'Passengers,' 'Jungle Book' Production Designers Reveal Secrets to Their Craft

10:17 AM 11/22/2016

by Carolyn Giardina

From creating an interstellar art deco bar to a computer-generated jungle, world builders of award-contending films (including 'Hidden Figures' and 'La La Land') share behind-the-scenes stories.

Art deco touches adorn a bar on a futuristic spaceship in 'Passengers.'
Art deco touches adorn a bar on a futuristic spaceship in 'Passengers.'
Courtesy of Jamie Trueblood/Columbia Pictures

Production designers demonstrated a wide range this year with work on such period films as Hidden Figures — with its re-creation of 1960s NASA — to the more contemporary use of Los Angeles in La La Land. Deep in the cosmos lay a surprising art deco bar aboard Passengers' spaceship. And leaving all space and time behind was the computer-generated Indian jungle in The Jungle Book.

  • Passengers (Sony)

    Guy Hendrix Dyas

    In this sci-fi space travel film starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, the art deco-style bar is set in a large spaceship.

    "I thought, what is the classic type of bar you would want to go to on Earth? It's a New York art deco bar for me," says production designer Dyas, who built the bar at Pinewood Atlanta Studios. "Then there are little details that remind you that you are on a spaceship. … The walls have art deco friezes, but unlike traditional friezes that showed the industrial age, ours show interplanetary travel.

    The idea of travel through time and space is hinted at graphically on the walls and carpet and tiles around the entryway. [The color palette of] rich golds and reds is part of the color journey of the film. We needed that sense of warmth and seduction that would bring our characters to the bar. Many of the other places on the ship are cold and hard and shiny white. This is a place that gives you warmth and a sense of the planet Earth. It's a taste of humanity."

  • Hidden Figures (Fox)

    Wynn Thomas

    A circular building on the Morehouse College campus informs a built-from-scratch set in 'Hidden Figures.'
    A circular building on the Morehouse College campus informs a built-from-scratch set in 'Hidden Figures.'
    Courtesy of Hopper Stone/Twentieth Century Fox

    Production designer Thomas not only had to re-create period NASA for this film about a team of African-American female mathematicians who helped the U.S. win the space race, but the offices themselves had to be "inspiring." Photos and books about NASA were the starting point for the 1960s-era set of the Space Task Group at the agency's Langley, Va., facility, where the scientists worked.

    "We used the Morehouse College campus in Atlanta as a location to re-create the exterior of [the] Langley campus," says Thomas. "There is a circular building there that inspired the Space Task Group room. I liked the idea of using a circular space. It fit in with the global themes of the movie — our astronauts are circling the globe. I used a large glass globe to anchor the center of the room."

    An empty high school across the street from the production offices became the de facto studio for the film, where "the Space Task Group [interior] set was built in the gymnasium," adds Thomas.

  • The Jungle Book (Disney)

    Christopher Glass

    A production design team traveled to India to research the completely computer-generated sets they’d create for 'The Jungle Book.'
    A production design team traveled to India to research the completely computer-generated sets they’d create for 'The Jungle Book.'
    Courtesy of Disney

    After production agreed it was impractical to find and film in a jungle, this adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's classic book was shot on a bluescreen and the jungle was a meticulously designed CG creation inspired by India. "We wanted the jungle to be larger than reality; it's a fantasy jungle from a kid's point of view," says production designer Glass, who adds that for authenticity, a research team traveled to the Asian country. "We probably took 80,000 photos of different plants, leaves and trees."

    The film includes a wide range of flora, such as the lotus, as well as ficuses and banyan trees. The scene in which the main characters, Mowgli and the bear Baloo, float down a river is an homage to a similar scene in the 1967 animated version of the film, the color palette and feeling of which inspired the overall design of this modern iteration.

  • La La Land (Lionsgate)

    David Wasco, Sandy Wasco

    Concept art for an L.A. club in 'La La Land' that Ryan Gosling’s character hopes to restore to its 1960s jazz-era glory.
    Concept art for an L.A. club in 'La La Land' that Ryan Gosling’s character hopes to restore to its 1960s jazz-era glory.
    Courtesy of David Wasco

    "In the script, this facade was supposed to be a 2000-era remodel of the classic Van Beek studio, which our hero Sebastian [Ryan Gosling] dreams of owning and restoring to its classic and historic jazz roots," says set decorator Sandy Wasco. "We chose a building that would be credible as once having been a 1960s hub for the likes of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk but has been remodeled into its present life as a salsa nightclub, with neon klieg lights and postmodern greens, blues and pink terrazzo."

    Production designer David Wasco says they found the location in Burbank — a building that started as a movie theater and at one point was Barbra Streisand's Evergreen Studios. "We painted, added a deco marquis and the signage. … Our visual reference was Jacques Demy movies. We were also weaving into it a lot of the vernacular that is common in L.A., like David Hockney images — these are eye-popping, primary-color visuals. … What [Sebastian] is seeing is something that has been changed, and his dream is to bring it back to what it was."

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