Welcome to Immersion Club

JAN 11, 2011

Jenna Clark Embrey on Death and the Powers Production Designer Alex McDowell.

While some films garner success at the box office, few achieve the coveted label of “cult classic.” The Crow, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Fight Club are such cinematic gold. The films’ posters are ubiquitous on dorm room walls and their DVDs fly off the shelves. What’s the common thread? The success of all three films is owed in part to their ability to transport the audience into their fictional, bizarre, and yet fully-realized worlds. One name recurs in the credit reels of all three films: Production Designer Alex McDowell, who is making his A.R.T. debut this spring with Death and the Powers. McDowell has a career that spans a broad range of art disciplines. Well before making a name for himself as a production designer in films, McDowell trained as a painter at the Central School of Art in London. This background in visual art led McDowell to form Rocking Russian Design, where he created album covers for London punk rock bands during the early 1980s. It was then that he stepped out of the two-dimensional world and onto the set of music videos as production designer.



After moving to Los Angeles, McDowell plunged into the film world, where he served as the production designer on the tragically famous hit The Crow. During the filming, Brandon Lee, the star, was killed during a freak on-set accident. Despite the devastating circumstances surrounding the film, critics were quick to praise the film’s haunting atmosphere of a comic book world come to life. McDowell had taken the setting, Detroit, and mashed up the real-world city with a gothic pallor—as if the entire place had been transported to the innards of a haunted house. Robert Ebert, in The Chicago Sun-Times, heralded the movie as “a stunning work of visual style” and the Washington Post called it “frenetic, violent and composed with cartoonish artfulness.”

McDowell is not only a wizard of design in the film world, but also an innovator. He coined the term “Immersive Design” to describe the evolving world of the designers who work across all forms of narrative media. By definition, immersive designers create worlds in media that are wholly intact spaces – fantasy becomes the reality. The film inhabits a geography that contains specific rules, and the landscape can serve as a metaphor for the action.

In Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, for example, McDowell designed the glass-and-metal Pre- Crime Building as a metaphor for the dystopian world of the film. The surfaces of the building do precisely what the Big Brother government wants – they expose and they reflect. In this futuristic world, filled with precogs who predict crimes before they happen, no one can hide their actions, and no one can hide from themselves. The world that McDowell created in Minority Report is defined throughout by this metaphor. With these specific rules for the landscape, the film’s geography is given a backstory that extends past the frame of the camera. Indeed, Immersive Design can be seen in all of McDowell’s film work: Tyler Durden’s dilapidated house in Fight Club, the dream worlds of Corpse Bride and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – all showcase McDowell’s mastery at forging total environments that make the fantastical into a reality.

After championing the design of virtual worlds for films, it seems only natural that McDowell would take his gloriously tactile sensibility from the flat screen of the cinema and try his hand at the three-dimensional world of the stage in Death and the Powers. When the title character, Simon Powers, makes the decision to download himself into his environment, audiences will be able to witness McDowell’s futuristic set design come to life before their eyes. The stage, at first representing Simon’s house, becomes “The System”—an undulating, vibrating assembly of screens, walls, and robotic architecture. The walls breathe, gesture, and speak. In Death and the Powers, the rules are revealed with the landscape; the audience is submerged in a sci-fi fantasy of manmade machines and machine-made men.

Jenna Clark Embrey is a first-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University.


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