“The Avengers” is closing in on $1.2 billion in worldwide box office and has passed “The Dark Knight” to become the biggest superhero film in Hollywood history. The scale of the movie feels as big as those numbers, and one major reason for that is the work of James Chinlund, the production designer whose credits include Darren Aronofsky films “The Fountain” and “Requiem for a Dream.” The New York native has a fine arts background and studied at Cal Arts but also learned a lot in the pages of Marvel Comics. We caught up with him to talk about making a universe big enough for a cosmic team of box-office heroes.
HC: What did you see as the biggest hurdle when you first took on the movie?
JC: In May of 2010, when I was first approached by Marvel about the project, the first challenge that jumped out at me was how to make all of these characters from so many disparate worlds and visual vocabularies coexist in our world of today. With the Iron Man films, Marvel had been so successful creating a seamless reality where the world felt plausible and even though Iron Man’s tech was otherworldly, it still felt grounded. You could tell how much care had been taken to maintain a truth in the visuals. I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility, to all of the incredibly talented artists and designers who had worked on the films before me, to deliver a world that was balanced and cohesive, and could contain all of these different visual threads.
HC: What was specific tactic to achieve those ends?
JC: As we were working through the initial conceptual framework for the look of the movie, I continually came back to the same idea of trying to blend the futuristic technologies of SHIELD and Tony Stark with a 2012 world with its full range of histories and textures. Throughout the film we looked for opportunities where we could represent these ideas, ideally right next to each other in the same frame. The Stark Tower was the ultimate representation of this idea, where Tony Stark bought the iconic MetLife Building (formerly the PanAm Building) and ripped off the top adding his own piece of parasitic architecture to the top. The height of arrogance and the essence of Stark. As a production designer, this was the most rewarding set to design, having grown up in New York and looking at that building everyday throughout my life, to be able to effect its history, forever, was an amazing opportunity. In choosing the MetLife location we were also recognizing the rich topography of the streets below which is a unique arrangement in New York, with the viaduct over 42nd St and the tunnels behind Grand Central Station, not to mention Grand Central itself, the ultimate conflagration of rich histories and futuristic ideas.
HC: What about going back to Marvel Comics — was there an era, an artist or a story arc that you drew on? And what was the philosophy about finding a fresh new vision but holding on to the essence of heritage?
JC: I grew up with the Avengers; as a young boy growing up in New York City, these characters were a huge part of my early fantasy life. Over the years I had put them down, so when this opportunity arose, it was amazing to see how much had developed in the comics and graphic novels since I had last visited. I was especially blown away by the work of Bryan Hitch in the Ultimates series. His work had a profound impact on our designs. I was most drawn to the way he really strove to keep the world grounded, pushing the grit and textures of the city and simultaneously laying down some beautiful, massively scaled architecture into it. This contrast was the spark that most inspired me. As we progressed, however, we touched on so many of the artists throughout the Marvel history. Jack Kirby’s energy and drama pushed our team to go bigger and bigger and reminded me of the original spark that got me into the whole thing. The fun of being a kid and watching these guys do their thing. Throughout our process that was the biggest sniff test for me; would the kids think it was cool? Kirby had an ironclad grasp on this notion.
HC: This movie needs to sync up with the individual hero franchises but not repeat them; what can you say about that and your approach?
JC: As I walked into Marvel on my first day I was given a “tour” of the artwork that had been produced for the Cap and Thor films. It was a bone-rattlingly terrifying day for me to be confronted with the work of two of my design heroes, Bo Welch and Rick Heinrichs, and asked to follow up and go even bigger. Their work on those films, and Michael Riva’s work on the Iron Man films was absolutely amazing and in such completely different ways. The prospect of finding a through line in the design and bringing all of these worlds together was daunting to say the least.
HC: Was there anything in the story that worked in your favor from Day One?
JC: The thing I had going in my favor was that all of the characters were entering a new space, NYC, and all felt a little off balance anyway. This gave us license to re-create the aesthetic of the previous films and reground it in 2012. Each of the designers on the films previous to “Avengers” had created extremely disciplined design constructs. In the “Iron Man” films I loved the way Riva had forced the Stark tech into the real world, and really played up the truth of the visuals of today, allowing our discovery of Iron Man and his inventions to be that much more heightened. Rick’s period world in Cap and Bo’s Asgard established the scale and grandeur that opened the door for us to push harder and harder on Avengers to create a world event. Allowing the heroes to roam in a world that was sufficiently massive to contain all of that energy and momentum.
