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Scott Lukowski Talks Conceptualizing 'Watchmen'

Concept Illustrator Scott Lukowski discusses his experiences on Watchmen and some other high profile movies.

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An early idea of what Dr. Manhattan's lab would look like in Watchmen. All images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. ™ & © DC Comics. 

Scott Lukowski is a very busy concept illustrator. While Watchmen Production Designer Alex McDowell recommended him for this interview, it turns out that he's also worked on the new live-action Akira, Alice in Wonderland (his second stint with Tim Burton after Big Fish), Fantastic Voyage and Surrogates. Prior to these, he contributed to Transformers and Zodiac. And, previously, Lukowski worked in vfx by sculpting and fabricating miniature vehicles and architectural items from scratch as on-screen elements, including extensive work on Titanic and minor contributions to Stuart Little 2 and Spider-Man.

Bill Desowitz: So it was through Alex that you got the call to work on Watchmen?

Scott Lukowski: Yes, he called me to come in and interview as he was building his art department. That was early in 2007 and I met with him and Francois Audouy, the supervising art director. I had worked with Francois briefly on Zodiac, and briefly with Alex on The Terminal, but this was the first time I worked more closely with Alex. Although I wasn't on location with Watchmen [in Vancouver], all of my work was based in Los Angeles. But from what I could see, it had the same hyper-real feel as my experience on The Terminal. The photographs that I had seen and was referencing for my illustrations looked like reference material and not photographs of the set itself. With Alex, it's always like an information highway of design.

BD: And what was it like working with Zack Snyder?

SL: It was great. I came in early on -- I think I was the first illustrator to come on board. And the first thing I did was the Owlship: What would the Owlship look like? And Zack would constantly be in my office talking about this. First of all, it had to be grounded in reality, right? And what would a real life Owlship look like? How would it be manufactured inside and out? How would it interact with its environment? Let's research vertical lift vehicles so we can better understand how this thing could hover over a crowd. So I did multiple passes with that. How would the side door open? How would it unravel into a staircase? It also has to function as a ramp at some point. So that was a lot of fun and he was really into it. He has this personality that you think that you know him when you're communicating with him. He's so relaxed and is a regular guy and has very clear ideas of what he wants to communicate with you and get your feedback and really work as a team. Then as Zack got busier, I saw less of him. Paul Ozzimo ended up finishing the final design of the Owlship, and he created the 3D in Rhino and construction built the vehicle based off of that.

BD: What else did you work on?

SL: Dr. Manhattan's lab was an earlier piece; the Owlship hovering over the [New York tenement] crowd was also early on. Both of those were a lot of fun. I also worked on some of the interior views of Karnak, where Ozymandias is in the main gallery area where he has a lot of his ancient artifacts... So I did multiple versions of that: different views to figure out lighting and just a general overall sense of the volume of the space. With regards to the backlot itself, I did a painting that incorporated a lot of different elements that helped with visualizing what the final product would look like. A lot of the individual buildings had already been designed by various members of the art department. And my task was literally to bring all of these designs together and then paint it out for what it would look like in the real world. So it was this attempt at a photorealistic pass for what the final street would look like. I also did some prison designs -- exterior, interior -- the Hollis Mason house, fleshing it out from the exterior because it was a limited reference in the graphic novel. That was a bit of a challenge. I also did an early pass at the Owl Chamber. I believe Dean Sherriff realized the final version of that. And that was a lot of fun: grounding this character in this reality. Where does he build the Owlship in this abandoned subway interchange? And multiple versions of the Owl crater, the tenement inferno, where the Owlship comes out of retirement for the first time to rescue the people in a burning building. I did a couple of exterior versions of that.

Let's see, what else? The Comedian's closet -- his inner sanctum -- where Rorschach discovers that secret panel and the wall flies open and you can see everything inside. I developed that final look and incorporated the final weapons that Zack [had already worked out]. I was able to really bring that piece to how it appears in the final.

BD: So what was it like balancing fidelity to the graphic novel and bringing something new to make it a movie?

SL: Well, it's definitely a delicate balance. The last thing I wanted to do was create something that was too far removed from the original source. You can't always take a literal translation, so you have to realize what would work in a real world. Take the Comedian's closet as one illustration. In the comicbook, it's pretty barren: an empty closet with clothes hanging on hooks and a few weapons here and there. In the [movie] version, there's much more of a technical aspect: there are moving parts that look like they have multiple layers and panels and whatnot that could reveal additional layers behind that closet. The presentation is a little bit more fulfilled yet still based on what it was in the comicbook: this secret passageway behind the closet. Arrangements were kept in a very similar manner.

