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Deconstructing 'Watchmen' -- Part 1

In the first part of our in-depth Watchmen coverage, we get an overview from Alex McDowell, the production designer, and John DJ DesJardin, the overall visual effects supervisor.

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In Watchmen, actor Billy Crudup was shot with facial acquisition markers on his face and a form-fitted helmet with blue light-emitting LEDs. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Imageworks. All images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. ™ & © DC Comics. 

For years, they've warned that Watchmen could not be made into a movie. After all, the graphic novel from Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons is the headiest and most influential ever written: a multi-layered and wildly subversive deconstruction of the superhero with enough politics and pop cultural references to make your head spin.

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Yet that didn't stop 300 director Zack Snyder from diving right in to make Watchmen come alive on the big screen, adding his own layers of pop cultural complexity while staying true to the graphic novel's basic narrative and color palette of purples, greens, yellows, pinks, browns and oranges.

Watchmen is set in an alternate 1985 America in which costumed superheroes are part of the fabric of everyday society, and the Doomsday Clock, which charts the country's Cold War tension with the Soviet Union, moves closer to midnight.

Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), Night Owl II (Dan Dreiberg) and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) comprise the crime fighting legion that have long since retired but are now swept up in a bizarre plot to avoid nuclear annihilation.

Indeed, Watchmen is the perfect fit for Production Designer Alex McDowell (Fight Club, Minority Report, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), with its kitschy look and complex layering of time and space. If you remember, McDowell is co-founder of 5D: The Future of Immersive Design, and you can't get more immersive than Watchmen.

And Watchmen is also the perfect fit for Visual Effects Supervisor John DJ DesJardin (The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions, Fantastic Four and X-Men: The Last Stand), who is a self-proclaimed comic geek. DesJardin oversaw 1,100 vfx shots, divided among several studios, including Sony Pictures Imageworks, MPC Vancouver, Intelligent Creatures, CIS and Rising Sun Pictures. McDowell and DesJardin provide an overview of their work in the first part of our coverage, while we offer a more detailed survey of the studios' contributions in the second part.

"Watchmen is all about details... it's all about telescoping time," McDowell insists. "The editorial tool is the way to turn the graphic novel into the film; you can get so much information across in a parallel way, and we approached the design that way. So this idea that you can embed these threads and cram stuff in parallel time really came across. But Watchmen is a traditional film in many ways. And for the designer, it's the density that's the challenge: the actual complexity was logistic. "There were many, many more sets than I've ever built in a movie (around 200) because of all the layering of time and space that we had to deal with, the character threads, there has to be so much material that has to be created to carry the story."

McDowell emphasizes that Watchmen is no next-gen film like 300: to adapt the graphic novel to the screen required more of a Tim Burton approach -- build as much as you can until you require CG. "I don't think there was any question of Zack doing another 300. In a way, he used greenscreen technology on 300 because it was expedient and appropriate for that world. The decision we made in the first meeting with Zack, the translation that you needed to make for this graphic novel, was inject this kind of gritty realism into the storytelling. This was not some squeaky clean world. But it was actually the dirty world that we live in, that it was occurring in. So it wasn't appropriate to copy the look of the graphic novel because the graphic novel is, you know, graphic, by default. But if one were to think of the same kind of comparison of Watchmen to other superhero movies, it needed to be grounded in a reality that you could believe these superheroes could exist."

In the alternative 1985 of Watchmen, New York had a graphic realism to represent society coming apart at the seams. Photo by Clay Enos. 

In the alternative 1985 of Watchmen, New York had a graphic realism to represent society coming apart at the seams. Photo by Clay Enos. 

In addition, Snyder and his fellow filmmakers came up with their own stylistic influences, chief among them Taxi Driver for the look of New York City.

"Taxi Driver is where we landed," McDowell continues. "It was appropriate for the period and it was appropriate for the political depth and the mix of pop culture. For me, it was a visual reference, and that was the New York we were trying to portray. Although they shot Taxi Driver on location, [Martin] Scorsese's stylistic eye applied to that New York was a step in the right direction for us. Take all of the substantive dirt of New York of that period, the decay, the dysfunction, the collapse of society that New York in the '80s represented. So we put those two mediums -- the graphic novel and the movies -- up against each other. And so in technical terms, it was broken down as any traditional film of the last 20 years where you have CG at your disposal for enhancement, for set extension, for Dr. Manhattan [who is an all-CG, performance captured character created by Sony Pictures Imageworks] and for Mars. But anything we could do to contain the action within a live frame, we would do. So we built our New York from the ground up in Vancouver in a back lot that was an old mill -- three city blocks but we built it up only two stories. It looks in a way like the set photography from King Kong where we built just enough to contain 60% of the action. We had a 20-square-foot piece of the moon and a 60-square-foot piece of Mars and those kinds of things that were in-camera sets with a lot of greenscreen around. But we also had 15 news rooms because there was so much material on screens and press commentary going on and we had all of the sets of the back lot, the sets that represented 1939 to 1985 through six story strands. The opening title sequence alone [which tells that backstory] has 50 sets in it. It's really a crazy amount of layers."

