Bringing a fantastical world to the screen and making it believable is a dream job for any production designer. Veteran designer Alex McDowell had the enviable task of collaborating on two such projects, both for helmer Tim Burton. McDowell designed the highly stylized and visually complex worlds of Burton’s take on Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and the stop-motion animated “Corpse Bride,” also directed by Burton with Mike Johnson.
“One of the great things about working with Tim Burton is that he’s very conscious of the visuals and the look of the film,” McDowell says. “He’s very, very careful about making sure that the detail makes it onto the screen.”
As the characters journey through Willy Wonka’s candy factory, whether passing by a cascading chocolate waterfall or pausing in a starkly white, modern television studio, each set necessitated a radically different look. Connecting these disparate components was the production designer’s challenge. “The hardest thing was to get all the sets to work synchronously in a way that would be coherent when the camera is passing through them,” McDowell says.
On a technical level, the chocolate-river room built on the James Bond stage at London’s Pinewood Studios posed the most complexities — from creating a river that looked good enough to eat to building a 30-foot transparent boat that could float on it.
At the same time “Charlie” was in production at Pinewood, “Corpse Bride” was shooting across London at Three Mills. McDowell’s design approach to the animated film was similar to a live-action project, as “Corpse Bride” required physical sets that conformed to the puppets’ 16-inch scale. However, “in a world that’s already highly stylized, you tend to simplify to make the frames work,” McDowell explains. “The actual composition of the frames works better in animation when you focus on characters — in this case, the puppets.”
The varied scale of the characters in “Charlie” also created design issues. Working within the candy factory are 2½-foot-tall Oompa-Loompas. Further complicating the process, full-size actor Deep Roy portrayed all of the Oompa-Loopas. “We were constantly building sets that were over- or under-scale or several versions of props to accommodate the different ways that we worked with Roy and his animatronics double,” McDowell explains.
Some Oompa-Loompa dance scenes required 20 to 30 passes of the same camera move, McDowell explains. “It’s the one version of making a small person that hadn’t been attempted before on film and will never be attempted again, I’m sure.”