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Design Indaba 2016

Alex McDowell On Creating Krypton

Regardless of where you stand on Man of Steel’s controversial reinterpretation of the Superman origin story, chances are you applauded the film’s visual feast.

Much of that cinematic cuisine is the work of an artist whose efforts you’ve likely admired before without realizing it: Alex McDowell—the highly respected production designer of Fight Club, Minority Report, Watchmen, and now, Warner Bros./Legendary Pictures’s Man of Steel, which has exceeded $500 million in worldwide grosses since opening last month.


McDowell grounds his highly imaginative worlds in plausibility through a process he calls “world building.” Much the way an actor might create a backstory for his character to inform his behavior, McDowell creates a foundation of rules for the world he’s designing. He and his team brainstorm the type of science, technology, social structure, and political hierarchy that govern that world. The answers they derive serve to inform the design, which, in turn, supports the script’s narrative.

His most famous application of that technique is the iconic gestural computer that Tom Cruise uses in Minority Report. McDowell needed a futuristic computer that was cinematically interesting. He tapped then-MIT grad student John Underkoffler, who had written a thesis about a gesture-based user interface, then based the movie computer on its scientific blueprint. That scene garnered enough interest for Underkoffler to develop a gesture-based computer for real.

McDowell took the same approach in designing Superman’s birthplace, Krypton, a dark crumbling civilization and planet.

“I love decay,” he laughs. “It’s inevitable since I do a lot of work with films dealing with the more crumbling side of life. But my job is to support, frame, and build a world around whatever the narrative demands. I am interested in stratified societies and sociopolitical relationships within those environments, and the effect those kinds of societal pressures have on the design of a world.”

McDowell will elaborate upon some of these ideas during a July 20 production designers panel at San Diego Comic Con, where DC Entertainment will also be celebrating Superman’s 75th anniversary.

Understanding Krypton

The roughly 15 minutes of Krypton footage is actually the most screen time ever devoted to a world McDowell has built from scratch. “It required a design that looks alien but is comprehensible to a human audience,” he says.

McDowell started with basic questions raised by the story to find an underlying scientific and social structure for the planet’s civilization: What kind of a world would allow you to believe a man and woman would launch a newborn in a spaceship at the moment of birth and never see him again? How can an entire planet be ready to blow itself up and its inhabitants not know it? How does that hold a mirror, to the movie audience, that Krypton is a cautionary tale? That if we don’t make certain decisions now, this is where Earth might end up?

“It’s an extreme version of environmental disaster that we’re experiencing now on Earth,” says McDowell. “They’ve just had a longer time to germinate to self-destruction.

“What conditions would allow a sophisticated and civilized society that has space travel to turn inward and no longer see what it’s doing to itself?” he adds. “We likened it to a feudal, hyperconservative kind of society that no longer believes other planets were worth visiting and mothballed those fleets. Ancient, doddering old fools running society and paying no attention to science or more enlightened minds.”

McDowell’s team envisioned a science that was primarily biological, which they manipulated at the molecular level. “We formed a language and architecture based on one rule—all curved lines.”


Krypton’s curved architectural lines with Kryptonian writing adorning the walls evoked a civilization with biologically based science and engineering. 

Language As Design

“One of the core questions was why does Superman have an S on his chest?” says McDowell. “S doesn’t mean the letter s. We created a complete language out of that investigation. The shape looks like an s, but it’s actually a glyph that means ‘hope.’ Each ancestral House has a different glyph. When they’re put together, the S doesn’t stand out but is just one of the organized shapes that form sentences and ideas.”

McDowell hired University of British Columbia linguist Christine Schreyer, who spent four months working on a complete language that uses phrases from the Superman canon. He and his team then covered the architecture and spaceship surfaces in Kryptonian glyphs. Each of the council chambers (see above) represented a different trade or class, while the columns behind them bore representative phrases. “It was ridiculous,” laughs McDowell. “But that’s world building. Once you start, you can’t stop.”

Originally appeared on Fast Company. Click here to read the complete article

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