"Superman Returns" Set Visit (Part 9): Guy Dyas Interview Part One

As CBR's extensive coverage of "Superman Returns" continues, we now turn our attention towards the oft-neglected set design industry; the aesthetic gurus who help insert some personality into film aesthetics (along with many other folks). Set Designer Guy Dyas is a legend among superhero fans, with his work on "X2" representing some of the most beloved comic book film sets, so his perspective on the Superman world has been much anticipated. This interview took place last summer in Syndey, and Dyas was quite prolific in his speech, spending almost two hours with the assembled reporters, in this very unusual roundtable interview.

GUY DYAS: So this is what we call the workroom for Bryan and myself, and the writers. This is where we put a lot of concept art up on the walls, discuss ideas, and sometimes Bryan comes up, likes the stuff, sometimes he comes up and doesn't like the stuff. These walls are changing all the time. They're never the same. Every two weeks everything on the walls is new. So, I'll run through everything and try and explain what there is here, that you're looking at. So start over here - some of these computer drawings are really some of the early conceptuals that show what Superman's pod looks like. Now, this is not... I can't tell you the details of the story, obviously you guys all know the rules, and I'll have my head chopped off or something, so I can't tell you the story, but...

PRESS: It's worth it.

GD:: (chuckles) I don't know. Basically, the baby pod in the original film, which was this sort of very bizarre spikey structure... one of the broad-stroke things that I had to do was analyze the first film, go through it, see if we could modernize some of the ideas which were originally designed by John Barry. Modernize a lot of the ideas, but hold on to some of the really nice aspects of the original films. And as Bryan will tell you in his own words, this film can be seen for the first time by someone who hasn't experienced one of the Christopher Reeve films, and enjoyed, but also hopefully looked at by people who've seen the first, and certainly the second film, and want to consider this to be the ideal third film in the series. He never really liked the third or fourth film. Yeah. . .

PRESS: Who Does?

GD:: Well, let's just assume that this film hopefully deals with both of those aspects. So if you're a fan like. . you grew up on the first film, as I did, then hopefully you can see this film and go "okay, this fits in." And it will. So back to the story - this is the pod. Superman has to go on a journey at a certain point, so one of the things that we've done with the crystal technology in this film, which they couldn't do back in 1976, is look at the crystal technology of his Fortress of Solitude and any vehicles he may have, as in this case a pod that he rides around in, and actually grow the crystals. The idea is that the crystals grow. It's a bit like that experiment you did at school, when you grew the little crystals. Only this time it's a bit like stop-motion animation, so we're developing methods of actually seeing the crystals grow at a very advanced speed. It's quite an exciting thing, and I think it brings another dimension to the whole Kryptonian technology. So this is the interior, you'll see the exterior over there when we go over there shortly. These are some. . .

PRESS: That one there? GD:: Yeah, that's actually an internal pod, this is a chamber that he sleeps in for a long journey. So, moving on - these are some concepts for the Kent Farm, and you can see, actually, this is the exterior of the ship. This is an enormous thing that we actually built up in Tamworth. I'll show you some pictures of that. The idea of the crystals is when they enter the earth's atmosphere on the return journey... because everything glows red hot, the crystals actually become crustated and burn, so they have this very strange organic appearance. Moving around, you'll see some key images which show some of the action sequences that we have in the film. I will point out that this plummeting 777 jet bursting into flames here. . . there are no flames. Everybody survives, don't worry.


GD:: It's not quite what it looks like, but these are some very early, very vigorous illustrations. Also you can see we've been very inspired by Alex Ross. He's really the hero of this film in terms of the look. I think we all really enjoy the way he draws and and conceptualizes Superman and the way... yeah, go ahead...

PRESS: Is all this art computer generated?

GD:: No, no. A lot of it's hand drawn. In the art department I certainly still love it when we draw by hand. I think it's really important to do that. A lot of the images are photoshop generated, for example the sequence of three drawings there which show the 777 plummeting. They're all actually done with Photoshop, which is scanned images that exist, and then painted over the top. So it brings another level of reality to it.

PRESS: What is it that appeals to you about Alex Ross' paintings?