Watchmen required 200 sets, including 50 in the six-minute long opening credits sequence alone. Courtesy of yU+co. 

Watchmen required 200 sets, including 50 in the six-minute long opening credits sequence alone. Courtesy of yU+co. 

Another big influence was Dr. Strangelove for the Pentagon War Room scenes between Nixon and Kissinger. "The graphic novel didn't actually reference Dr. Strangelove, even though they were thinking about Dr. Strangelove. Well, we directly reference Dr. Strangelove. Essentially what we're saying is this thing represents Dr. Strangelove, and this thing actually happened [in this alternate reality]. So we're giving you this twist and giving you a piece of this archival footage of Nixon and Kissinger in this Dr. Strangelove set, which Stanley Kubrick actually stole from reality. On some level, with Watchmen, you have permission to rewrite history."

Meanwhile, two of the biggest design challenges were the Owlship and the Mars Glass Palace. For the former, McDowell and the art department had to think of the aerodynamics of that very simple shape: How does it fly? How do you get in and out of it? How do you see in and out of it? "It's got to have a historical context and a social context," McDowell suggests. "How does this vigilante die who went underground to build this thing? How does he manufacture it? So you've got to literally take an oval on a sheet of a paper and break that down. You've got a physicist who's got to work with the raw materials of the time, and he's going to the military junk yards and in the end we've got this thing that's a mix of a submarine and a helicopter-huey and a vertical take-off jump jet. So we reverse engineered from the original iconic object. And not compromise how it looks in the graphic novel and plays its role in the dramatic storytelling."

Constructing the Owlship required breaking down a simple oval shape and figuring out how someone would build and fly it. Photo by Clay Enos. 

Constructing the Owlship required breaking down a simple oval shape and figuring out how someone would build and fly it. Photo by Clay Enos. 

As for the intricate Glass Palace, McDowell says it was one of the ideas from the graphic novel that didn't go far enough in terms of design. "We just took the notion of a quantum clock that goes from Dr. Manhattan's wristwatch to [Mars] in terms of references to time. And then knowing that he's dealing on a quantum level and altering molecules at will, that these things have pretty magical qualities, these giant plates of glass that are throwing clouds of dust in the Mars landscape. They can also intersect with one another perfectly. So Darren Gilford, who is a production designer on (the Tron remake), came on board as an illustrator for about a month and the two of us collaborated on this quantum clock design."

For DesJardin, the biggest CG challenges, not surprisingly, revolved around Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach's mask, Mars and Karnak, the elaborate home of Ozymandias in Antarctica.

"I talked to Zack about Dr. Manhattan during our first discussion at the end of January 2007. Somebody had already done a test with a guy dressed in blue. We rejected it and the way Zack is with physicality, you have to create it from scratch. We decided early on that it would be a CG character and Zack knew he wanted an actor to play that character to get the right performance. The other consideration was what you need out of the set to mean something. We went back and forth with that, but we had a lighting issue. I knew that one of the great things we could get out of our guy was if he could do his own lighting. That's the hardest part to me, trying to figure that out in advance. Do you have to ray trace all through the room and back figure? How many CG objects are we going to have to build as stand-ins to catch light? Do I want to pay attention to all of that? Maybe that's the key to the whole Dr. Manhattan solution. I realized you could benefit by thinking a little more in the real world. What if he really did cast his own light? I said to Zack, 'LED lights are really diffuse and are really low wattage and don't generate that much heat. What if we had a glove as a test and light everything up and film that? And whoever is doing CG for Dr. Manhattan can track that arm? And what if we rendered it to look like a lit surface?"

Sony Pictures Imageworks' animation team used side-by-side reference of the live-action photography so that the CG Dr. Manhattan matched the performance. 

Sony Pictures Imageworks' animation team used side-by-side reference of the live-action photography so that the CG Dr. Manhattan matched the performance. 

So, for Dr. Manhattan, the first order of business was to try a black glove test with blue LEDs. But as soon as he saw the results, he realized it needed to be a white glove to push the light out even more, so they achieved the desired result with a white glove. From there, Sony Imageworks, under the supervision of Pete Travers, set about tackling the most powerful superhero of all time.

