Because Christopher Nolan‘s regular production designer was on another film, Guy Hendrix Dyas had the fortunate opportunity to work on the writer-director’s psychological thriller, Inception.
Because the director’s process incorporates design very early on, the filmmakers spent the first 3-4 weeks of their collaboration at the director’s “base of operations” – his garage. “We worked together in there, drinking tea and discussing what would be the best way to approach this really incredible script in terms of design,” shares Dyas. They talked about other films that covered similar ground and had similar design problems, such as those tackled by The Matrix.
The Matrix clearly defines the difference between the virtual world characters occupy while they are sleeping and the real world. For the core concept of Inception to succeed, “the trick,” according to the designer, was to not be able to distinguish between the dream and real worlds. Known for designing fantasy sets, this film posed a new challenge for Dyas, “We had to walk a thin line, because anything too fantastical would have let the dreamer know he was dreaming.”
As reference, Dyas started by collecting clip art, pinning it to the walls of the garage, up the ceiling and even over the windows. “We wallpapered his garage in the various levels of the worlds because we needed to have multiple levels to these dreams,” Dyas reveals. “We were also vigorously sketching out designs for some of the larger sets – the Japanese Temple, the huge fortress at the end, which were total builds.” They also watched and analyzed other films, such as Kubrick‘s 2001 to see how the anti-gravity scenes were done, another concern for Inception. By the time the team left the garage to start pre-production at L.A. Center Studios they had a pretty good idea, both technically and visually, of what they wanted to achieve with the effects and look of the film.
The biggest challenge Dyas faced was not in differentiating the real and dream worlds, but rather defining a clear difference between the levels of the dream. “There are three, four levels of these dreams,” Dyas explains. “Because there was no knowing, even with the script in mind, how the film was going to be edited, I found it to be my responsibility to make sure all of the levels of the dream, although seemingly very normal, were all very different, so that when you cut from one level of a dream back to another, you don’t become confused. For example, the downtown cityscape, which is raining and grey, needed to be very different from the hotel environment, which relies on warm tones and coffee and cream colors.”
The production also contained some challenging sets. “Only 5% of the scenes in our film are actually green screen,” shares Dyas. “That comes from Chris’ desire to always approach things from a traditional, practical standpoint first.” Although there were a few major visual effects moments, like the folding of Paris, Dyas, along with special effects supervisor, Chris Corbould, and director of photography, Wally Pfister, worked hard to make many of the things that happen in the film, happen for real “as practical notions.” Visual effects were used largely as a clean-up tool to remove wires and enhance debris and explosions.
Another concept that came out of the meetings in the garage was the idea that in dreams, only certain details are in focus. In creating the downtown scene, which was filmed in Los Angeles, the filmmakers wanted to make the city as indistinguishable as possible. Everything that might tell the viewers where they were, from magazine racks to signage, was removed. “It’s subtle, but if you really look, you’ll see it,” comments Dyas. The environments also created ambiances that supported the emotional intent of various scenes. In that same cityscape, says Dyas, “It’s pouring with rain. It’s grey. It’s eerie. That scene was all about creating the illusion of somebody being kidnapped, so you want it to be harsh. Not just the colors, but the style of the environment help create the mood of the scene.”