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loki Photo: Marvel Studios

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How Loki built a different reality with retro hardware

Production designer Kasra Farahani explains the show’s distinct look

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For me, watching Loki has meant pausing each episode to admire the devices that keep the Time Variance Authority running — all curved silhouettes and comically tiny screens and hazy orange readouts. By the time I asked Loki production designer Kasra Farahani about the show’s prop design inspirations, I’d convinced myself that the TemPad had to be based on a Nintendo DS. It’s all I can think of whenever Mobius (Owen Wilson) flips open the little oblong compact.

“Actually, the primary piece of research that we were looking at is, there’s this crazy image that I found of a calculator watch on a wrist,” says Farahani, when I ask him about the TemPad’s aesthetic origins. “But the calculator watch is huge, it’s like the size of an iPhone, almost... it’s basically a scientific calculator strapped to [someone’s] wrist.”

Like its Disney Plus sibling WandaVision, Loki takes a slight detour into the outer wilds of Marvel comicdom that don’t just involve beating the crap out of overbearing villains. While the series is very much a Marvel product, from the MCU in-jokes to the one-line zingers, its production design tells a more nuanced story about the multidimensional world that TVA agents Mobius and Ravonna Renslayer live in — a world built on old technology that conjures a romantic past when machines were still curious and funny and even a little bit magical.

loki Photo: Marvel Studios

“Basically all the computers were custom builds, with a combination of retro televisions and retro computers combined with disparate, other random pieces of tech, all kind of kludged together,” explains Farahani, who plans to post more detailed, up-close photos of Loki toys after the last episode airs on July 14th. According to the series’ style guide, the all-powerful TVA has been able to pick and choose different technologies from different timelines as they please. “The conceit behind the technology at the TVA as we imagined it was that... digital technology never existed, and that analog technology just continued to get more and more sophisticated,” he says.

And yet, with the power to use any kind of technology they want, the TVA still gravitates toward cathode ray tube-style screens, which continue to be major sentimental and historical touchpoints in conversations about nostalgia and tech preservation, especially in games. Eurogamer’s Richard Leadbetter wrote about the beauty and significance of playing modern games on CRT screens, not just because of their low latency and reduced input lag. It seems that even in Earth-199999 — the version of Earth in the MCU — these same feelings prevail, even if the hardware is in service of a monolithic bureaucracy.

According to Farahani, the Loki design team was big on primitive CRT playback aesthetics, which were mostly green (“there are amber-colored versions of it,” he adds). In the first episode, the TVA paperwork clerk can be seen playing solitaire on his tiny orange-hued monitor, and you get the feeling he isn’t the only desk jockey running games on their work computer. One might wonder what kind of games can be played on the TemPad by bored TVA agents.

“We made a decision that there should never be color on the screens, really, that they should be monochromatic... and it’s like an 8-bit look, almost like a first-generation Game Boy,” says Farahani. “So even when you look at ‘video footage’ on the TemPad, it’s been digitized into that monochrome 8-bit look.” (Loki director Kate Herron previously told The Verge that the TemPad’s display “was definitely inspired by SNES games and also the old Game Boy Camera.”) Even from a cursory glance at the TVA devices in the first few episodes, it’s easy to get Fallout Pip-Boy vibes from some of the old-timey computer interfaces; the TVA’s trademark orange tint is also a neat callback to analog Burroughs SELF-SCAN displays of the 1970s, which ushered in a memorable era of CRT monitors.

In creating this vast, faceless bureaucratic machine, the Loki design team needed to source enough old hardware to furnish whole offices. “A lot of it was our set decorator Claudia Bonfe and her team [who] found an amazing array of retro televisions,” says Farahani. “Some of these things, they’re old and they’re brittle, so by the time you get them, the amount of modifications that we wanted to do to them, they just wouldn’t hold up. So it was easier in many cases to just fabricate them or build them from scratch.” (There is, however, a prominent Lear Siegler ADM-3A sitting on the reception desk when we first see the TVA, which could be the real deal.)

loki Photo: Marvel Studios

The team built custom props like the Chronomonitor — the 7-foot-wide screen in the Time Theater — which weighed hundreds of pounds and was constructed from scratch. (Sadly, it’s not functional; playback was done in post). The eye-catching red bubble monitor is another bespoke creation. It’s essentially a remote control for the Holoprojector, which runs off 70mm analog film reels. To preserve the idea that the TVA is an old-school WiFi-free zone, the two are connected with a huge cable that runs across the set. The team also built the hanging monitors that play the Miss Minutes animation and the yellow TVA computers in quantum monitoring, inspired by retro technological form language.

Naturally, the old-school elements also extended to the in-show visuals, from the Miss Minutes cartoon to the Time Theater’s holographic projections. “We tried very hard to keep… almost a photographic quality in terms of aberrations and fuzzy edges and film grain… and having the glitches be analog glitches, not digital types of glitches, which is a very different look,” Farahani says. “These are small details, but they’re super important for us both in the design of the hardware… because all of it in the end contributes to the worldbuilding of the TVA.”

But what was the kind of world that produced this now-obsolete tech to begin with? Farahani says that, from an industrial design standpoint, the Loki crew drew their inspiration from the imaginative, weird window of time that encompasses the post-WWII and Cold War era. “In our fiction, [the TVA is] a bureaucratic organization that was probably super well-funded or incepted, or had been renovated in the post-war era,” he explains. “Imagine that a bureaucracy, or an organization that gets this massive infusion of resources at a certain point, and then doesn’t again for decades, and then they’re just using that same tech, and it’s slowly degrading.”

The idea that a near-omniscient galactic surveillance agency is shuffling along on outdated technology probably hits a little too close to home for people who have struggled with simple government administration processes in the present day. But it’s a tried-and-tested approach to visual storytelling that takes a page from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (and even, to an extent, his later film Twelve Monkeys). Even as all this old machinery highlights the inefficacies and archaic qualities of a bloated bureaucracy, there’s still something so intrinsically romantic about watching a TVA clerk — our solitaire-playing, cat-owning buddy who does the processing paperwork — print out reams of dot matrix printer paper with the iconic perforated sides.

A somewhat bittersweet effect of watching Loki has been thinking about the technologies — particularly gaming hardware — that we’ve lost to time. Seeing the 8-bit TemPad even brought to mind my old 4-bit Game & Watch collection — small tablet-like LCD-screen handhelds popular in the 1980s, that came in a dualscreen clamshell version for specific games (namely Donkey Kong). A small part of me hopes that Loki has, perhaps unintentionally, prompted viewers to consider the importance of archiving and preserving old things, which is somewhat ironic given the TVA’s tendency to prune everything that doesn’t quite fit in.

Loki isn’t so much a story about a fantastical possible future, but a reality that could have been. “I think anachronism is... an important archetype for suggesting a parallel reality,” Farahani says. “It helps to suggest an alternate evolution of parameters, that things just worked out in a slightly different way, in this place.” There may be no magic in the TVA, but for some of us, the idea of a universe where beautiful old machinery still has a place and purpose is the most otherworldly thing of all.

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