The Madames chat with Chikako Suzuki, Emmy-winning art director on Marvel’s WandaVision.

Chikako’s previous work for Marvel includes Runaways and Agent Carter. She’s worked on other female-centric shows including Dollface and Medium. In 2014, she became the first Japanese person to win an Emmy for art direction for the series House of Lies

She is a graduate of San Francisco University in Theater Arts and earned an M.F.A. in Scene Design from the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama.

Chikako Suzuki

Chikako Suzuki: Website IMDB Twitter Instagram

To hear more about Chikako’s work on WandaVision, check out our full commentary series.

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Here’s the full transcript:

Madame Kris:
Welcome to another installment of Studio Sessions with the Madames. 

Madame Amy:
Today we’re talking with a true pioneer in television. She’s the first Japanese person to win an Emmy for art direction.

Madame Kris:
You’ve seen her work on female-driven shows like Dollface, The Mindy Project, and Agent Carter. Most recently, she served as the art director on the masterpiece that is WandaVision.

Madame Amy:
Welcome to the show, Chikako Suzuki.

Chikako:
Hello. Thank you for having me.

Madame Amy:
Thank you for joining us.

Chikako:
No problem. Thank you.

Madame Kris:
This is a great way, we felt, to really wrap up WandaVision. It’s kind of like decompression meets therapy meets behind the scenes.

Madame Amy:
So Chikako, can you give our listeners a quick primer on what an art director does?

Chikako:
Well basically, the production designer designs the whole vision. And we, the art directors, bring the vision to reality. That means we actually work with the set designers who draw sets and then bring that drawing to a 3-D model or something else. And then we’ll bring it to construction and start building stuff. So the production designer has the big ideas, and then we break down those big ideas into small parts and then make things real. That’s what we do.

Madame Amy:
Okay.

Madame Kris:
We understand that you actually stumbled upon your field when you were pursuing your BA in theater, because the costume class you actually wanted to take was full. Is that true?

Chikako:
Yes, that’s true. That’s so true.

Madame Kris:
So what did you discover in that set design class that really hooked you?

Chikako:
Well, I just had a great professor there and he just inspired me. I always liked drawing and building things since I was a child, but at that point it was more drawing for makeup and costumes. But this professor, John Wilson, just brought something out from me and something clicked. I just enjoyed his classes and I just enjoyed designing spaces.

Madame Amy:
Yeah. Having a good professor can really change your outlook on certain things.

Chikako:
I think so.

Madame Amy:
Yeah. How would you say your Japanese roots have inspired your work and what films and shows have influenced you the most?

Chikako:
You know what? That’s a good question because while I’m working, I don’t really think that I’m Japanese, you know? I never get jobs because I’m Japanese, that kind of thing. The only thing that happened to me in my career – do you guys know Akira? It’s from comic books.

Madame Amy:
Yes. We’ve heard of it.

Madame Kris:
Yes, my husband loves it.

Chikako:
Oh really? So, Warner Bros. – they were supposed to make Akira, the live version of it. So then they called me to art direct. So that was the only time I was picked just because I am Japanese, but other than that, I was never really hired just because I’m Japanese. So when I’m working, I don’t really think that I’m Japanese. So I really don’t know if my roots have something to do with my work. Of course there are great Japanese films and stuff, but I was always influenced by more Western stuff.

Madame Kris:
Interesting.

Chikako:
Yeah. That was the whole reason I went to the U.S. to study.

Madame Kris:
Were there particular movies and shows that as a kid you saw and were just awed by?

Chikako:
Yeah. Like Back to the Future. And then maybe it has something to do with the Japanese part – I love The Karate Kid.

Madame Kris:
Really?

Chikako:
Yeah.

Madame Kris:
So we have Ralph Macchio to thank for WandaVision is what you’re telling us?

Chikako:
Yeah. (laughs)

Madame Kris:
Well, and it’s so funny to see the way WandaVision has gone around the globe and become so popular in so many cultures. And it’s funny you say Back to the Future, because that movie was one of the first films that did the same thing really, just got around the world and spoke to people in different ways. And you know what? That movie is as bonkers as WandaVision when you really think about it.

