Alex McDowell Talks 5D Conference and Immersive Design

Production Designer Alex McDowell discusses the impetus behind 5D: The Future of Immersive Design, the upcoming conference at the California State University at Long Beach.

The upcoming conference 5D: The Future of Immersive Design identifies 5D as a new approach called immersive design, which uses digital tools to design immersively in virtual space.

Alex McDowell (Watchmen, Bee Movie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Minority Report), the production designer who's been on the cutting edge of the new paradigm shift for digital workflow, discusses the new conference that he's spearheaded: 5D: The Future of Immersive Design (, Oct. 4-5 at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, California State University at Long Beach. The keynote speaker is Henry Jenkins, author of Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, who will discuss the cultural process of convergence. Autodesk is the presenting sponsor, and AWN is sponsoring one of the workshops, "Pervasive Previs: How to Achieve More Immersive Visualization," moderated by VFXWorld editor Bill Desowitz, Oct. 4 from 1:00-3:00 pm. Desowitz gets a 5D sneak peek from McDowell.

Bill Desowitz: Let's start with what 5D is and how it relates to this conference.

Alex McDowell: 5D is a conference based on the notion that design practice is changing to a large extent on the rapid change in technology and digital tools. And as designers have adopted more and more the 3D visual design tools, they have actually created commonality between various forms of media, so what 5D does is identify a new approach to design called immersive design, which uses digital tools to design immersively in virtual space, creating a collaborative workspace that effectively pre-envisions and visualizes the final product for the immersive experience. So there's a much closer connection between the design experience and the design practice and the user experience and the user practice. So immersive design effectively describes both the beginning process and the end result of the process, and its relationship to the audience or user.

And in the process of describing and defining the immersive design approach to this broader field, we've had to define the space within which the immersive designer works and can move freely. So traditionally there has been a separation between five distinct forms of narrative media: film, television, animation, interactive and gaming and architecture. Because of the development of this new toolset and a new mindset for the designer, the artificial boundaries -- the membrane between each of those different media -- has essentially dissolved.

BD: A convergence…

AM: Exactly. So there's a convergence between these large and separate industries, at least on the landscape of design. And it may be simply described as a practice of world building that is applied equally to each of those spaces. You design and build a world in architecture for the occupier to experience. You design and build a world in gaming for the user to become immersed in. And you design and build a world in animation, TV or film, again, for the audience to be immersed in, even if the experiences are radically different.

Alex McDowell spearheads the conference. The production designer has been on the cutting edge of the new paradigm shift for digital workflow and recently worked on the highly-anticipated Watchmen. © Warner Bros.

BD: And this is different from many the other disciplines...

AM: Right. It's not the same for a director or a cinematographer or a writer: the people who have traditionally strong and central roles in film but don't necessarily maintain those same roles in games and interactive media. But a designer essentially does. If one imagines a narrative developed in a multiplayer space, for example, that is architecturally mediated, so there's an architect designer in building the environments virtually, there's a narrative involved that is user-driven. How do you build that narrative or how do you control that narrative? And how do you write stories completely in an immersive, interactive, non-linear space? You do it by making the environment intelligent. You do it by making the environment a trigger for story. And that's a very different idea from the traditional linear approach to storytelling.

BD: Let's talk about the new digital workflow paradigm.

AM: There is no linear and there really is no pre-production, production and post-production anymore. There is just a single environment within which the film, the game, the piece of architecture is developed, and it starts with a core idea and one builds on that section by section. As ideas become more concrete, you essentially add more detail to that central idea. It expands in a completely non-linear way globally in all directions, feeding information out and receiving information in to the central design hub, which is a collaborative space that allows a director and a game designer or an architect or an engineer: all of the people who are involved in making that piece of art or that product. They are all able to dip in and out of this immersive, non-linear workspace. And it develops intuitively. It's much closer in many ways to the traditional fine arts practice than the far more [conventional], media-based practice like 2D animation or traditional filmmaking or traditional architecture.

Gore Verbinski, director of the Pirates of the Caribbean series, on the panel

BD: How has this impacted your work?

AM: The non-linear mindset has allowed me to design in a completely different space. It was always difficult for me, personally, to think in terms of designing in two dimensions (in the pencil-based or CAD-based surface and then translating it). I found it very inefficient. What I've liked since Minority Report is the ability to sculpt in space: of imagining an idea fully-formed in a three-dimensional way and then moving directly into a design space, working, by the way, with experts for more capable than I. Like many production designers, I'm just trying to describe the thing in my head and pull together this multi-stranded, three-dimensional within which story takes place. But we now have the design tools to make a very literal translation of that interior imaginative space, which one always thinks of dimensionally, can now be seen almost immediately in a very good equivalent of the same multidimensional space. One can develop intuitively the creative process within that virtual space until it becomes more and more material

BD: Let's bring this back to organizing the 5D conference.

