Director Zack Snyder's goal, and that of the cast and filmmaking team he built around him, was to create an experience true to the feeling of the 'Watchmen' graphic novel and unlike anything put to screen before. "There's massive spectacle in this movie," says the director. "It's that mix of hard emotional reality with Dr. Manhattan on Mars in this giant glass palace, floating above the Martian landscape, or Manhattan 200-feet-tall walking through the jungles of Vietnam. It goes back and forth between action and what that action means to the characters. We tried to push the storytelling to the very edge, and to push the look as far as we could to truly bring to life the experience of the graphic novel."
Using the graphic novel and the screenplay as a starting point, Snyder storyboarded the entire film to lay out his vision for all involved in what would no doubt be an epic undertaking.
Production designer Alex McDowell remembers, "Zack opened his books of storyboards and that in itself was revelatory. Then, on the opposite page, he had picture references and extensions of the ideas contained inside the boards. So, we had two incredible volumes that we constantly referenced: the graphic novel and Zack's bible."
But where the visual landscape of "300" was created almost entirely on a computer, for this film Snyder wanted to set his characters on solid ground. "With 'Watchmen,' the sets are so intimate," he notes. "As we started to build New York City, we realized these characters are going to be walking down these streets. You might as well build the whole thing. So, we ended up having something like 200 sets in the movie."
But the film also encompasses less earthly vistas. "'Watchmen' is this gritty, real story, but yet a quarter of the film takes place on Mars," Snyder continues. "And other scenes take place in Antarctica, at a retreat built by a millionaire ex-superhero. So there are operatic aspects to it as well. I'm naturally interested in those big thematic visions of reality. That's not to say Rorschach doesn't walk down a seedy 42nd Street world, but at the same time, there is this giant glass palace that's built on Mars. There are flying machines, huge blimps hanging over the New York skyline, and other things that we were able to layer in. I think that that's part of the strength of this visual approach."
One set among the many created for the film would be entirely digital: Dr. Manhattan's Glass Palace on Mars. "The design is a combination of quantum physics and a clock," comments McDowell. "There are layers and layers of references to clocks and watches in 'Watchmen'--the ticking clock of the nuclear countdown, the watch Osterman wears and then leaves behind, setting off the chain of events that leads to the creation of Dr. Manhattan. So, there's some idea that the Glass Palace is an elaborate clock mechanism that he creates in reference to his father."
With so many sets, including an entire city, needing to be constructed, the next step, says executive producer Herb Gains, was "to figure out where we could shoot this movie. As Zack continued to draw the boards and I started seeing more and more of his vision, I realized that even under the best of circumstances any single location was going to fall short of what he required. It became obvious that we had to control our own destiny, to build everything and create the environments with very little location work, which is essentially what we did."
McDowell created a large schematic that incorporated images from the graphic novel, set designs, and other references to keep track of the multiple sets and characters and the timelines that define them. This schematic became a valuable tool for every member of the crew. "As we developed the language of the production, we used this as a way of feeding all the necessary beats back to all the departments, from set dressing, construction and costumes to the actors," he explains. "It was really a vital part of how we planned the film."
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