From designing Walkmans for Sony to receiving an Oscar nomination for the film 'Passengers', production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas translates visions into epic film sets which are known worldwide. Working alongside directors such as Christopher Nolan, Terry Gilliam and Danny Boyle, Guy has been leaving a lasting impression on millions of viewers. While chatting with the British BAFTA winner we get a moving insight into his creative process for the the film Inception, the importance of communication with the director and DOP as well as translating his vision to the VFX department in post production.

 

To start off, we wanted to talk about the artist M.C. Escher. How does he inspire you?

He’s a great influence, especially for a film like Inception. Christopher Nolan and I tried to create a world that was different to anything else we’d seen. Escher’s influence offered us the opportunity to create a complex dream world in which the audience is manipulated into believing in places and scenarios that are later revealed to be pure imagination; trickery within a dream. We explored the idea of how a mind creates and retains memories.

As Escher said: “Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible.”

Indeed. As in Escher’s world, you can use two-dimensional images, for example a pencil drawing. But how do you transfer that into a three-dimensional staircase that works as an illusion? It was only after months of designing sets that we were able to recreate the effect of his drawings.

How do you know that the idea you have is the perfect one for a film?

It’s hard to tell. I start to sketch small details, keyframes, and even plans in a sketchbook that I keep for every film. I can’t make the film by myself but I also can’t expect an art director or illustrator to design for me. You never really know if an idea is right but my approach has been trying to get inside the head of the director and imagining how he would envision it. My job is to translate the director's ideas into physical sets. A lot of directors I have worked for can draw really beautiful but they don’t always have the time to do so.

How important is the communication between the director and production designer?

It’s absolutely essential. When I started on Inception with Chris, he had already invested years of research into dreams. Taking his work and weaving it into the design was crucial. The collaboration with each director is unique. For instance, with Terry Gilliam, I spent a lot of time on location in Prague to get inspired by the architecture and the funny personalities we met. We would visit various remote locations with fascinating architecture that was ancient and decaying. The isolated nature of these castles and villages enabled us to meet and interact with some interesting and sometimes eccentric custodians and caretakers. Terry would often get inspired by these characters who would somehow find their way into our film!

Every department has a certain vision. When working together with the visual effects department, I can imagine you would still like to display your vision on the final product even though a different person will take it from there. How do you make sure that your vision for the design of a scene will be shown in the finished finished film?

Visual effects play a huge role in how the audience experiences the final film. The visual effects supervisor usually joins the project early enough to understand the design themes and direction. That department also serves the director and script so we generally have a common goal. I really enjoy working with the visual effects department because they enable me to design more epic worlds with less restrictions.

Guy Hendrix DyasIn the absence of any experience at all, I think one must rely solely on their instincts.

Would you prefer set extension in the digital world over traditional design or the other way around?

It depends on the style of the film. In The Nutcracker, Lasse Hallström wanted a very theatrical and traditional feel to that film. He envisioned the forests looking like painted backdrops, so we employed veteran backdrop painters who had worked in the industry since the 60’s. However, so many films necessitate the use of digital extensions. Ultimately, I enjoy working with both practical and digital environments.

If you had the chance to interview your biggest inspiration, who would it be and why?

My biggest inspiration in the design world is Ken Adam. He designed not only Doctor Strangelove and Barry Lyndon, but also the original James Bond films. He started his career at a very special time because the production designers in the 60’s were very influential for the design community as a whole. Nothing comes close to Ken Adams’ ability to very quickly design a piece of architecture, vehicle or prop. Another person I greatly admire because of his incredible span within the industry is Stuart Craig. He’s a British designer who worked on the Harry Potter series. He is an immense talent still working today.

 

Would you say there is a certain ‘bible’ for production design, or does it all resolve around experience?

I think you make your own ‘bible.’ You build your own experience over the years. Since every project is very different, you use a combination of common sense, instinct and intelligence to approach each film in a unique way. In the absence of any experience at all, I think one must rely solely on their instincts.

After years in the field, what kind of challenges do you still face and what was your biggest one?

Challenges are always there and usually never change. It generally is important to approach the project with optimism and high energy. But the biggest setback is always a lack of time to implement every single idea that I want to use. I get most of them in, but there are always one or two ideas I wish I had more time to perfect.

Could you describe the production design process of your favorite project?

The project that directly comes to my mind is Steve Jobs which was for director Danny Boyle. It was a lower budget film and a controversial project at the same time. Not everybody liked how the script portrayed Steve Jobs although as filmmakers we felt that it was a very interesting look at the man – his genius and flaws. We also knew we wanted the film to be historically accurate, so what followed was an extensive location scout. All the places he had been during the 70's and early 80's were on the list. We discovered these places changed over the years. Therefore, the challenge was not only to recreate the locations but also to evoke emotional responses from the audience to what they were feeling. To recreate the atmosphere of the 70's, 80's and 90's, we used a strong color palette to help guide the audience through the time period they were experiencing.

How did you make sure that the Steve Jobs movie was historically accurate?

There was artistic license, but we also embarked on a massive amount of research. I think it’s virtually impossible for any designer to say a film they designed is 100% historically accurate. It’s hard to achieve that because we weren’t there in most cases especially the further back in time you go. In the case of Steve Jobs, it was relatively easy to imagine an office space in the 1990’s. It’s about researching the right era of telephones, computer screens or remembering how the décor was. I mean, do I know exactly the fabric that was on the couch in Steve’s home? The answer is no. In Steve’s case, he didn’t even have a couch (laughs). In the end, its the set’s details that make it feel authentic.

How did you make use of the artifacts for Agora?

In the case of Agora, I needed to design a Greco-Roman council chamber along with a throne for the ruling Roman aristocrat. The film was set in 391 AD, Alexandria and little more exists from this time period. Even research and museum visits uncovered little more than a few precious artifacts from the time. As a designer, you often use what you can find and apply imagination to arrive at a logical design solution. I had discovered 2 small decorative lions used as paper weights from the period, which I scaled up to create the dramatic arm rests of the throne in the set. By reproducing a real artifact from the period and simply scaling up that object and applying it elsewhere, I was being as true to history as I could.

Are you also talking to researchers and historians?

Absolutely. We had a great historian on Elizabeth: The Golden Age and on Agora, called Justin Pollard. On Steve Jobs, because it is modern history, we talked to people who acended his presentations or had known Steve Jobs himself. Our script was also based on a well researched book by Walter Isaacson.

Guy Hendrix DyasI think you have to design from heart so as to reach the most people.

Do you always think about the audience and what kind of impact the details have when creating a set?

I always think about the audience because you can make a big mistake by creating something that is inappropriate or too attention grabbing at the wrong time. Secondly, it can distract from the director’s vision. Sometimes the director wants an impactful set that stands on its own merits. Other times in a dramatic intimate scene, the director wouldn’t want something that’s going to compete with a subtle moment in the story. As a production designer, you have to find that balance.

Have you experienced that people from different cultures perceive your design in a different way than you originally intended?

Yes, myself being born and raised in England but then moving to America, I see that there are certain aspects of design that speak more successfully to one culture more than another, even though we share one language. I think you have to design from the heart so as to reach the most people.

Was there one moment during your career which you always look back to because it was an incredible moment?

There were many: Walking around location scouting with Terry Gilliam or Danny Boyle is always exciting; Sitting in a meeting room with Steven Spielberg at one end of the table and George Lucas at the other– is a moment where I pinched myself. Also, spending three to four months at Chris Nolan’s garage and designing the world of Inception with him counts as one of the highlights of my career.

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