"Thank God, Dr. Manhattan is a glowing blue guy, because that helped pull him off as a CG character," DesJardin adds. "And he's very stoic. That's what Pete and I were laughing about the whole time. I'm really glad they got Billy to do it because he was so into it, and I'm really glad what Pete was able to extract from his performance because there is no good algorithmic way to get everything. Sony does have ways of tracking so we can get a certain percentage very quickly. And then you have to do the extra animation because you aren't getting the nuances of the expression or even the body. Or there were times when we copied the body exactly but when you see it on big CG characters, the movements are a little too quick and I had to tell them to soften it and take that edge away.

"And for that bizarre love scene in which there are four Dr. Manhattans, the beauty of it was we shot four guys in light suits. It was our normal repeat pass routine. When I first met with Pete, we discussed how I wanted this to go based on what I'd seen in other movies or on past shoots. I wanted it to be regimented and the same. I gave everyone on the crew a cheat sheet on how to shoot Dr. Manhattan so every day was the same and everyone got into the rhythm of it. The same calibration pass, whether Billy was there or not, they could shoot it clean, even if it was wild you could have something for somebody to paint him out with. And we knew from the first test that it was going to work and that's to the credit of Zack and Larry Fong, the DP. They really embraced the physical effect that the lighting would bring to the movie."

Rorschach's ever-moving inkblot face was done via tracking dots and deliberately mirrored the intentional expressions in the graphic novel. Courtesy of Intelligent Creatures. 

Rorschach's ever-moving inkblot face was done via tracking dots and deliberately mirrored the intentional expressions in the graphic novel. Courtesy of Intelligent Creatures. 

And yet there were happy accidents that could not have been pre-planned. "There's a shot cut from the theatrical release where Manhattan is looking down at Janey by the Christmas tree and his hand is really close to her face and he pulls it away and there's a glimmer that goes across the lip gloss, and it's the real thing -- it's not from our CG," DesJardin explains. "And Pete and I would look at that and say, 'See, who would've thought to do that after the fact?' You wouldn't because you're just scrambling to try and get a thousand shots done. So it's good that all of that detail is there, some of it for free, as we like to call it, 'above the line lighting.' It's all in the performance.

Rorschach, meanwhile, was the second challenge. "We had to figure out what he had to wear so he could perform and we could see his performance. The compromise there was Michael Wilkinson, the costume designer, made a blank mask with the texture of the mask on it. The cloth texture is actually a painted texture. We cut the eye holes in it so Jackie could see and we could see his eyes. His mouth was covered. I put little green tracking marks in specific areas that I talked to Intelligent Creatures about. And the wardrobe and makeup people put them on the masks.

"There were two ways we approached the inkblots. The way we started, which was a surprise, was Alex was going to have a dedicated artist make around 15 hero patterns. Originally, we were going to use real ones but we found out that the actual Rorschach blots are copyrighted. We made similar ones and out of those hero ones, Zack selected the ones he liked. And we gave them names like St. Bernard or Tusken Raider (the sand people in Star Wars). And I turned them all over to Intelligent Creatures along with extracted cues from the graphic novel by Dave Gibbons. I realized when I went back through the graphic novel that he's doing something intentional here with the patterns so I wanted to copy it. The problem was there were so few blots you could see because so many of them are in shadow or they're blocked or he's in silhouette. So I told Lon Molnar [the visual effects supervisor and CEO] at IC, let's use the book and figure out where in the dialogue the blot has to resolve what's going on. Zack was really good about letting us run with that. His only concerns were how distracting the movement was and how it fit. I didn't realize until we were toward the end of the movie that Zack wanted it to percolate slowly and Lon and Jackie and I had a different idea that it would animate more toward what Rorschach was saying. And Zack let us do that some of the time and suggested we tone it down other times. He's a really nice guy and isn't going to tell you not to do something. The other thing Zack decided that was nice was to make it a saturating cloth with the blot moving through it. That was an extra complication for us because now you have shades of gray around the edges."

Nite Owl II and his Owlship in front of the greenscreen night world of Watchmen. Courtesy of Moving Picture Co. 

Nite Owl II and his Owlship in front of the greenscreen night world of Watchmen. Courtesy of Moving Picture Co. 

Meanwhile, Mars posed its own set of challenges, and even though Snyder likes to storyboard the entire movie himself and not rely on previs, he allowed DesJardin to work with Fong and Frantic Films on prevising Mars.