GD:: I think he just really, in my mind... there's something very very nice about the way he draws. There's something very realistic about the way he draws. I think the images and also the subject matters that he deals with, with this particular character really appeal to Bryan and his team because they're a little bit more set in reality, and there's also a sense that he's dealing with real issues.

PRESS: Has Alex been involved in any capacity?

GD:: No he hasn't. I know Bryan's spoken to him several times. I would love to speak to him, so if any of you know him, please....

PRESS: He's really not very hard to get a hold of.

Q2: I'll put you in touch with him.


GD:: But it was a very close production. There wasn't really a desire to get too many people from the outside involved. Bryan wanted to. . .

PRESS: [can't hear the question on my recording]

GD:: Oh really? Bryan wanted to keep the production pretty tightly closed, and not too many people were involved outside of his core team.

PRESS: Is that his art that's scanned into photoshop, though?

GD:: No. These are actually various illustrators and people we've had on the production in various stages, basically producing ideas.

PRESS: How many people do you have working in the department?

GD:: Everybody? About 450, I suppose. That includes everyone from props to set decoration, right in through conceptualizing, through the set building, the whole lot. So it's been a very big production.

PRESS: How does that compare to something like X2?

GD:: The biggest difference between this and X2 is we were able to work in a facility where we were able to build all the sets. As a lot of you remember, we went on a tour and saw all of the sets pretty much all at the same time, and we could leave a lot of those sets standing. So, we could go and shoot things, and if there were things that were not quite right, we could just go back and reshoot them. On this particular production, and when I get around to showing you the photos you'll see, there have been so many sets of such enormous scale that we haven't been able... the studio's not big enough for this film. For example, at one point we actually turned the woodwork shop into a stage because we just ran out of room. And a lot of the sets, as soon as they're shot, they're immediately struck. We wait for what we call the strike order, which means get rid of the set. It's gone almost immediately, and another set is put up in it's place. In some instances we've actually built between stages. In other words, we've put up scaffolding between stages to accommodate and create yet another space.

PRESS: Like the front of the Daily Planet...

GD:: Yeah, exactly. That's out there. So let's move around and look at some more of these images. This is basically a concept design for a new shuttle. And the idea is that as part of the film, we're taken on a mission, and we see a shuttle being launched on the back of a 777. It's a an advanced shuttle. As you know when shuttles take off, they normally take off with these enormous rockets which contain lots of fuel. The idea here is that the shuttle takes off, off the back of the 777, directly into space. Sort of following along the lines of the the Virgin, Richard Branson-type idea. Bryan, of course, if friends with him, and they've had a lot of discussions. We got to meet with Richard, and discuss a lot of these designs. That was quite nice.

PRESS: Is that where he makes his Cameo?

GD:: It may very well be. I can't say. (to Joe) Can I? (back to us) No. Uh, so, moving around to some of the artwork - one of the intriguing characters in the film, look at those orange images at the end there by Joe. Those are the first concepts for a mansion, which was a location here. The character at the mansion was a very wealthy elderly lady called Gertrude Vanderworth.

PRESS: Is that Noel Niell?

GD:: Yeah. She basically is about to pass away, and leaves a lot of money to a certain individual, who then is funded in order to do whatever he needs to do. Does that make any sense?


GD:: Next to it you'll see there are some comparison images - three in a row, top to bottom - which show how we're taking locations here in Sydney. At the top you'll see the art museum, which has those columns on the front. And if you look immediately below it you'll see the photoshop illustration of how we're going to take that image and in CG convert that into basically our Metropolis look. Metropolis in this film is not New York, it's not Chicago, it's not any of those cities. It's a fictitious city, but obviously the look of it has to be very realistic. We don't want to go the sci-fi route too much with this. It's a modern day film, but rather like New York or Chicago, it does have a great sense of history. So, you're going to see a lot of 1930's art deco references in this film. We felt it was important, not only because of Superman roots, when he was created, and some of those very early comic books where you see the classic stacked skyscrapers that you see in New York, we thought it would be nice to have a feeling of that, and see all the water towers. But also, I think, when you're trying to create a city, you've got to give it a sense of history, otherwise people just don't believe it. If all the buildings are new, and covered in glass, that's one thing, but you've gotta show that there are different zones in a city so that you believe it's real.

