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'The Terminal' Diary

Production designer Alex McDowell provides a behind-the-scenes look at the design and construction of the crucial terminal from Steven Spielberg's The Terminal. Includes QuickTime movie clips!

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Alex McDowell is the man whose task was to bring the terminal to life as seen in this early Photoshop illustration of the main concourse. All images courtesy of Alex McDowell unless otherwise noted. & © DreamWorks LCC.

Steven Spielbergs The Terminal focuses on a visitor from Eastern Europe (Viktor Navorski, played by Tom Hanks) who finds himself trapped in an unfamiliar world when he lands at JFK International Airport, and discovers that his homeland has suffered a sudden political coup that prohibits both his entering the U.S. and returning home.

To shoot the story required that a huge archetype of an international airport be constructed as the key set, creating a space that also becomes one of the key characters of the film. It is a rare opportunity for a production designer to be able to design a single set for virtually the whole movie, and one that I relished!

As a child, I flew thousands of miles, often unaccompanied, between school in Britain and my parents in the Far East. As an adult in the 80s, I emigrated from London to live in Los Angeles. So Ive long had a fascination with the airport both visually and as a border. An airport is at once attractive, stimulating, cold and dehumanizing. It is a place that is designed to move people through it as efficiently as possible, with an enormous hidden infrastructure to fulfill this role and also to control this flow socially and politically. Like an iceberg, 9/10th of the airport is hidden from view. Designing the film gave us access to the hidden layers, as it will for the audience.

As a designer, I am aware that the best design is often that which the audience never notices. The hope is that the audience watching The Terminal, rather than marveling at the scale of the set (and in reality we all spend time in spaces much larger than the set we built), will never doubt that we filmed in a real airport.

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Palmdale Airport, Hangar 703 became the home of The Terminal's terminal.

The set was constructed at Palmdale Airport, Hangar 703, which measures 750' x 300' x 70'. The hangar was built for the construction of B2 bombers, and then used to modify 747s. The massive Main Concourse set measured 360' x 270' x 60', and the freestanding, atrium-style structure contained three stories of fully dressed stores and smaller sets. Some 650 tons of steel were used to create the terminal's framework, and a certified structural engineer had to approve the plans for the self-supporting structure, which featured two sets of operational escalators. The floor included 58,000 square feet of polished granite imported from China, and approximately 112,000 square feet of glass opened out onto a view of the airfield a 650' x 48' painted backing.

Driving the design of the film in relation to vfx and digital planning was the need create a setting that would allow Steven to concentrate on the drama without having to worry about the production implications of any visual effects shots, despite the obvious problem of almost an entire wall of glass that looked out to the interior of a hanger. Steven wanted to treat the set as he would a location, and did not want to storyboard any of the film.

These two factors set the path by which we approached all the 3D planning for the film.

Rather than using previs to flesh out a storyboarded sequence, we decided to set up a number of large camera moves that would provide an overview of the virtual set that Steven could use to become familiar with the vast space. We knew that the length of time we would be shooting in the set, if he commented favorably on particular angles and moves, we'd end up seeing them in the film. Camera, grip, lighting, ADs and the designers could use all the previs overview data for advance planning in the set. And of course we could adjust the set to minimize any areas he didn't think he wanted to use, before we physically started to build those areas.

The decision to use a painted backing was a way to give Steven complete freedom in his set. He approaches his shooting so economically that if we had put a giant greenscreen outside the windows, he would have often avoided shooting in that direction. By using the backing, he could decide in post whether he wanted to enhance the view with any DMP or 3D animation, or let the backing stand alone.

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The production design and the visual effects teams collaborated early to plan out the film's more complex visual effects shots illustrated in this previs sequence.

By keeping the early vfx planning in-house within the production and art department, DreamWorks was able to give the effects houses specific shots and moves during the award process, and we were able to specifically discuss our approach to the airport views, and how CG would be used to tie together the various interior and exterior set elements.

After the vfx was awarded, we collaborated with vfx producer Rob Yamamoto, supervisor Charlie Gibson and vendors Paul Bolger of Digital Filmworks and Robert Stromberg of Digital Backlot, and decided that we would use previs and 3D design within the art department to take the exterior model to a much higher degree of finish than would normally be attempted during the preparation and production period.

