Interview with Alex McDowell

Alex McDowell is another key production designer that I have chosen to research. He is known for his work on Fight Club (1999), Minority Report (2002), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and has recently completed work on the new superman film Man of Steel (2013).

Alex McDowell is a pioneering British production designer, who describes traditional 2D design as being too limiting to communicate his ideas. He is renowned for introducing new 3D techniques to create worlds in a unique and innovative way. I was fortunate enough to get a few of my questions to him.

1.     Do you think that a new breed of technician/designer has or is emerging in place of traditional designers who are pencil based? To what extent is the pencil becoming outdated?

Much as I love the pencil – and there’s never been a more efficient and effective tool – it no longer has an essential place in design for narrative media. Perhaps more accurate would be to say that there is absolutely no remaining place for the drawing board. An inaccurate but telling analogy would be to compare the tectonic shift we are engaged in to the transition from silent film to talkies. If you insist on making silent films now, there will regrettably be no place for you in the industry moving forward.

So, to speak to the new breed – yes a new breed is emerging and its not only one who shifts their design practice to digital, but one who shifts their engagement with the practice of film making and, more broadly, narrative media. By this I mean that the role of the designer is fundamentally changing – to be a production designer now means to design the structure of production first, to know that the design space is a viral incubator of narrative, that the objects and spaces we design are containers of narrative, to make no distinction between the real and the virtual, to re-imagine the camera as an aperture into a fully immersive world, and that the surfaces and environments we design have to reflect back into that aperture not only light and shadow but meaning (this of course is not a new idea, but it applies to a far broader range of surfaces and containers, many made purely of pixels), and to interact and interface with the full arc of storytelling, from early development, pre-script, planning, inception, prototyping, capture and finishing in the virtual space, and that all these interactions need to occur simultaneously, in a non-linear evolution from the moment the story drops.

 2.   How do you integrate traditional and digital technology when designing a world for a film?

By never considering them to be different in design terms, while understanding completely the technology requirements of both in-camera and virtual components of the world.

3.     To survive in the film and TV industry is it absolutely essential to know these new techniques?

Yes.

4.     As a Production Designer who likes ‘impossibly daunting’ tasks, do you tend to lean to a particular type of film? 

Not really. My criteria for involvement in the next film are three: how compelling and imaginative is the story, my respect for and desire to work with the director, whether I can find design challenges and stretch my failing imagination muscle one more time. What’s kept me going through the years is that I am easily bored, and unless I am deeply stimulated its hard to keep going and not be tempted to leap to the next medium. For this reason I’ve worked across a board range of genres, which in themselves provide a compelling engagement.

5.     Does the process of Production Design that you use affect what type of film you make?

I hope not. I have been peaking a lot recently about world building, and one of the questions I’m asked is whether it can be applied to anything but fantasy. And I have found that it can apply directly to documentary subjects as well, and contemporary ‘real’ fiction, and the full range of scale of budget and scope in fantasy. The idea is to build a practice that is unconstrained and unconstraining, and can be effectively applied to any design problem.

6.     What software would you recommend an aspiring Production Designer to use and experiment with?

I’m afraid I’m not going to be very helpful here. I’ve been trained be necessity to be completely software-agnostic, while ensuring that I learn none of it, because every crew I hire brings a different set of skills and tools to the table, and mostly that they can all be used effectively to do the job. If I had my time over I’d learn to code, rather than worry about any particular software, because I think the next generation of design is going to require the skill to customize the fabric and capability of the narrative environment. But what you do need to do is pick one platform that you feel comfortable with and investigate it deeply, and become really adept with it, because you can rely on the fact that any of these tools can learn to communicate with another.

7.   In the Corpse Bride, greys were used to reflect the real world and colour the underworld. Do you make conscious decisions as to what colors to use in different films and do certain colours have particular associations when creating this world?

Color is a fantastic way to code your world. One of our primary tasks is to create a distinct and unique world for every story that can by its consistency of logic and design language – form, surface, color, embedded story, metaphor, context, scale, capability – allow the viewer/ user/ player/ occupant/ audience to become completely immersed in the story and its outcome. Personally, unless its dictated by story, I think the decision omen makes about color are instinctive, and I don’t follow a constant set of rules. In fact I hate those tracts that dictate you know ‘purple equals passion’. Bullshit. Purple equals exactly what you say it means by the context you place it in relative to the characters and narrative spaces that are defined within the unique world you are building. In many ways the most meaning comes from the decisions you make about surface, since the surface will always take on the qualities of light depending on the properties you give it.