PRESS: So was it easy for you to transform Sydney into this Metropolis that you were looking for?

GD:: No, not at all. Not at all. Sydney's a lovely city, but my first reaction when I got off the plane was "Oh my god, all the Brits moved to San Diego and built things."


GD:: It's very beautiful, small-scale British architecture built in yellow sandstone. That's all I can say. So it is NOT the Metropolis I had in mind nor Bryan had in mind. So obviously a lot of the locations we picked out here, there are several you'll see if you just jump over a couple of images, you'll see at the bottom, this image here, this is actually a location you may pass downtown and this is again a photoshop image of what we intend to turn that building into - the hospital. Again, what we've had to do is scout very heavily around Sydney and find the pieces of architecture that really fit into the world we wanted to create, without making it look like we came and shot in Sydney.

PRESS: What was the main reason for coming to Sydney to shoot?

GD:: As always - the price.

PRESS: And then, how do you do it? You shoot the building, and then it goes into the computer and it gets...

GD:: Well, take for example this. We would shoot - again I have some pictures of this which I'll show you - we would dress this as to whatever the building was, and certainly for anything close we can shoot on the location. We don't have to do any computer graphics work, so we get probably 90% of our scenes done on location. But for any establishing shots, or anything particularly wide, we start to show the Sydney Opera House in the background. You kind of have to get into matte paintings there, otherwise you run into trouble. That's basically what this illustration shows. When you get any wider you start to show things like the Sydney rotating restaurant thing. You have to cover those things up.

PRESS: Covered by....

GD:: By imaginary buildings. By three dimensional buildings which we design and then basically import in computer and place in there.

PRESS: I noticed the number plates on the cars say "Metropolis: The First State" and I was wondering what the meaning of that is.

GD:: There really isn't a meaning. It's funny - when it comes to naming things now it's becoming increasingly difficult to name things because there's a lot of problems with litigation in films, and people suing for use of number plates and uses of names. Absolutely every name for every store, every box of cereal that people use... everything has to be redesigned. I mean, we have a graphic design team on this film of five people who basically designed everything, as I said, from cereal boxes to number plates, basically making subtle changes in order for us to get around litigation and being sued for using number plates and whatever it happens to be. Warner Brothers is obviously very careful about that sort of stuff.

PRESS: What about the look of the Donner movies, did you use that as influence?

GD:: Yeah, absolutely. I watched them just continuously for a long time, and John - John Barry was the designer on the first film, and there were certain things that I felt, personally, had such an iconic image to the general public, things people will remember. For example, the Fortress of Solitude - it's very difficult to go in and say "Okay, I'm just gonna completely redesign the Fortress of Solitude and make it into something else," because I think you'll probably upset a lot of people, and you may also take them out of the story. Bryan's story relies heavily on a lot of people already knowing what the Fortress of Solitude is, so it's important from a storytelling point of view that some of the things in the designs have to stay the same. I had a lot of freedom, for example, on the Daily Planet. We started from scratch and designed the Daily Planet the way I think it should have been designed the first time. They perhaps didn't have the time, didn't have the money, perhaps they didn't want to spend their money on that. I don't know what the situation was with Richard's film, but certainly this time around it was very important for the Daily Planet to be a complete entity unto itself with a history. We designed everything in the Daily Planet from Lois Lane's business cards, we had an internal office telephone list, which everybody had. I mean everything. Bryan, who is a detail maniac...

PRESS: There was so much detail in the blog. In the originals it was a very sort of dowdy kind of office. I was astounded by the detail, even the little things on the walls... the Bryan Singer award.


PRESS: How did he react to that?

GD:: Well, needless to say, it was the Bryan Singer Award... he loved it.


GD:: It was a big challenge, again, talking about boring stuff like copyrights, you can imagine that. Everything from... we did have a lot of stuff from Gotham as well, being as it's the DC world. For example, you may notice in a couple frames that... we're using this new camera that's phenomenal, it's like looking with your own eyes. The detail you see. I had a lot of sleepless nights trying to worry about how some of the old scenic techniques wouldn't work now with this new digital camera that Tom Sigel and Bryan are using. That really pushed the idea of the detail, and if you REALLY look in the background of some of the frames you'll see all sorts of crazy details which allude to the DC world. We've got phone books from Gotham, and there's a clock in Perry's office that actually says the time in Gotham. We scratched our heads about where Gotham was compared to Metropolis.


