Regardless of where you stand on Man of Steel’s controversial reinterpretation of the Superman origin story, chances are you applauded the film’s visual feast.
Much of that cinematic cuisine is the work of an artist whose efforts you’ve likely admired before without realizing it: Alex McDowell—the highly respected production designer of Fight Club, Minority Report, Watchmen, and now, Warner Bros./Legendary Pictures’s Man of Steel, which has exceeded $500 million in worldwide grosses since opening last month.
McDowell grounds his highly imaginative worlds in plausibility through a process he calls "world building." Much the way an actor might create a backstory for his character to inform his behavior, McDowell creates a foundation of rules for the world he’s designing. He and his team brainstorm the type of science, technology, social structure, and political hierarchy that govern that world. The answers they derive serve to inform the design, which, in turn, supports the script’s narrative.
His most famous application of that technique is the iconic gestural computer that Tom Cruise uses in Minority Report. McDowell needed a futuristic computer that was cinematically interesting. He tapped then-MIT grad student John Underkoffler, who had written a thesis about a gesture-based user interface, then based the movie computer on its scientific blueprint. That scene garnered enough interest for Underkoffler to develop a gesture-based computer for real.
McDowell took the same approach in designing Superman’s birthplace, Krypton, a dark crumbling civilization and planet.
"I love decay," he laughs. "It’s inevitable since I do a lot of work with films dealing with the more crumbling side of life. But my job is to support, frame, and build a world around whatever the narrative demands. I am interested in stratified societies and sociopolitical relationships within those environments, and the effect those kinds of societal pressures have on the design of a world."
McDowell will elaborate upon some of these ideas during a July 20 production designers panel at San Diego Comic Con, where DC Entertainment will also be celebrating Superman’s 75th anniversary.
The roughly 15 minutes of Krypton footage is actually the most screen time ever devoted to a world McDowell has built from scratch. "It required a design that looks alien but is comprehensible to a human audience," he says.
McDowell started with basic questions raised by the story to find an underlying scientific and social structure for the planet’s civilization: What kind of a world would allow you to believe a man and woman would launch a newborn in a spaceship at the moment of birth and never see him again? How can an entire planet be ready to blow itself up and its inhabitants not know it? How does that hold a mirror, to the movie audience, that Krypton is a cautionary tale? That if we don’t make certain decisions now, this is where Earth might end up?
"It’s an extreme version of environmental disaster that we’re experiencing now on Earth," says McDowell. "They’ve just had a longer time to germinate to self-destruction.
"What conditions would allow a sophisticated and civilized society that has space travel to turn inward and no longer see what it’s doing to itself?" he adds. "We likened it to a feudal, hyperconservative kind of society that no longer believes other planets were worth visiting and mothballed those fleets. Ancient, doddering old fools running society and paying no attention to science or more enlightened minds."
McDowell’s team envisioned a science that was primarily biological, which they manipulated at the molecular level. "We formed a language and architecture based on one rule—all curved lines."
"One of the core questions was why does Superman have an S on his chest?" says McDowell. "S doesn’t mean the letter s. We created a complete language out of that investigation. The shape looks like an s, but it’s actually a glyph that means 'hope.' Each ancestral House has a different glyph. When they’re put together, the S doesn’t stand out but is just one of the organized shapes that form sentences and ideas."
McDowell hired University of British Columbia linguist Christine Schreyer, who spent four months working on a complete language that uses phrases from the Superman canon. He and his team then covered the architecture and spaceship surfaces in Kryptonian glyphs. Each of the council chambers (see above) represented a different trade or class, while the columns behind them bore representative phrases. "It was ridiculous," laughs McDowell. "But that’s world building. Once you start, you can’t stop."
McDowell’s domain extended well past Krypton, and part of his 18 months on the film involved hours in the car scouting more earthbound sites. "My job is always the look of a film in all aspects," he says. "The location manager is part of the art department, as far as I’m concerned."
For the Kent family homestead in Kansas, where Superman grows up, McDowell put two locations together—an idyllic-looking farm (above) and a replica of a farmhouse he and his team found 30 miles away. "We thought about relocating it, but it had to be destroyed, so we rebuilt it,’ he says.
"Locations can trigger ideas that you never imagined," says McDowell. "In Watchmen, we were looking for a seedy house for one of the killers. We found one that belonged to a guy who had bought it just to keep his dogs in it, because his wife wouldn’t let him keep dogs in their house. The dogs lived in it with no human occupants. We ended up making copies of that house board by board, because it was too disgusting and too dangerous to shoot in."
For additional examples of how the world-building process was manifested in the film, click on the above slideshow.
McDowell’s storytelling approach parallels an industrywide operational shift. Computers, faster processing power, and the rise of previsualtion techniques have reversed the production process.
"Everything’s changing," says McDowell. "It’s as though we’re going from silent movies to talkies. It’s a paradigm shift."
Until roughly a decade ago, production design followed more of a linear factory production model. "You’d go to the drawing board, know something about architecture, do an elaborate painting in a room, design sets, add some models, and rehearse actors and camera angles in it," says McDowell. "You wouldn’t know what it really looked like until you lit it. By the time they completed the movie, the production designer was long gone, onto the next project. It was more of a baton passing."
Things changed on Minority Report, which he worked on during 2000 to 2002. "We started out with acrylic paints on craft paper and finished in Photoshop."
Today, ideas take place during previsualization, where camera angles, sets, and stunts are first mapped out digitally in 3-D, with accompanying empirical data and input from all different departments.
"Everyone shares in the prototying, so it’s moved from baton-passing to nonlinear collaboration and real-time feedback," says McDowell. "A director can examine all aspects of different types of scenes experientially for crucial early feedback, a stunt coordinator can run a vehicle with real physics to gauge the behavior of a car crashing through a roof. Unfortunately, there’s a disconnect with other production channels, such as budgeting, which still remain more of a linear process."
McDowell recently joined forces with the University of Southern California for a more academic exploration of these concepts. His 5D Institute runs symposia that engage creative and technology experts in public discussions on world building for entertainment and business.
This past year, he became an associate professor at the University of Southern California, where he teaches a multidisciplinary class and media lab in world building. The idea is to get a new generation of film and interactive media students to consider different ways of approaching narratives in a transmedia world.
"I’m interested in how to fundamentally change the way we think about the creative process and allow this thinking to inform every step you take," he says. "Rather than starting with a script or adapting a story from one medium to the next, just start with a great idea and a group of collaborators around it. From there, you could find a series of stories that could be developed and explored in a variety of different media."