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McDowell Talks Watchmen at 5D

Production Designer Alex McDowell took time out yesterday during his 5D: The Future of Immersive Design conference in Long Beach to discuss WATCHMEN with VFXWORLD. Last week McDowell got a glimpse of 25 minutes during a private screening. McDowell subsequently offered the first public viewing of an extended trailer during his Design in Flux panel that concluded 5D.

"I was obviously curious because you don't get to see when you're designing how it's edited, which is crucial to WATCHMEN because it's all about telescoping time," McDowell began. "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. The first 12 minutes of the film is the history of the Watchmen, who started as The Minutemen, and takes you through the very inception in '38 or '39 through the point at which the Watchmen are essentially unmasked."

McDowell then described the very dense, FORREST GUMP-like main title flashback sequence containing super detailed CG. "It embeds some of our characters into history in a very provocative and subversive way."

He added that WATCHMEN is all about details, many of which had to be achieved without CG trickery. "This is not 300. There is a massive amount of in-camera work..."

"And then we saw a great sequence of [Dr] Manhattan on Mars and his flashbacks, so we're really seeing how this explosion of time worked great that the graphic novel requires. And then we saw some Owl Ship stuff and a tiny bit of Rorschach. And so my overall [impression] is that the editorial feels fantastic and really going to be able to carry the story. The great thing for me is seeing the color timing because we really exaggerated the colors in response to the graphic novel and to stylize the film so that it could be simultaneously stylized and rooted in gritty reality. It was really gratifying to see how the color came through the dirt and the messy environments that were created… the prison has purple floors. And the costumes look fantastic for the same reason."

McDowell suggested that WATCHMEN did not demand the same greenscreen treatment of other graphic novel adaptations. "We took a much more Tim Burton approach to filmmaking, which is, 'Build everything until you can't.' We needed to build all of [WATCHMEN] New York, but in actuality we built three city blocks as a ground-up backlot in Vancouver. So obviously we need set extensions all over the place -- at the end of every street, above two-story buildings -- but nonetheless swaths of the storytelling in the city are completely framed within the physical sets."

Meanwhile, even though the Mars sequence contains the greatest amount of CG work, the most complex was Dr. Manhattan, with actor Billy Crudup being MoCapped.

"WATCHMEN is a very traditional film in many ways," McDowell reiterated. "It's using enormous skill in CG to do some of the FORREST GUMP-style compositing, making Mars work, all the obvious stuff like making the Owl Ship fly, but putting Manhattan into the environments was probably the biggest challenge. But other than that, 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 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."

--By VFXWorld Editor Bill Desowitz

SCI FI WIRE is hosting the new video journal for WATCHMEN.

Bill Desowitz's picture

Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.