Because the architecture of the exterior of the airport was largely fictional, the set designers were able to carry the interior design through to the exterior detailing to retain the believable reality of the airport. Ben Proctor then developed the exterior design in XSI into a highly detailed model that was exported directly to Digital Filmworks and to Stromberg for matte painting.

I believe this process represents an important trend to develop the initial stages of the design of the whole film as a close interlock between analogue, digital and previs. This creates a wealth of design that originates a flow of data through preparation to post-production, maximizing the use of the centralized design for many departments with minimum redundancy. This also leads to a more efficient and collaborative relationship between design and vfx, and to a more consistent look for the film.

Design Personnel:

Supervising art director: Chris Burian-Mohr, art directors: Harry Otto, Martha Johnston, Bruce Hill and Brad Ricker. Graphics art director: Francois Audouy. Decorator: Anne Kuljian. Props: Doug Harlocker. Key set designers: Maya Shimoguchi, Luis Hoyos and Theo Sharps designed the principle space in pencil, in collaboration with the 3D set designers. The 3D set design work in the art department was carried out primarily by set designers Richard Reynolds and Victor Martinez for the architecture; previs was by Ron Frankel, Patrick McEneany and Ben Proctor of Proof, with Ben continuing to add architectural detail and texture to the previs model. Ben also worked as an illustrator; during the back and forth with the 3D Exterior Airport model he took specific previs views of the Main Concourse interior to fully lit, textured and dressed stills that we used as the basis of lighting discussions with Steven, director of photography Janusz Kaminski and gaffer David Devlin. Mark Goerner and Daren Dochterman worked in 2D and 3D to create all other concept art.

Diary:

End of January 2003 Im in Brussels for a week, researching a film for DreamWorks Ive taken time off during the last weeks of shooting The Cat in the Hat to do this early research. Mid afternoon, Steven calls he is in Paris for the Catch Me If You Can press junket and asks if I would like to change tracks and join him for a film called The Terminal?

As it happens, I've been hearing about this for a while a film about a man trapped in an airport. Im impressed with what I've heard, and, yes, I'd love to do it for many reasons primarily for the chance to work with Steven again and to see what he will do (and have us do) with such an unusual story and setting. And its a wonderful design challenge to create a single space that can sustain the story and the audience for the length of a film.

February 10, 2003 I wrap with The Cat in the Hat and start a short stint production designing a stop-motion animation project, The Corpse Bride (produced by Tim Burton and directed by Mike Johnson), with the idea that DreamWorks don't yet have a start date for The Terminal. As soon as The Corpse Bride starts, I get word that The Terminal is going to ramp up. We decide that I can work half weeks on both projects for a couple of months overlap while the one ramps down and the other starts up. It is not a great plan, but it works, and I'm very grateful that this time has allowed me the opportunity to work not only with Steven but also with Tim and Mike on such a fascinating pair of projects.

February 2003 We set up The Terminal art department in small offices at DreamWorks, with Chris Burian-Mohr as art director, Theo Sharps as set designer and researcher Amina Dieye. Chris and Theo start generating very small scale models based on our initial thoughts, and Amina scrambles to put together a huge stack of images of airports of the world for my first meeting with Steven.

Within the circle lies the construction task at hand.

First step is to sit down with Steven and show the research that Amina and I have put together. By rapidly skimming through hundreds of images with him and he gives feedback faster than any director with whom Ive worked we establish the rules for the visual direction. Steven responds positively to the majority of the pictures and models that I show him, and we can begin.

Because of the increased national security post-Sept. 11, 2001, it is going to be impossible to attempt to shoot the main Terminal set for the length of time that we need in an existing airport. In addition, the control of large numbers of extras, complex lighting and the ability to design a space that although appearing realistic is essentially fictional, all support the idea of building the set.

To accommodate a set that is as large as two football fields end to end and side-by-side requires finding an enormous construction space. After an extensive location search, there are only two buildings in Southern California that are large enough an old blimp hangar an hours drive south from Burbank, but impractical for many reasons, and a hangar in Palmdale, an hour north of L.A. in the Mohave Desert. Palmdale is the first choice for the good condition of the space, and it has a second hangar adjacent where we can build the other key set a closed satellite wing of the airport under construction that Viktor Navorsky converts into his home.

