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Building a new world in film

by Desa Philadelphia
Alex McDowell is recognized as one of the most innovative designers working in narrative media.
Alex McDowell is recognized as one of the most innovative designers working in narrative media.

A script didn’t exist when Alex McDowell started to create the Washington, D.C., of the future for Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report.

“The screenwriter and I started work on the same day,” said McDowell, a visiting professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) who is widely recognized as one of the most innovative designers working in narrative media.

He described how he thought of the ways people lived, got to work and communicated, creating spaces and products that influenced the script. Spielberg, he said, “didn’t want to create science fiction. He wanted to make future reality.”

On Jan. 29, McDowell showcased his work at “Glimpse: A Digital Technology Showcase,” a daylong presentation for technology journalists that featured projects from several of USC’s tech-focused entities, including SCA’s Game Innovation Lab, the USC Institute for Creative Technologies and the Annenberg Innovation Lab.

McDowell’s production design work on world-building — creating the worlds depicted in fictional narrative — has made him a go-to production designer for directors, such as Spielberg (The Terminal, Minority Report), Tim Burton (Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and David Fincher (Fight Club).

McDowell — who serves as creative director of 5D Institute, a research unit within SCA that operates as a nonprofit collaborative for professionals with interests in promoting world-building — also shared scenes from his work on Upside Down, a 2012 French-Canadian romantic fantasy film about two planets with opposite gravities in which the world building had to be both distinct and parallel.

He also talked about a creature-building project centered around Scott Westerfeld’s young adult novel Leviathan, which he’s working on with second-year SCA students. McDowell showed the audience renderings he and his students made of the “Leviathan” of the story, a whale-like airship that transports the protagonists across worlds. The novel has a steampunk aesthetic and McDowell said it was interesting to work to create imagery that both complemented and opposed the style.

SCA Dean Elizabeth M. Daley, who introduced McDowell to the group, singled him out among a group of faculty who she said are really thinking about and “articulating how we are all going to live between virtual and physical worlds.”

McDowell first came to SCA in 2009 to teach a class titled “Immersive Moviemaking: Gestural Interface for Cinematic Design” with John Underkoffler. That class, he said, made him realize that USC was a good fit for the research he was trying to do.

Last fall he taught an interactive media seminar with Associate Dean of Research Scott Fisher. McDowell is currently teaching a class titled “Imagining Worlds: Narrative Design Across Disciplines.”

McDowell’s latest film project is the Superman blockbuster Man of Steel, which will be released this summer.

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