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Science and Nature Mix in ‘Passengers’ Production Design

The challenge: design a massive spacecraft that can transport thousands of hibernating passengers on a 120-year journey across the vastness of space. Production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas embraced the project head-on, visualizing and then building the ship — and earning an Oscar nomination for his work.

His creation merged scientific theory, aerodynamic principles, modern architecture, innovative lighting design, and the fanciful beauty of nature. For the job, Dyas leaned on his industrial design background. Applying the principals of wind turbines, he sketched out a vision prior to his first meeting with director Morten Tyldum.

Reflecting on scientific works he’d read about that involved spaceships sling-shooting through the universe, he imagined a vehicle constantly spinning to create its own gravity, with a
proboscis and outer limbs, and the grace of the Northern California sycamore he observed while designing “Steve Jobs.”

His next step was to ensure that Tyldum and the studio were on board.

“They were radical notions,” Dyas admits, “and I got some wide and worried eyes from Sony.”

In the end, his concept was greenlit. For the first 10 weeks of pre-production, Dyas worked with art directors, illustrators, and set designers to refine the structure inside and out, presenting 3D renderings and technical drawings on trace paper. The next 10 weeks were spent on a Pinewood Atlanta Studios soundstage, where he and his crew built out the various sets.

Dyas worked with art director Luke Freeborn and supervising art director David Lazan. Also on the team: construction coordinator Robert Blackburn, whose department and cutting tools were able to create exact matches to the technical drawings. With 64 metallic colors to layer on the finishes, Dyas put his trust in lead paint supervisor Christopher Woodworth, who provided automotive-quality paint finishes on top of wood.

The ship’s heart and spine had a NASA-esque compartmental organization, and was built with stainless steel. But Dyas also explored multiple color palettes, and he was thrilled to break away from the traditional model of a silver spaceship.

“It became a unique opportunity to introduce colors,” he says. “I tried to project moods without knocking you over the head.”

For example, Dyas designed the ship’s bar to be an inviting sanctuary that anyone would visit repeatedly, despite it being manned by a robot bartender, played by Michael Sheen. The design is inspired by 1920s architecture, and features warm reds and golds.

Lighting also played a major role in creating the colors — including the despondent blue of the natatorium and the antiseptic creams of some of the interiors. To develop unique lighting for all these areas, Dyas worked with DP Rodrigo Prieto.

Of all the film’s design challenges, Dyas most enthusiastically embraced the green-themed scene at the film’s conclusion. Inspired by 1972’s “Silent Running,” the elaborate design included robot greensmen, irrigation, and even a cabin in the woods. There were some vfx extensions, but everything else in the build was real.

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