How the Magical Sets of Hallmark Christmas Movies Are Designed

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Jordan Ninkovich is the production designer responsible for creating the beautiful sets found in the recent Hallmark movies The Holiday Sitter and Time for Him to Come Home for Christmas.

In this interview, Jordan shares the experience of working on Hallmark’s first LGBTQ+ movie and designing a set from a completely blank slate for The Holiday Sitter, as well as how the score of Time for Him to Come Home for Christmas influenced its production design and how he created a magical feel in the realistic sets of the Christmas Fair and candy store.

PH: Hi Jordan! Can you provide a bit of background and how you ultimately became a production designer?

Jordan Ninkovich: Great question; it all started when I was a kid, I loved legos and designing fun little games and environments with a wild imagination. I was very introverted, so it was my escape to dive deep into imaginary worlds through a stimulated detailed imagination. I loved movies, of all kinds, from Disney to sci-fi and mystery; anything film-related I loved. My older brother Chris was an actor when I was in high school, but I was more of a jock, even though I loved movies. I was too shy to try acting but was very impressed by him. Once out of high school, I did many random jobs while deciding to go into the film industry. As much as I was shy, I would have loved to be an actor, so I gave it a shot. I took private acting lessons to break myself out of my shyness which helped more than goodness. I started landing minor roles, acting, and doing some stunts, which I loved. While on set, I was mesmerized by the beautiful sets and worlds created around us. I also had a passion and appreciation for design and the arts, so it didn't surprise me. I continue pursuing being an actor even to this day. I still act but went into interior design and construction. I went on to acquire my Bachelor of Interior Design, and over the years, I designed and built a series of homes and some commercial spaces, which was a fantastic experience. I loved designing someone's dream home. But during that time, I still felt a huge draw to film. However, my dream of being a Production Designer was more achievable with the talents and experience I acquired both in and outside the film industry. 

PH: What are some of the things you look for in a project before signing on board?

Jordan Ninkovich: I look for storytelling in a film before signing on. Does it tell a unique story? Does it  resonate with me? Some are based on actual events, which is exciting to recreate that  world and share the story. Some other things I look for are personal challenges to push my  design limits and beyond. I always try to bring something new to every movie and set I  design, not just for the actors or the project itself but for the viewers. 

PH: How did you become involved with The Holiday Sitter and Time for Him to Come Home for Christmas?

Jordan Ninkovich: I got involved in Time for Him To Come Home For Christmas and The Holiday Sitter while finishing up a movie called Trap House. I got a call about this very fun script, executive produced by Blake Shelton and directed by the very talented David Winning. After reading the script, it spoke to me. The story was beautiful, and I loved the music element and felt I could incorporate that into my set design. Plus, I love Hallmark and Christmas. Shortly after, I got a call about the Holiday Sitter. I was so excited to have the honor and opportunity to design this movie. I read the script, and I wanted to start right that second. I was so grateful Hallmark presented this movie and trusted me to bring this fantastic story and its meaning to life.  

PH: Can you talk me through your pre-production mindset when constructing the design for Christmas movie sets in particular?

Jordan Ninkovich: My pre-production mindset adjusts per movie and what type of content we are filming. For every movie I design, my goal and passion are constantly bending the envelope and stretching my design boundaries to deliver a fresh look. Christmas movies are such a fun and beautiful time of the year. I take great pride in providing something new to millions of Hallmark Christmas movie fans each time. I offer sets and environments with a not-so-traditional look, tone, and feel for Christmas. Of course, you must balance traditional and new trend ideas, making it exciting. I do this to create new trends and looks each time to expand the viewers' minds and perspectives of these amazing worlds we create.  

PH: In what ways do you capture the magical settings and evoke the holiday emotion?

Jordan Ninkovich: I capture the holiday emotions by using many layers upon layers within the environments I design. What I mean by that is my approach is to evoke and ignite all the senses; it sounds funny, but I don't want the sets to stop at something you can only see and touch. I like the cast, crew, and audience to be able to touch, see, feel and even taste the Christmas spirit. So I focus on real layered elements to be integrated into the set design. For example, if we were doing a Christmas market, I would bring in authentic Christmas vendors (supporting locals) and have real roasted chestnuts, cocoa, coffee, candles, and all the tasty baking that goes along with this time of year. Doing this triggers such a powerful emotion and sense of realism it even supports the actors by grounding them in this reality. At the same time, these elements get captured through the lens so that the audience can be transported even more so into their favorite Christmas Hallmark Movies. 

PH: What was your experience working on Hallmark’s first LGBTQ+ movie and designing a set from a completely blank slate for The Holiday Sitter?