We set to work designing the main set to fit the Hangar 703, and walking into the empty space for the first time, it is impossible to believe we will fill it. And in the end the 70' height of the hangar is barely enough to contain the set and the massive grip and electric rig above it.

The hangar is in a military secure area and is owned by Los Angeles Airport Authority, so there are many regulations to overcome, not least that we have to cut a large hole in the concrete floor to accommodate our practical elevators.

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A photo illustration of the terminal versus the finished set.

February 2003: Meetings with DreamWorks producers Michael Grillo and Steve Molen make it clear that Steven wants to fast track the film for a summer 2004 release, allowing us just enough time to build the main set, and barely enough time to design it.

The conceptual design goes very fast. There really are not many alternatives the airport terminal needs to feel familiar and somewhat generic, have a scale that gives it realism and wear the materials synonymous with modern airport architecture glass, polished stone, stainless steel, painted metal. We decide that using real granite for the floors will be economical despite its initial cost the cheaper alternatives like paint will require constant maintenance. I tap into some of the common, even banal language of modern airport architecture, the reference to airplane forms and design the building as a curved section of a wing, which gives a wonderful opportunity to explore complex intersecting forms while staying true to the generic source.

February 2003: David Devlin comes into the art department to spend a week of initial work on the lighting design. A month later he and Janusz both spend time in the art department looking at the developing model and at the walls covered in reference material of architecture, finishes and lighting. Having David and Januszs input at the beginning of preparation is an unprecedented and vital opportunity to design the set around the possibilities of the lighting.

It is a major aspect of the design to create a set that will satisfy the lighting of a story that takes place over 11 months. We will need to portray every time of day through all seasons, as well as to use the huge amount of artificial lighting inherent in any airport. The set will be primarily top lit for daylight, which means a fully transparent ceiling, and all the attendant structure it demands. In effect, we are designing a gigantic light-box. We will also attempt to codify the film using the color temperature of the practical lighting to represent the different strata of the airport. From green florescent lighting for the service areas to warm and subtle down-lighting for the upper level first class lounge area, through a daylight-balanced combination of top lighting florescent and tungsten spots for all the retail areas.

March 2004: The offices get too small very fast, and we move the art department into the same offices at Universal that we had for The Cat in the Hat, where we will remain until it is possible to move the key designers to the construction site.

In the main terminal set, we are creating something closer to architecture than a film set, and I set up a team of designers who will work together more like a group of architects than a film art department. We will meet daily around an evolving model, and give everyone a chance for input in the overall design. Our team consists of some of the best designers in the business working in analogue: Maya Shimaguchi, Luis Hoyos, Theo Sharps; working digitally: Richard Reynolds, Victor Martinez. I also bring in concept designer Mark Goerner.

March 2003: We continue to search for airports around North America. Although the Main Concourse itself is a build, we need Customs and Immigration area, Baggage Handling both in the Immigration Hall and below ground, a runway, the curbside and street entrance and a large complex of offices. We also need to start deep research of the inner workings of an airport. We visit LAX Terminal 3. Although were not going to be able to shoot there with all the post-9/11 regulations, the airport administrators graciously take us through the whole structure physical and administrative from arrival to curbside. Its fascinating to penetrate the transparent membrane that restricts and directs the flow of passengers. Each airport we visit fascinates me more as a British émigré myself, seeing behind the scenes of the immigration and airport security and how much it has changed since 9/11 is a glimpse into the heart of American politics.

As much as we are building a piece of architecture that represents the generic airport, we are also trying to create a metaphoric space that will represent a modern western city, and America itself. The research we are doing now will also give us the basic for a symbolic language out of the complex structure of an airport.

When Viktor arrives from a small town in Eastern Europe, he is an Everyman who in his innocent gaze reflects the corporate, consumer-driven, bureaucratic and highly stratified society that the audience inhabits. In the process of being forced to live in this space that is designed only for people in transit, he humanizes it.

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A previs dolly of the lounge.

