Constructive Concepts: A conversation with production designer Alex McDowell

Trevor Hogg chats with Alex McDowell about the future of production design, Fight Club, Minority Report, and the role of the 5D Institute

“A visual effects supervisor does something that a designer cannot do and vice versa,” observes Alex McDowell who was responsible for the production design of Fight Club(1999), Minority Report (2002), and Man of Steel (2013).  “The visual effects supervisor’s job is to coordinate and instruct the technology that is going to execute the vision.  The designer’s job is to lay down the vision in respect to how it reflects what the director wants, what the script needs, what the film shoots, and to make the environments that the actors touch and occupy.   It’s our job to make sure that’s consistent and coherent across the entire movie whether it’s done in production or post.  It’s a close relationship.”
“One of the great things that have happened in the last decade is that visual effects supervisors have become collaborators in pre-production,” states McDowell. “Someone like DJ [John DesJardin] is there from the beginning and so we’re in a constant dialogue as I am with the cinematographer or costume designer and certainly with Zack [Snyder].   We’re building a coherent vision and world together within the constraints of possibility, budget and technology.  But where it falls down potentially is that if the designer whose job it is to scrutinize every last minute detail of how the environment is integrated into the vision is not there when those kinds of fine details are being done.  If there is something like the ‘History of Krypton’ that is not written by the time we finish shooting so we don’t have any way to design that because it doesn’t yet exist; then we have potentially disconnect.”
Fight Club is still my favourite film,” reveals Alex McDowell.  “David Fincher is an inspiring director to work with because he is so demanding on the finest details that you are pushed to your limits which is incredibly satisfying when you have a director who is going to satisfy that on screen.  I personally love coming from Europe and into a city like L.A. I’m completely enamoured of the banal, generic and all of these kinds of weird edges between cultures and strip malls.  I love the architecture of L.A.; I find it inspiring.  Fight Club was an opportunity to play that out to the max and combine it with my own experience like squatting in London for four or five years.   The Paper Street House is almost entirely based on the house that I squatted in Stoke Newington in London. I got to play with this place that I was in my head between a European decay and a West Coast urban generic banality. The story requires that you go to both of those places and those are the characters in the movie.  We got to go deep into the idea of faceless people because the characters played by Ed Norton [The Italian Job], Brad Pitt [12 Years a Slave] and Helen Bonham Carter [The King’s Speech] are transient or else they don’t exist; their personalities are weirdly fluid, and it’s the environments that are solid and have the roots in the film.”
            
It’s funny when you now Google ‘Minority Report and technology’ or ‘Minority Report and future’ there are 10.6 million hits on the idea of how many pieces of technology Minority Reportpredicted,” remarks McDowell.  “With Steven Spielberg’s stamp of approval we had the opportunity to go out into the real world and do some deep research about the way things were evolving.  We were only looking a decade ahead in terms of the kind of changes we were expecting even though we called it 2050.  If you talked to the technologists and people who do the most about developing future they will tell you 50 years out will be unrecognisable.  You will have genetically bred animals or people living forever.  It starts getting too wacky.  Minority Report holds up because we had the opportunity to do this deep research.  It’s crucial to how you build worlds and tell stories that you spend the time building out all of these threads of logic.  In the case of Minority Report because it was designed to be future reality and not science fiction we were empowered to go out and ask, ‘What do we think cars are going to look like?’  Is a self-driving car possible or is touch screen likely or texture recognition a possibility?  We were already talking to scientists and engineers who were already developing this technology so it wasn’t so much that we were so precognitive but more that we were doing good research.”
In recognition of the changing landscape of narrative media, Alex McDowell established the 5D Institute where he also serves as the creative director.  “It’s not necessarily to do with traditional methods but it is to do with the tradition of creative thinking brought to bear and using emerging technologies,” explains McDowell.  “We can have conversations with architects or theatre lighting designers or game designers or people working in interactive media to make a more sophisticated digital language that applies to all of those different silos of entertainment mediums and design skills.  Design is the common thread.  It’s the one space that we can all talk on an equal level across these different mediums.  5D is trying to use that idea to open up doors and create new kinds of collaborations.  Ultimately, it is going to be the foundation of the next generation of storytelling and story platforms.”
Many thanks to Alex McDowell for taking the time for this interview and make sure to read S for Krytpon: Alex McDowell talks about Man of Steel.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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