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Nature, Science And History Informed Production Designer Guy Hendrix Dyas’ Work In “Passengers”

By: Marjorie Galas

Imagine spending sixty years in space, building a massive craft from the inside out. That’s the concept production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas visualized when developing the spaceship at the heart of his Oscar-nominated production design featured in “Passengers.”  The ultimate creation merged scientific theory, aero-dynamic principles, modern architectural elements, innovative lighting design and the fanciful beauty of nature.

Noting “Passengers” ambiguous timeline, Dyas pulled upon his industrial design background and, thinking of wind-turbine principles, immediately sketched a vision prior to his first meeting with director Morten Tyldum. Reflecting on scientific theories he’d read relating to deep space travel that indicate ships could sling-shot through the universe, Dyas imagined a far-reaching front proboscis. The forward-reaching extension would grab an ice block and, like a blood-sucking mosquito, drain its frigid water deep into the craft’s core were it would serve as a coolant.  The completed structure had outer limbs that vaguely resemble the graceful sycamore trees he observed in San Francisco while creating the production design for “Steve Jobs.”   His next step was ensuring Tyldum and the studio were on board.

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

While details about the ship, including its name, changed in the script, Dyas’ original sketch was greenlit. For the first ten 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 ten weeks were spent on the Pinewood Atlanta stage were Dyas and his crew built out the sets.  Working with his most frequent collaborator art director Luke Freeborn and supervising art director David Lazan, Dyas amassed a crew that were crucial to building the interior. They included construction coordinator Robert Blackburn whose department were able to extract exact matches to the technical drawings via their cutting tools.  With sixty-four 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.

Changes throughout the ship’s material and design helped to emphasize its sixty-year build out. The ship’s heart and spine had a NASA-esque compartmental organization and was built with stainless steel. With every layer added the look shifts from modernist lines to organic shapes and  the material advances, extending to carbon fibers and futuristic surfaces the further one progresses to the ship’s triangular outer appearance.

The nature of the ship: a vehicle capitalizing off the passengers it was transporting to a new world, allowed Dyas to explore color palettes. He was particularly thrilled to break away from the traditional silver space ship model.

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

For example, Dyas designed the ship’s bar to be an inviting sanctuary anyone would visit repeatedly despite its animatic, imprisoned bartender (that he also created). Working with 1920s architecture, he used a warm palette of reds and golds.  In addition to the pool room’s despondent blue and the ship’s antiseptic creams, lighting became an extension of the color palette.  Dyas worked with DP Rodrigo Prieto to develop unique lighting features such as LED panels and characters included in the dance sequences.

Of all design challenges Dyas enthusiastically embraced in “Passengers”, he received the most joy in planning the green space sequence in the film’s conclusion. Inspired by 1972’s “Silent Running”, his elaborate design included robot greensmen, irrigation, even a cabin in the woods.  With the exception of some VFX extensions, everything in the build was real.  The recognition of his work has resulted in his second Oscar nomination (he was previously nominated in 2011 for “Inception”) and resulted in his second Art Directors Guild Award win(his first win was for “Inception”).  Dyas also has four Art Directors Guild nominations for his work on “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”,  “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”, “Superman Returns” and “The Cell.”