How a Production Designer Created 'Isle of Dogs'' Miniature World and 'Ready Player One's' Massive VR Dystopia

Size mattered as Oscar winner Adam Stockhausen traveled from Wes Anderson's stop-motion movie, shot on miniature sets, to Steven Spielberg's film, which required a sky-high shantytown as well as a virtual reality escape.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
For 'Ready Player One,' production designer Adam Stockhausen oversaw construction of a five-story-high set.

Between the two films for which he's nominated for Art Directors Guild Awards, production designer Adam Stockhausen undertook a sort of real-life Gulliver's Travels. First, he began work on Wes Anderson's stop-motion animated Isle of Dogs as if visiting a small-scale Lilliputian world, since the sets were effectively all miniatures designed for puppet replicas of assorted canines and humans. Then he moved to Steven Spielberg's fantasy epic Ready Player One, in which he entered the large-scale Brobidingagian world, encompassing both a dystopian Columbus, Ohio, where inhabitants live in "the stacks," and the virtual reality world of the video game, the Oasis.

But rather than focus on the differences between the assignments, the veteran designer (an Oscar winner for Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, he's also been nominated for Spielberg's Bridge of Spies and Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave) says he was struck by their "similarity, even though they used entirely different methods — at least half of Ready Player One is a [CG-]animated film. That is where I think there is an amazing similarity. Because stop-motion is miniature and digital animation is created in the computer, there's no reality to fall back on. Absolutely everything has to be made — every chair and every glass. And before anything can be made, it has to be planned and designed."

Scheduling meant that he was already working on Dogs (on which he shared production design duties with Paul Harrod) while beginning work on Player. "There was a lot of overlap," Stockhausen says of the required balancing act that resulted. "It started in April 2015 — both films had very long prep, research and development time. I started heavily first on Isle of Dogs, and then Paul Harrod came on and joined us. And as that moved to the animation and shooting phase, he was running with it. That's when Ready Player One really heated up and moved from its early R&D to its shooting phase."

Fox Searchlight's Dogs is set in a futuristic Japan, where the corrupt Mayor Kobayashi has exiled all the pet pooches of Megasaki City to a vast garbage dump, known as Trash Island. That took inspiration from the industrial landscapes of such photographers as Edward Burtynsky and from landscapes seen in 19th century woodblocks from Hiroshige and Hokusai. What Stockhausen then created looked "like Japanese woodblock landscapes, but they were done in trash," he explains.

Another key set is Megasaki City's Municipal Dome — a large auditorium, with stage, podium and audience, where the mayor makes a series of announcements. Kabuki theater and 1960s Japanese architecture were the touchstones Stockhausen used. And if that huge portrait of the mayor hanging above the stage looks familiar, that's because it echoes the similarly designed political rally in Citizen Kane. One of the film's larger sets at 6 to 8 feet across, it was constructed to accommodate larger-scale puppets.

For Warner Bros.' Player, the $175 million adaptation of Ernest Cline's book, Stockhausen based the stacks of mobile homes on the density of dwellings in a number of cities, such as Hong Kong and its Kowloon district. For the stacks, a practical set — 45 to 50 feet high and including four five-story towers — was built in the U.K. at Leavesden Studios. In their shabby, analog detail, the homes contrast with the glittering digital world of the Oasis. "With live action, you can fall back on real set dressing, locations and props, but there are other challenges," Stockhausen says. "With the stacks, for instance, there was a long process of engineering and safety planning before anything could even be built."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.