PASSENGERS is an original sci-fi film currently in theaters, one that stars the two biggest box office draws in the world in Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. It has received raves for its spectacular futuristic look, a look designed by Academy Award nominee Guy Hendrix Dyas.
I recently had a chance to speak with Guy to discuss space, time and traveling to the stars.
Q: What kind of a look and feel were you going for with this film and how did you achieve it?
For this film we were looking to basically design a spaceship that we haven’t seen before. There’s an extraordinary history of science fiction spaceships that we can look at, everything from the Starship Enterprise to the Millennium Falcon, all of these extraordinary spaceships. It’s a daunting task to try and come up with something completely new but that was the goal, to come up with something fresh and new.
With the nature of the script being about passengers on a voyage, there were a lot of references to ships and so I looked a lot at cruise ships, and that really was where a lot of the inspiration came to design interiors that had radically different themes. For example, they’ll have a themed restaurant on a cruise ship and we took onboard that same notion. Ours obviously has a very international feel since these are the people of Earth, journeying somewhere else. You have a Japanese restaurant, a Mexican restaurant, a French restaurant and so on.
Q: What was your process like in working with director Morten Tyldum?
Morten was a tour de force, he’s a very bold director, he makes decisions quickly and concisely. In addition to his very direct manner, the other thing I liked about working with him was the fact that he left me with a lot of freedom to explore, and he never shied away from bold ideas, he was with me a hundred percent of the way. Morten had a huge undertaking on this film, with very challenging performances and he was a great leader and guiding light through the whole process.
Q: What kinds of software do you use when you're designing the physical sets and the lighting effects?
SketchUp is the common program that most people can use to determine spatial awareness, and you can get quite complicated with it. We also use Rhino, more engineering-based program for product design, and this program allows us to get into great detail for complexity of shapes. For example, the exterior of our ship was designed on Rhino.
Q: How do you decide which design elements will be practical and which will be digital?
That’s a two-pronged decision. Firstly, for the performances of the actors, what should be practical is what’s directly around them. Beyond that, at a certain point —determined sometimes by budget — things become digital in order to extend a set. The other consideration is really what’s practical in terms of space. Our director wanted a lot of set in order to make his actors feel isolated, to make them feel like Robinson Crusoe with that sense of isolation and so we needed the large physical spaces.
If you put an actor on a 20-by-20 foot square that’s green, we can replace all of that green screen with vast set extensions but the actor inherently feels as though they’re in a small box. So how can you get the performance? By putting them into a space that’s lit correctly and has all of the nuances of a real space, where they’re coming into a space that’s been dark for many years and then the lights come on, that tells you so much about what’s going on and can really inform their performances as actors.
Q: What kinds of pre-vis do you do and how does it change from the script stage through and into production?
The script is the blueprint but very often we get pushed in different directions as the project develops, it’s an ever-changing, morphing beast. And so you are going to have things change along the way. Pre-vis is a fantastic tool, it’s a moving storyboard that enables us to see how poetically images and characters can move within a frame in order to help tell the story.
I’ve used pre-vis a lot, I’ve worked with directors who’ve used pre-vis a lot, but I’ve also equally worked with storyboard artists and worked with directors who use storyboard artists. I think it’s case-by-case, where and when you use pre-vis but it’s a fantastic tool and a lot of fun to use. On this project, our visual effects team used pre-vis to create the flyby sequences of the spaceship. We gave them the 3D model and then they animated it and created the shots of the spaceship floating by, we also used it for the zero-gravity sequence in the swimming pool.
Q: How has the rise of VFX-driven films changed production design?
It’s opened up doors. Having visual effects progress as much as they have, it’s opened doors for designers. I don’t see visual effects as a negative at all, it only means that we have more opportunity at our fingertips to create more fantastic and never-seen-before worlds. The canvas is unlimited at this point and that’s why I think that (production designer) Tom Walsh rightly said that we’re entering a new golden age of design. This is in due in part to visual effects tools reaching the level of quality that they have today.
Q: Technology continues to change very quickly, looking ahead to the next two or three years what are you looking forward to?
This is a tough one because you hear whisperings about things coming down the pipeline but at the moment, realistically in the next three or four years I think we’re going to see further exploration of the tools that we have. Personally, I would like to see the art department and the visual effects department merge closer together and work from the same office as opposed to being in separate departments, so that there can be a stronger synergy between visual effects and what we design in the art department. That’s not so much tools as opposed to process, but I think it would affect the tools and bring a stronger unity to a film production.
Q: Anything you’d like to add?
From a design standpoint, Passengers enabled myself and an extraordinary team of craftsmen — from draftsmen to painters to carpenters to metal workers — an opportunity to try something very different in the genre of science fiction. What I love about this film is that it is a bold, original story, something that I hope we see more of in the future. Sequels and remakes are great, but what gives an audience more food for thought, more for their brains to digest and think about, is when they go and see an original piece of material and that’s what is most exciting.