Guy Hendrix Dyas is an Academy Award nominated Production Designer who has worked on films as diverse as Inception, Superman Returns and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. His most recent film is Passengers, where his original and stylish work earned him his second nomination. Guy took some time out to sit down with Starburst to discuss spaceships, The Shining and that fourth Indiana Jones outing.
Starburst: Good afternoon Guy. Firstly, congratulations on your Academy Award nomination.
Guy Hendrix Dyas: Hi, and thank you very much.
So, it’s day one, 9am, you have your coffee and a blank sheet of paper – how do you begin designing a film like Passengers from scratch?
A good question. Starting a project like this is interesting because you actually start before you start preparing for an interview with the director (Morten Tyldum). In this case, I read the script which was really talked about and on the blacklist, and I made some pencil sketches of the Avalon, which is the main spaceship in the film. I showed Morten what I had in mind and, unusually, I was hired on the spot which was very lucky.
You mentioned the ship and it’s such an original design. There are so many boxy behemoths in films set in space.
The only thing that was mentioned in the script about the ship was the shield at the front, and that’s the most fanciful part – this umbrella-like screen that deflects meteors and the like. The rest of the design actually came from sycamore seeds, and how they fall from trees. I tend to look to nature a lot when designing. It’s very dangerous to look at too many other films. I think seedpods were my inspiration due to their aeronautical design and their motion.
The ship becomes such a key part of the film, and it feels like you’d set out to design the most extraordinary hotel you could.
When I read the script I got excited about the notion of creating a spaceship that didn’t have the same aesthetic quality running right from the front to the back. When you look at other ships you pretty much get the same design all the way through. What I had the chance to do was look at ocean liners and cruise ships, and design it as a commercial vessel, so that when the passengers wake and before they leave to settle on the planet Homestead II, they can enjoy a range of facilities from bars and entertainment centres to art galleries and health centres. As a designer, this afforded me the opportunity to play with moods and colours. You could walk from the modern grand concourse into an art deco bar, and hopefully, the audience watching are as interested as the passengers would be.
Talking of the bar, that becomes the focal point of the story; where the characters spend much of their time and where all the key events seem to take place.
I should mention that Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was a huge inspiration for me. Jack Nicholson’s character regularly visits a bar and talks to an imaginary character. Morten recognised the similarities with that story and with Passengers, and so we took the liberty of including a little nod to The Shining. The sets are very different but there are similarities thematically.
We wanted to ask about the lighting effects on the ship. Was there an ongoing conversation and process with the director of photography regarding lighting certain shots and how the light effects were crucial to the character of the ship?
Yes, and it’s great that the ship is recognisable as a character, as this was something Morten and myself really strived to achieve. As for the lighting, I worked with Rodrigo Prieto (Director of Photography) and we decided that as Jim (Chris Pratt’s character) was walking around the ship alone, it was waking up prematurely and lights were slowly coming on. I had to design the effects with the DP so that we created that impression. The lighting also takes on different moods, such as when it’s night-time there are subtle lighting changes and the sound of crickets. That idea came from me taking a transatlantic flight and noticing that when the crew want to wake you up gently there are these soft, pink lights in the cabin. It’s all about giving a sense of time and place.
There is a trend of returning to practical effects with some CGI polishing in films. Is that something you take into account more and more when beginning the design process?
I started my film career at George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic, and began working on films like Twister and Men In Black. These were the first generation of heavy visual effects films, and despite our best efforts, were always a little disappointing. Cut to now where I’m production designing, I have knowledge of all the pros and cons and this allows me to be more educated in my choices of using practical and digital effects. The production designer’s job is to make sure everything you see on the screen looks perfect, whether that’s a period film or a futuristic film. It’s all about the research and burying myself in the knowledge of whatever it is I’m working on. It’s also about choosing where to draw the line between the effects. With Passengers we really needed the actors to feel like they were really there so we set about building interiors and creating the ship. We used CGI only where necessary, for example when Jennifer Lawrence’s character is in the swimming pool, and to extend certain rooms such as the pod bay and the dining room. We built a huge number of sets for Passengers to create this reality.
Finally, you’ve worked both on original projects and franchise sequels. Is it considerably more difficult to design when you have people’s strong expectations as to what something should look like?
Absolutely. It’s rare for a sequel to be as good or better than the original. For example, I worked with George Lucas on the fourth Indiana Jones film and the expectations and pressures were so high that it was impossible to reach. It’s impossible to recreate what the originals achieved, even though we rebuilt all the sets exactly. We also used too much CGI which I regret, but the story George wanted demanded it.
Passengers is Released on DVD and Blu-Ray on the 8th May (Read our verdict here)