Before production got underway on Apple TV+’s “Silo” in 2021, creator Graham Yost’s inbox was a constant barrage of questions.
“I would get 50 emails a day from production design and set dec and costuming with questions about the logic of what would be in a silo,” the creator tells Variety.
Who can blame them? The challenge put upon the production top to bottom was a heavy lift. The ambitious series adapts Hugh Howey’s wildly popular book series about a massive, underground silo structure housing the last 10,000 people on Earth. Inside, the residents know nothing of the world above, only the daily work needed to keep the silo functioning. Outside, something happened that made the surface above them uninhabitable, and their only view of that wasteland is a static live shot of a tree weathering the aftermath.
The story follows Juliette (Rebecca Ferguson), a mechanic tending to the silo’s engine who finds herself promoted to sheriff amidst a rash of violence that draws questions about the true nature of the enclosure and the motives of its authority figures. The 10-episode first season aired this summer while the cast and crew started production on Season 2 in London — the shoot is on hiatus until the resolution of the SAG-AFTRA strike.
But before a single frame was ever shot on the series, Yost says he and executive producer/director Morten Tyldum spent the isolation of the COVID pandemic working with every department from Los Angeles to London to cohesively create the look of the silo because, more than anything, the sense of place had to sell the story.
In time, Yost started to recognize the results.
“Within two months, I got maybe one email a day because everyone came to know what the ‘Silo’ world meant and looked like, and what was possible,” Yost says. “That was very cool. People got it.”
Tyldum says there was even a phrase for that collective vision. “It was almost like, when everyone hammered down and got the aesthetic, that’s when you got that silo feeling,” he says. “It really is a very specific feeling.”
They aren’t kidding about the specificity put into the ever-dominant location. The series has to walk a very fine line between two genres — a futuristic sci-fi adventure and a historical relic of its own past, i.e., our present. The silo is more than 300 years old by the time the series begins, and yet its inhabitants have no knowledge of the human history or natural world before their ancestors settled in.
“This is a society without a history and I found that interesting,” Tyldum says. “What if you take away all of our basic knowledge? They don’t even know what the sky is or the stars are. All of that is taken away and you have to build a society out of that, but it still has to follow certain rules. It is almost like a cult in many ways. It is a very interesting psychological experiment. You have to feel the history in this. It should feel weighted. It should feel old, like it’s been lived in. And yet, it is modern because this is 700 years in our future.”
That’s where production designer Gavin Bocquet and his team took the reins. Their work began with the silo itself, which needed to carry the familiarity of Howey’s literary creation while also being the visual vessel in which the entire show could exist — at least in Season 1. In the season finale, Juliette is banished outside the sanctuary and ventures beyond their limited world-view only to discover their silo is surrounded by many more.
“I wanted everything to be rounded,” Tyldum says. “There are 50 of these silos and if you are making this many, you need to have building blocks. You have to make everything so that it is going to fit into a hole, so everything is rounded and that becomes an aesthetic. There are no corners, there are no sharp edges anywhere. It is interesting because it becomes emblematic of a DNA strand.”
With that shell to live in, the all-stage series filmed on immersive practical sets, accentuated by blue screen VFX. Among the built sets are the massive cafeteria, the sheriff’s station, the IT bullpen, the marketplace, the generator room and, of course, the spiral staircase that serves as the silo’s central nervous system.
“In some cases, we had 360-degree sets,” Tyldum says. “On the biggest set we had, you could walk up the spiral steps, out and into an alleyway, and then down another alleyway. It is pretty incredible.”
Those alleyways, which often led to the residential portions of the silo, were directly inspired by the old city of Barcelona, which the creators liked for its small, narrow alleyways that grew in into complex mazes to accommodate the needs of its residents.
Whether it was the sheriff’s office or the cafeteria, Tyldum says they wanted each space to look familiar and yet like a version of that space that audiences had never seen before. To give all of it the heft it needed, Bocquet laced in acknowledgments of the history of the silo. One simple but effective design choice: adding cracks in the walls to show the centuries of use it has endured. In fact, a lot of the silo’s aesthetic was inspired by images of the Great Depression in the 1930s, down to the way people were dressed.
“I didn’t want to see anyone on the set that you could walk out the door and recognize on the streets today,” Tyldum says. “We wanted that balance of something extremely relatable but also
Physically and narratively building out the world was one thing, but the creative team also faced the challenge of never feeling boxed in by a silo that wasn’t getting any bigger. This finite world must remain open to exploration so audiences will be invested enough to wonder what’s around every corner.
“This place can really quickly feel repetitive and small,” Tyldum says. “We need to have movement on a different level than what you would usually do. We need to see places and have new discoveries, and you need to get a sense of wonder. That is going to be incredibly important to leading people because this is an adventure after all.”
That sense of wonder leads Juliette to discover a new place that wasn’t in Howey’s books. The digger void is at the bottom of the silo where the drill that first dug the hole was left to slumber once its job was complete. The origin behind the new space was Yost’s insistence there be another visually mysterious location that complimented the many unknowns of the silo.
“I said I wanted another vast space where you get a sense of openness because, otherwise, it can get claustrophobic,” he says. “When we, as the writers room, told Hugh about that idea, he
just loved it.”
It was those moments when Yost knew they could be good stewards of the world built by Howey, who was a fixture in the early mini writers room and serves as an executive producer on the series. In that way, Howey served a similar purpose to Yost’s cluttered pre-production inbox — fielding questions until the hive mind took over.
“There came a time when we, as writers, had stopped asking Hugh questions because we were answering them ourselves,” Yost says.
In other words, they finally found that silo feeling.