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'In Time': Designing a New Kind of Future/Retro LA

Alex McDowell tells us all about the time motif in Andrew Niccol's provocative new sci-fi thriller.

The time clicks down for all the characters in In Time. All images courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Production Designer and 5D co-founder Alex McDowell (Man of Steel, Watchmen, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) had a welcome change of pace with the small-scale In Time: the dystopian vision of LA by director Andrew Niccol in which time divides class. But then design challenges come in all sizes, and McDowell relished the opportunity to work with the visually adept Niccol (Gattaca).

"Andrew Niccol is a fantastic visualist," McDowell suggests. "His references are very enticing and he has a great sense of style. He put together a visual bible, but the balance was marrying the vision and tone of the film with his interesting budgetary and time constraints. There was very little prep. But with a vision at the helm of someone who doesn't wish to be constrained aesthetically or intellectually is a challenge I like a lot.

"But how do you take the raw material, in this case, the city of Los Angeles, and transform it into something [unique]? It has the smallest sets and the smallest number of sets that I've ever worked on for a film. And probably not since music videos in the '80s have I designed so few sets. But we were altering large swaths of landscape. We went into an industrial neighborhood at the LA River and Sixth Street (underneath the Sixth Street Bridge), which is an area much filmed. In fact, we filmed the second Crow there.

This is what cities will look like in the future.

"So we made some decisions about what the city of the future should look like, and one of those was this genetic mutation that's been imposed on the population -- the ticking clock notion -- which has effectively reduced the population over the years. So it's a very sparse landscape that we find ourselves in. And there's a lot of wasteland, decay and destroyed buildings. The idea of the urban sprawl of LA, I think. And we made our town center the opposite of urban: it's two-story, industrial. It's certainly in a city, but it's very far on the outskirts of the city as we would understand it. What we did was something that I think is effective in film, which is to strip away the density of everything. We went to areas of LA (south and east of downtown) that have never been filmed that are desolate, not romanticized, the areas in between."

They applied the notion of low, industrial-looking square buildings and mixed it with some '30s and '40s brick and then converted it completely into something that looked like a third world town, something that reflected extreme poverty, where the colors become more intense, and so that it's a very colorful and depressed area at the same time. That was for the time poor, who live in Dayton. The polar opposite of that, which is the time rich, live in New Greenwich, and they have spectacular architecture, extreme luxury and their color palette is very muted and cool. But they were playing with the metaphors of time: having too much time and too little. In fact, the map of the city is a clock face with each of the territories working in a circle around a center. Thus, the metaphor of time is everywhere.

For the future look, McDowell incorporated new technology into familiar current architecture and design.

Most of these influences are from the early '60s to late '70s, with a touch of hip-hop '80s thrown in. Plus many vehicles used for the film are actually '60s and '70s models, but heavily modified to make them look futuristic.

"So we took pieces of LA and imagined a future that went from wasteland to wasteland," McDowell continues, "and used that as a connective tissue, whether it was inside the LA River, which was a conventional way of dealing with desolation, and then down to Vernon, Maywood, Florence and then Rosemead and San Gabriel. And then we cut that in with the desolate town under the runways of LAX. The LA River becomes the dividing line and there are a series of toll bridges that you have to cross and they get more and more expensive for the time rich. The upscale world was a combination of Beverly Hills mansions and Century City with bits of high rise downtown. They were all pieced together into one town.

"It's a very segregated society that serves as an allegory about the loss of the middle class. It's pressing home the idea that the time poor run everything: there are no vehicles, there are no skateboards. They're just running to keep up and the electronic money boards for pricing are constantly changing, while the wealthy hide inside their vehicles for protection against the outside world."

McDowell worked with supervising art director Priscilla Elliott, Chris Farmer, Todd Cherniawsky and digital art director Vlad Bina. Key illustrators/modelers included Igor Knezevic, Harald Belker (vehicles) and Ron Mendell (vehicles). The set designer was Andrew Reeder and Martin Charles worked on graphics.

A look at some of the time props.

In Time had a small amount of stage sets. Most of the design work was done around existing locations that were brought in 3D through a very simple process. They used Lidar scanning only in one case, the rest of the locations being rapidly blocked using an ad hoc ortho-stitching pipeline from nodal scout photos and in some cases Google Earth data. They also used off-the-shelf stitching software such as PanoTools as well as Maya camera projections. That was enough to assemble in Maya almost all of the locations both in LA and in Century City and then proceed to block set extensions, set dec proposals and in some cases render simple light studies accurate to geographic position and current date.

This centralized 3D database proved essential both for design and camera decisions. It was used by set designers (imported in Rhino) for construction documents and design details, by VFX (Luma Pictures) to assets the scope of set extensions, by Set Decoration to quickly calibrate cost and specifications of their work and last but not least by illustrators for correct spatial representation.

"On the whole, though, it was a lot of compositing for every citizen who has clock on their forearm," McDowell adds. "It's a combination of florescent paint makeup effects, a couple of prosthetic arms with backlit panels just for close-ups. But when you see it up close, it's digital and post composited."

Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. He has a new blog, Immersed in Movies (, and is currently writing a book about the evolution of James Bond from Connery to Craig, scheduled for publication next year, which is the 50th anniversary of the franchise.