Each airport we visit I look for clues that will allow us to stratify the airport into the components of American society the luxurious first class lounges with valet assisted showers compared to florescent lit locker rooms in the bowels of baggage handling; the streets of fast food stalls competing with one another, the high end stores and tourist traps; cleaning closets tucked into corners behind art displays; a childrens playground in the main thoroughfare; TVs everywhere; signs and advertising everywhere; and the endless corridors of behind the scenes bureaucracy.

March 20, 2003: At this point in preparation Steven says he would like the setting of the film to be pre-September 11, possibly around the Millennium Celebrations, mostly so as not to have to confront the security complications that the portrayal of a contemporary airport might raise. Eventually, however, we settle on 2004-2005 as our time period, which radically changes the security aspects of the script.

An interesting and unprecedented relationship develops within the production as Sergio Mimica (first AD), Patty Whitcher (producer) and I spend many hours trying to make sense of the complexity of an airport in regard to security and how it affects the design of our space while satisfying the needs of the script. Its a very satisfying interlock of heads of department who often do not spend enough time working collaboratively in pre-production. We speak with the newly formed Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, airport administrators, security services, Food prep companies, airlines and the top people in Homeland Security.

We are trying to resolve the mechanics of how a passenger could be held secure within an international airport. We show Steven a typical flow diagram of an airport revealing the security boundaries between customs and Immigration. It seems that the secure area that most closely represents the needs of the script would be an International Transit Lounge. In reality, in the U.S., it would be impossible for a passenger to be held for any real length of time inside the airport.

The key security area is the transparent set of doors that lead to the exterior. Steven sees a customs exit at LAX that he likes, which uses revolving doors that are secured exits only, with no reentry. Viktor has to be able to see the outside world, with people on curbside, taxis and freedom, without ever being able to reach it. He returns to these doors throughout the film. We will end up building this part of the set twice, once on the main set and once to match at Mirabel, to really emphasize the reality of this transitional area.

March 20, 2003: We show Steven four airports that are shut down or otherwise accessible for shooting: JFK Terminal 4, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Montreal (Mirabel). Steven prefers Mirabel for the architecture, and that it has an area where we can build offices that will overlook the high Immigration Hall.

Mirabel Airport was built for the Olympic Games in Montreal. In the past few years, it has serviced a decreasing number of charter and freight flights and in six months, it is scheduled to close down. Now, it is almost abandoned and is perfect as a film set: it is functioning and well maintained but has few of the restrictions of most airports. Its also a pretty good match for the look of JFK Terminal 4 that we will see in our exterior views.

April 2004: Chris Burian brings on a talented model-maker Andrew Jones, who will put together a small team to build a really detailed model of the set that can develop concurrently with the previs model so that all aspects of the design are being dimensionally tracked and updated both for the eye (through lipstick cam) and digitally.

Eventually Andrew and his team will also build the diorama of New York that convinces Viktor that hes seeing the real city, until he gets close enough to see that its a model and the Statue of Liberty is missing.

April 14, 2003: The first product placement meeting discusses video screens, I love NY footage, baggage carts, the division between food court and retail canyon, escalators, playground area, the commercial logos that will emphasize our N.Y. locale, a N.Y. oriented gift store with giant head of the Statue of Liberty, the centralized newsstand, a double height department store all to portray the airport as a microcosm of the city.

Mid-April 2003: Ron Frankel from Proof starts work on previs. Although its not yet certain how Steven will want to work, we know that previs will be an inevitable part of the process, and, by May, Ron has set up a small team to start transferring all the design work into their animation (XSI) environment. The initial explorations of the set lead to the positioning of Viktors entrance, and sets up the powerful reveal of the Concourse architecture in contrast to the monotonous and institutional Immigration offices that are all that Viktor will have seen up till this point in the film.

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An initial 3D rendering of truss ceiling versus the final set.

May 1, 2003: We move into Hangar 703 to set up the Construction shop and a small art department office. The 3D design of the trusses are in the hands of the steel foreman, who begins to lay out the physical steelwork and jigs to start working with the huge rolled steel members.

Early May Steven sees the first previs movies. He has been clear that he does not want to storyboard this film so our approach to previs is a little different from the past. We create overview studies of the space, based on scripted action using each sequence as a way to explore the space and how the camera might move within it. When Steven sees these movies, he can make adjustments based not on specific camera angles or narrative beats but on how he wants the camera to move, and what he wants it to see. Its an insightful example that contradicts many directors belief that using previs ties them down. Here, using previs liberates for the director, informs for the crew and enables rapid modifications to the set design.