HC: The Helicarrier looked tremendous. What would say was the hardest aspect of that environment?
JC: It was a huge challenge bringing together all of the various ideas and iterations of the Helicarrier that have occurred throughout the Marvel history and creating a cohesive, plausible piece of military hardware that viewers could accept without their suspension of disbelief being pushed off the precipice. I think everyone involved was focused on making this 1,500-foot-long monster battle station look like something could be sailing over Manhattan and not crashing to earth in a ball of badly designed flames.
HC: Did you use real-world references of any sort?
JC: During our research we looked at all sorts of historical, current and conceptual military vehicles, particularly naval vessels — such as the littoral ships — and stealth aircraft, in addition to all of the versions from the Marvel pantheon. We tried to distill from these something that the fans would recognize as the iconic craft and people unfamiliar with the history could accept.
The bridge of the carrier was the first set we started on, knowing that the ship would need a gathering place for all of the heroes. As the main command center of this massive battle station, I knew we would have to deliver a space sufficiently impressive. My biggest fear was that after the first look at the carrier we would wind up in an interior space that didn’t match its majesty. The design for most of the interior spaces was organized around the idea that all of the interior chambers on the ship were suspended from the decks. That the engines were lifting from the deck level and that all of the spaces below were “hanging” from the decks above. This involved an intricate series of pipes and hangers that ran throughout the ship. This helped us develop the architectural signature for the look of the ship. The struts and “ribs” that are seen throughout all reference back to this original idea. On the bridge this idea is most evident in the massive struts on either side of the main viewing window and at the back of the space by the Avengers table.
HC: Did comics out on any particular aspect?
JC: There is some artwork in the Ultimates, with Nick Fury at a giant viewing window that was incredibly inspiring to me. I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D., this international intelligence gathering organization, should have the ultimate “eye in the sky” and Fury as its leader should have the catbird seat. So I decided to push the window a step further and have him standing on a porthole window actually looking directly down on the Earth. Joss [Whedon] and I pushed around several different arrangements, where the porthole was in the middle of the set before landing on the final position where it is part of the larger viewing window. This presented an incredible engineering challenge that our construction coordinator, John Hoskins, executed flawlessly, to create a seamless piece of glass that swept along these compound curves and could support the weight of an actor (and camera and dolly and…). In the end we had the perfect spot for Fury to stand as he led the team.
HC: Can you talk about working within the Marvel “system”? How did it differ (if it did) from other studios and their projects?
JC: I found the Marvel Studio to be an incredibly supportive and positive environment to work in, I have so much respect for the Marvel tradition it was an absolute thrill to step in and carry the baton for a while and help execute the design for “Avengers.” The process at Marvel is a very inclusive one, lots of voices and opinions, but all focused on a singular goal. In the early days there were epic roundtable presentations where we would present the work and discuss it with the Marvel team. I found these meetings to be always productive, Kevin, Jeremy and Victoria all have amazing taste and such a profound understanding of the path they are on, I felt that every time I left the table the ideas were that much more focused.
HC: The meeting place of the alien warlords was a fascinating environment as well and reminded me a bit of Ditko’s strange dimensions and limbo zones. Can you talk a bit about that?
JC: The development of the aliens were mostly a product of Joss’ vision and the amazing work of Ryan Meinerding and his team at Marvel. I was tremendously inspired by Ryan’s alien designs, I loved the contrasts he developed with the organic materials and the machined technologies. As we were attempting to create the world, I was looking for textures that would allow these beautiful designs to separate from the background and still feel of the world. It’s funny that you mention Ditko; his drawings are some of my favorite. Not sure if he was a direct influence, but this certainly was a place that Kirby had a heavy hand in my decision making. I was playing with the idea that Thanos would potentially have an energy field of some kind that surrounded his throne, shearing the rock around it forming a perfect sphere, and revealing the glassy iridescent core. It was the first time in my career that I had had the opportunity to do something so untethered from any reality, it was reassuring to see how freely the artists in the comics had attacked these ideas.
HC: Is there anything that you loved that didn’t make it — and might pop up on DVD/Blu-ray?
JC: I can honestly say that we left it all on the court. In the end we shot every drop of the sets we built and that is a testament to the amazing efficiency of the “Avengers” team. The process was so chaotic at times, but in the end it all wound up on the screen, which I am so proud of.
– Geoff Boucher
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