With respect to Corpse Bride, I guess I do try to remain perverse and to try to subvert audience expectations, though in that film it was logical given the way that Tim Burton wrote those two worlds.

8.     What films have particularly influenced you as a Production Designer and why?

The films that convinced me to give up the idea of being a painter and turn to film were the full set of Tarkovsky movies that I saw in a full retrospective at the BFI in the eighties. Andrei Rublev, Ivan’s Childhood and Stalker convinced me that the role of design was essential to storytelling. After that the films I come back to over and over are The Conformist, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now.

9.     What would you recommend an aspiring Production Designer to do find work in the film industry?

Start working. Never compromise. Be curious. Deliver more than anyone asks you to. Work at the edges, and in the spaces in between. Don’t conform. Be kind. Be respectful. Understand the power you have to change vision from the inside. What you say you’ll do and what you actually do do not have to be the same. Always feel empowered but never impose your personal vision if you can improve your vision through collaboration. Don’t be a stylist – style is not design. Question everything.

And practically speaking, the first choice you make is between being a small or large cog in the machine. This means that you can be a PA on a huge film, or let’s say an assistant art director on a small film. Depending what kind of PA you are (always try to get as close to the design department and the designer as possible) you can learn a huge amount on a big and long film. But its really hard to rise through those ranks quickly. On a small independent – low to zero budget – film people will be enormously grateful for your respectful and enthusiastic agreement to do whatever is required, and you will be noticed, and can rise up the ranks, but you may stay in the constraining circle of independent film, which for a designer means you never get to design very much. Unless its for Wes Anderson. I have found that the best young designers I have worked with out of college were great researchers (curiosity, again), and a researcher can move more freely than a PA, and have more creative impact, even if you don’t get paid any better.

And the second choice is the choice of what you decide NOT to do – its the only control you have over your career, ultimately.

I recently saw Man of Steel and thought it was really interesting how desolate the planet was and wondered if the organic nature of the technology was to balance this, or was it drawn from another source of inspiration?

The inception of the design language of Krypton came from the thought that this ancient and highly developed culture had gone along a path of science that was focused on the biological, through the study and deep understanding of the organic life of Krypton. We can imagine that the surface of the planet had originally been lush, and densely covered in their own Kryptonian forests and organisms. They had evolved a way perhaps to manipulate the organic at a molecular level, and so we imagined that the had been able to ‘grow’ their architecture, and ships, and craft objects like weapons and robots following the rules and logic of their biology. In fact they were so focused on the organic form that there are no straight lines in Krypton, at all.

This had allowed their culture to develop, explore space, build great cities, move into a symbiotic relationship with animals. But then over the centuries they became conservative, turned inwards, and stopped their space exploration and the terraforming of other planets and returned to Krypton which they began to exploit heavily.

The surface of Krypton in the near past, was therefore denuded and laid waste as they continued to mine every inch of the surface for resources. Eventually there was little to no surface remaining, and all the mining had created deep vertical slices through the crust so that the cities in order to survive had developed below the surface of the planet, in giant caves left behind from the mining.

Does this make sense. It’s a skim of the world building logic we were thinking about to get the planet to a coherent state. All this came from 2 starting points – a) why does Superman have an S on his chest, and b) Zack’s desire to have an art nouveau sensibility in the form language, Since it made no sense to actually reference at art nouveau, we looked instead at Karl Blossfeldt, whose photographs had been the inspiration for art nouveau, and which seemed to point to a way of first developing biological references and then use those to develop an organic form language.

And one more, any favourite piece of work?

Do you mean favorite piece of work in Man of Steel? For that, I’d say that the main interior chamber of the House of El, where baby Kal is launched into space was the most satisfying physical set and the design of the ships, particularly the Black Zero, was my favorite virtual design.

Alex McDowell, production designer, associate professor at USC School of Cinematic Arts, world builder

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