Making magic behind the scenes

A couple of weeks ago while most employed America

ns were returning emails and pushing papers, La Cañada resident Chip Dox was staging a car accident. He and his team were asked to create a full-scale collision, complete with steam and confusion, without causing as much as a single dent.

This is par for the course for Dox, production designer for the popular daytime soap opera, “General Hospital.” For the past 12 years, he’s been responsible for building and arranging sets, background scenes, homes and props for the show’s motley cast of residents.

The challenges of fully outfitting the TV town of “Port Charles” on a shoestring budget, arguing with producers and cataloging every prop for easy reference and replacement later is right up his alley. Recently, that passion earned Doxs and his team a coveted daytime television honor — an Emmy Award.

Their work was recognized in a June 17 Emmy Awards reception held for craftsmen who ply their trades behind the scenes. “General Hospital” won the award for best art direction, an honor it hasn’t received in 29 years.

“We didn’t think we had much of a shot at it this year because we’d seen the other submissions,” Dox said. “We sat in the back of the auditorium and were prepared to leave early.”

As exciting as the recent win was, it wasn’t Dox’s first. He received an Emmy in 1997 for his work on “Days of Our Lives,” where he’d worked as the art director since 1980. Shortly thereafter, he pulled up stakes and moved to ABC.

As easy as the finished episodes make the whole process seem, Dox's job involves real craftiness for designing scenes that look intricate but cost as little as possible. There are 125 existing sets for “General Hospital” — from homes and offices to local haunts and operating rooms — including the main hospital, the only set that remains permanently intact inside the Prospect Studios building in the Los Feliz area.

Production designers like Dox work with producers, directors and writers to make sure all the action written in the script can be accommodated. As familiar sponsors close up shop and purse strings tighten, tempers may occasionally flare over last-minute changes and competing philosophies.

That was often the case when Dox worked “Days of Our Lives” under producer Jeanne Haney. The pair regularly bickered over costs — he had a list of outlandish plot lines, including demon possession, and she had a budget to maintain.

Despite the friction, Dox and Haney married after 10 years of working together. On the night of the recent Emmy ceremony, Dox told Haney there was no point in her attending. The team had an upsetting loss in 2010 and wasn’t too hopeful. When he found out they’d won, he called Haney, who immediately headed to Hollywood for the after-party.

“I got dressed as soon as I could. I flew down there. We had a really nice night,” Haney said.

In industry circles, soap operas aren’t given much respect, Haney admits. Audiences are shrinking, and compared to the ’80s, sets aren’t what they used to be, lavish affairs filmed, at times, on location in places like London, Greece and Cancun. Now, it’s not uncommon for a made-over studio parking lot to stand in for more exotic locales.

But Dox doesn’t seem to mind that much. Tough times simply call for more ingenuity, something he’s got in spades. So when he’s told all the cars in the accident scene need to remain pristine, he complies.

“We’ll twist them and turn them and open the doors and have steam coming out, but they’re rentals, so we can’t really wreck them,” he said. “You’ve got to be much craftier about how you make it work.”

But it will work — after all, when it comes to TV mayhem, Dox and his staff are makers of magic.

[Editor's note: This story has been updated from an earlier version to correct the spelling of Chip Dox.]

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