The production designers turning cinematic fantasy into design fact
Cinematic magic often lies in the nuances of spin that translates fantasy into reality and, conversely, reality into flights of future-facing fiction. Film is a world governed by mutated spaces, altered perception, alternative, parallel or evolved universes and, beyond the role of the director, it’s production designers on whom we rely to suspend our disbelief and, perhaps, even deliver a vista into the future.
Progressing the legacy of Hans Drier, the German architect who changed the face of production design in the 1930’s by bringing the architecture of the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier to Paramount studios (at the time adding a layer of never seen before verisimilitude to the fictional façades) is Tino Schaedler, a Berkeley trained Architect turned Art Director/Production Designer - the man responsible for suspending our disbelief in films such as V for Vendetta, Harry Potter & the order of the Phoenix and Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, via his digitally crafted environments.
Multi-disciplinary talent Schaedler, who spends the majority of his time designing for film but still also works on advertising campaigns and architectural projects with design collective ‘NAU’, switched from conventional architect to filmic alchemist in 2003 due to the appeal of the ‘intuitive’ nature of film design, something he felt to be lacking in pure architecture. “Architecture is – in an almost Greek way - much more about the pure, neutral, concrete definition of space whereas film is about atmosphere, the creation of a world born out of that space”.
Key to the creation of these spaces, and therefore the convincingness of the filmic worlds despatched in sci—fi or fantasy films is finding the “perfect dichotomy”, the synergy between what feels believable and pushing the construct to elevate the idea.Schaedler describes the design process in Harry Potter as journey that pulled on an aggregate of ‘real world’ influences combined with completely fictionalised, imaginative speculation. In one scene he creates a circular room modelled on a centrifuge, with wall tiles which reference the walls of the London underground (but blacked out for sinister effect) and fitted with a series of doors with detailing straight from the annals of Gothic architecture. The references are both historic and contemporary but the sum of the parts is an entirely new world, a hybrid space, based in neither.
As Schaedler is testament to, as Architecture and film develop in tandem, now even tooling up with the same software programmes, the dialogue becomes increasingly active and the leap from one to the other significantly easier. However it’s the combination of ‘real world’ skills with the lack of ‘real world’ bonds in the filmic camp (where the appliance of science can be governed by the imagination), which facilitates the possibility of prophetic design.
Widely cited by production designers’ and film-makers alike as one of the successful examples of futuristic design of all time is the 2002 film Minority Report, for which Production Designer Alex McDowell (under the direction of Director Steven Spielberg) pulled together a think-tank of leading researchers in order to create a film that would be truly representative of the ideas of the most informed minds in the world at that time.
In post-production notes from 2003, McDowell comments, “The film was a unique opportunity for a designer to create a future society that needed to be conceived from the ground up, with technology and environments that were required to be whole and real. The fact that the ‘future-reality’ aspect of Minority Report has resonated with its audience comes largely from the deep research into all aspects of the possibilities of this society, which in turn was made possible by the close contact we had with scientists, architects, sociologists, and ‘futurists”.
Director Stanley Kubrick employed a similar technique with the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (another film hailed as an exemplary in terms of futuristic design) for which he consulted the American Space agency Nasa on many aspects.
We may not yet be living in a world that completely mirrors that shown in Minority Report but many of the elements included, such as the control panels, which are operated by ‘interference gestures’ showcase technology that is already evident in common household entertainment systems such as the Nintendo Wii. The rest, the magnetic cars for instance, again included due to McDowell & Speilbergs research establishing such a thing was (and is) in development, is quite possibly on its way.
In a filmic context, where the restrictions of budget and the limitations of contemporary function slip to the peripheries something which Schaedler describes as a “childlike mentality” occurs, allowing concept/production designers to ask the type of questions that consequently mean they’re able to find solutions that sit a long way outside the box.
Another production designer to simultaneously straddle the fact/fiction midline and push ‘real-world’ design beyond it’s natural perimeters is Dan Walker, an industrial, product, gaming and automotive designer who was also the concept designer on the films Batman Begins and The Golden Compass.
Walker, who designed the interior of the ‘Tumbler’ (the Batmobile) in the film Batman Begins and weaponry on The Dark Knight, comments on his status as a someone who works across fantasy and factual projects, often very close together “what I bring to the table is that all the designs are feasible. They aren’t necessarily designed for longevity but they are fully designed for purpose”.
Director Chris Nolan, who famously only uses CGI if absolutely neccessary, commissioned five (fully functioning) versions of the Batmobile which, fitted with a V12 engine could jump chasms, travel at 80 miles per hour, and do ‘doughnut’ spins.
Walker also, very interestingly, alludes to the high level of synergy with the design industry overall, the reciprocal referencing that occurs – as automotive designers for companies as mainstream as Audi reference vehicles such as the very same Batmobile when developing their new models, whilst a product design company for whom Walker has recently worked (but wasn’t at liberty to name) is taking both technological and stylistic inspiration from the Batsuit.
With companies like Industrial design group Seymour Powell (for whom Walker used to work) working on the Virgin galactic project (Richard Branson’s foray into space) it’s maybe no surprise that the factual design is starting to meld more seamlessly with what used to seem like outrageous fiction.
As Walker says, “it’s like a snake eating its tail, it’s a self perpetuating, cross referential process”.
Taking it back to Architecture and the designers currently working on the re-make of the film Tron have heavily referenced Zaha Hadid (the flourescent lights observing an abstracted element of Hadid’s signature styling) whilst Tino Schaedler’s architectural practice have similarly referenced the original version of Tron in their design blueprints for an elite bank in Zurich, Switzerland due for completion later this year.
Schaedler observes simply that, “film takes something, digests it and spits it out in a different way”.
Tony Noble, production designer on Director Duncan Jones’ 2009 film Moon – a futuristic vision of dystopia set almost entirely inside one compact spacecraft - re-references the (sci-fi) genre itself in order to make the necessary inclusion of futuristically based science and technology palatable for an contemporary audience.
In contrast to the highly researched futurism in Minority Report, Noble employs a mix of complex, slick construction (the skeleton of the craft and the complex vehicles) with endearingly low brow styling (the craft is littered with post-it notes, coffee stains and even a chesterfield armchair) as if to ease the viewer into the future almost imperceptibly, securing belief by default.
The inspiration lies deeply in homage (films such as Outland and Silent Running instigated the production of the script) but the key was to create a space that would facilitate the psychological base of the film. Noble comments, “Rather than use rockets and blasters we all just wanted to make it feel like the films we’d grown up with in the ‘70’s, use our collective history to emulate our heroes and make it feel like it was the way it could really happen. We deliberately created a very recognisably human environment to make the story real”.
Bill Pearson, Special Effects Supervisor at Shepperton studios who worked on Alien with Ridley Scott when it was still considered a B-movie, and also on Moon, talks about how he believes the (comparatively) low budget was actually beneficial in terms of creating a “stronger sense of realism”. The lack of cash also meant that “function had to come before beauty” something which may well have translated into a more honest version of the real thing than any of them expected as the team were later invited to screen the film at Nasa, who reported that some of the design work was indeed very close to things they had been working on themselves.
Assuming that cinema is a major conduit for our creative dreams and also a platform by which we attempt decipher both the world around us and future which is to come, it seems appropriate to quote the writer Victor Hugo (paraphrasing designer Dan Walker) to say “There is nothing like a dream to create the future”.