Jordan Ninkovich: My Experience working on Hallmark's first LGBTQ+ movie was one of the best experiences of my life. It meant so much to me in so many ways, and it was a great honor to have been allowed to design this fantastic movie. It speaks to me personally and how important it is for the LGBTQ+ community and film/ Hallmark. The cast and crew were amazing and so talented. Jonathan Bennett and George Krissa were so much fun and brought the magic. For this blank slate, I wanted to bring so many new elements to this movie through color pallets, textures and features not often used and seen in Christmas movies. With my interior design background, I provide a sense of elegance to these sets with lots of designer furnishing, textiles, and tones, which speak very true to the worlds of the script. I am very proud of The Holiday Sitter, and I believe everyone will enjoy this movie and its beauty.

PH: Did you encounter any challenges from a design perspective? Can you share some of those and your approach to solving them?

Jordan Ninkovich: Yes, there were a few challenges; almost every movie has them. I love it when challenges pop up. Sometimes they are almost impossible to solve or fix, which excites me the most. I love to challenge myself and grow, bending the possibility in which we can make or design something. One of the issues that popped up for us, besides trying to keep everything looking cold and snowy in the middle of a scorching summer, was a location issue. We lost the original location for Sam's apartment last minute. Production came to me with a new location option which, let's say in lesser words, "needed a lot of work and TLC." 

So within a very short period, I had to design this very challenging space into a beautiful, multimillion-dollar New York apartment. It was a moment where my experience as an interior designer and the connections I had for specific furniture and elements needed in a flash came in handy, along with my fantastic team. In no time, I transformed this location into something that made executive producer Maura Dunbar and director Ali Liebert shed a tear of joy and happiness when they saw the magic in the transformation of this space. This is one thing I live for to see and feel the fun and excitement in the magic I bring to my designs and sets— something to look forward to seeing when you watch the Holiday Sitter.  

PH: What does collaboration typically look like in your role? How are you able to relay and infuse your creative perspective throughout other film choices?

Jordan Ninkovich: Collaboration is a crucial role and skill to be open-minded, feel and listen to directors, networks, and producers in how they would also like to see the films turn out. I love it. I am naturally a very zen and grounded person, so as art is subjective, I love hearing how the look, tone, and feel is described by all the other key people involved.  

I consider all the elements from those key groups and infuse them into my design elements. This leads to all my mood boards, sketches, and designs; all considered aspects have been created. From there, we can tweak and adjust anything further. My perspective is that we are all in this film ship together and play an important role. Respect, patience, teamwork, and collaboration are so essential to provide a beautifully made film. 

PH: On your project Time for Him to Come Home for Christmas, how did the score influence production design?

Jordan Ninkovich: Time For Him To Come Home For Christmas was very fun! I focused on the musical score, allowing it to transcend through my designs. I focused on creating sets that flowed musically and wanted the audience to feel the music by just seeing them. I would think - how can someone still feel the Christmas spirit or the score if the TV is muted? I thought about this and wanted to bring something different to this movie than other Christmas movies. Using the symbols and rhythmic flow of musical notes as inspiration, I wanted my sets and designs to "dance" as if you saw someone dancing to no music, and your mind would play tricks on you and give a beat or rhythm to it. 

For example, I created a spatial plan for the Christmas market that flowed like music. I wanted this scene to dance and capture the score and Christmas magic. So the market danced in many directions in an endless way, which fed the spirit and the magic.  

PH: How has your experience as an actor impacted your work as a production designer?

Jordan Ninkovich: As an actor, this has given me a unique advantage in my career as a production designer and set designs, along with working closely with directors, cast, and producers. If we took two identical locations, designed and dressed the same way, one for a client and one for production, my approach would be completely different. One, I would be focused more on elements for an individual and more on interior design-related elements. While the other, I would be considering the design and flow. But in this case, more on how the actors will move in the scene. The camera will move within the space and think deeply about respecting the crew's time. I appreciate the tight time frames we have while filming and understand this supports not just the actor's time but productions time. Understanding this from an actor's point of view allows my designs and spatial planning to keep everything looking amazing. You have to plan these out in great detail and understand adjacencies not to take away any look, tone, feel, or integrity of the sets I design. 

PH: Can you share any upcoming projects you have in the works?

Jordan Ninkovich: I am excited about some fantastic movies I am proud of designing. First is Spread, starring  Harvey Keitel, Elizebeth Gillies and Teri Polo. Directed by the talented Ellie Kenner. Another  one is Tiger Mom starring Ken Jeong, and lastly, Sherri Papini: I kidnapped myself for  Lifetime. It stars Jaime King and is directed by the talented Marta Borowski.  I look forward to some exciting projects coming up for 2023!

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