Chikako:
Yeah. And then maybe another movie is Star Wars. That was big in Japan when I was a kid.

Madame Amy:
Yeah. I think that was big globally, everywhere.

Madame Kris:
So you’ve worked on a number of shows that center around strong women, like Dollface and Medium. We mentioned Agent Carter earlier. Is your interest in telling women’s stories part of what drew you to WandaVision?

Chikako:
I think it’s just a coincidence. I never really thought about it til you said it to me. It’s very interesting. I never thought about it, but it is true. Strong women. But you know what, the funny thing is that when there is a story about strong women, the art department tends to be a women’s art department.

Madame Kris:
Well, we certainly noticed that with WandVision – behind the scenes, women galore. And we absolutely loved it, from the writing staff to the production team. Everyone.

Chikako:
Yeah. I thought it was great.

Madame Kris:
Had you experienced that before?

Chikako:
Not for the whole production. Sometimes I walk into the art department with a bunch of women, but when you go outside of the art department, it’s kind of a men’s world. But WandaVision? There were lots of women. Wherever I went, there were women. So it was kind of good in a way and different. I saw that the industry is changing.

Madame Kris:
Absolutely.

Chikako:
Yeah.

Madame Kris:
Yeah. And Marvel is really taking the lead on that, which is nice.

Madame Amy:
Speaking of Marvel, you worked on Marvel’s Runaways and Agent Carter prior to WandaVision. What do you think made WandaVision different from those other Marvel shows?

Chikako:
Other shows were shot as episodic. But with WandaVision, I was told at the beginning this show’s going to be shot like a long movie, a six-hour movie.

Madame Amy:
Right. Right.

Chikako:
So the shooting style was really different. We always had Matt Shakman as a director from beginning to the end.

Madame Kris:
Right, Right. Big difference there.

Chikako:
Yeah. There was a big difference. It’s like making a huge movie. So everything was big – big art department, big art budget, lots of sets. It was a different situation compared to other shows.

Madame Amy:
And in terms of timeline, would you say that it was more rushed or less rushed because it was shot like a movie?

Chikako:
It depends. It depends just because we had the COVID lockdown. That kind of changed things.

Madame Amy:
Right. Yeah.

Chikako:
Yeah. And then the weather was challenging because we shot the first part in Atlanta. The weather in Atlanta is totally different from the weather in Los Angeles.

Madame Kris:
Oh, it certainly is. Were you melting?

Chikako:
No, we were not melting. But It rained a lot and, of course, it got colder there much earlier than L.A. so that was tough.

Madame Amy:
Yeah, I’m sure. So the sets were in L.A., but the outside scenes were done in Atlanta?

Chikako:
Well, actually, we built some stuff at the stages in Atlanta. So all that sitcom stuff was shot in Atlanta. And then we came back for Westview exteriors and shot town stuff. And around Wanda and Vision’s house, those were shot in L.A.

Madame Amy:
And I just, in fact, saw Marvel’s Assembled, the documentary on the making of WandaVision. And they mentioned that for the the live studio audience, they even had era appropriate chairs for the audience.

Chikako:
Yes, we did.

Madame Amy:
So you changed that for every episode?

Chikako:
We didn’t have an audience for all the decades.

Madame Kris:
Right. Just episode one.

Chikako:
Yeah.

Madame Amy:
I see. Okay.

Chikako:
But for that scene we did build the audience risers and then we chose the right look for that chair and stuff.

Madame Amy:
Ok.

Madame Kris:
The detail was just absolutely incredible.

Chikako:
Thank you.

Madame Kris:
We couldn’t believe it watching each week. So how did shooting in COVID conditions affect your work and the artistic choices you had to make?

Chikako:
Not so much for the artistic choices, but obviously it was a big change for the whole crew. We had to take PCR. We had to get tested like three times in a week.

Madame Amy:
Oh wow.

Chikako:
Yeah. And then we had to take our temperature every day and get wristbands and, of course, wearing masks and the face shield. That was a whole new thing for us. And then all the catering changed and the crafts side was changed.

Madame Amy:
Right.

Chikako:
Yeah, new things we had to get used to, but no one got COVID during the shoot, which was great.