AM: The conference came about in a discussion between the University Art Museum of Long Beach, of which Chris Scoates (the director) and I are on the advisory board, and the Art Directors Guild Technology Committee, which Tom Walsh created and asked me to chair, and the impetus, was gathering knowledge. How can we harness the knowledge that we get from our daily practice and disseminate it out to the members? It started off dealing with large issues in the ADG's Perspective magazine to interviewing people who are practicing digital technology and processes. That was a good audience, but a limited audience. And we started developing the Art Directors Guild Wiki, which was a way of archiving all of that knowledge. But the 5D conference became the logical next step as a form where we could bring together a much larger group of people. And as more and more people became involved in that discussion, it was clear that it was equally of interest to architects like Greg Lynn or Habib Zargarpour, senior art director at EA, LA or Peter Frankfurt from Imaginary Forces, John Tarnoff from DreamWorks Animation. At the same time, Chris Scoates was having the same dialogue with his board about where visual arts were going in relation to technology. And he and I have over the past two or three years have been co-curating a series of art/science projects at the University Art Museum of Long Beach every six months or so called "Project Lab," and those have very specifically had to do with the razor edge between art and science. So that completed the conversation and they were able to offer Cal State University Long Beach as the venue for the conference. This allowed us to put on this first conference at a decent scale and to do something that is essentially a not for profit collaboration, so we've had to pull in a lot of favors from a lot of people and get generous support from a number of sponsors [including Audodesk], who were at the core of the discussion and heading toward a sellout, two-day event. We are anticipating around 1,000.

BD: Let's talk briefly about the program of panels and workshops.

AM: There are six panels: "Reality and Hyper Reality: Envisioning New Design Paradigms in CG Animation," led by John Tarnoff and with architect Evan Douglis, designer Scott Robertson and Gore Verbinski; "Narrating Space," led by Peter Frankfurt, which is essentially an architecture panel, with Greg Lynn; Joseph Kosinski, who is directing TR2N; Dr. Jerry Schubel, director of Aquarium of the Pacific; "New Television: The Media Blender" is led by Anne White, who is a brand communications executive who I worked with on Minority Report, who is very smart and focused on where the mediated living room is going and where interactivity in television is coming into convergence; with Mike Benson, who is [evp, marketing, ABC Ent.], Kevin Slavin, who is managing director of Area/Code and Robert Tercek of USC School of Cinema-TV; "Bigger Bang: Colliding Science and Design," led by John Underkoffler, who was science advisor on Minority Report, with Paola Antonelli, design curator, The Museum of Modern Art; Chuck Hoberman, who is one of the great contemporary inventors known for designing "transformable structures," and David Kung [vp, creative director, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Online]; "Building Worlds: Designing for the New Frontier," led by Scott Fisher, who is known for his pioneering work in virtual reality at NASA, which is essentially the game panel, with Doug Church of EA, Tracy Fullerton, director of the EA Game Innovation Lab, Qingyun Ma, dean of USC's School of Architecture, and game designer Jordan Weisman; and then myself doing a panel called "Design in Flux," with Rick Carter, production designer from Avatar, Tino Schaedler, who is an architect who transitioned to being art director for Harry Potter, Sebastian Sylwan, who is senior industry manager of film for Autodesk, and Habib.

According to McDowell, there is no linear pre-production, production and post-production in the new digital workflow paradigm. © Alex McDowell/Matter Art and Science 2006. 

And there are workshops with Autodesk doing virtual camera, Disney Imagineering doing designing for theme parks, AWN, of course, doing previs. We're finding that previs and visualization are becoming a primary theme of the conference just because they are at the center of everyone's conversation. We've made a conscious decision not to go all out on the 3-D stereo conversation. That's going to be our central theme next year. We want to focus this first year on the core design practice, which involves visualization and everything that means for the non-linear workflow and toolsets. Autodesk is doing that, ILM is dealing with that, Imagineering will touch on that.

BD: What are your goals for this first conference?

AM: Our goal is to, without having any idea of what the answers are, start the dialogue as to what's over the next horizon. What in our immediate future is going to change? And how the exchange of knowledge that we gain by putting this very broad and varied set of experts in the same room together can exponentially increase the overall knowledge of designers working in narrative media as a whole? And what that does to the landscape of what we create.

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.