It wasn’t easy bringing to life the set of a Dr. Seuss classic that lets the imagination run wild, but production designer Alex McDowell managed to pull it off.
The Cat in the Hat, a Universal Pictures release in association with Imagine Entertainment, features a handful of sets that McDowell calls the most complex of his career. They include a house exterior and two interiors built on the Universal lot, one of which hosts extremely large and distorted elements for scenes involving a completely transformed house.
Two-thirds of the film takes place in the house, which features a limited color palette (lilac exterior and celery-green interior). The décor is reminiscent of what he calls “a slightly idealized 1950s Americana,” though there’s no specific time frame (Ford Focus cars are juxtaposed with clothing that mixes a slight ’50s feel with contemporary styles). Nearly all the furniture was hand crafted and scaled up for a kid-centric point of view. For example, the ceiling is higher, while molding and door handles retain a larger-than-reality quality.
In the real world, the production crew traveled to a Simi Valley subdivision, and dressed up buildings and sculptures in Pomona, where just prior to filming thieves reportedly stole $55,000 worth of custom-designed props. The film, scheduled to be in theaters by Thanksgiving, stars Mike Myers as the loveable main character.
Different from the book
McDowell and his charges faced numerous production challenges, including customizing the entire world of Dr. Seuss (i.e., grass, trees, hills, etc.) as well as dealing with a house interior that was twice the size of the exterior – a daunting shift in scale.
For the transformed-house set, a 3-D software program laid the groundwork for a full-scale replica of the distorted house interior, whose walls and furniture were curved and twisted while retaining the structure’s architectural language and integrity. Flexible foam latex was used so that the distorted elements would “adhere to the curves of the set,” he says.
Chief sculptor Fred Arbegast was impressed by the way McDowell used the computer to the crew’s full advantage. “You can really see exactly what you’re going to get,” he enthused.
Added set decorator Anne Kuljian: “We tried to make something unique that looked a little different from the book.” First up: figuring out whether or not to pursue a comic book or realistic approach that would be based in any part of American history. “It’s very linear and takes place in one day,” McDowell adds. “It’s like the whole world was build overnight. There’s no history at all.”
Next was working in a unique and fresh color palette. To keep the style of art in the house consistent, Kuljian selected a reference book with art that her crew liked, did drawings and incorporated the unusual color scale. Finally, scale furniture had to look good in both the regular and transformed houses. “Those for me were the most unusual parts of this set,” she says.
The objective was to create a world that wasn’t a complete abstraction, explains Alec Hammond, supervising art director. He notes how a light lilac became a substitute for the color white, which is only found with the main character whose trademark sombrero also features red.
“The palette is very odd and interesting and worked out much better than I thought it would,” he says, adding how the celery-green motif turned bright colors into “a very tight mesh palette. So what you end up with is something that’s bright and lively and slightly unreal, yet it all works together.”
Needless to say, it was a challenge getting 15 sculptors to follow the computer model that featured more than 200 drawings and 450 sheets of drafting, McDowell notes. He admits this made the production “extremely hard to budget.”
Wherever possible, the crew creatively trimmed the final tab. One example: Building high sets and adding $25,000 worth of scenery saved $75,000 in visual effects by removing nearly all the matte-painting composites and set extensions from certain sequences. “In a way,” he says, “it’s reverse of what’s happening a lot in films, which is you automatically build the set as small as possible and assume set extension.”
The customization was certainly sneaky in the way it drove up production costs, Hammond observes. For example, special knives were used to cut the extra-thick wood stock used for molding. “What we’re trying to do is ambitious,” he says, noting that construction alone was about $10 million. “It’s a lot of money, but we built a lot of stuff.”
There were plenty of discussions about what could be feasibly built, reports Arbegast. “When we started, I had no idea how we were going to build this,” he admits, crediting his crew with playing a key role behind the scenes. “We pride ourselves on problem-solving, quality finish and holding true to the design.” Work on the house featured many moments of trial and error, followed by successful execution.
Best and brightest
Collaboration, as one might suspect, was paramount on this feature. “Across the board,” McDowell reports, “it has been a really good process.” Costume designer Rita Ryack’s creations match fabric used on the set, adding topspin to certain jokes (McDowell recalls a TV salesman’s shirt coming into play, as well as more than 50 people from the small town wearing the same palette).
The way sets were lit, there was literally no place to hide for dirt and grime (forget shadows). This forced cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to focus on precision and perfection, according to McDowell. High-gloss paint used for the ceilings shows every imperfection and is quite unforgiving, Hammond adds.
While other projects carry with them worries about aging and period detail, “The Cat in the Hat” required attention to detail on what Kuljian calls “a cleanness, crispness and simplicity so that every single thing had to be perfect in its own ramp.” That meant a simple lamp on a table featuring a few other items had to be the correct color, size and shape, plus the balance had to work. “There was a lot of pressure in the beginning to dress the set with the correct item,” she mentions.
The industry’s best and brightest put their brain and brawn to the test on this project. “The construction guys, painters and sculptors on this movie are excellent,” Hammond says. “An old friend of mine who’s a costume designer once said, ‘your clothes are only as good as the people who make them.’ And actually it’s the same thing with these sets.”
Hammond worked for Cat director Bo Welch when he was a production designer. “He’s extremely visual and a brilliant designer. He clearly understands what a set needs to do in order to function as part of the machinery of the movie,” he enthuses.
McDowell characterizes his pre-Cat work as mostly grungy. “This is a kid’s project, and everything else I’ve done has been grown up,” he explains. “I’m finally on a film I can get my daughter to go see.”
Story by Bruce Shutan
Photos by Rich Schmidt
Set photos by Melinda Sue Gordon