Mid-May 2003: Ron Frankel has taken the architecture of our Terminal and laid it into a satellite photo of JFK New York, placing it between Terminal 3 and Terminal 4. He now adds Mirabel Airport so that the Arrivals Hall of Mirabel fits the JFK curbside. Working out the geography of our fictional airport is a perfect job for previs. As the design develops, we determine where the satellite departure gates, Immigration Hall and Offices, Arrivals Hall, Baggage Handling, main runways, direction of take off and landing, etc., all are in relation to one another. By this time the previs model has been color coded to separate and identify locations, sets and the fictional architecture.

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This previs shot literally flies into the terminal.

This is a use of previs that isnt often considered but one that I use increasingly. All through preparation, previs will provide accurate data for everything from crowd size and direction to signage and (constantly updating) location of stores, as well as giving a basis for screen direction during shooting. All in addition to the specific planning of the vfx work.

May 2003: Decorator Anne Kuljian, with whom Ive worked with on several films, including Minority Report, begins sorting out the complex product placement aspects of the food and retail areas. Since much of the furniture is likely to come from Europe, which shuts down for vacations in August, she must get her orders in early.

Although we find the process of product placement distressing and tedious, for a film like The Terminal it is essential, in order to add that layer of retail dressing and consumer graphics without which an airport would completely be unrealistic. But it is an aspect of the film that will have Anne and me agreeing that we must work on a fantasy next so we can get a break from those corporate politics!

May 2003: Graphics art director Francois Auduoy has an enormous task in creating and/or coordinating the graphics of an entire airport.

He starts by contacting The New York Port Authority. They put him in touch with Dutch graphic designer, Paul Mijksenaar, who has designed award-winning wayfinding systems for Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, and recently for the entire New York Airport system, including JFK. (http://www.mijksenaar.com/index2.html).

By chance Paul is on his way to a conference in Las Vegas and can swing by the L.A. art department. He agrees to sign on as a consultant, and proves to be a huge asset to the look of the film. As Francois develops the wayfinding signage, following the specifications developed by Bureau Mijksenaar for the New York Port Authority, he sends them off to Paul to be vetted.

During the preparation of the Main Concourse, Francois creates 32-lit wayfinding signs that not only create an evocative look for the airport, but actually direct the actors within the correct geography of the Terminal. He uses 15,000 square feet of frosted vinyl. Nine sign shops in Los Angeles are employed to create signs. At Mirabel Airport he creates more than 600 JFK-style signs, so many that real passengers landing at Mirabel in the last few days before shooting think theyve arrived in the wrong country.

June 2, 2003: Getting to the point of starting physical construction has been much harder than anticipated. Every blueprint output from the 3D for the truss system has had to go out to an outside engineering company. The same will be true for all the structural parts of the set, for obvious reasons when one is effectively building real architecture. However, within our usual crazy film industry time frame, this component is not able to turn drawings around as fast as we had anticipated. It will end up having a dramatic knock on effect.

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Compare the final shot from the film versus the previs rendering of the scene.

June 2, 2003: I travel first to JFK Terminal 4 and then to Montreal with our location manager Mike Fantasia and producer Patty Whitcher. In New York, we look at the runway and architecture we will be matching and converse with Security and Airport Administration to substantiate the basis of our security set-up. In Montreal, we finalize the areas of the airport we plan to shoot, and again attempt to pinpoint our geography.

Mid-June 2003: Steven travels back and forth to the East Coast. He takes with him a disc of previs movies, which proves most helpful during our few long distance conversations. We also send with him a small-scale version of the model, regular updates of the previs model and updated concept artwork.

June 6, 2003: Preliminary vfx vendor meetings. With our in-house previs already quite advanced, we are able to show accurate architecture in relation to potential CG shots, and to discuss the construction of the 3D model within the art department as an approach to minimizing the outside vendor work.

June 9, 2003: We decide to move the set of Viktors apartment from Universal Stage 12 to the second large Hangar 704 at Palmdale. The reason an enormous cost is being charged to DreamWorks by Universal for terrorist insurance. In the long run this decision helps the final stages of the Main Concourse as the crew can prep both sets in Palmdale side by side.

