It’s hard not to notice the stuff on the Apple+ series “Severance”: the bulky old computers; the Chinese finger traps that mock modern office incentives; the phones that are, for oncenot iPhones.
“We’re doing our job if you don’t notice it,” Catherine Miller, the prop master for the series, said in a phone interview last week. “We’re doing our job right if you’re just following the story and you’re growing attached to the story itself.”
But Ms. Miller has a knack for identifying unforgettably strange objects that help to build onscreen worlds. (In a previous life, she was a professional dancer.) She has worked on productions including “Uncut Gems” (the bedazzled furby was her creation), “Russian Doll” and the upcoming FX limited series “Retreat,” all of them linked by the sense of foreboding they inspire.
“Severance,” likewise, centers on a mysterious company called Lumon, where some employees have undergone elective brain surgery to separate their work selves from who they are off the clock. Most of the show takes place within Lumon’s Macrodata Refinement department, where Mark (Adam Scott), Irving (John Turturro), Dylan (Zach Cherry) and Helly (Britt Lower) spend their days grouping “scary” numbers on vintage monitors for reasons unknown to them.
Lumon’s brightly lit midcentury-style office presents an eerie contrast to the dreary outside world. And the objects within it — including the branded pens and erasers, as well as the crystal cubes laser-engraved with employees’ faces — underscore the entrapment the “severed” workers begin to feel as they learn about the company’s shadowy practices.
“We wanted to curate that world to be slightly off — not fake, slightly off,” Ms. Miller said. Here, she explains her process for sourcing and making some of those items.
Computers and keyboards
At the center of Macrodata Refinement’s spare work space is a diamond-shaped desk that cost more than $100,000 to make. Ms. Miller supplied the hardware and clutter seen on top of it.
To find a vintage computer that would fit the office’s aesthetic, she drove from her home in New Jersey to the Rhode Island Computer Museum to browse through its warehouse. She returned with 13 monitors, including a Commodore and Apple’s original Macintosh, to show the team, including Dan Erickson, the show’s creator, and Ben Stiller, an executive producer.
“Ben gravitated toward the Data General Dasher, which is lower and not as tall of a monitor and terminal and has a swivel ability,” Ms. Miller said.
The Two Sides of ‘Severance’
The sci-fi series on Apple TV+ combines surreal humor and an Orwellian view of office work’s effect on the human psyche.
Her team had to fabricate four replicas of the computer and wire the monitors so they could display images. The accompanying keyboards feature an Easter egg that Ms. Miller said has become “Reddit lore.”
“The keyboard doesn’t have an escape key on purpose because the people down there on the severed floor can’t ever escape,” she said. “It’s subconsciously creating and supporting the world that our story is living in.”
Lumon employees receive awards upon completing tasks with high honors. Among those perks is a blue Chinese finger trap featuring the company’s logo.
Ms. Miller said the finger traps were Mr. Erickson’s idea and that he’d envisioned them in “MDR blue.” But it was hard for Ms. Miller to find a version in a solid color (most are woven in two-tone materials), so a member of her team learned how to make them from scratch on YouTube.
“We sourced a bunch of different types, we dyed the material to that color,” Ms. Miller said. “She sliced the material down to strips down the perfect sized dowel to wrap and braid a finger trap around, and she just for days she was making finger traps.”
One of the incentives that Mark earns in the series is a crystal cube on a rotating base with his face engraved inside, crafted by Ms. Miller. The initial design was made using a photo of Adam Scott that she’d pulled from the internet.
“It was just a sample because we had to actually get our own generated photo for copyright reasons,” she said. “We came to one of my first meetings, I just put it on the middle of the table. I lit it up, I had the rotating base go, and everyone was like, ‘That’s it, we’re off.’”
At the end of production, Mr. Stiller gave each of the department heads their own personalized cube as a wrap gift.
“It’s very cool,” Ms. Miller said. “I keep mine on my dresser.”
The self-help book
In the show, a hilariously earnest self-help book called “The You You Are,” written by Mark’s brother-in-law, Ricken (Michael Chernus), becomes a sacred text for the employees in Macrodata Refinement.
Mr. Erickson actually wrote 80 pages of it. The team wanted a real book to work with, Ms. Miller said, rather than a few pages glued inside another hard cover.
“If anyone read it, wanted to freeze frame and zoom in on it, it was actually real,” she said. Hudson River Bindery in Newburgh, NY, put it all together.
The team leaned on several real books for inspiration, including L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health,” which laid the foundation for Scientology, and self-help titles by Tony Robbins, whose face often appears on his books’ covers.
When the severed-floor employees find Ricken’s book, “it’s really the spark of a revolution,” Ms. Miller said.
“It’s subconsciously creating and supporting the world that our story is living in,” she added. “That’s the stuff we try and do with our props.”