Creator Q&A: production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas (Part 1)

Ever watched a movie or TV show and thought to yourself: “Damn, this sure looks pretty”? I bet that you have, and the person you should be thanking for those stunning visuals is the production designer (or PD, for short). PDs look after the overall look of a film or TV show, working alongside the director and producer to choose the settings and develop the style needed to tell the story visually.

Needless to say, they are a major creative force on any production – as the work of this month’s Q&A participant, Guy Hendrix Dyas, makes abundantly clear. Guy has enjoyed a lengthy career in filmmaking, initially working as a conceptual artist on blockbusters such as The Matrix Reloaded, Planet of the Apes, Pearl Harbour, and King Arthur, before going on to become a celebrated production designer, getting his start with X2: X-Men United.

Since then, he’s worked with some of the biggest directors in the business, including Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan and Bryan Singer, and his resume boasts highlights like Inception, Superman Returns, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

For his work, Guy has earned a BAFTA Award and a Goya Award, and has garnered Academy Award and Art Directors Guild Award nominations. He’s also been named in the “Top 10 Brits working behind the camera in Hollywood” by The Sunday Times an incredible four years in a row. Guy’s production design artistry will next be seen in upcoming science fiction film Passengers, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, and scheduled for a 21 December 2016 release.

Guy has been unbelievably generous with his time for this Q&A; the number of questions he was willing to answer and the length of his responses have necessitated splitting this article into two – that’s right, two – posts. He’s also combed through his personal archives to provide a hefty number of photos and design artwork, some of which are rare or even never-before-seen, so be sure to scroll through the image galleries accompanying Parts 1 and 2.

I’d like to thank Guy for taking the time out of his busy schedule to take part in this Q&A, and encourage you all to check out his website for more info about his amazing body of work.

I gave a brief overview of the PD’s role in the intro, but how would you describe what you do?

The production designer’s role is to design and control the overall look of a film. This involves all visual aspects, including the “world creation”, set designs, locations, costumes, set dressing, props and visual effects/special effects. The misconception is that the production designer only designs and builds sets; the responsibilities are far more involved and ensure that each film has an integral overall look and feel.

You graduated from accomplished conceptual artist to full-fledged PD on X2. How daunting was it taking on a film like that, which called for some gigantic sets (most notably the Weapon X/Alkali Lake military base)?

Bryan Singer and Tom DeSanto had given me my first break to design on their earlier, unrealised version of Battlestar Galactica, a television reboot for Studios USA. The collaboration was an instant success and the designs were well received by the network.

Unfortunately, while I was mid-stream building the sets in Vancouver, Bryan was suddenly called back to Fox to begin work on X-Men 2 (also known as X2: X-Men United), the sequel to the highly successful X-Men. I remember being very depressed but grateful to have gotten so close to actually completing my first production design assignment.

About a week went by; I was busy striking the sets and I got a phone call from Bryan asking me to join him on X2. This was an extremely big deal at the time, I wasn’t even sure that Fox would accept me in that role. I had completed a handful of commercials and had mainly been an active concept designer and art director on other film productions. Somehow, Fox and the producers agreed to give me the chance, and it all came together somehow…

I’ve never been worried or nervous about big design tasks and rather like to get absorbed by the story, which then inspires the designs. The project was nothing but a dream to work on for my first feature film. I think it was only on completion that I was able to look back and realise how enormous and seemingly impossible the task was of making those sets for X2.

The production could not house the huge Weapon X set and I ended up talking them into renting a huge, disused Sears storage facility just outside Vancouver. The place was huge and a corner of it had been used for a low budget Christmas movie a year earlier. There was no sound proofing and everything was falling apart.

I had convinced the production that it was a cheap way to house the huge sprawling set with minimum infastructure. The facility has now become a mainstay of the film industry in Vancouver and was proudly called “Mammoth Studios” shortly after we finished production in the fall of 2002.

Next you moved on to The Brothers Grimm. Terry Gilliam is one of the great visual storytellers of modern cinema – what was it like working with him to build a world for his dark fairytale?

Working with Terry Gilliam was a dream come true for me. I’ve been in awe of him since my college days and a lecture series on his films, so it was amazing to meet and show him my work. I met Terry hot on the heels of finishing X2 and I think I must have been on a shortlist of people he wanted to meet for The Brothers Grimm. Terry’s films are some of my favourite imagined worlds of all time, so I knew that being able to work with him would be an incredible lifetime experience.

I still remember the impact of seeing Brazil as a student at the Royal College of Art. It was being shown as part of a special film series called “Grand Illusions” and I clearly remember the impact it had on me and my fellow students. It’s such a masterpiece in filmmaking that it really opened my eyes to the art of production design and the possibilities of dreaming up new worlds and actually building them.

I remember that at the very beginning, even before Terry got the full funding for Grimm, I was working from his office in Soho, London and working really hard turning out designs quickly on paper, due to the fact that I still felt that it was a trial period for me. During that time I sketched as much as possible, trying to create some set-pieces that would really capture Terry’s imagination.

That whole period was wonderful for many reasons – it was all about getting ideas down on paper, while not letting any budget constraints creep in yet! Terry has endless energy; he’s very hands-on and he draws like a god! It’s really easy to work for someone you wholeheartedly admire and want to impress. I’d draw something and Terry would answer with his own version, then back again to me for more crazy additions! I think we both enjoyed the collaboration and the process of taking the designs as far as we dared…

Production started some four months later in the Czech Republic, where the architecture is so unique and well preserved, this became a huge inspiration and was a definite advantage. It was the perfect place to do a film like Grimm and often Terry would take us on location scouts, not so much to look for places to shoot but to absorb the architecture, ancient forests and rural landscape in order to draw inspiration from this experience.