June 16, 2003: The escalator pit is dug at Hangar 703. Its a great relief to finally see machinery cutting through the thick concrete floor. If we had not been given clearance to dig the pit for the escalator we would have had to raise the entire floor of the set.

June 23, 2003: The construction crew moves out to Palmdale and into Hangar 703. First order of business is the giant steel truss members that will support the clear span roof, made of large corrugated plastic sheets, as well as the huge amount of lighting equipment that will actually sit on a steel deck that is part of the truss roof. There will be more than 100 4K Pars lighting the socks suspended within each truss member, and 20 giant 100K Soft Sun instruments to light the Ultrabounce cloth rigged above the set.

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Wide views of the terminal under various stages of construction.

Construction coordinator Steve Callas puts together a steel team that consists of every certified welder in the film industry, and they set up at one end of the hangar. They will create each truss on a gigantic jig and then lift each one into place started at the furthest end of the set and working back. We will build the set from the top down. Once the truss is hung, we set the steel structure below it and then build the floors within the steel skeleton. 650 tons of steel will be used in building the structural frame.

July 7, 2003: Ben Proctor joins the previs team to focus on the 3D model of the exterior airport. He first builds the wing of departure gates that ends in Viktors apartment and joins that satellite to the main concourse. This is an area of the airport that will be shown under re-construction, where Viktor wanders to desperately looking for a bed, and eventually makes this abandoned wing his home. In its own way, it is a complicated set it has to tie directly into a wing of Mirabel Airport, and goes through several stages of on-screen construction, culminating in an elaborate mosaic fountain that Viktor builds for Catherine Zeta Jones character, the flight attendant Amelia.

Ben will also start building the high-res model of JFK Terminal 4, in order to combine the elements into a 3D model of the view from both Viktors apartment and the Main Concourse set.

July 14, 2003: Air conditioning begins to be installed in Palmdale. To accommodate the amount of cooling the set requires in the middle of summer in high desert we add air vents as a design element throughout the concourse that will be patched in to the air-con units.

July 15, 2003: Todd Coakley of JC Backings travels to JFK to shoot day and night high resolution photography in preparation for the digital matte painting for the backing.

Robert Stromberg takes the high-resolution digital photography of JFK and combines it with the 3D model from previs to create a beautifully lit and rendered painting of the view from the Main Concourse toward our fictional runway. The view is combined from elements of Mirabel Airport, JFK Terminal 4 and runway, and our fictional architecture.

An added element that makes full use of the capability of 3D we distort the wire-frame image before Robert gets it, to compensate for the ultimate curve of the backing around the set. This is highly effective when the backing is finally viewed the perspective in the backing remains true to the camera from every angle inside the Departure Gate.

JC Backings will take a print of Roberts painting scaled at 1" to a foot, and transfer it to six 100' x 50' canvas panels, which are painted on traditional vertically rolling paint frames at Sony Studios. The completed paintings will be stitched into a single 600' x 50' image that is rigged 40 feet away from the glass wall of the set.

Im increasingly in favor of using painted backings, as opposed to translites, particularly when one can composite and massage the source image digitally. A painted backing can be lit for day or night, backlit and front lit, and altered to camera. For The Terminal, thousands of tiny lighting elements were physically added to the surface, so that flashing runway lights and lighting in terminal and hotel windows change the night look of the set.

This giant backing, one of the largest ever painted, saves a potentially large number of greenscreen and composite shots, and adds in-camera production value and atmosphere to the whole set.

July 21, 2003: More than 200 workers join the steel crew to start work on main set. We set up full art department offices at Palmdale and many of us start traveling 100 miles a day to and from the Universal offices. The tedium of the drive is alleviated for me when I find a back route through the Los Angeles Mountains 40 miles of hairpin bends and magnificent scenery.

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The previs helped director Steven Spielberg see wide array of shot choices within the set.

