One of the first conversations production designer Alex Holmes had with “The Invisible Man” director Leigh Whannell was about grounding the film in reality and treating it like a psychological thriller, rather than a horror or science-fiction movie.
“I felt that any horror and gothic genre tropes didn’t feel right. The audience had to believe in the technology for it to land,” Holmes explains.
He designed the invisibility suit as a wet suit looking outfit with cameras all over it in a hexagonal design. “It was what everyone responded to,” he says.
He did his homework researching invisibility technology and learning how objects become invisible by going to the University of Sydney and speaking to professors there. “I had long chats with Jim Rabeau, a physics professor. He was a great help. He said, ‘In theory, invisibility is kind of possible, but it’s a long way down the track and you have to do years and years of testing.’”
Holmes explains he learned about light being bent around small objects to appear invisible, but that was too scientific for them to tell visually. “We went with the optic idea, the camera and the holograms,” he says.
Making it even more plausible was the idea that Adrian was a pioneer in his field. “It was all a creative hunch and the VFX guys got excited because they could see the potential in the suit,” Holmes says.
The script had the suit appear as a blurry shimmer in the film. With that in mind, Holmes researched a lot of middle-class homes to familiarize himself with exteriors and interiors before he built supporting character James Lanier’s (Aldis Hodge) home. “We wanted to make it a mid-tone palette,” he says. “The main gist of the approach was to move away from exaggerated aesthetics that you would normally associate with horror films.”
Once the home was designed and built on a studio set, cinematographer Stefan Duscio made sure not to light the sets in an overly dark way, and Whannell wanted to make sure the lights were on to make it feel like it was a normal house. “Stefan lit it to make it scary. If they lit with shadow, it doubles up on what was already there,” Holmes says.
In comparison, there was a slightly different challenge when it came to finding the perfect location for antagonist Adrian Griffin’s (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) cliffside home. Filming in Sydney, Australia, Holmes had to scout far beyond the city landscape to find a home that looked like that of a Silicon Valley tech guy. “The super-wealthy don’t generally build huge mansions that they’d build in California,” he explains. “They tend to cluster in the harbor by the water.”
Holmes found the property that would serve as Adrian’s home two hours outside of Sydney along the coast, and he made it a suitable stand-in for the Northern California coastline.
The design of Adrian’s home lab was based on university nanotechnology facilities. They shot the area in a ten-car garage where Holmes and his team built the testing rooms and safe room.
The invisibility suit room was scripted as a locker cupboard, but for Holmes that didn’t create enough impact. He designed the room so it hangs on a structure that looked like electricity was being fed into it. “We came up with the idea of the iPad that shows what [Cecilia] is seeing. She sees herself in the room and doesn’t see any cameras, so it was a weird moment and that concept dictates that scene when she discovers it,” Holmes says.