"The environment was pretty well laid out by art department sketches and it was a very small set, 25 feet by 25 feet," DesJardin continues. "The Glass [Palace] was always part of the Mars planning. The main thing that we did there was when I looked at the first concept paintings that Alex showed me, I always had questions about how this huge thing was supposed to move. It was a great structure because they took off from Dave Gibbons' concept, which was quite literal in terms of the clockworks. And Alex told me he had the idea that maybe it was more than that: Manhattan could see everything and visualize these complex concepts that other humans couldn't and that he would put that into the design. He made this almost impossible to move thing that wouldn't collide with itself and yet would be able to resolve itself. And it was hard for me to wrap my mind around because a lot of big shapes were going to collide into each other and that was going to be a problem when we set about moving it. So what I did in the beginning was I sat down with Frantic Films, and I said, let's just previs all these shots that Zack's boarded to get the angle right and then we'll make the Glass Palace move the way we think it ought to move with no regard for collisions; just let things interpenetrate; we'll do the whole thing and get Zack to buy off on the scale of the movement and we'll start from there.

Creating the world on Mars presented a whole new set of challenges, requiring R&D as well as previs to convey the proper look. 

Creating the world on Mars presented a whole new set of challenges, requiring R&D as well as previs to convey the proper look. 

"So big rings would come out and they'd crash into each other and we'd keep going. We did the whole sequence where it comes out of the ground at a certain speed, it rotates at a certain speed, when it's flying it looks a certain way. The inner parts move a lot faster than the outer parts -- that was all good. And then I told Pete we needed to get an R&D team at Sony to figure out how we were going to rectify this collision issue. And we went around and around for a couple of weeks. We didn't want it to be real magical: it should have some physical property to it that showed you what was happening. It was kind of staring at us in the face. Since Alex had built it so it was segmented with these big rings, we could quite simply have pieces that avoid each other because avoidance is a behavior that we could sim easily: it's a Maya plug-in type thing. So we decided to do that for every little piece in there, so if one piece came across another piece, they would move out of each other's way and go back to their original path once they cleared that space, so you get a nice flutter movement at all the points of near contact. And then it would go back to normal, whatever normal turned out to be. The cool thing about the whole process was that it grew out of the design, so it seemed like the right thing to do, and Zack loved it."

Then there was the look of Mars itself, which they took from JPL footage. The only question was what Snyder had in mind. "He liked the idea of even in the daytime always having some contrast in the sky, so it could be a bright yellow sun with some ammonia yellow sky around it, but then it would fall off to black on the edges," DesJardin adds. "And the dirt was basically the red/orange dirt. And a lot of Mars we got from pictures Pete took on a holiday to New Mexico and the Grand Canyon, so we borrowed a lot of that terrain, especially for the big pullback shot where the Glass Palace is against the sun. There was a lot of consideration for how dense the aberrations were in the glass because early on we decided that we didn't want transparent red glass -- it was going to look very small. So we had to get the dirt and the air bubbles just right and there was a lot of wedging that went on, especially against the sun, because that's when you really get the density and you want it to build up so it gets more opaque the farther you get away from it. And then there was the whole shattering thing. It was a huge simulation that took forever to get all the breaking and all the pieces."

(Left) A frame from the graphic novel Watchmen of Karnak in the Antarctic as drawn by co-creator Dave Gibbons. (Right) The finished Karnak in the movie. 

(Left) A frame from the graphic novel Watchmen of Karnak in the Antarctic as drawn by co-creator Dave Gibbons. (Right) The finished Karnak in the movie. 

As for Karnak, McDowell and the art department provided a lot of good reference and detail. "I just gave it to MPC in Vancouver and we'd get together and meet right there on set. And then they'd go back and make a bunch of storage containers in the snow. They were very thorough in their research on Antarctica and Karnak and we inherited some very good geometry for that set and for that exterior that we built upon. The idea behind it is that Adrian [Ozymandias] has plucked actual Egyptian artifacts out of the desert and dumped them in the snow. We had to get that look as well as the rest of the steel and the concrete for the new stuff in there. Then we had to couple that with Zack's desire, again, to have a real contrast-y daytime environment. He wanted the sun to be real low during the whole Karnak sequence. Just balancing some very interesting lighting ideas with tiny set pieces we had, especially when the Owlship crashes or when Rorschach walks out onto the snow, with these huge surrounding Antarctic wasteland environments. And it was MPC's biggest job to try to get that look, which we would then hand off to Sony for the Manhattan cuts or Intelligent Creatures for the Rorschach cuts. What wound up being the big CG destruction with the Owlship crashing into Karnak was originally discussed as an interaction with a miniature. But the more I thought about it and went over the previs with Zack, the more I was really married to the all-CG concept. So I told MPC to just crank up the particle simulation for the snow and the ice and we'll get it that way. And that's how we were able to get that iconic moment from the graphic novel."

In "Deconstructing Watchmen -- Part 2", read the detailed survey of the studios' contributions.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.

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