Madame Amy:
Yeah, that’s good.

Chikako:
So yeah, there were changes and challenges – small challenges at the set, but not so much for design choices, I think.

Madame Amy:
Did it affect your timelines in terms of turnover for the various episodes? How to make changes for the sets and things like that?

Chikako:
We had to change locations because of the lockdown.

Madame Amy:
Okay.

Chikako:
So that was the biggest challenge for the art department because originally we designed something for a different location, whole things, but then we lost the location. So we had to modify designs for the new location. So that was kind of a rush.

Madame Kris:
I will say this, as somebody who was born and raised actually in New Jersey, I’m glad you didn’t have to actually go there. As I’ve explained to Amy, it’s not a place you go to. And Wanda’s learned this now as well. It’s not a place you go to, it’s a place you go through. (laughs)

Madame Amy:
We know that typically the production design team on a show builds the atmosphere of the script, but WandaVision is a really unique show. So was choosing the sitcoms by decade a more collaborative effort between you and the writers?

Chikako:
Yeah, definitely. There was a collaborative effort between the art department, director, writers, and producers. So we looked into all the popular sitcoms for the decade and we picked parts from those sitcoms. And then we modified the designs, of course, to fit that to our story.

Madame Kris:
So how did you go about choosing those? For instance, did you work with the actors at all and take a look at their particular strengths as actors and match that up in any way with certain characters? Because looking at Paul Bettany’s performance in that first episode and Elizabeth Olsen, they nailed Dick Van Dyke. They nailed Lucille Ball. They were amazing. So how much did that factor in – their own skills?

Chikako:
Well, as you know, they’re amazing, right?

Madame Kris:
Yeah.

Chikako:
So we didn’t have to doubt their ability whatsoever, but we did look into Dick Van Dyke for the 50s sets. We did pick some shows to look into. And I don’t know how the actors studied those original series, but there was something we could kind of follow too. And of course, the director, Matt Shakman – he is great. He worked with the actors and made that great show happen.

Madame Amy:
Right.

Chikako:
So we didn’t need to really think about acting or anything like that. We just looked to those popular sitcoms for that decade. And we tried to create the world.

Madame Kris:
I think that’s fantastic because it shows what trust everyone had in the cast to pull this off so seamlessly. What was your history? Did you have any familiarity with American sitcoms throughout the decades?

Chikako:
I did watch some of them in Japan. They were showing Bewitched, Family Ties. Family Ties was actually big. I remember watching those, but it’s not a big thing in Japan. But there are some sitcoms from the U.S. broadcast there.

Madame Amy:
So would it be safe to say that this would be your first time working for something knowing that it would be black and white?

Chikako:
Actually there is something else I worked on and it was black and white.

Madame Amy:
Okay.

Chikako:
I forget, but I have done it before.

Madame Amy:
Okay. So how different is it for you knowing that the set is going to be showing in black and white versus color? And what other type of changes did you need to make in order to do that?

Chikako:
So for this show, we really got picky about color choices, especially for black and white. When you look through black and white cameras, things are kind of different. If you’re looking at red in real life, when you look through that black and white camera, it’s different. If you look at those black and white sets with your real eyes, the color is a little bit off in a way.

Madame Amy:
Yeah they do.

Chikako:
You wouldn’t pick those colors in real life. But just because we are shooting it through black and white, we had to pick this color or this shade, or this kind of thing.

Madame Amy:
Right. Like how Vision was blue rather than red.

Chikako:
Yeah, exactly. That kind of thing.

Madame Amy:
Right. And from what I saw in the documentary, it was a lot of pastel colors. So that was intentional because of the black and white?

Chikako:
Yeah. And then we normally make like color boards or color samples. It’s like a two by two sheet and then we just paint the color. We had so many boards in our office. I had never seen that many color samples.

Madame Amy:
Yeah. For each decade you need to have a different palette.

Chikako:
Yeah. And even the 70s set – that was technicolor, so it’s different from what we normally see. That was another tricky thing.

Madame Amy:
So how was that different, technicolor versus regular color today?

