The production designer on the sci-fi classic talks about working with Steven Spielberg and John Underkoffler to create the look of this futuristic film
It's pretty safe to say that production designer Alex McDowell had to go above and beyond the normal call of duty for Steven Spielberg's 2002 fantastic sci-fi film Minority Report, which is finally released in a brand new two-disc Blu-ray set on April 20. Instead of creating just a sci-fi universe that can be visually dazzling, Spielberg wanted the world to be one that might actually exist when the year 2054 rolls around. McDowell was part of this three-day think tank where Spielberg brought in experts from all over the world to bounce ideas off each other about what this future might actually be like and the results, obviously, were amazing (CLICK HERE for my full Blu-ray review of this phenomenal film). I had the chance to speak with McDowell over the phone about his work on this film and here's what he had to say.
First off, I was just curious about what it was like to revisit this film after eight years?
Alex McDowell: I'm happy to see that this film remains so current and doesn't seem to have dated. That's always the thing that you look out for in science fiction. At some point, it dates faster than anything else because the future transparently catches up with itself. In the case of Minority Report, I think we were lucky to be engaged by Steven Spielberg to create a future reality, and not a science-fiction reality. Therefore, we were empowered to go out into the world and research in much more detail, what the future might really hold. We talked to the right people, the futurists, the scientists and people who were tracking the trends. The decisions we made, which were relatively expensive production decisions, like transparent touch screens that could not be fed a real signal. You couldn't put real media into the pieces of plexiglass we had people holding. The kind of touch-screen technology that we were imagining allowed us not to be bound by 1990s technology. We were able to imagine the technology that now exists, because we were being told by the scientists that this is the technology that is going to exist in a few years and we didn't really have anything at our disposal to make it happen. But CGI can do anything, so once we could set our imaginations in that direction and extrapolate forward into what we know now about the web or media at the time, hardware, etc., we could apply it to this realistic future and most of these things are coming true. Hoverships and flying policemen are probably a little bit further away (Laughs).
I read that Spielberg convened this think tank for years before the film even started. Were you involved in that meeting and had you ever been involved in a film before this that had been so immersive and took the time to create this alternate reality?
Alex McDowell: I haven't. It was a very good experience for that reason and, yes, I was there. It was a two-day event and it was about a couple of months after I had started. We had a certain amount of concept art in place and we presented it to about a dozen think tank futurists. It was a two-day event at a hotel in L.A. but it set in motion not only the discussion, which was really high-level and intense, our brains really hurt after two days, but it also opened doors for us to continue that research. Once we had met, for example, Neil Gershenfeld, who was the head of physics at MIT Media Lab, we had an invitation to go back to Media Lab and meet people there, so we continued this relationship with the science and engineering community throughout the film, to the extent that I actually met a great scientist at Media Lab and brought him to L.A. to join the art department. We actually had a full-time scientist as a part of our team. His name is John Underkoffler and he's very much featured in the extras of the Blu-ray because he actually went ahead, as a scientist, he brought the gesture language, the whole Tom Cruise gesture language in front of the screen, was something that he had developed at Media Lab, a way of creating a semantic suggestion for interacting with a screen. Then he went ahead and developed it for real, so that gesture screen that Tom Cruise uses, is real technology now. John and I have continued to work together. Minority Report fundamentally changed my career in working with people like John, and specifically with John, we've continued to collaborate over the years. It has changed my relationship with the world because it transcended the film space and we're now really looking at the immersive design space across all media, and that has really come directly from the relationships that were formed in Minority Report. It's changed the way I've worked, fundamentally.
It was said that you coined that term, "immersive design." Can you expand on that and tell us a bit more about what that's about and how you're seeing that used these days?
