Did you know that almost everything you see in a comedy or drama on television is an optical illusion?
Like if you’re watching Showtime’s hit series, WEEDS, and the scene on your screen is a home interior with sunlight shining through a window and a street of trees and cars outside, you can be sure that virtually none of what you are seeing is totally real.
According to Michael Straumietis, who was a set consultant for WEEDS Season Two which is airing now on Showtime, Hollywood set designers and visual experts go to great lengths to fool your eyes and make you think that what you are seeing is real.
“Almost everything you see on a television show such as a dramedy or sitcom was created or manipulated by visual arts technicians,” he said. “The ‘sunlight’ you see through a living room window: it’s actually a huge light on the set, with the color and brightness of sunlight dialed in by technicians. You see a living room and it looks like they filmed it in someone’s home, but actually every light, color, carpet, decoration and piece of furniture has been gone over by multiple technicians, artists and designers. Even the shadows have been programmed by someone!”
Straumietis didn’t go to film school or other training to be a set consultant. He ended up designing a crucial part of this season’s WEEDS set by way of his hydroponics company, Advanced Nutrients.
The company, which is located near Vancouver, Canada, was founded six years ago by Straumietis and is the market leader in the worldwide hydroponics plant growth industry.
Advanced Nutrients is known for making the widest range and the highest quality fertilizers and supplements for specialty plants. It has manufacturing and distribution facilities in several countries, and has been lauded for bringing professional manufacturing and marketing procedures into an industry that was previously characterized by amateur approaches to plant nutrition.
The technical and business success of Advanced Nutrients is why WEEDS executive producers and designers chose Straumietis and Advanced Nutrients to help Weeds build a “million dollar” hydroponics grow room for the show’s second season.
The show’s producers wanted a state of the art gardening room that would show viewers how hydroponics experts cultivate plants using strict control over all environmental and nutritional factors.
Because hydroponics plants are rooted in sterile media or water rather than soil, and because most of them are grown indoors under artificial lights, all environmental and nutritional factors can be controlled to maximize growth rate, yield and quality. It’s a lot harder than growing outdoors in soil, but the payoff in yield and quality makes it worthwhile.
Straumietis and Advanced Nutrients introduced the concept of the “sealed grow room” to Canada. Straumietis says that a sealed room’s features are modeled on NASA concepts. NASA and other scientists have long proposed hydroponics gardens on spaceships. The gardens would provide food, of course, but would also recycle air and make new oxygen.
The WEEDS producers wanted a hydroponics room that was technologically accurate but also looked good and could be set up so that it would easily function as a Hollywood set.
“It was in their storyline that they wanted a grower and a room,” Straumietis explained, “but they didn’t know how to make it real. I gave them the list of what equipment they’d need, how to make it authentic, how to wire it and make it run. I put in some very long days, like 12 to 15 hours. I found out it’s not glamorous to make a Hollywood show. They work damned hard. It’s a lot of science, a lot of art. When you see something on a television or movie screen, you’re seeing a lot of hard work and a lot of art. It’s a miracle that these shows get produced.”
Showtime’s WEEDS is a controversial show that focuses on a character named Nancy Botwin, who is vividly portrayed by actress Mary Louise Parker.
Botwin is a single mother living in a gated California community. The sudden death of her husband plunges her into a personal and financial crisis. She decides to sell marijuana for a living. This allows the show to explore the marijuana subculture of Southern California.
According to an article in the Summer, 2006 issue of “Set Décor” magazine, WEEDS set designers have done an exemplary job of creating the urban, suburban and grow room sets for the show’s second seasons. Set Décor is a top-ranked Hollywood trade journal that focuses on how Hollywood artists and designers create sets for shows and movies.
The official name for the set featuring the hydroponics operation that Straumietis designed for WEEDS is “The Growhouse.”
This name reflects the fact that the set is more than just a room where plants are grown. It also features other real-life factors that would be present in a home where commercial quantities of marijuana are grown. These factors include a “drying room” where fresh marijuana flowers are carefully “cured” in ways similar to how fresh tobacco leaves are cured and dried for packing and use. It also includes a kitchen stocked with munchies and roach clips.
