Meet Toni Barton, world builder of the street-level Marvel Cinematic Universe. As Netflix rolls out its fourth comic book series, Iron Fist, Barton is also hard at work on the upcoming superhero team-up The Defenders where Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist Danny Rand come together to save the world from the powerful and mysterious Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver). Barton is currently the Art Director for the Netflix MCU, collaborating with Production Designer Loren Weeks to create a grittier and more realistic vision of New York where super-powered humans still have to go to work and pay their bills.
For Barton, finding her way into the Marvel universe was pure serendipity. Barton was born in Washington D.C., raised by her mother, a history teacher, and her father, an airline pilot. “My sister was actually the artist in the family,” Barton shares, “she would make these beautiful sketches. I was the kid who just liked soccer.” One summer when Barton was in her teens, her mother was directing a children’s theater program and recruited Barton and her sister as stage hands, helping to build sets. This inspired Barton to attend the USC school of architecture, working with other talented students like Tim Story who would go on to be the first Black director to helm a comic book franchise (The Fantastic Four). After finishing her masters in fine arts at New York University, Barton worked in theater, building sets for various Broadway productions. Thanks to a former college professor, Barton soon found herself on her first movie set, Uptown Girls the 2003 film starring the late Brittany Murphy and Dakota Fanning. Barton would go on to work on big budget films like Sherlock Holmes where she designed and built the Tower Bridge. “While most of Sherlock Holmes was shot in the U.K., we built some sets in Brooklyn. I spent three months designing every rivet and eyebeam for the Tower Bridge sequence at the end of the movie. Everything you see is actually plastic or wood.”
We caught up with Barton to discuss her career, creating the more polished and posh sets of Iron Fist and the challenges in making the Netflix MCU look connected.
Co.Create: You are the Art Director for the Netflix Marvel shows. What exactly does that entail?
Toni Barton: The best way to describe an Art Director is that I’m basically an architect and I manage a lot of contractors. I have assistants that do graphics and renderings. There is a production designer and they create everything that is not worn by the actor. Loren Weeks is the production designer–it’s his vision and it’s myself and the set decorator’s job that to see it come to fruition. For instance in Luke Cage when Luke crashes through the barn, that’s a set. Because anytime you have guys breaking through stuff it has to be built.
The visual aesthetics of Iron Fist are different than say Daredevil or Jessica Jones, with the Danny Rand character coming from a world of wealth and privilege. How did you achieve the look for this specific show?
Going from Daredevil and Jessica Jones being in Hell’s Kitchen and Luke Cage set in Harlem to entering the world of a billionaire was kind of a nice challenge and it upped my budget immensely! The prep for Iron Fist started while we were still working on Luke Cage. I was working on the last two episodes and Loren was already working on sketches for Iron Fist. The sets we had to build were for Harold Meachum’s–it’s like this massive domed penthouse for a billionaire where he can look out but no one can look in. We’re designing the sets way before they start scouting for the exterior location. The exterior is a very well known art deco building in New York City. When you have to marry the architecture of the interior set with the exterior, we have to make it look as real as possible. It’s the same with the interior offices of the Rand corporate offices. We were building the windows but hadn’t found the exterior location. The Rand offices have a major 250-foot backdrop so it feels you’re looking outside the windows. Even though these are superhero shows we don’t want to take you out of reality. The thing about these Netflix MCU shows is that they’re gritty and real. Hopefully, you don’t know what’s a set and what isn’t.
How do you manage to keep the cohesiveness of the Netflix MCU with all four shows taking place in different parts of New York?
The mandate comes from Marvel that these shows should be as realistic as possible. These aren’t superheroes flying through the air. Our heroes get beat up and they get hurt. So in that same light, the world created them has to reflect that. The Hell’s Kitchen on Daredevil is actually from 25 years ago with Irish gangs like the comic book evoked.
A lot of Luke Cage fans raved about the design of the Harlem Paradise nightclub. What did you use as inspiration in designing that particular set?
The initial backstory is that Mama Mabel built this nightclub back in the 1930’s and then Cottonmouth restored it. When you look at the floors, it has cracks painted on the surface because you have to imagine the floor was poured in the ’30s and it’s been polished over the years. Cottonmouth’s office and furniture is all new but the nightclub has the same architecture. All the art in the nightclub are originals–since Cottonmouth has money, it would make sense for him to get the real deal.
The portrait of Biggie Smalls in Cottonmouth’s office quickly became iconic–whose idea was that?
That was all [show creator] Cheo Coker’s idea. He comes from a hip-hop background, writing for Vibe and eventually writing the screenplay for the biggie biopic Notorious. The character of Harlem is just as much a character as Luke Cage or Misty Knight. Cheo would include music drops in his scripts and I would pull up my Spotify playlist and let it play while I read them. It just put the scripts on a different level because the music is so much a part of the culture.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to pursue this as a profession?
The most important thing is to be able to communicate visually. I work with a lot of production designers who all have different skill sets. If that’s drafting, rendering, sketching or collaging–you don’t want to be that person a million dollars later and the director and producer walk in and say “that’s not what I wanted.” It’s not just about talking a good game, it’s showing it. You can build the best set in the world but if the DP [director of photography] Main can’t light it, what’s the point? Everything that we do is highly collaborative. There are cinematographers who shoot things beautifully, but what are they shooting? They’re shooting actors in front of a set, and hopefully, it’s a collaboration between the director, the production designer, the costume designer and the DP.