GD:: So it was nice, a nice little tip-of-the-hat to to the DC worlds. So, moving around - this was one of the things that... you know I've talked about there not being many sets to show you guys this time, but certainly this is one of the things I'll be proud to show you, which is Gertrude's Yacht. We talked about this elderly lady. She is the wife of of a huge shipping magnate who made his fortune in ship building, and all sorts of big, big stuff, and as a result he built her this absolutely extravagant yacht. You know, the biggest yacht. This is a 300 foot yacht called "The Gertrude." You're going to go and stand on the back of it on Stage 3. One of the most interesting things about "The Gertrude" is the fact that it actually has a glass bottom. When you actually go into the yacht, and go down to what I call the Marine Gallery, which is the lowest part of the yacht, you're actually going to walk on glass, and underneath you would actually see the water... you would see the water, and sea fish, and things like that. It's not just a design statement, it actually was a request from Bryan for a story point in the film. So we'll go and look at that on set as well, and see what you think of that. This is actually a scale model of "The Gertrude," so you get some idea of what we've been up to here.

PRESS: And how big is it in the real world?

GD:: It's about 300 feet. It's absolutely enormous. It has a Jacuzzi, it's own helicopter, all sorts of fun things. Bryan just gave me a wish list and it's all in there. We essentially built portions of this. Obviously I didn't get a very kind response from Warner Brothers when I went to them and said, "Look, I wanna built this 300 foot yacht. What do you think? Can we do that out here?" "No, you're not gonna do that." We ended up having to build portions of the yacht to tell the story, and in the art department we built a 3d model of this using Rhinoceros, a program, and that will be passed off to the various effects houses to render up. So, any wide shots you see of the yacht obviously will all be CG, but we have built some pretty large portions of this yacht. For example I'm going to take you on this rear deck, here. We built all of this on stage 3, and you'll actually be able to look at our Jacuzzi, and go in and see the gym that's just underneath there. We've also built, obviously, the bridge, and various other compartments, huge corridors inside this yacht. There's a huge sequence that occurs in this yacht, and...

PRESS: And the helicopter...

GD:: And the helicopter. We found a helicopter here that was completely destroyed and refurbished it, and you can see part of it still outside. So, that's an interesting set...

PRESS: Can you talk about this? What have you done to the Harbor Bridge?

GD:: Yeah, I'd prefer not to talk about that actually. No, this was... as I said, a lot of these drawings you're looking at, a lot of them are working drawings. Some of the projects are just ideas that we throw out there, some of them are actual things that we do. This project came and went, but it's kind of an interesting idea. There was some talk about creating a bridge that we could actually utilize parts of Sydney Harbor Bridge as a location, in other words a corner of it here, and then pulling back and using something that perhaps married together parts of the Brooklyn Bridge to give it that sort of a New York feel. But anyway, we never ended up using this.

