From the global scope of Indiana Jones to the spiraling hallways of Inception, two-time Oscar nominated production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas knows his way around an audacious big budget adventure film; with Passengers, though—from The Imitation Game helmer Morten Tyldum—Dyas saw an opportunity to enter an entirely new realm. Or, more specifically, to create it.
With Passengers, Dyas could design his own spacecraft—the starship Avalon—unbeholden to any one overarching visual concept. The space travel equivalent of a luxury cruise liner, the Avalon has the standard sleek space designs we’ve seen before, but also features a variety of shops and restaurants, and an immaculate Art Deco bar, inspired by The Shining.
Below, the Oscar nominee and ADG award winner delves into his quick prep for a demanding shoot, his pivotal experience working as an industrial designer in Japan, and the process of producing functional futuristic technology for the big screen.
You only had a ten-week prep on what amounts to a very high-budget film. I’d imagine that’s a pretty unusual circumstance to find yourself in.
It was always going to be a huge, calculated risk, really, from our team’s point of view. A film where you’re designing an entire spaceship—normally, a film like that is given six months or something to develop it properly.
This period of ten weeks, just thrashing out the overall look of the ship, the logic of the ship, how it was going to work, how we were going to establish our gravitational pull, all of these scientific design problem-solving exercises, as well as the way it was going to look and function as a commercial passenger cruise liner, all of that had to be done before we left, I think for [director] Morten [Tyldum]’s benefit. He felt more comfortable arriving in Atlanta with all of that in place.
Of course, I could capitalize on the brilliant local crew that I work with frequently here in Los Angeles, comprising of some really talented illustrators who took, in some cases, my extremely crude pencil sketches, and helped me develop those into some of the sets that you see.
Sometimes you get burdened with design by committee, and things can lose their rawness, their elegance, simply because you have too many people you’re trying to satisfy. That short time period really helped us, because there was no time to second-guess the design.
You’ve listed Frank Lloyd Wright as one influence on Passengers. Are there other architects or artists who continually inspire you in your work, or came in handy here?
Yeah, there is, but I think what I was able to bring to the table, that perhaps may not have been the case with other people, is just my unique background. I left the Royal College of Art in London in my teens, and graduated, and my first job was actually in Japan, designing electronics for Sony, so I was a real industrial designer. That was my first career.
I think I naturally excel at designing spaces that involve a certain amount of technology and interaction with people. You talk about Frank Lloyd Wright. Yes, of course, he is a go-to for every designer in our industry. In particular, my draw to Frank Lloyd Wright stems again from my four years in Japan, where the traditional Japanese architecture was an inspiration and springboard for Frank Lloyd Wright. It does tend to come up again and again in my work—I used Frank Lloyd Wright and Japanese architecture very freely in Inception, for example.
These are wonderful styles of architecture that lend themselves very well when you are trying to tell a story that is of a futuristic nature, and you want to immerse the audience in something that looks futuristic, but perhaps not so outlandish that you’re taken out of the film. There were a lot of people who wanted this spaceship to look like, literally, Las Vegas. I fought that very aggressively, because I didn’t think the architects of this ship, the Avalon, would have said, “Let’s make this look like Las Vegas!” They would have wanted an arresting, calming and nurturing environment for these people who have just woken up from a 120-year flight. There is an austerity to it.
What all goes into designing and producing set pieces of such massive scope?
People, their first question is, why did we build all these sets? Why was it necessary to build such an enormous scale? Of course, it’s not a decision that I make singularly. That’s not how this process goes. The director and the creative crew decided that they needed to put Chris [Pratt] and Jen [Lawrence] into these vast, lonely, cold spaces in order to extract these very realistic performances from them.
There’s nothing wrong with green screen—we used plenty of green screen to extend our sets—but there was a sense that if we simply put these actors in front of limited set builds, we would have performances that perhaps would suffer.
Of course, our world really was that spaceship, and it’s not something you can walk into a Home Depot and buy off the shelf. You end up with this wash of realization, week two of the design process, where you say, “We literally have to design and build everything, because nothing on Earth is going to exist the same way as it does in our film.”
Reportedly, in scenes involving the pods where the characters sleep, the set is staged so that certain pods are functional, some aren’t, and you only needed about thirty background actors to create the illusion of a vast space.
