S for Krypton: Alex McDowell talks about Man of Steel

Trevor Hogg chats with production designer Alex McDowell about building worlds for Man of Steel… 

“I did a talk at SIGGRAPH in Vancouver about how the ‘S’ formed the basis of an entire language,” remarks Alex McDowell [Fight Club] who was the responsible for the production design featured in Man of Steel (2013) which involved redefining the signature crest worn by an iconic figure.  “It makes no sense for him to have ‘S’ for Superman on his chest when he is wearing Kryptonian clothes and comes from another planet.  How do we make sense of what that means? How do you allow that idea to create the foreign language of Krypton?  In a way that permeated the whole way Krypton looked.  It was important to me that the logic and rules of the world of Krypton were comprehensible to a human audience because after all that’s your audience.”  The need to balance the fantastical elements with a grounded reality attracted McDowell to the project.  “The best science fiction is always the one that has a constraint. Why does this world exist?  I’m interested in the kind of rules like maybe Krypton populated Earth the first time around.  Krypton is a 200,000 year old civilization. They have been in space for millennia.  How do we not know? Why do Kryptonians resemble humans?  I’m in that sort of space of pseudo science of how can we make the connections even though they’re not implicit in the storytelling?”

Cinematically adapting comic books with Zack Snyder is nothing new for the native of Britain who first collaborated with the American filmmaker on Watchmen [2009].  “With Superman there have been so many iterations of the story, although the primary story is understood, whereas with Watchmen we were at the ground zero of creation and tried to make that interpretable.  I know we didn’t succeed all the way. There are some great work in there but it’s still almost impossible to translate a graphic novel as complex as Watchmeninto a single film.”  Familiarity with Snyder and key members of the production crew was an asset.  “It’s helpful.  It happens so seldom unless you become part of a stable of people like with Steven Spielberg; I was lucky to work with him twice [Minority Report, The Terminal] but some of his crew have worked with for decades.  It was easy to work with Zack, Michael [Wilkinson] is great, David Goyer [The Unborn] I’ve known since The Crow [1994], Amir Mokri [Season of the Witch] and I worked together in commercials, and DJ [John DesJardin] on Watchmen.  It means that we can get on with our jobs with confidence and not needing to prove ourselves as much in the first couple of months.  It’s always tricky to start a film from scratch because you have to hit the ground running and I have to be designing sets within three weeks from me starting in order to make the schedule. You don’t have a lot of time to mess around and if you can say, ‘Guys trust me here. You know that I’m going to be able to deliver what I promise.’ Then that helps.”

“My own particular debate in the early pre-production is to say, ‘Don’t default to visual effects solutions,’” states Alex McDowell.  “‘We can do a great deal in-camera and if you allow us to make that leap and do stuff in-camera you will save a lot of money.’  I love the interplay between the virtual and real but my rule of thumb is a Tim Burton (Dark Shadows) attitude which is build everything until you cannot build it any more, at least until he made Alice in Wonderland[2010].”  The amount of green screen required when filming a scene has become a major topic conversation amongst the director, production designer, cinematographer and visual effects supervisor.   “You got to have developed a lot of the CG environments before you shoot the green screen otherwise you don’t have a lighting context and the context for the actors to know what they’re reacting to.  Green screen takes up a lot of space, planning and light.”  There are times when the practical solution is a digital one.  “If you have a CG character drop down into the middle of an environment the chances are that it needs to be CG too so everything spreads out from there.  Smallville was a classic case where we built a department store, a gas station, and lots of big set pieces because there were so many human actors in those scenes that it would have been incredibly expensive to have everything be CGI.  The modern tension now in film is at what point do you have to commit to a fully CGI scene?  At what point do you commit to a fully camera based in camera scene and what falls in-between?”

“It’s not usually a single image but there is definitely a collection of key images,” answers Alex McDowell when asked about the visual research conducted for Man of Steel.  “We looked at Karl Blossfeldt a German photographer in the late 19th century whose photographs of organic forms influenced all of Art Nouveau because he did these super close-ups of tiny plant forms and discovered a lens into a new form language.”  Resources were made available between the Costume Design and Art Departments.  “Michael Wilkinson and I shared a lot of imagery.  Finding broadly spread note points of visual reference like samurai costumes meet organic plant forms meet underwater organisms creates a unique language.  I try to always find the extremes of these set of rules for visuals and then create a virus within the society of the film so everybody gets infected by these key images. We turn them into illustrations fairly rapidly.”

Combining Art Nouveau with organic forms led to an interesting complication as there could be no straight lines with the Kryptonian architecture and spaceships. “It’s totally perverse,” admits Alex McDowell.  “If you follow them through religiously those rules define a world that the audience can get involved in. They understand the underlying logic without even knowing it.”  McDowell remarks, “We wanted the spaceships to feel like they were all unique. There was little repetition in the culture. Everything is specifically designed for a single use.  We spent a lot of time talking about ownership so how specific ships would have been owned by generation after generation and passed down from family to family.   With the Black Zero we liked this idea that the tripod legs had a function.  They were there for clamping onto the World Machine.”  Assisting the task was the animation software Maya and the digital sculpting program known as Mudbox.  “It’s not dramatically more expensive to build entirely organic sets because the tools are there.  If you had to sculpt them all by hand it would have been enormously expensive but we had these big CMC rapid prototyping companies in Vancouver manufacturing for three months the parts for the spaceships.  It became like a production line which is relatively economical.”