One night in the middle of winter after dinner, Terry led myself and the original Director of Photography, Nicola Pecorini, on a walking tour of Prague. It was starting to snow and we ended up by the famous Charles IV Bridge, which for once was deserted by the endless line of tourists.

This midnight walk through the streets of Prague truly gave us the impression that we had gone back in time; it was magical. It’s those moments that in retrospect turn out to be the most inspiring memories you keep from a film you’ve worked on. I was really excited by the source material on this film, the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales, which, combined with Terry’s unique vision, helped us create a variety of amazing sets.

Everyone on the crew really seemed to like our sets: Marbaden village, the stage forests, the Evil Queen’s tower, the huge water mill set, the barn and our strange carriage, which was really a travelling torture chamber! Everything on this film was a team effort and I saw it as a great opportunity to be able to work with all of Terry’s longtime collaborators – his creative family.

After Brothers Grimm it was back to superheroes – the superhero in fact – with Superman Returns. I imagine it was an exciting project to sink your teeth into, given you had to create a look that was both modern and timeless, not to mention re-imagine or completely re-work iconic sets like the Fortress of Solitude and the Daily Planet?

One of the big misconceptions about Superman Returns was the budget. When Bryan agreed to take on the film, he inherited a lot of debt right from the start. Over the years so many directors had tried their hand at the “Superman reboot”, but there was little to show for all the money spent on these past productions.

Bryan’s new version had to absorb that past debt, which was upwards of 60 million dollars, so the project’s price tag wasn’t as expensive as many speculated; it was an uphill struggle to balance the studios financial concerns with the fans high expectations. The film was shot in Sydney, Australia, which was a challenge as we didn’t have the natural double of New York City for Metropolis that the earlier Richard Donner films had taken advantage of.

But just like we did with our Battlestar attempt, we wanted to respect what had gone before and made every effort to construct our idealised Metropolis using huge exterior set builds and several small pockets of downtown Sydney as a double for an American, mid-century designed city. The art and construction crew in Australia were second to none and helped me realise a world that was both beautifully stylised and very authentic in our attempt to create rural America – as with the Kent family farm and the city itself, with all its Art Deco details.

Bryan also believed that just because Superman is based on a comic, it doesn’t mean the world shouldn’t look real. We went through the original ’30s comics, which were littered with some fabulous period architectural designs of the era, and attempted to blend those elements with a contemporary feel to create a fresh take on the story.

For a building like the Daily Planet for example, the exterior it’s almost art deco in its design, but we balanced the interior with modern elements like plasma screens. Another interesting design was the crystal ship, which mostly features in a scene cut from the final theatrical release, but which appears in the Directors Cut on the Blu-Ray and DVD.

That set was a challenge and was made of some 38 thousand pieces of suspended resin set pieces. It was essentially a giant marionette and was conceived in order to prevent the audience seeing any scaffolding structure shadows behind the transparent material. Ultimately, it ended up being the hardest jigsaw puzzle I’ve ever attempted, and a little structural material was eventually added on the lower sides as a safety requirement.

The construction crew went mad playing “The Crystal Ship” by the Doors on a loop for weeks – all very weird and other worldly! Good times.

You then shifted gears from American fiction to English fact for Elizabeth: The Golden Age – when working on a period piece, how do you balance historical authenticity with the artistic license needed to service the story’s dramatic requirements?

Luckily I was working with a script that was written by William Nicholson and Michael Hirst, which was a close-to-accurate account of the time and events. Of course, it’s impossible to confirm specific details as much of that has been lost or mythologised. The script focused on the rise against England by the Spanish King Philip and the subsequent attack using an enormous fleet of ships, the Spanish Armada, in 1588.

Our director, Shekar Kapur, had a unique point of view of the events and leaned towards an “operatic approach” in telling the story. This style of directing had worked to great effect for the first film in the series and he was back to continue his version of the story.

From my perspective, his “operatic approach” was an exciting challenge and worked well historically. as during the time between the first film, Elizabeth, and this second instalment, the Queen herself had become vastly more powerful and had matured into a seasoned royal leader, enjoying her position and life style. Furthermore, the world as a whole had become a bigger place with new worlds being discovered and claimed. New cultures were being exposed to Europe with all the spoils that came with the introductions.

One of the challenges when analysing the script for Elizabeth: The Golden Age was how to portray the multitude of scenes in the Queen’s war chamber, where Elizabeth and her cabinet were huddled around maps studying the advance of the Spanish Armada. We needed to keep things dynamic and in motion as the story’s pace picked up towards the climactic final battle scenes.

Keeping in mind Shekhar Kapur’s love for “God’s eye” views, my team and I designed and built a tiled floor with a map design of Europe that was researched and created to be period correct. We used the floor to explain the Queen’s predicament and the pending sea battles and land invasion by the Spanish. The set had model ships, designed from small ornate Elizabethan broaches. The golden ships placed on the map floor made a fantastic transition to a real life reveal of the ships at sea advancing on England.

It was one of those moments where you feel great satisfaction: you’ve directly helped solve a number of problems through a good design solution.

That’s it for Part 1 of this Q&A with Guy Hendrix Dyas – check out Part 2, where Guy talks about his work on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Inception, Steve Jobs and more!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.