This is an interesting project. This is the train set. Bryan basically came to me one day and said - actually I think he called me really late at night - and said "Guy, you've gotta build me a huge train set. The biggest one you've ever seen!" So, we got in touch with a German company called Märklin who specialize in beautiful, detailed model train sets. We were able to get sponsorship from them, and then proceeded to build this absolutely enormous train set. I mean, it's huge. The train set itself is probably about 60, 70 feet by about the same across. We had about three different scales to this train set, so as you looked at it from the front, all the trains in the front - which actually had little steam coming from them and little engine noises and things - they would all be much bigger, and obviously the further back you went the smaller they got. In this train set we had all sorts of little homages to Bryan's films. We had a large lake with little boats floating on it, we had a drug bust going on at a dock, which is very "Usual Suspects." We had a big dam in there, which was the dam... I just pulled out the plans from X-Men 2 and built a little X-Men 2 dam in there. We had someone sculpt up a mini Mount Rushmore as a tribute to Eva Marie Saint, so we put that in there. It's just hundreds and hundreds... when you see the film you'll pick them up. We had a little Smallville station, and a little Kent Farm, and all sorts of things going on in there. We also built Metropolis way back here with a little Daily Planet with a ball on top. It was great. But anyway, you'll see pictures of the train set, and we'll take you to what we're calling the "aftermath of the train set," which is... something happens to the train set and it gets destroyed. So you'll get to see the aftermath of that. Right behind you there, chaps, is the surface of Krypton. Superman goes back to look for his roots, and finds a planet's surface. Now, the image at the top left-hand side there shows a pretty crisp sort of surface, and that's how you'll be introduced to the planet. You slowly reveal that actually what you're on, it's not a complete planet, but just a shell. Just a piece of the planet. So by the end of the sequence, this is what you'll see. Obviously, needless to say, that deadly green stuff under there doesn't make our hero feel too well. These images in the middle here, this is the exterior of that crystal space craft that I talked to you about over there, when you were looking at the interior. I think some of the unique features about this, as I say, it's a ship that actually grows itself, it's completely transparent, has a beautiful sort of glowing aura to it. So it's sort of reminiscent of deep sea fish, the way they glow. You know, the angler fish, the way they actually have luminescence inside of them. I think that's quite a unique thing for a space ship.

PRESS: And this is meant to recall the original ship?

GD:: Yeah, I guess it is. I tried to work with that design, but if any of you guys go back that's the one thing in the first film that really looks hokey. If you go back and look at that baby pod, it just sucks. I'm sorry, forgive me all the people who worked on that back there in England. It just looked really bad. We tried to treat it, instead of just being a ball with spikes on it, as though it is actually a crystal that has grown. So this almost looks something like a snowflake, if you like. It actually has an organic structure to it. Oddly enough, it almost looks art deco to me, as well. It could almost be a chandelier, so it fits in with our world there, as well. Let's move around to the other side of this board...

More images which show the Fortress of Solitude again. It's the one area that was very, very difficult from a story point to deviate from. You see in the top right-hand corner there, some images of the Fortress of Solitude. Obviously these are very quick concept sketches. We're going to go into a lot of detail in post-production as to how the fortress looks. We'll probably end up doing umpteen sections of the Fortress to explain how this crystal structure actually stands up because it's a difficult thing to explain.

PRESS: Besides Alex Ross' art, how much is being taken from actual comics? It sounds like a big jumping off point, like you said, is the previous movies. Are you guys using anything from the actual comics?

GD:: Yeah, absolutely. I think more in the story-telling parts of the film. Dan and Mike have definitely read a lot of the comics and taken snippets from them. You should talk to them about it. I think definitely in the story there are lots of little nuggets that are taken from the folklore of Superman. From a design standpoint, because the story was very specific, and I decided together with Bryan that we were going to go this contemporary with a very slightly retro feel, I think everything sort of took care of itself. We knew the yacht had to be absolutely modern. We knew that the Fortress of Solitude had to at least allude to the original design, and we knew that the city had to be something between Chicago and New York, but not. So that was really the outline. There's not really... from a design standpoint, when it comes to looking at the comics, as somebody who draws myself, the thing about the way comics are drawn is they emphasize expressions on faces, and emotions and movements, but when it comes to the background, there's really not that much detail there that I can pull off, especially the kind of detail I like to put on sets.

PRESS: I remember a yacht from a John Byrne series. Lex Luthor had a big giant yacht which... [my recording lost the end of the sentence when guy said-]

GD:: Oh, yeah.

PRESS: Which I guess now I'm stumbling on stuff you can't talk about...

GD:: Maybe.


GD:: Smart guy. Knows his stuff.

PRESS: At the end of Superman II, well in the extended version, not the theatrical release, the Fortress of Solitude actually got destroyed. Has that ever come into your thinking?