WEEDS set designer Julie Bolder credits Straumietis as being the primary person who helped WEEDS make The Growhouse set.
“My primary technical consultant for The Growhouse was Mike Straumietis and the rest of the guys at Advanced Nutrients,” she explained in the article. “[They] provided all the equipment needed and helped us through every step of making a successful hydroponics growhouse that produces amazing product. ‘Bigger Bud, Less Stem, you know?”
Of course, Straumietis is quick to point out that his company only designs products for legal uses and that WEEDS had to consult with other “experts” to find out about the clandestine marijuana industry that the show wanted to depict.
According to Set Décor magazine, Bolder explained that these other experts gave the show’s writers and producers deep insight into the marijuana industry.
“We have learned just how widespread growhouses are; they are in every area of Los Angeles,” she said. “The windows of these growhouses are heavily draped and boxed with lights on timers to simulate a normal life inside and to hide the intense brightness of the grow lights from outside passers-by. The foyers and entries are kept pristine and well-decorated, in case a door is opened and someone were to catch a glimpse inside.”
Set Décor describes The Growhouse as a “faithful replication.” The grow room has 20 very bright hydroponics lights, each of which contains a 1000 watt bulb. The room, if operating with real plants, could yield six harvests and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of medicine per year.
The show’s dramatic, writing and technical staff were advised about how to adjust light cycles to simulate normal growing patterns, how not to get burned by the ultra-hot lights, and how to provide the right amount of light for filming without burning the fake plants that were specially made for the show.
According to Bolder, each plant was custom-made and shipped from Florida on very short notice by New Image Plants. The company had a challenging job to design realistic-looking cannabis plants, due to the various plant sizes and the differences in how marijuana flowers look and grow during their growth season. Plants had to be made to show each stage of growth from cuttings to fully-grown, to dried-for-sale.
When Set Décor asked Bolder why they grew the plants from cuttings rather than from seeds, she showed insider knowledge of marijuana cultivation: “Cuttings from a mother plant produce plants truer to the strain. It is called ‘cloning.’ Seed-grown can vary from plant to plant.”
In addition to the carefully researched detail and painstakingly created plants, over 600 buds had to be hand-painted in order to accurately represent the plants at various stages of growth, including those that glisten from trichome crystals that shimmer like dew drops. This attention to detail was essential, as Bolder explains it.
“Our Executive Producer Jenji Kohan wanted to make sure our marijuana was ‘magical’ this year,” she said, “and we went through quite an approval process to get the look just as she wanted it!”
The show depicts buds in various stages of growth and in various stages of curing and drying. As you’d expect, none of these were real marijuana plants or buds. As with everything else in WEEDS and in most television shows, what you see on the screen has been totally manufactured so that it only appears to be real!
Set Décor’s writers, who are in the business of professionally evaluating how well Hollywood set designers, decorators and other experts do their job, gave enthusiastic approval for The Growroom and for all the sets used in WEEDS season two.
“The result of the [WEEDS design] team and their respect for research and detail is sets that illustrate how the uncompromising reality of life can meet and mix with the art of the surreal,” the magazine’s writers conclude. “The sets support the show’s ironic contradictions: weeds are not uprooted, as the traditional definition of the word would imply, but instead are cultivated both as organic plants and as the quirky ideas that sprout from the minds of the wonderfully flawed characters.”
Straumietis says that all the other Advanced Nutrients personnel who helped WEEDS are proud of their involvement.
“When Showtime had the season premiere party back in July, the head of the company said that WEEDS could not have made season two what it is- without our help,” Straumietis recalls. “I really enjoyed working on set with these people. They learned fast and they built a perfect garden setting that you could use to grow all kinds of plants using our products. They’ve got our products in the show, because the fertilizers and supplements we make are the best hydroponics products in the world. We’re very gratified to have been selected as the only hydroponics consultants in Hollywood, and also to have been acknowledged by Set Décor magazine.”