Chikako:
So just like how you see it through the camera, it just shows up differently, because the lenses are different. So again, we have the same kinds of colors, but just a little different shades. We had so many samples like that. And then we looked through the technicolor camera and picked this color or that color. So we had a test day, a camera test, and that went on for a long time. It just took us so many hours to pick colors.

Madame Amy:
Right okay. I have a history with graphic design. So for me, you’d say it’s like looking at different colors through different monitors to see how it Iooks.

Chikako:
Yeah, just like that.

Madame Amy:
Right. Okay.

Madame Kris:
Episode two was amazing. When the show transformed at the very end from black and white to color, it was like watching The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy first gets into Oz. It was just incredible to have that all again, despite living in 2021 and normally watching things in color. It was just masterfully done.

Chikako:
The editing team was great too. I don’t normally watch the shows I worked on. But everyone has told me about WandaVision and that I should watch it. And I watched it and I was like, “Oh my god, they did such a great job!”

Madame Amy:
Yeah because by the end of it, you’re tired of working on everything. You just don’t want to touch it anymore.

Chikako:
Yeah, I get burned out.

Madame Kris:
We understand. We burned out just from watching it, so I totally get it.

Madame Amy:
Do you have the same overall objective for production design for the entire show or was it more thematic because of the various decades?

Chikako:
Of course the same theme for the decade, because there were real sitcoms we kind of followed. So there’s something for each decade. And then it becomes MCU world, which is totally different. So there are some themes for every decade or every world, I should say.

Madame Kris:
So in terms of set design and costumes, which set the tone for the other? Or was that more of a simultaneous collaboration?

Chikako:
Simultaneous collaboration for sure. And I think the costume team did a wonderful job, too. Each decade the actors showed up with those costumes and wigs and we were like “Oh my god, it’s great.” It’s always fun to watch what they come up with.

Madame Kris:
Mayes Rubeo did the costumes, correct?

Chikako:
I think so, yeah.

Madame Kris:
She’s a Marvel veteran.

Chikako:
Yeah she’s wonderful. I think it was the 80s stuff; we were totally laughing when Paul showed up on set,. I’m like, “Oh my god.”

Madame Kris:
Yeah he definitely suffered costume-wise. I give him a lot of credit for his Mexican wrestler outfit.

Madame Amy:
And give Elizabeth Olsen credit for seeming like she’s utterly in love with him when he looks as ridiculous as he does.

Madame Kris:
Very true.

Chikako:
Yeah.

Madame Amy:
In terms of the sets and the aspect ratios for the various decades, they kept changing. How much did you have to keep that in mind while working on the sets and all those various little knickknacks that are there on set?

Chikako:
We didn’t really need to think about aspect ratio for those things. For the 60s we had four walls, but the 50s we did differently, because we had only three walls on that set. So we didn’t really need to think about it.

Madame Kris:
It’s funny you mentioned the walls. You guys had us losing our minds with those walls and the layout of that house.

Madame Amy:
You know, now that we have her, we should get all the secrets out. (laughs) So what was the process for the layering of the show in terms of just the base production design and putting in all those Easter eggs?

Chikako:
It was just a collaborative effort by the art department and set decoration department and, of course, construction. We had so many people put their hands on those sets. And in set decoration too, I’m sure it was a real challenge for them to look for those periods’ furniture too, and appliances. Especially being on location, things are different from L.A. because in Los Angeles there are prop houses that cater to historical stuff. So it’s easier for us to find things. But in Atlanta, you actually have to go to antiques stores or order stuff from eBay, so it seems somewhat challenging.

Madame Kris:
Yeah and Atlanta seems to be really turning into a production hub, especially for Marvel.

Chikako:
Yes. When we were shooting, there were two other shows for Marvel at the same studio.

Madame Amy:
Oh, okay.

Madame Kris:
And were those The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki?

Chikako:
Yes.

Madame Kris:
We just took a wild guess.

Chikako:
You guessed it right.

Madame Amy:
I was debating whether I should ask, or are we going to get kicked off right now? (laughs)

Madame Kris:
As far as the Easter eggs and everything, we just have to applaud the incredible nerd dedication that went into this show. Off the charts.

