Model Morgue


Though most people probably have never been in a morgue, that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of preconceived notions about what they are like. Cold and depressing spaces, with unflattering fluorescent lighting, right? Depictions in movies and TV, which are the closest many viewers get to the medical examiner's office (think Quincy), have tended to underscore the cliché. So the rather classy setting of Crossing Jordan, the NBC series starring Jill Hennessy as Dr. Jordan Cavanaugh, a compulsively investigatory Boston coroner, may come as a surprise. It's not a “big black hole,” which is how the show's production designer Curtis A. Schnell, characterizes TV morgues of the past.

“My staff toured every coroner's office in southern California,” says Schnell, whose past series credits include The Wonder Years, Space Rangers, and Dark Skies. “There are 10 or 12 of them, and it's surprising how different they are compared to what you would expect. They are much more open, and — I hate to use the word — airy, but they are that, too. That was an enlightening thing.” This discovery gave the art department license not only to create something fresh, but also to facilitate the producers' shooting scheme in good conscience: “We wanted to do something that had a pretty good flow to it, where we could move quite easily around the hallways and get some light going,” Schnell says. “A good example would be the way they move on The West Wing — there's always the capability to get around. ER does that, too.”

For the Crossing Jordan pilot, shot in Spring 2001, a practical location in a downtown Los Angeles building was used. This is a common practice during pilot season, when studio space is at a premium. “We put together about a 6,000-sq.-ft. set on the ninth floor of this building,” says the designer. “The window configurations matched an exterior that we had chosen in Boston. [The LA building] has some huge, beautiful half-round windows in the public hallway — they're 7' tall by 14' long, so pretty big pieces of glass. That allowed us to open up to the outside in a way that was really unusual for the setting.”

“After the shoot, the set couldn't be moved in an effective way, so we started from scratch when it was picked up,” Schnell continues. “The real challenge was, it had to be constructed in four weeks. To put it all together, it was about half a million dollars for construction, and throw in the set dressing and translights and what not, and you're up to about ¾ of a million.” At its current residence, a soundstage at Universal Studios, the show's main set takes up about 10,000 sq. ft. “There was a wish list of rooms to be added onto, and things that I wanted to do from the standpoint of making them much more shootable,” the designer says. “The other thing we didn't have was a good public space, so we added a very large reception area.”

Schnell says one limitation is stage size: “We're a big set on a fairly small stage.” To deal with the space, he adds, “We've hooked all of our wild walls to chain drives, and they actually go up instead of out. Our storage is up in the flies, as opposed to having the grips wrestle the walls off the stage.” The set is also built 3' off the floor, because of the extensive use of translights outside the windows. The translights are supplemented by three-dimensional miniature buildings on casters, and provide a fairly accurate reading of the Boston skyline. Figuring prominently in views out some windows is the Old State House, which is directly across the street from the structure in establishing shots, and “which if you want to say Boston, is certainly one of the principal landmarks.”

The exterior walls of the set fly, too. “We can actually be outside on a camera platform, with the window raised, and travel in and down a hallway, which is kind of an interesting shot,” says Schnell. “The set is designed for the camera to keep flowing.” There are windows throughout the space, not only on the outer walls. “I think we counted about 120 windows in this thing. You can stack up four or five rooms on this set, and see almost 100' deep.” But in the set's more “sensitive” areas (i.e., where the bodies are autopsied), Schnell specified an Italian ribbed glass, which not only looks attractive, but obscures any distractingly grisly views.

“In the front half of the set, we don't have any body work,” says Schnell. “You come into the public area, then into the facility proper, where there are offices, laboratories, and computer spaces — you're still not looking at bodies. Then you work your way back, into the autopsy and trace evidence and crypt areas, which are oriented for a little more juicy stuff. So you can be pretty selective about where you want to have the audience end up, and what you want to have them see.” Though the morgues researched for the show “handle hundreds of bodies at any given time,” the Crossing Jordan load is a bit smaller. “Our freezer units are good for about 30,” the designer says.

He adds that the design of his coroner's office set represents a combination of what his department saw as the most effective aspects of the actual settings. Obviously, there are considerations for camera-friendliness, and much of that has to do with color, and what plays well with the actors. Hennessy, who is supported by a cast that range in skin tones from African-American and Indian to the ruddy Irish coloring of Ken Howard, has dark hair and tan complexion. “The first time I worked with Jill was in Canada, on The Women of Camelot, with Jill playing Jackie,” says Schnell. “I did some color tests, and a lot of the coloration [on Crossing Jordan] is based off of those skin-tone tests.

“We have a gray that we use a lot in the morgue set, on the upper halves of the walls,” Schnell continues. “It's officially called Jordan gray, because of the way it works with her skin so well. We use a lot of tile to identify where we are room-wise, and also just to get some action going as far as color. But the bulk of the color is below the wainscot, from 3' down. Which means that, when you're in fairly close, for a two-shot or a closeup, your background is a neutral gray. But when you're doing long shots, you've got a great deal of color going on — very intense blues and greens and yellows.”

So is Crossing Jordan's morgue, like its magnetic medical examiner, too glamorous to be true? Perhaps it's a bit idealized, Schnell concedes. “There's an LA coroner who is one of our advisors, and when he came on the set he said he wished he had a facility like ours,” the designer says. “We have a lot of stuff he had been wishing for, certain types of space and whatnot.” But hey, this is TV, where even that famously underfunded Chicago emergency room looks fairly snazzy. Plus, Jordan wears nicer clothes than Quincy.