Ocean’s Eleven: Designing the look of Las Vegas, and beyond

Soderbergh recruited numerous alumni from his previous films for the Ocean’s Eleven production team, including production designer Phil Messina, who worked on Traffic and Erin Brockovich, and costume designer Jeffrey Kurland, who collaborated with Soderbergh on Erin Brockovich. More than half of the crew also worked on Traffic and/or Erin Brockovich, and several people have been a part of the director’s core crew dating back to his first productions.

“I explained to Phil and Jeffrey that stylistically, as the movie went on, what I was doing as a director was going to become more and more theatrical, and that they should think in those terms as well,’ Soderbergh explains. ‘I didn’t want the early part of the movie to be too garish and the colors too intense, because we needed to leave ourselves some place to go. I wanted it fairly low-key until we hit Las Vegas. Even then, I wanted the look to be striking and yet not seem like it fell out of a James Bond movie.’

“The color palette for Las Vegas,” says Messina, “loosely stems from the Bellagio. I think of it as Benedict’s two worlds: what he presents to the public versus what it takes to keep an eye on the public. We used lots of warm earth tones, warm reds and yellows. I tried to keep all of the house sets like the Mirador Suite, the art gallery and the cage area in that palette and then move to a cooler palette for the scenes in the back of the house. I tried to establish a dichotomy between the front of the house and the back of the house.”

According to Messina, he designed and had built twenty different sets as well as several partial sets built into existing locations. “One of the biggest sets we built on location was the cashier’s cage on the casino floor of the Bellagio,” he relates. “We needed a way to get from the casino floor into the back of the house. I always had the idea that there should be a cage to afford us that entrance. The hardest part was carving out a space, because if you look around a casino, there is no wasted space. The issue became how to build a set piece on the floor and minimally disturb the hotel guests. It was going to be there for weeks and weeks on end and not be in the way. It was basically a logistical issue and not necessarily about where it was going to look best.

“The Bellagio management carved out an area where we put our cage which was about 80-feet long, floor to ceiling, complete with iron and brass work,” Messina elaborates. “We then added a piece of our hallway onto it so we could bring the guys through that door and onto the casino floor. It was extremely important that we be able to tie that into our set. We wanted to open those doors and have the entire casino floor in view.”

The cage was actually built in Los Angeles and shipped to Las Vegas. “I took elements of the existing cashier’s cage and integrated them into our set,” Messina says. “We had about a dozen technicians, carpenters and electrical staff from the Bellagio help us install it. It became a team effort.”

“Everything that Phil did was based on ideas that we had gotten from touring the real locations,” says Soderbergh. “We just added elements, whether they were design elements or lighting elements that lifted them up slightly above normal.

“I think the Bellagio was really intrigued by the set that Phil built,” the director continues. “Initially, they had wanted to help us build it, which was impossible. But they watched and helped when Phil and his crew were installing the cage and later admitted that they had learned a lot. One of the casino employees said that as they were always retrofitting and adding new elements to the casino floor that they could incorporate some of the practices that our design department was employing. They were really impressed with how well it was built and admitted later that they couldn’t have done it with the level of detail and solidity that Phil had done. I think audiences will just assume that everything we built exists behind the doors of the Bellagio. At least, that’s what you hope for.”

Included in the location filming in Las Vegas were three flashback scenes. “The good thing about the flashbacks,” says Messina, “is that they were contained little snippets. Ken Lavet, our location manager, and I looked in every casino in Las Vegas and it was amazing how few casinos look as though they are from another era.”

The filmmakers settled on the Flamingo Hotel for the 1970s flashback, the Barbary Coast for the 60s and the entrance to Caesar’s Palace for the 1980s. Says Messina: “We found vintage slot machines and tried to cover up or disguise all of the non-period elements that were visible. It was like doing theater ‘ dressing the set on the day and striking it immediately afterwards. It was a bit of a scramble but it was fun.”

“This film,” says Soderbergh, “is exactly the opposite of Traffic, where we basically chose locations we could walk into and not have to dress much. I think for Phil, after Traffic, it was fun for him to design and build so many sets.”