Alex McDowell: Yeah. It's two fundamental things. It assumes that we work in a virtual production space, using digital tools and digital technology and once you're in that space, it opens specific doors, these easy to identify doors like pre-visualization, or previz. When you design in a pre-visualization space or an immersive design space, you are no longer working in a linear film production process. It's no longer pre-production, production and post-production. Those are really anachronistic terms now. We're working in a non-linear workflow where we're equally working on post-production as we're working on production and shooting. At the same time, when we build a set now, when I design a set, I build it in 3D space. I'm sculpting space with software and you're immersed in 3D space. It allows for an immersive collaboration. The director enters this virtual space, the cinematographer enters this virtual space, the visual effects artists enter this virtual space. You're investigating the filmmaking you intend to execute in a virtual environment, which is a very good fulcrum of the actual design. You put real cameras, or the data for real lenses, in that space and you point it at characters who are scaled correctly to that space. You're making a lot of the filmmaking decisions in a virtual space, in something you have not yet built and, therefore, you're able to manipulate the intent of the set that you're about to build and you can change what you need it to do as you go along, in this immersive space, all the way up to the point when you build a real set and you enter it and you might not use that exact camera lens or that exact angle, but you're very informed about the spatial environment you're working in. For example, the film I'm working on now, there's a virtual tower at the edge of the city at all times. Well, now I can tell the actor exactly where that tower is in virtual space, when they're standing in a real location, because I've mapped the location, I have Google Earth, you know (Laughs), but the real relation to the location in Montreal to the virtual space and those two things are welded together. That's the production side of it. The outcome, the other part of the immersive design conversation, is that the audience experiences more immersive because the participants involved in the creation have worked immersively and they understand the film space better and we are our own test audiences. We're testing the believability in that space from the beginning, so the outcome should be that the audience is more fully immersed. The obvious example of that is Pandora. Looking at how absolutely believable it was to enter the Avatar film space because those decisions had been thought through in virtual space, in a real relationship to the director's camera and all of those participants had lived in Pandora. They knew what Pandora felt like.
I was wondering if you could talk a bit about some of the specific props you designed. I remember when I first saw the film, I was particularly impressed with the spider-bots. Can you talk about some of the influences you had when you were designing the spider-bots or some of the other props?
Alex McDowell: Yeah, yeah. The spider-bots, I haven't thought about those for awhile, those were really fun. What we were imagining was a surveillance weapon or surveillance tool, that was designed by Porsche, that could fit on the side of a policeman's belt, but that was essentially some kind of organic/machine hybrid and cyborg technology or intelligence running it. As a design, what we liked was the idea of this tripod, three-legged object. The body itself started to have a certain balance and it started to look like an octopus kind of design. When we started experimenting with three-legged motion, which is difficult to do, we went to DreamWorks Animation and had an animator there actually run walk cycles and run cycles for us and we saw that it made a very interesting and fluid motion. So we actually designed it as an animated character and then passed that onto PDI which is now actually a part of Dreamworks. The other big prop that was a huge focus for design was the car, the Maglev car. The idea of a future Washington D.C. was that D.C. is zoned so that no building can be built higher than the Capitol and everybody we spoke to said that was never going to change. You were not suddenly going to have skyscrapers in the middle of D.C. That's just kind of the way it worked in D.C. But if you go on the other side of the Potomac River, there's no restriction to vertical development, so we imagined that in a crime-free, murder-free society, people would flock to D.C. and so this vertical city would rise up very rapidly. But, then how do you move around in a city like that, where you have to take an elevator down for 10 minutes down and then you have to find a taxi. So we said what if you combined an elevator and a taxi cab into a vehicle that plugs into the side of your building that becomes an extension of your living room, that you can get into and then it will go down the outside of the building and then move horizontally into the main city and be able to do both motions. It became a real-world design problem. How do you move this object, allow the wheels and the connect it to a track but allow it to operate both vertically and horizontally? How does it move? What would you need it to do? How would you avoid spilling your coffee? It was a very interesting design problem and having solved the design problem, laid it out for Steven Spielberg, he was able to look at it as a potential action sequence and then he wrote the vertical Maglev chase based on the design that we created. It was a nice integrated process between narrative and product design.
I don't believe you had worked with Spielberg before and I was wondering if you could talk a bit about working with him on this film? I personally think this is one of his best films.
Alex McDowell: He's just a really great filmmaker to work with. He so loves the craft of filmmaking and is so open to collaboration as a filmmaker. Although his Spielberg hat, as a producer, he's amazing at compartmentalizing his time. His time is solid from morning to night. He's off doing some project that's way off of everybody's scope, but when you meet with him, and we might only meet once every three weeks with him, or even longer, but we would present a very succinct package of images to him and you knew you'd only have a half-hour and you'd lay out a very specific presentation on what you knew you needed answers on. He would be 1,000% focused, would give you the answers you needed instantly. He has, obviously, an amazing narrative mind. He's always thinking about story and it's a very nice space to work in because he gives the creative keys a great deal of control over their own areas. I get to design a lot of the film, as long as it's really supporting the narrative and allows him to tell the story in the way he wants to tell it. He is very open to design suggestions so it was really a great collaboration. I really enjoyed the whole process. It was very satisfying and you have this extra added hat of the empowerment of Steven Spielberg. You have all this access that you usually wouldn't have access to. We could call Frank Gehry and talk about the architecture of the future or go into the head of Hewlett-Packard or Microsoft and talk about the technology of the future because his name would open those doors. And, by the way, he carries the best crew in the world. His key grip and gaffer and all of the crew, a lot of them have been working with him for 20 years and it's amazing. There's nothing you can't do when you're working with him.