I’m really pleased you brought that up— I’d forgotten about that. We had worked very hard on the most basic level that you can in an art department, using cardboard models and little miniature mirrors, which I tend to use a lot. Very, very old school. There is nothing wrong with trying to make your sets look bigger than they really are by playing with scale. We ended up building each of those very elegant halos that surround a circle of pods—we ended up building four of those. We called them “pod trees.” We figured out, through Morten’s careful storyboarding, that for most of the shots in the hibernation chamber, we could get away with four pod trees. There were only two pods that worked as fully functional pods. In other words, the doors opened, they lifted up, they traveled along that track.
Yes, we had the wonderful [special effects supervisor] Dan Sudick, who was able to make all these crazy ideas that I had work. He really is one of the true geniuses, and certainly the savior of my life on several films now.
But you’re absolutely right. There was no point in saying, “Wow, we better build fifteen pod trees.” Within the enormous scale that you see, there are very carefully considered economies of scale.
One of the things that’s always interesting to me is that when people see the final film, if there is confusion about where the real set ends and the digital set continues, then in a way, we’ve achieved our goal. You don’t really want people to ever know where the lines are, where the build stops and the digital world continues. I never really see them as two separate things.
Many of the film’s lights, including the mentioned halos, are practical sources built into the set. How did you work with the DP to achieve your shared goals on the project?
I always love that, anyway. I tend to start the process with a sketchbook, and I go through, and I make little, tiny thumbnail sketches, some of which go straight to professional illustrators, who will draw up these ideas. Other ideas percolate in my sketchbook, basically like a diary.
One of the things I realized about these pods is that for a human body to survive a 120-year journey, it’s not actually enough to simply submerge them in liquid, and have IV lines into their bloodstream. The skin itself is a living, breathing organism, and it needs to be kept healthy. So what those halos are doing, they’re actually functional. They’re emitting UV rays on a timer so the body, even though it’s sleeping, is going to experience the passage of day and night.
It was a solid, scientific idea, and of course in conversations with the brilliant Rodrigo Prieto, it became a wonderful opportunity for he and I to paint the spaces with light. In particular, that halo of light over each of the pods, you can see how useful it is, in terms of lighting our actors, and also, for showing scale, because you’re going to see these pod trees disappear into this black, shiny space, but you’re always going to see these dots of light, which are going to tell you how vast the space is.
What goes into designing the functional pieces of technology seen in the film, including those pods?
I occasionally pull in a reputable engineer from outside of the film industry if we are designing a set that could involve some level of danger to the artists. That really is an insurance to make sure that we’re all doing our jobs. In the case of Passengers, we didn’t really have any sets that necessarily needed us to bring in an external opinion, so everything was done internally.
I mentioned the great Dan Sudick, who I worked with on Indiana Jones, and we created a lot of those effects practically for Steven Spielberg on that film because he wanted to continue the heritage of the first three films. So Dan and I already had quite a good shorthand, but for example, let’s talk about Arthur and the wonderful rig that allowed him to look as though he was sliding up and down the bar.
First came the concept sketches. Next, the more detailed 3D modeling was done on a program called Rhino—something, again, we use in industrial design. Once we’ve got that, we have meetings with Dan and his special effects team, who then pitch in and say, “This is a great design guys, but in all honesty, you’re going to need to have a piston here, you’re going to need to have a spring here. You’re going to need a thick enough tube to support this weight,” or whatever the issues are. We will then go back and further develop this design so that it accommodates the needs of the special effects.
At this point, I would pull in the CGI guys, because of course in reality, they’re going to be digitally removing the legs of our actor, Michael Sheen. They say, “Hey, the best way to do this is to have his costume all the way down to his waist, but below that, we’re going to need to put him in tight green pants, and use that as something we can erase.”
By this point, I’ve already put into manufacture—using basically digital CNC machines, we start to produce the pieces to build the structure that the actor’s going to be sitting on. At this point, Dan Sudick has already built a rig that shows a stool sliding up and down the bar at various speeds, so he can check that, and make sure that that’s working.
This all comes to a final dress rehearsal, where you bring in Michael Sheen, and you explain to him what the rig is, and he tries out the seat, which now spins, and slides along this rig behind the bar. Visual effects will probably take stills—they’ll take some digital materials so that they can actually look at that and analyze it, back at their own offices. And usually at this point, everything’s ready to go.
Ultimately, at the very end of the shoot, the rig that we built—the physical rig, that looks like what it’s supposed to look like—that’s given to the visual effects department so that they can LIDAR scan it and photograph it, so that they can texture map all these realistic metal finishes onto their CGI model.
And that’s the process, really.
To see Dyas’ stellar Passengers sets for yourself, check out the reel above.