“We thought early on that it was like a biomechanical science that they would find ways to incorporate android or cyborg parts with the animals,” reveals Alex McDowell.  “We did move away from that and probably for the right reasons.  In the end we imagined that they were bioengineering the animals from birth because it is implicit in the story that Kryptonian babies are born with pre-determined skills and social levels.”  The development of a distinctive computer screen technology led to some quirky discoveries.  “We looked at lot at ferrofluid; it’s magnetically impregnated liquid that if you put an electromagnetic force into it it distorts the surface.” Footage from the ‘wooden mirror’ uncovered on YouTube was helpful.  “It’s a camera that looks at you as a subject and turns your pixelated form into a pattern of wooden squares which rotate in relation to the light recreating your face photographically.”

Not all of the concepts depicting city life on Krypton made it onto the big screen such as the Crab monorail.  “We had this fun idea of monorails going underneath the roadway but they have a biomechanical appearance so they’re clinging onto a track underneath the roadway and above the roadway are people on foot and the kinds of transportation,” explains Alex McDowell.  “There are a lot of details when you’re building a world like this that doesn’t make it into the film.”  The initial idea for the Genesis Chamber where the all of the Kryptonian babies are hatched was altered.  “Originally it was in a dry land context.  We pushed that it would be underwater [a giant womb metaphor].”  The creative change emphasized the contrast between genetically manufactured births and the natural one of Kal-El as well raised the dramatic tension.  “The difficulty Russell Crowe [The Insider] would have to go through to dive into that liquid and find his way to the Genesis Chamber came a lot from exploring the idea of, ‘What if the whole thing was encased in a giant stone column hidden deep inside the city and inaccessible?’

Constructed in a parking lot was the ocean oil rig made entirely from steel.  “It was built three stories high,” remarks Alex McDowell.  “Real machinery and staircases were in there.  Those kinds of sets are easy to design.  You know what an oil rig should look like and aesthetically there are no issues but mechanically, as a machine for storytelling, it’s complicated because it is so much more difficult to manipulate these big steel objects. We changed it maybe four times in two days so that one corridor would serve as one piece of action. We would move some elements around and change the lighting, and it would serve as another piece of the action.  That kind of reuse in order to make best economic use of the set is complicated because it has to lock into the scheduling.”  Other sets served multiple purposes.  “In the Council Chamber we reused whole sections.  Corridors are tricky because you have to run great distances down them and they’re always expensive if you go with the full length.  In the Black Zero, General Zod’s ship, there is a whole scene where Lois Lane [Amy Adams] is running down corridors, turning left, turning right and Russell Crowe is saying, ‘Stand still. Turn left.  Shoot now.’  That was all shot in one small set in a circle and we redressed it three or four times so we could get these endless corridors.”

Smallville was reinterpreted.  “The spin was we’re not in the 1950s any more,” reveals Alex McDowell.  “Iconic small town America is not as cute as it used to be and there are department and chain stores, and foreclosure.  People are not wealthy and the town is not in good shape.  There are stores that are shutdown, and empty spaces where buildings have been knocked down.”  McDowell notes, “You can drive every 10 miles and see three perfect farmhouses.  It was important that we understood the history.  The idyllic farmhouse when Clark is a little boy has decayed when his mum is living on her own, working in a department store, and can’t afford to maintain the house.”  The inspiration of Gotham City for Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins) served as the basis for Metropolis.  “We found a specific piece of geography on the East Coast and built our city there making it up of pieces Chicago and other generic cities. We avoided the obvious landmarks of Chicago as much of possible and made it fit the role of being a city that any of us could imagine ourselves being in.” 

The Daily Planetis not an Art Deco 1930s newspaper office but a glass and steel Ludwig Mies van der Rohe piece of architecture,” states Alex McDowell who spent a day at the L.A. Times for research purposes.   “A whole floor was being cleared out while we were there because journalism is in such trouble now.  We wanted [audience members] to understand that The Daily Planet is not doing any better than any other major newspaper in the world.  One third of the office is empty desks and piles of boxes.  We were trying to be grounded and realistic about this world that Superman [Henry Cavill] finds himself in.”  McDowell remarks, “The set I’m most happy with is the House of El.  That was maybe the most complicated set I’ve ever built.  It was 60 by 80 feet by 40 feet high but with no repetitive architecture.  Everything is hand sculpted, scanned into a computer, and outputted as a computer cut series of ribbing that defined the shape.”  Shipbuilders were recruited to put strips of wood on the complicated forms which were then covered with concrete.   “We built the inside of a snail shell at a massive scale.  What is most satisfying to me is combining the most up to the moment digital tool set with the traditional crafts so you can create these sets that never could have been built before.”

Concept art courtesy of Christian Lorenz Scheurer

Man of Steel production images and concept art © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures Funding, LLC.

Many thanks to Alex McDowell for taking the time for this interview and make sure to visit the official websites for Man of Steel and the 5D Institute.

Fight & Flight: The Making of Man of Steel

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.