Chikako:
Of course, Marvel, they know more about it than I do. They catch things that I didn’t know about. Of course we talked about it, but the Marvel world is just so deep. It’s so big. And of course, we did some research, like, watching previous movies and things. But we didn’t have time to read all the comic books.

Madame Kris:
Yeah that’s impossible.

Madame Amy:
So did you read some or any at all?

Chikako:
Comic books I didn’t get to read. I did some internet searches. That’s about it.

Madame Kris:
What was your favorite decade or sitcom style to recreate?

Chikako:
Because I was assigned to it, I did enjoy the 70s Brady Bunch kind of thing. That set I enjoyed building and the exteriors to go with it.

Madame Kris:
Do you have anything to do with the boots that were on the show? We’ve got to mention the boots. Elizabeth Olsen’s boots, Katherine Hahn’s boots. Everybody had amazing boots and that’s one of the ways we knew so many women were involved in this show.

Chikako:
I guess that’s the costume department. (laughs) They did wonderful work.

Madame Amy:
Yeah, they did. Absolutely.

Chikako:
Yeah.

Madame Kris:
Everything just blended so well right down to the kids’ overalls.

Chikako:
Yeah. Costuming on the show is amazing.

Madame Amy:
Yeah. And they certainly have the budget for it for all those decades. And you don’t see anything being repurposed anywhere.

Chikako:
I think they got some vintage clothes from vintage stores and things. My office wasn’t close to the costume department office, so I don’t know what was going on in the department. But whenever I saw those costumes on set I’m like, “Oh wow!” Especially because I wanted to be a costume designer. I was admiring it, looking at those costumes.

Madame Amy:
So Chikako, do you have any upcoming projects you can tell our listeners about?

Chikako:
I can’t really talk about it now, but I am about to jump on something tomorrow.

Madame Kris:
Wow. Okay. Well then we extra appreciate you joining us now. So we know you are also an active environmental activist. Are there any philanthropic causes that you’d like to shine a light on today ?

Chikako:
Environmental stuff, definitely. That’s what I am interested in. I was in L.A. planting trees at the park and things. Global warming – that really scares me. Now I’m in Tokyo and they’re talking about cherry blossoms starting to bloom. And those dates are getting earlier and earlier every year. And that means global warming is happening. And of course there are big earthquakes and typhoon hurricanes and things. So that really worries me. And I don’t know what I can do about it by myself, but I try to be really cautious about recycling and just try to live sustainably. So yeah, definitely ,that’s something I care about and I wish I could do more to solve the problem.

Madame Kris:
You’re not alone. A lot of us definitely feel that way.

Chikako:
Yeah. That’s good. That’s good.

Madame Kris:
All right, Chikako Suzuki. Thank you so much for being here. We wish you all the best on your mysterious upcoming project.

Chikako:
Maybe I can talk about it someday. (laughs)

Madame Kris:
Yes. Well, we certainly hope to see you wherever you end up. We hope to see you as part of the Marvel universe again.

Chikako:
Thank you. Thank you.

Madame Amy:
And we would love to have you back again if possible.

Chikako:
Yeah, that’d be great.

Madame Kris:
Where can our listeners find you online?

Chikako:
I have a website: www.ChikakoSuzuki.com. That’s my own homepage. And also I’m on Twitter and Instagram. Twitter – Chikakoart, Instagram – Chikakoart2

Madame Kris:
We understand. We have a love/hate relationship with Instagram. So we’ll be adding those to our show notes so listeners can find you.

Chikako:
All right. Great.

Madame Kris:
So thanks so much.

Chikako:
Thank you. Bye.

Madame Kris:
So now we have a homework assignment for you guys. Go find Ralph Macchio on Twitter, Instagram, wherever he might be folks. And thank him because apparently without Ralph Macchio, there would be no WandaVision. Thanks to all of you for joining us today for our conversation with WandaVision art director, Chikako Suzuki. I’m Madame Kris.

Madame Amy:
And I’m Madame Amy.

Madame Kris:
Join us Wednesday for our regularly scheduled programming, which will be a breakdown of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: Episode Two.

Madame Amy:
In the meantime, follow us on Twitter, Instagram or Tumblr @marvelmadames and visit themarvelousmadames.com, where Infinity Stones are a girl’s best friend.

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