Comments Messina, “In this film, we never see private spaces; the only house we see is Reuben Tishkoff’s. Everything else is hotel rooms and hallways, elevator shafts and other commercial spaces. Early on, Steven and I had the idea that Tishkoff’s house would be the one throwback to the 1950s and 60s because the character is old school. We looked for sweeping, low line, mid-century homes in Las Vegas and discovered that that architecture doesn’t exist there any more. I had a book on modern houses in Palm Springs and that’s where we ended up filming Tishkoff’s house.”

Conceptually, one of the first sets Messina designed was the Bellagio vault. “I knew I wanted to use a lot of metallic finishes and I knew that Steven loves shiny surfaces, reflective surfaces,” the designer says. “But the vault was also the most difficult because it was the most interactive. We had to get a cart inside it and the door had to be a certain way so that story-wise it worked both from the inside and the outside. The vault had to go through two different explosions and come back to being pristine. Also, there were stunts involved so we built the roof so that it completely lifted off on motors and could be raised up.”

In a tip of the hat to Messina, Soderbergh says, “You really do just assume that we shot everything at the Bellagio. I kept forgetting that we had built the Mirador Suite on stage. When I see it in the film, it just seems like one of the hotel’s villas. After a few hours, it was disorienting to be on the set because you don’t realize it’s a set. At one point, my assistant director was sitting on the couch and instinctively picked up the room service menu from the coffee table. You could tell he was looking at it as though ‘What might I order.’ The detail in that set was frightening.”

“Much of the planning had to do with practical lighting,” Messina explains. “We built a lot of practical lighting into our sets. Unlike Traffic and Erin Brockovich, many of our sets were enclosed, confined spaces. After the concept ideas were approved, we did a lot of tests with lights. Having the lighting be built in gives you more freedom to move around the set and look in any direction. The vault is a perfect example. There were not a lot of places to hide lights, so it had to be lit practically.

“Also, we had about 450 running feet of hallways illustrating the back of the house ‘ that part of the Bellagio that only employees see,” Messina continues. “There were ‘count rooms,’ the elevator entrance, the conference room, the break room, the ‘eye in the sky,’ the interrogation room. Instead of building it in bits and pieces, I wanted to build it as one large set, connected by the same hallway. I know how Steven will make use of different opportunities and I knew that if I connected all the hallways he’d film them. And he did shoot many tracking shots where we saw everything at the same time.”

There were two other sets that required a substantial amount of planning. One was for the ‘eye-in-the-sky,’ which is the room where hotel security monitors the activity at all of the gaming tables. According to Messina, “the real ‘eye-in-the-sky,’ is a very utilitarian room. Many of our scenes take place in this room and essentially I knew it would be all about looking at monitors. I wanted to keep the back-ground interesting and give Steven different options for reverses. I designed the set to accommodate Steven’s angles. It kept it alive and interesting to look at scene after scene.”

“Most surveillance rooms are so functional that they are simply not interesting,” comments Soderbergh. “Phil came up with the idea of having it be circular and adding layers to it ‘ glass layers and layers of monitors then a gap and then a wall behind them. It gave it a sense of depth so it didn’t feel like just a closed-off room. We also discussed the practical lighting for this set and Phil did it so that I could basically walk in and shoot.”

As for the monitors, Messina explains that “once again the Bellagio came through for us. They let us tap into their feeds and we taped hours and hours of real surveillance footage. It was then reformatted and mixed and matched up with footage we had shot of our sets. We were only allowed to use shots where you see people’s backs or very high shots of the crowds. We never see anybody specific. It became a scene of contrasts.”

Another element of the film that Messina and his team designed is an apparatus called “the pinch,” which plays a key role in the film’s plot. “This was a character design,” says Messina. “In fact, a pinch really does exist. It’s essentially a particle accelerator and is used to send out an electromagnetic pulse. We did a lot of research early on because we wanted to at least have it be based on reality. We contacted scientists on the Internet and found people who worked with these particle accelerators. We went into chat rooms and basically posed design questions. Then our property master visited a lab in Northern California that had a pinch and he brought back photographs and diagrams. I didn’t want to get too exact because I just wanted to draw from it what was visually interesting.”