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Contenders – Art Direction: Guy Hendrix Dyas, Larry Dias and Doug Mowat, Inception


Over 95% of Inception was shot in camera.

Set decorators Larry Dias and Doug Mowat have had a 15 year friendship but have never worked together professionally. That all changed with Inception – director Christopher Nolan’s masterful science-fiction thriller, a film vivid with imagination and stunning imagery. Inception has already received three BAFTAs for Best Sound, Best Visual Effects and Best Production Design. At the helm of the production design was Guy Hendrix Dyas, who invited Dias and Mowat onto the production to help complete the task of building a dream within a dream.

The film shoot spanned the continents, taking place in the U.S., Canada, England, France and Morocco, creating what Dias calls “a varied and wide backdrop for the story.” The stylish story is told with a technical brilliance and visual splendor that Dyas, Dias and Mowat helped create.

The partnership almost didn’t happen. Dias was in the middle of another major project when he was invited to work on Inception. He recommended Mowat in his place. But luckily the ambitious nature of the film worked in his favor. “Inception was such a big undertaking and was shot in so many countries that by the time I completed my other assignment, I was actually able to join Guy,” Dias says. Mowat worked on the picture during pre-production and on the UK, France and Morocco portion of the film before handing the job to Larry during the Los Angeles portion.

“It was a difficult task to jump into filming at that point and Larry was the perfect choice to take it on. I doubt if anyone else could have done it,” Mowat states.

Dias arrived onto the tightly scheduled production during the set building of the Japanese-style castle, a breathtaking sequence where the castle gets flooded and destroyed. The inspiration for these interior and exterior sets were a combination of Japanese architecture and Western influences and the result is nothing short of spectacular. Typical of Nolan’s films, Inception did not rely on computer-generated effects. Instead, it’s a film that is primarily the creation of practical methods. “Chris Nolan is quite known for not relying uniquely on postproduction to achieve the stunts and effects that he wants. He likes to create large-scale set pieces and over 95% of Inception was actually shot in camera. This allowed the Art Department and Set Decorating department to think of everything in practical terms and I think we ended up with some pretty amazing achievements in terms of set builds and dressing.” Dias notes.

Inception‘s set decorator Larry Dias

The many astonishing practical effects are often the camera telling beautiful lies. “When Mal is on the window ledge the room, behind her was actually in a building that was completely gutted so it was a big job turning it into an elegant hotel room. Here again there were no visual effects used, just in-camera tricks showing one set mirroring the other. We decorated the two spaces to match each other and it was amazing to be able to look back and forth between them while in the different buildings,” Dias reveals.

Inception is a classic effort of old school decoration. Instead of building small portions of sets and rendering them entirely realistic in postproduction, Inception’s sets were large scale creations built on sound stages in Los Angeles and London. “The sets were completely interactive and didn’t rely on a lot of CG set extensions. As the set decoration department we weren’t out looking for a piece of dressing or a prop to be placed in a green set on a fake table. When that water came crashing into the Japanese Castle, it was real and built onstage at Warner Bros. When the display cases of Asian ceramics and suits of Samurai Armor smashed, it was all real as well, along with the exterior facade and rooftop sets built on location near Palos Verdes.”

Even the most minute details are genuine. “For example, all of the lanterns in the Japanese castle dining hall were real. We had them made overseas, there was no one with enough stock over here. I think the fact that (almost) everything dressing-wise was real gives the film a more realistic tone. I think audiences know this, even if subliminally. In the old days, everything had to be real so decorators had to figure out how to construct and manufacture anything they couldn’t find.” Mowat adds.

The lanterns in the Japanese castle dining hall were made overseas.

The assembled sets in the film are so impressive that it’s almost impossible to believe they’re not computer generated. “One of my favorite things once the film came out was talking with people who assumed that it was all CG, and actually showing them how we had built most everything that they were looking at! And I don’t mean to diminish in anyway whatsoever the CG work, but rather give it the highest praise for being so seamless,” Dias says. The fluidity of the sets, the special effects, and the limited CG work results in a series of scenes that aren’t merely viewed, but fully experienced. “When the sets are real, it shows. Inception had so many challenging sets to create that it offered us some wonderful and unusual design opportunities. We had to accommodate some very elaborate stunts and effects, and by doing things practically, I think we really transported the audience into these dream worlds. The end goal is to make everyone’s work blend into one as seamlessly as possible, and being able to provide a shooting crew with practical sets plays a big part in that,” Dias states.

Certainly Dyas, Dias and Mowat achieved their end goal. Their set designs are masterfully woven into the architecture of the film to enable the telling of a story that is wildly imaginative and memorable. There is a sense that they are at a magic moment in their careers. Inception is nominated for 8 Academy Awards, including Best Art Direction along with Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound, Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects.

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