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Production Designer Guy Hendrix Dyas on the Challenges of 'Inception'

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From Snow Fortresses to Japanese Castles
Production Designer Guy Hendrix Dyas on the Challenges of 'Inception'

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe and Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception, in the castle setting that gave Dyas's set decorating team the chance to create "a subtle, dreamlike quality, especially when it came to colors, materials, lighting and furnishings."

© Warner Bros Pictures

Angela Mitchell: Designwise, in Inception, it seemed to me that there was always this beautiful and very clear visual contrast between the linear and chaotic, and between tension and release -- for instance, in the gorgeous hallway sequence you mentioned earlier, where Joseph Gordon-Levitt battles a bad guy in 360 degrees! What scene or moment presented your favorite challenge for the film?

Guy Hendrix Dyas: One of the most challenging sets to build was the snow fortress for the end sequence, because we chose to shoot it in a remote area in the high mountains of Calgary. Chris Nolan uses CG very cleverly and for Inception, he didn’t want a film primarily using digital backgrounds. So very early on, Chris and I made a crude clay model of this set, as he wanted to create something akin to what he’d seen in some of his favorite Bond films. That’s how we came up with a mix between military architecture and Panopticon prison design for the snow fortress, our concept being to never really know who is the observer and who is being observed.

It quickly became apparent to us that this set would have to be divided into two separate builds. The interiors would be built on stage in Los Angeles, while the multi-level exterior would be built at approximately 20,000 feet on a mountainous site we scouted in Calgary.

We started building the exterior set with a Canadian construction crew in late summer, right after returning from shooting in Morocco, in order to have it completed before the heavy snow set in for the winter. We were very conscious of this location’s natural beauty, so we avoided using concrete foundations. Instead, to anchor the set, we dropped large wood posts into foundations filled with water and let them freeze into place.

Angela Mitchell: It’s terrific that you were able to take such care for the natural environment there.

Guy Hendrix Dyas: Despite a few blizzards, we were really fortunate to have perfect weather conditions, and during the shoot you could actually see the real snow blowing across the set, and the amazing mountains behind it. It was a testament to how great it is to be able to shoot on location, with real conditions.

Angela Mitchell: Set decorator Douglas A. Mowat was also nominated alongside you for the Art Direction Oscar this year -- how do the Production Designer and Set Decorator typically work together?

Guy Hendrix Dyas: A good example was the work we did on the Japanese castle sets. As per our script we knew that Saito, Ken Watanabe’s character in the film, would be imprisoned in a castle, but to me it made sense that it would be a Japanese castle. This gave my set decorating team and I a chance to create a subtle, dreamlike quality, especially when it came to choosing colors, materials, lighting and furnishings.

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