Doctor Strange Production Designer Talks Crafting Ditko-Esque Environments

When it comes to conjuring the eye-popping visual aesthetic of "Doctor Strange," production designer Charles Wood is the sorcerer supreme.

Wood is not only a veteran of his trade, crafting the looks of the particular physical environments of a particular film, he’s made more than a few marks in Marvel Studios' Marvel Cinematic Universe as well, serving as the production designer on “Thor: The Dark World,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron” before creating a world for the Master of the Mystic Arts to inhabit.

With “Doctor Strange,” which was a hit in theaters upon its release last November, debuting on Digital HD on Feb. 14 and on Blu-Ray on Feb. 28, Wood took a breaking from his latest project -- a little movie called “Avengers: Infinity War” -- to give CBR a look into the process of creating those stunning and Steve Ditko-esque landscapes in the film.

CBR: Even though you were very familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe by now, this one must have been an especially exciting challenge to rise to, given the kind of offbeat surreal landscapes that “Doctor Strange” was associated with. Where was your starting point, as far as conceiving what you were going to be doing for the film?

Charles Wood: I would say it was meeting with [director] Scott [Derrickson] and with [Marvel Studios president] Kevin [Feige]. We probably spent about a month just coming up with imagery, and what I mean by that is, basically reading the script, scouring the internet, just trying to find imagery we felt was relevant to the film.

One of the things we did very, very early on in the process, we went to Kathmandu. I’ve traveled a lot in my life, but I certainly haven’t been anywhere like that. Kathmandu is an extremely beautiful city on every level. After walking around Kathmandu and looking at it and thinking from a comic book, this is actually where Strange goes to, it was highly influential in the look of the film: its color, its texture, the Nepalese people, Buddhism, mysticism, the quality of the light. All of that sort of stuff although was very relevant to that part of the film, it also gave us many ideas for many other parts of the film, I suppose.

Artist Steve Ditko, the character’s co-creator, is the artist most closely associated with that unique look of “Doctor Strange.” Tell me what was fun about looking at his work and some of the other artists that have worked on the character over the decades to find some inspiration and actually try to recreate within the film.

Certainly, I remember the day Scott walked in and he pulled an image, a copy of some of Steve Ditko’s artwork and said, “That’s it. That’s where we’re heading. You’re going to do that and go beyond that.” And to be honest with you, I was terrified. I looked at the imagery, and it’s beautiful as a graphic image in a comic book, but I had no idea in my head how that would ever relate to film. It’s a fairly terrifying thing to begin with. But with Marvel, you can’t take that attitude. That’s what it is and you have to go with it.

Actually, interestingly enough, I spoke to my concept artist and we all had a good look at it all, and it was actually from something which felt like a great big chain around your neck, a thing that was going to drag you down. In fact, it had quite the opposite effect, because I think people were like, “Wow -- well, if this is really what we’re going to do, let’s really go for it.” It was quite an emancipation, if that makes any sense.

These sorts of films, the vernacular of these films, they’re not actually bookended. They’re really not. The studio really, really, really wants to do something unique with each one of their films. They have to do that. It was brilliant to be on project where they said, “Go around that corner and keep running, because we’re right behind you, and you mustn’t fall over. Show us your madness.” That was inspired not by me, that was inspired by Ditko, and the courage of the director and the studio, I would say.

Did the reality-warping landscapes that we see, in the second half of the film primarily, pose an extra bit of challenge to you trying to figure out how you were going to do an environment that was going to shift as radically as some of it did?

Yeah, it was difficult. To begin with, we know from a fairly early stage, we certainly knew what we were trying to do. But when you get on a plane from London, you land in New York, and you start wandering around New York, and the director’s coming three weeks later and you have to put a sequence together for him, that is that trippy, it is a real challenge, because you have to be articulate, you have to show how this would all work, the environments and all the rest of it. So that was a tricky journey.

But once you land on something, once you start to get the feeling for what it is you’re trying to convey, then it gets a lot easier from then on, I would say.

You got to really do the first fully realized version of the Sanctum Sanctorum that we’ve seen on screen, which is akin to designing the Batcave or the Fortress of Solitude for the movies. Tell me the joys of landing on where you finally landed in envisioning this very special place for “Doctor Strange.”

To begin with, we did various designs for it, some of which were more modern. But basically what we wanted to do is we wanted to convey that this building, whatever it was, many sorcerers had lived in it and traveled to it over the course of time. So the modern designs, which we threw out very early, because we felt that it had to have a sense of history, but we didn’t just want to make it, say, a Victorian interior. We wanted to make the experience for the audience, when you walk in through that front door, something peculiar.

So we looked at different architectural styles: we looked at Victorian architecture, we looked at Bauhaus, we looked at Art Deco, and we looked at other architectural styles, and we tried to sort of come up with a space which was both TARDIS-like -- and what I mean by that is when you walk in, it’s surprisingly weird, it’s surprisingly over-scale, it’s never ending. And also, we tried to give it a look to that world that you couldn’t quite put your finger on. It was somewhere you hadn’t quite been into, if that makes sense, but just about.

And the thing was, it needed to be shadowy. It needed to be highly textured. You wanted Strange to wisp in in and out of the shadows, almost without seeing him. Then the building inverts. It does all these crazy things, so you also need to give the building a personality, a color personality as well. It’s lovely stuff to do. I think those are some of the best sets actually we made in the movie. I was really sort of pleased with those.

You mentioned how Marvel gives you the opportunity to make every film distinct, but because you’ve gotten to work on multiple Marvel films, tell me what’s fun about the continuity of that universe and playing to that as well.

I suppose there is some level of continuity, in the sense that, “Doctor Strange” is an origin story. So the term of continuity -- there wasn’t actually a lot of continuity. Whereas certainly “Avengers,” certainly there was. I suppose you just try and better yourself. You see what’s been done in the past. You try and better yourself for the next one, but it’s also nice to understand a character in one film, and know that when they get in that car, and where they park the car, they’re going to park it in your next movie possibly, yeah?

And it’s nice to see the progression of characters. It’s nice to follow along that journey. I think I’m very lucky like that. You’re always trying to up your game, I suppose, like you should.

You’re on to your next Marvel film, “Avengers: Infinity War.” What can you say about the fun challenges at this point that that film has offered you going forward?

It’s a very impressive production. All I can really say is, as “Doctor Strange” was a completely new enterprise, this is as well. And that’s about all I can say! It’s pretty amazing stuff, I can assure you of that, we’re doing, quite astounding actually.

"Doctor Strange" is on Digital HD now.

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