I was also wondering about how specific the script was about these things that you had to design?
Alex McDowell: That's a good question. There was no script. We didn't have a script for a year and a half. The screenwriter, Scott Frank, and myself, started on the same day. We had an outline and the Philip K. Dick short story, which really didn't have much bearing on the look of the film, because it's very different. Most of my brief came from my interview with Steven. He was very clear, laid it all out, what he wanted and how he wanted this society we were creating to be kind of this utopian future that apparently was very benign but hidden at the core was the dark secret. He wanted it to be lulled into this sense of security about what's wrong with this future, and then realizing that something is actually wrong at the heart of it. That and the future should be based off of future reality not science-fiction. Because there was no script, I basically spoke to Steven about the idea of designing the world that the script could then inhabit, so we knew that the script was going on at the same time so we were designing and building and conceiving the world that the story would take place in and we would cross-reference. Sometimes a sequence would come to us and we would design for that sequence, or something like the Maglev, we would take the Maglev framework and structure and rules of how the Maglev might work, and showed that to Steven and Scott Frank, and they might write an action sequence for it. It was a very integrated development process. It became a proof of concept for me that, in many ways, the idea of a script at the front end of a production process is an old idea. It's an idea from the 30s, from those very scripted comedies, but in a film that is enabling technology to create these immersive environments and these complete worlds for the audience to inhabit, you need the script and the environment to move forward hand-in-hand at the same time.
After the film had come out and the years went on, we started to see some forms of technology pop up that mirrored the film, like the Bluetooth is very similar to the cell phones used in the film. Is that kind of the ultimate reward, to see these things actually take form in real life?
Alex McDowell: Yeah, I think that's true to say. It's not surprising, actually, that many of these things have popped out of the film, because the research we did was talking to the kinds of people who were developing the hardware and software at that time, so they knew that touch-screens were going to exist. They couldn't tell us what they were, like nobody at Apple was going to say, 'We will have an iPod on the market in 10 years,' but they could certainly say, 'Hey, you might want to think about touch screen technology and gesture technology.' We'll see if the retinal scan becomes fundamental or not, but, for me, one of the challenges was, in science-fiction, the thing that always gives it away is the monitors, the screens. From Blade Runner to 2001: A Space Odyssey, you know exactly when those films were made, no matter how futuristic they were, because of how the screens behaved. So we made a decision, which was kind of an expensive production decision, which was that if composite our imagery into the kind of screen we want, what we imagine the screens will be, then we're not going to be constrained by technology of the moment and we're going to be able to imagine an real technology of the future. A lot of what feels more and more that it's coming true, was, with Steven's agreement, being able to liberate ourselves from old technology and just say, 'What if touch screens really worked? Well how would they work? John Underkoffler developed the gesture technology that he put in front of Tom Cruise and now that's real. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way.
Finally, what would you say to the fans about why they should pick up this Blu-ray or maybe to those who somehow have not seen the film before about why they should check it out?
Alex McDowell: I think that it's remained very contemporary. It's a great story and I think it's one of Spielberg's best movies, I absolutely agree. I think it's very, very rich. As a designer, I feel satisfied to see the density of it. You can revisit it many times and see all the layers to it. It's a really nice blending of sociological investigation of the future, in many ways, not just technology but Homeland Security. I mean, nobody could've anticipated what would've launched Homeland Security, but the importance of civil liberties that is at the heart of the film is a really important message and I think it's an absolutely relevant film in every way.
Thanks so much for your time, Alex. It was great talking to you.
Alex McDowell: You're very welcome. Thanks for your questions.
Minority Report will be released on Blu-ray for the first time on April 20. You can CLICK HERE to read my full Blu-ray review of the film as well.