors I’ve worked with can pull off wearing almost everything like Joaquin. It’s an absence of swagger but fits him well. He can wear color really naturally in a way that’s contradictory to the mood that he’s playing.”

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