- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—Ruth Ammon enjoys the mornings when the film crews start late in the day after filming into the night.

“It gives me time to recharge,” she says. “There is also some time to plan ahead.”

Ammon is the production designer for WGN America’s “Manhattan” — the person responsible for the visual concept of a film, television or theater production. She is in charge of designing the style for sets, locations, graphics, props, lighting, camera angles and costumes, while working with the director and producer.

For “Manhattan,” Ammon, now a New Mexico resident, helped design the sets from existing buildings on the campus of Santa Fe University of Art and Design. Many of the buildings were renovated to fit the style of the 1940s when the Manhattan Project was launched in Los Alamos as the federal government moved scientists to this northern New Mexico town to develop what would become the atomic bomb.

Although located in Los Alamos, the top-secret project was named Manhattan because that’s where its original headquarters and working sites were.

The series is filming its second season and will air on WGN America in October.

Ammon was attracted to the production because it is historical.

“We all have learned about the Manhattan Project,” she says. “It’s part of our culture, and everyone here in New Mexico has a relative or knows someone who worked on the project.”

In prepping for the show, Ammon did months of research and says the process never ends. The research took her to Los Alamos National Laboratory and Los Alamos Historical Society to view photos.

“I was able to see photos that were classified to recreate the labs,” she says. “We had to create the entire city from labs to homes. There were a lot of photos I looked at and a great number of notes taken.”

Ammon also read books about the Trinity site, roughly 50 miles southeast of Socorro, as well as some books about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who led the Manhattan Project.

“I had to immerse myself into that world in order to build it up,” she says. “We looked at everything vintage and tried to make it all fit into the world.”

Finding many of the objects was quite a task for Ammon and crew. She often searched eBay for items, but most of them came from prop houses.

Ammon says the props had to run the gamut, too. She had to build an implosion lab, as well as the Think Man unit, where all the technological gadgets had to represent the 1940s.

“Some of the desks we used we got from the prop house,” she says. “We’d find the one desk we needed and send it to them for remanufacturing. For me, one of the most glorious experiences on this show is when we’d see the truck come to us from a secret stash place and have some actual items used in the 1940s. This is one of the great things about filming in New Mexico. The history is surrounding us.”

Ammon has made a career out of production design. Aside from “Manhattan,” she was the production designer of the sets for the TV shows “Low Winter Sun,” “12 Monkeys,” “Smash,” “Heroes,” “The Event” and “Weeds.” And for film, she’s designed for “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” “Monument Ave.,” “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and “Who’s the Man?”

While she enjoys working in both mediums, she really likes to always be doing something different.

“With film you have more time to plan and there’s an end point,” she says. “With ‘Manhattan,’ the series is written like a film, and I treat it that way. I have to think quickly and make miracles happen on a daily basis. It’s challenging because this is a world event that people know about. We’re trying to keep this as authentic as we can while telling a compelling story.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Assistant Arts Editor Adrian Gomez can be reached at [email protected]


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