Same thing with the exterior streets: the tenement vista had to be fully realized. It existed as a generic representation of a city exterior in the graphic novel. We have to fill out the empty spaces with more detail. And that was a lot of fun. An almost literal translation [the way I illustrated it] was when the Comedian falls to his death and the camera starts in on the [smiley face] button in the drain and then pulls back. We knew what the exterior of the building was going to look like so that was altered but the street itself, the composition, everything -- I just finished it in a [painterly] way that included atmosphere and lighting and all the content that was visible in the graphic novel itself.

Lukowski first worked on the Owlship, trying to figure out how it would move and

BD: What software do you use?

SL: I use Adobe Creative Suite. I try to stay updated with the latest version. And the primary tool that I use is Photoshop. I've played a little with Corel Painter but Photoshop for me is just more of a full package: you can paint, you can recreate different styles through painting through custom brushes, you can deal with location photographs, you can do photo manipulation, incorporate a myriad of different things, most recently you can incorporate three-dimensional elements as well. If a set designer has a 3D structure or vehicle, you can now play with that in Photoshop in a very rudimentary way. Until I dive more into 3D, which I have very little experience with, Photoshop is 99% of my toolbox.

BD: Let's turn to some of your other recent work that has not yet been released: Akira, Alice in Wonderland, Surrogates and Fantastic Voyage.

SL: There's a lot of content to squeeze into one film [for Akira], so what they're planning on doing is making two features. When I worked on it, which was a year ago, we went full steam and they started slowing down on the visual element so they could continue to focus their efforts on the script.

BD: And what kind of look were you striving for?

SL: It was a very realistic take, based in reality and, as you know, it takes place in the very near future, and that, too, was very gritty. Oddly enough, Taxi Driver, which was a reference for Watchmen, was also a reference for Akira. So was Heat. So that was a great experience. Ruairi Robinson [Fifty Percent Grey] was the director and Martin Whist [Cloverfield] was the production designer. There were a lot of very talented people that started creating all of this fantastic artwork: the motorcycle, the city itself. Unfortunately, I can't go into too much detail.

BD: I understand. What about Alice in Wonderland?

SL: I was on that project for a long time. I think seven months and that was incredible. First of all, it's a project that perfectly matches Tim Burton, and I'm surprised it hadn't been done before by him. And my illustration efforts included a lot of things. I was one of many illustrators to work on the Hare house, I did a lot of Tulgey Wood, I designed the tree that the Cheshire Cat resides on, some interior Red Queen Castle architectural elements. And my illustration style was pretty much black-and-white, for the most part; completely desaturated, very grainy, a very painterly style that's very different from Watchmen and some of these other projects... it's very Old World in feeling, something that represents more of a charcoal rendering. But, again, it was all done digitally in Photoshop. The final piece itself looks more like it was a hand illustration... And it was so much fun. There's a lot to design for a project like that and it was a process that included a lot of talented artists. Rob Stromberg [Avatar] was the production designer and there's a lot of post work.

Concept images were photorealistic to capture the mood the filmmakers were going for. 

BD: Yes, I know. Sony Pictures Imageworks is doing the visual effects under the supervision of Ken Ralston. And it sounds like a fascinating hybrid of techniques.

SL: Yeah, absolutely. They're working like mad on it right now.

BD: And Surrogates?

SL: My part on that was pretty small: I worked a little bit on the FBI headquarters. There's a sub-level that includes this station that monitors everybody's surrogate. And it is this central hub of information. I was involved with a number of other people in developing the look of this sub-station, and the Watcher drone itself. And I was also involved a little bit with another illustrator, TyRuben Ellingson, in developing the main weapon along with the stim chair, which is where the real people lie and communicate with their surrogates.

BD: What about re-imagining Fantastic Voyage?

SL: I was one of a small team of artists that helped develop some visuals for that, maybe two years ago. And I developed some of the vehicles that exist within the body. And that was a blend of organic and mechanical elements -- very saturated, very bright colors, although dark as well because all the elements [also] provide the source of light. It was a unique challenge in that way too. I don't know the details of the project since I was involved, but I was recently contacted and asked if I was interested in being a part of that, as it's now ramping up again. Who's involved? I don't know. But I would guess that my initial involvement had to do with the pitch itself and now it sounds like they finally want to implement it and they have the entire film to design. But that's just my guess.

Check back to VFXWorld for more Watchmen coverage, including a two-part vfx article and in-depth interview with director Zack Snyder.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.

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