GD:: It did. There was a discussion that Bryan and I had about the destruction, and as he'll explain to you, he'll argue that the thing we can bring to the crystal technology that they never were able to in 76, is that, because of CG, we've enhanced the idea that the crystals actually grow. It's a living organism, it's actually a thinking organism, and the crystals that are used in the console in the Fortress of Solitude are more like seeds. They're information crystals, but they're also seeds. There are things that actually enable - chemically - these crystals to grow, and they're engrained with a pattern, or an architectural plan for something, and it basically recreates itself. So that was talked about, although I don't think it's explained in the story. I think that the film is already so jam-packed with stuff, they just couldn't squeeze it in. But it is a good point, you're right, yeah. Alright, let's jump over here...

I'll just jump around the office to explain some of the things you're looking at in here. Behind you there are some of the initial concept costumes, and they show, obviously, Brandon in his suit - the very controversial suit - and also some of the looks for Lex Luthor, and Kitty, his gangster's [didn't catch this word]... sidekick.

PRESS: Is that Lex's pimp look?


GD:: I guess. I guess, yeah.

PRESS: That's Lex from the movies, from the original movies, with the...

Q2: What about the costume? What was the inspiration for the Superman costume?

GD:: Well the costume isn't really my area. I would like to have had more input on that, but you should speak to Bryan and Louise [Mingenbach], the costume designer, about that.

PRESS: Is there an "S" on the cape?

GD:: ...No. So, behind you...

PRESS: How 'bout the wig? Is that Lex's...

GD:: The curly wig? Yeah. He never wears that curly wig. That was more of an homage to the original. I think there's a line in the script that refers to a curly wig. Bryan was concerned that if we went too comical with Lex it would just take away all of the fear of his character, and obviously Kevin Spacey's pretty scary. He comes in my office and says, "Hey, you got anything for me?" and I'm just, "Yeah, take whatever you want! Take whatever you want!" He plays the role so beautifully, it's incredible. He's chilling on screen. The idea that he was going to be sort of a clown dressed up in a curly wig and do the whole campy Gene Hackman thing... it didn't work for Bryan at all, and I think it was a great decision. He's a very scary individual.

PRESS: Is that the Shuster Building there? Are you going in order here.....

GD:: Hey! Let's talk about whatever you like!

PRESS: Is that the Shuster building there?

GD:: Yeah! What you're looking at here are actually a day and a night backing, these are obviously very small, and these are the backings that I created for the Daily Planet itself. When you have a set like that, obviously you have to make this huge trans-light that goes all the way around so when you look through the windows - you guys know all this, I know - you're not looking out at a green screen. I was very much against the idea of just doing green screen everywhere. It's important. The actors spend a lot of time at the Daily Planet, and I wanted to go a little bit old school and make them feel like they were really there, you know, 68 stories up in this beautiful old building. So we created these backings that were absolutely fantastic, and obviously - I'm always trying to do this - Shuster had to put it in there. Actually, we tried to get Siegel in there as well, and we couldn't use the name.

PRESS: Why not?

GD:: Litigation. There was a big problem with it. There was a TV store in the film, and we absolutely wanted to use that name, and I just know that people love that stuff and appreciate it. If you're going to call something something, you might as well call it something out of the folklore of the universe. But anyway, Shuster we could use, so there's a big glowing sign on the roof of the Shuster Building. We try to do a lot of that stuff. Let's talk about some of the architecture. This is the first sketch I did for the Daily Planet, which to me just encapsulates everything that I'd seen in all the years of development, all the drawings, all the inspiration for what the Daily Planet should be - just that very classic monolithic building. Perry White's office - this is an illustration of Perry's office. That's a 3D model of the front of the Daily Planet, that's down here. We actually built a rooftop, which was pretty spectacular, but the scale of the ball was absolutely huge. I couldn't actually build the ball, it was just too big for the stage. I decided as part of the design to put the ball at the front entrance as well, so at least we had the physical ball there as part of the film.

PRESS: So will the ball be on top in a CG version?

GD:: Yeah, of course. And obviously when we're shooting the rooftop, we put some interactive lighting up there with the moving letters. You'll see all that stuff in the footage, so you won't feel like you've been cheated. Behind me are an array of illustrations and drawings which show the various architectural details. There, actually, is part of the rooftop. Here's a model for the entrance way which we built between stages 5 and 6 out there. This was a map, which, as you can see, is very similar to Manhattan. This was our idea of Metropolis based on some of the geographical things that have to take place.

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