“Swarm” goes to great lengths to ground its story about toxic internet fandom within the real world — even when Donald Glover and Janine Naber’s horror-satire exploration turns as wild and conspiratorial as, well, toxic internet fandom. But key to that was creating a pop diva worthy of Dre’s adoration, someone whose career was wide-ranging and lengthy enough to inspire a murderous cross-country road trip in her name. Someone like, say, Beyoncé — but definitely not Beyoncé. In the Prime Video series, it’s Ni’Jah.
The task of creating memorabilia and press coverage for the decades-long multiple Grammy-winning career of a music icon who isn’t not not Beyoncé fell to production designer Sara K White and her props and graphics teams. For a superstar at Ni’Jah’s level, the team needed so much period-specific stuff that generating it all started even before White officially joined the project. “We started [prepping Ni’Jah] at the very beginning,” White told IndieWire. “Even before I was actually on, I was like, ‘OK, we need to compile all of this information and do timelines.'” Tracing a pop artist with a career as long and as influential as Beyoncé’s required a lot of research into how Ni’Jah’s style and star persona developed over time — and how fans treat memorabilia in the real world.
“You look back in the ’90s, and that visual landscape is very different than it is right now. But [Beyoncé] was always at the peak of what was happening,” White said. “So we spent a lot of time going back, researching these elements, making sure that we understood not just the album covers but all of the magazine covers, all of the accouterments that come with being at a concert, especially in a VIP area in a concert. We didn’t necessarily think Dre went as a VIP, but we felt she might be a person who would try to be the last person to leave the concert. And if someone dropped a piece of swag, she was going to grab it.”
Those scavenged keepsakes were a way to visually signal not just Dre’s devotion to her idol but her inability to find the connections she hungers for outside of Ni’Jah super-stans. Dre’s obsession makes her seem out of place wherever she is, and White built that contrast into the sets. When we first meet Dre and her roommate, Marissa (Chloe Bailey), there’s a stark contrast between their bedrooms, with Dre’s walls papered in Ni’Jah swag. Everywhere she goes on her road trip, Dre adds Ni’Jah memorabilia to the walls — a room isn’t really hers unless Ni’Jah (Nirine S. Brown) is there.
That strange and alienating devotion is key to how “Swarm” tells its story. The parasocial lens through which Dre views the world comes through most strongly in Fishback’s performance, aided by production details like the “puke” green walls of Dre’s motel room in Episode 2, which White thought was a fantastic way to visually (and viscerally) comment on the lack of basic physical comfort Dre has in the world. We see it in the scene where Marissa touches up Dre’s makeup for work, where White built a security camera and monitor into the bathroom set. “You’re watching her watch herself, and the audience is seeing it from this double perspective,” White said. “There’s often layering. We’re seeing things through windows a lot and there’s a lot of frame in frame [compositions].”
But production constraints dictated the look of some sequences. In crafting the concert setting in the show’s finale, White and her team balanced Beyoncé’s stage designs with the decidedly not-arena-sized shooting locations. “The area where [Ni’Jah] is entering the concert and then exiting the concert: those were at a pretty standard concert hall rather than a large-scale arena. But we brought in some set dressing elements and the crowds, and just in the way we shot those moments, we made sure that it felt as grand as it needed to,” White said.
“The actual concert itself we shot in this gigantic warehouse. And so we brought in all of the staging elements and worked with the choreographer to define exactly how big this stage needed to be to allow for these dances. We were also, you know, fighting budgets, so it was like, ‘OK, so the frame is gonna be this big. How about we make this stage this big? And just get enough scope to really sell what we’re creating.'”
White wanted to bring to the climactic concert sequence elements that were evocative of Beyoncé, which meant building a stage that could hold the dynamic lighting elements of an arena tour. “We [wanted to create] something that gave us a lot of light and texture and shadows and opportunities to hang these big lights for the concert itself off the structure and give us a dynamic lighting look in the show,” White said.
And just like “Swarm” basing its murders on outlandish real-life events, White and her team made sure that their content could evoke the same feverish enthusiasm as the relics of fandoms do in real life. “It was a really interesting journey to be able to look at the devotion of fans in the real world,” White said. “There are people who specialize in just, ‘These are all of the concert tickets. I’ve been to all of these concerts, and I’m gonna scan them all and put them up.’ It’s amazing.”