Beginning of August, 2003: We are now working our construction crew six days a week, 24 hours a day, running day and night shifts. This pace will continue until just before the production moves onto the set. Many departments grip and electric, air conditioning, set dressing, et al, are working side by side to integrate elements into the structure as it takes shape. Although it was originally planned that we start shooting the Main Concourse set at the start of principle photography on Oct. 1, it is now clear that this will not be possible. Patty and Sergio propose to DreamWorks that we start shooting in the Immigration Offices (a location set near LAX), then move to Viktors apartment in the adjacent Hangar 704, allowing Steven and Janusz to monitor the final dressing and lighting of the main set. At the same time, it will maximize the remaining preparation period. Steven agrees to this change.

August 15, 2003: I land in New York with my wife Kirsten to speak at a Design Conference, and we find ourselves trapped like a couple of Viktor Navorskis at JFK Terminal 6 during the East Coasts worst ever power outage. Eight hours of being wedged on the floor between frustrated travelers is enough we head back into New York City as the power starts to return.

August 18, 2003: With some considerable budget overruns, Chris Burian, Patty Whitcher and I analyze what elements of the set could be modified to reduce or remove costs, and present Steven a proposal. He is still on the East Coast, and I use high resolution lit and dressed images from previs to indicate changes to the set as accurately as possible so that Steven can provide feedback long distance. I propose modifying the central Starbucks island in several ways, and removing a rear staircase, and moving the entrance to the concourse closer to the terminal. Steven agrees to several of these changes.

August 2003: Steven, Janusz and I select dark polished granite flooring in early discussion. This will have the effect of doubling the set in all directions the lighting and storefronts will be perfectly reflected, which is the effect I most often notice and photograph when I travel through airports. Reflection and transparency are key to the design of this set.

The glass and transparent materials add another reflective layer to the finish of the set and the texture of the film. We play with many degrees of transparency, adding a graphic frosted pattern to the glass wall overlooking the runway, plus a diffusing layer of corrugated plastic louvers outside the glass. This same plastic material is used as the light-transmitting ceiling of the set. We combine window glass and mirror, tile and reflective metal throughout the retail areas until the whole area vibrates with reflection, diffusion and light.

August 25, 2003: The granite starts to go down in 5' x 10' sheets. Steve Callas has bought a commercial stone cutting saw and had a crew trained exclusively to lay the granite. The stone has the added effect of imposing a level of reality on the set that we hadnt fully anticipated. In the end, it is the polished stone floor and the working escalators rather than the scale and the glass and the steel that take visitors aback.

Before the stone is laid the electrical and video cabling has been cut into the concrete floor, which meant that we needed to pre-plan the exact placement of all the TV monitors, Flight Information Displays and a great deal of the practical lighting.

The TVs and FIDs are another huge planning issue. Several channel options need to be available, with enough material to cover the 11 months of passage of time. Some story exposition takes place on fictional TV News Viktor eventually comprehends the uprising and coup in his native country by seeing it on a series of TV monitors, which also coincidently lead him through the entire strata of the airport.

August 4, 2003: Set dressing begins in the Main Concourse. Anne Kuljian and her team of 30 set dressers and two buyers have to dress on 23 stores and 13 food court restaurants. They have six weeks to complete all the stores, departure gate, food court and first class lounges. Because almost every store wants to send their representatives, Anne must impose a very tight schedule on which store will install when and for how long. The dressing team installs 1,400 lighting fixtures in the main set as well filling 30 large planters with full sized trees and plantings that have to go through seasonal changes.

The set dressing starts on the ground floor where the crew is protected from the overhead work still continuing on the trusses and ceiling, and then move floor by floor through the set. The mezzanine floor requires a fully functional United Airlines departure gate area and involves extremely complex negotiations with the company that ultimately supplies the gate equipment, curbside dressing and the First Class lounge.

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Steven Spielberg (left) in his terminal. Director of photography Janusz Kaminski.

August 13, 2003: Steven and Janusz walk through the Palmdale set. The set is still very incomplete, but its a chance to talk about the scale and relationships of the various set elements, and to determine what works for Steven.

September 15, 2003: The gantry is struck. One of the most complex operations in the construction and rigging of the set has been the conflict between needing to carry huge truss components from one end of the set to the other and the rigging of the huge Ultrabounce reflective cloth directly above the truss. In order to segue cleanly from one operation to the other, key grip Jim Kwiatkowski and rigging grip Charlie Gilleran have built a gantry crane that can be removed as soon as it finishes its tasks.

September 16, 2003: The Solari Flight Departure Board is installed. This wonderful prop is a product placement item that Anne Kuljian found in Italy. It had been installed for years in Milan Airport and then removed as out of date. But we love the split-flap action and it ultimately becomes one of the strong graphic elements of the film.

A fully operational Flight Information Display System is created to display realistic flight arrival and departure information for 51 departing flights and 49 arriving flights. This information is controlled via a main video control center that feeds this data to the giant split-flap Solari board, five large LED screens and 30 CRT monitors located throughout the main concourse. The information can be synched to specific scripted action and all the boards will auto-set to the time of day and action that the ADs call for.

September 2003: At this point the construction budget starts to run into serious difficulties. Weve made dramatic cuts and changes to the set, but the large 24-hour labor force is so expensive that its very hard to reduce costs significantly without slowing down, and we cannot afford to do that with the other departments stacked behind us waiting for access to all corners of the set. I have to face Steven and the DreamWorks producers to explain the situation, and agree to make radical changes in the monitoring of the progress of the set.

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A picture of the escalator area under construction versus the finished set.

From this point on, Patty meets with Steve Callas, Chris Burian and I in daily budget meetings, and slowly, with her help, we are able to bring the budget back into some semblance of control. Its a terrifying place to be when theres no way back but only the need to keep going into potentially deeper trouble, and the whole production breathing at your neck. It is our good fortune to be surrounded and supported by a tremendous crew that does not panic but continues to push forward.

October 1, 2003: We start shooting at the Immigration Offices, in a modified location near LAX. This set provides the visual foil to the Main Concourse and the bureaucratic layer in the strata of the airport. Its banal appearance reflects a careful study of U.S. security and immigration offices a look that I find fascinating. Probably from spending too long in such places.

October 5, 2003: Final lighting test on the main set. Jim and Janusz set up some big camera moves to test the Technocrane in the space. The dailies give an encouraging glimpse into what we have in store when the set is finally lit.

October 10, 2003: the shooting crew moves out to Palmdale, to begin shooting Viktors apartment. At the same time, our Canadian crew starts work in Montreal on the modifications to Mirabel Airport, and on the jazz club, which we find in a fluke when we wander into the closed down airport hotel. Inside I see a perfect 70s time capsule a perfect look for the Ramada Inn bar where Viktor reaches his goal.

October 16, 2003. The Main Concourse set is complete. Although he is shooting in the hangar directly opposite, Steven has resisted visiting his largest set in its final stages of completion. Its Stevens reputation that he wants to approach his key sets as if they are extant locations to try to retain as fresh a reaction to the set as it will be for his actors, he often will not visit a set during final construction. On Minority Report, he left his walk until a couple of days before shooting, to the nail biting of all. This set is 10 times more nerve-racking for us months of shooting still to take place here, and will it work?

Finally I hear that Steven has crossed over the vast expanse of tarmac between the hangars, and that he and Tom Hanks are already on the set. Trying not to look too concerned I hurry across, to be met by a golf cart driving toward me and as it pulls up the sound Ive been hearing resolves into hands clapping Tom and Steven shouting, hand shaking no moment in my career more satisfying or as emotional.

June 2004: A couple of weeks before the release of the film I begin to get feedback from vfx producer Rob Yamamoto about the finishing of the film, and the extent of the visual effects work.

The backing has received enormous compliments from all, but the biggest is the fact that the final vfx shot count is 77 of which only 15 shots are associated with the views from the Main Concourse window. There is virtually no 3D animation, and just a few digital matte paintings to enhance the view through the departure gate glass. The backing has exceeded its brief, and become another example of the correct blending of the most sophisticated digital technology with good traditional art.

McDowell, who is a staunch advocate of using previs to help break down barriers between pre-and post-production, is currently working on Tim Burtons Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in London. He has also been a production designer on Burtons The Corpse Bride, The Cat in the Hat, Minority Report and Fight Club, among others.

With thanks to Lili Ungar, Patty Whitcher, Anne Kuljian, David Devlin, Ron Frankel, Francois Audouy, Monika Gray, Rob Yamamoto and Andrea Carter for their contributions.

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