Oliver Scholl, daydream believer.
Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski.

Set Piece
"Time Machine" production designer Oliver Scholl

second in a series
by Bondo Wyszpolski
This interview first appeared in the February 14th issue of Easy Reader.
printed here with permission

With the support of my department, my job is to come up with the environment for where the story takes place," says Oliver Scholl. "You have a script that describes the settings, [but] my concern is to come up with a translation of those settings into film reality."

Scholl is the production designer for The Time Machine, opening March 8. He's known for the work he did on a couple of Roland Emmerich blockbusters, notably Independence Day and Godzilla. We sat outside on a warm winter afternoon, a few feet away from an ever-busy Wilshire Boulevard in West Los Angeles.

Each film has a look, Scholl points out, and he works with the director and the director of photography "to narrow it down, and to come up with a framework that makes the whole thing into a coherent piece."

Scholl, who's originally from Germany, has been in the U.S. since the early '90s. Though well aware of such filmmakers as Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, his favorite seems to be Fritz Lang, one of the old timers. He got into movies, however, by way of working as an illustrator while studying industrial or product design. An interest in science-fiction goes back even further: he was influenced by the Perry Rhodan paperback series - popular in Germany, it appears, for the past forty years - and Scholl published his first illustration with them before turning fifteen.
He came to The Time Machine in part because he'd been hired by Rick Carter to do some illustrations for Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artifical Intelligence. Carter was the production designer on that project, released through DreamWorks, and Spielberg it seems was quite impressed by Scholl's work. So, when The Time Machine was beginning to be discussed in earnest Scholl was invited to come by with his portfolio.

"I met with the director," he says. "I liked Simon and I guess he liked me."
That's Simon Wells, the great-grandson of H.G. Wells, who wrote The Time Machine as a novella in 1895.

Initially, Scholl and his colleagues had one priority, and that was to come up with illustrations, a bit of computer graphics animation, and a presentation model of the time machine itself that they could show to the folks at Warner Brothers. If the latter were convinced of the project's ability to fly, they'd put up the money to get it rolling.

"The way it worked on The Time Machine in the pre-pre-pre-production phase," Scholl says, "I had a lot of time to myself to draw and that time usually gets less and less the farther along you are in production, until you're at the point where you have some doodles and scribbles and hand them off to your art director, assistant art director, set designers, whoever is in charge of what you need to have done to further develop the things. So you become an initiator of ideas, hopefully, and if you have a great team that team is going to take the ideas, flesh them out and make them better.

"There are, of course, always the physical restraints," he continues. "Besides coming up with the good looks for the sets you also have - as a parameter for designing a movie - the time constraints: When does the set need to be ready? What's the availability of actors? When is it going to be shot? How much money do we really have for the set? How much money does visual effects have in that sequence to actually extend the set or not? There's a lot of talk going on between departments to flesh out what is going to be happening."

Whether spoken or unspoken, the standard of excellence by which The Time Machine will be judged is not so much the H.G. Wells novel as it is the 1960 film by George Pal, starring Rod Taylor, Yvette Mimieux, and Alan Young.

"There's a flair to the original Time Machine," Scholl acknowledges, and he likens the transporting device itself to a piece of jewelry, glittering and delicate, that he wanted their machine to approximate. In addition, what he admired in the George Pal film "is just the whole period feel, and the period feel of the invention technology that Alexander [Hartdegen, the time traveler] grows up with, and that he builds the machine in."

Nonetheless, from the point of view of a more savvy film-going audience, the picture has minor flaws. As scriptwriter John Logan put it, the time traveler needed a clearer reason for building and employing a time machine, and the beings he meets 800,000 years in the future needed to become more plausible as well. The Eloi, I hope you'll recall, are the doe-eyed, childlike half of humanity while the Morlocks, subterranean and brutish, are just the opposite.

This time out, says Scholl, "the Eloi have a functioning civilization [but] are in the process - not knowingly - of being domesticated by the Morlocks." Still, it hasn't yet reached the point of no return: "Alexander sees something to be saved; he wants to save the good side of humanity. The Morlocks represent more, I would say, science and social developments gone awry." He pauses. "The dark and the light."

Some of this will be prefigured in the film's early sequences, which take place in New York (not in London, as in earlier versions), a New York at the dawn of the twentieth century and then, briefly, in the year 2030. The initial impressions are that Nature is in the process of being tamed, but eventually Nature resists, it fights back.

"And then in the far future," says Scholl, "we see the Eloi basically living in harmony with Nature" - with the Morlocks trying to suppress it.

Scholl was called upon to create three distinctly different environments, the first being a New York of the recent past and the near future (variables of a vocabulary we already possess, he says), with the second and third being the diametrically opposed realms of the Eloi and the Morlocks.

The New York sequences of 1903 that open the film were shot upstate, in Albany, Troy, and Schenectady, because parts of their downtown areas seemed hardly to have changed over the past century. The streets were dressed, carriages were brought in, and digital effects were added to make it all appear that the action takes place in Manhattan.

While the Morlocks inhabit an intricate but closed grid of tunnels and underground chambers, the Eloi are the recipients of the open air. "We had giant windmills and bamboo forests out on a ranch north of Los Angeles," Scholl explains. "We had an Eloi windmill that was over 50-feet high, with a basket on the top where they had stunt scenes going on. There was quite some stuff to be done, just in terms of physical construction." At its busiest, he guesses, there were over 300 people building sets.

One of these that audiences should find quite impressive is the cliffside Eloi village, the first version of which was nothing to write home about. But then, according to Scholl, there was an important conference call with Steven Spielberg and other key decision-makers. Spielberg, it seems, came up with a number of suggestions concerning how the Eloi live, in dwellings that resemble swallows' nests, attached to the cliff walls and connected to one another by fragile catwalks.

"You know it's going to make things more expensive," Scholl recalls, grinning; "so you're happy that Steven comes up with it." And, indeed, a large set was required, a cliff some 70 feet high and about 120 feet wide, with some of the actors being forty feet from the ground.

"Normally," says Scholl, "when you see the result of a film it's usually more convincing than what you see in the set, because the set just gives you one element of the film reality, [without] the sound and the dialogue and the cutting and everything else that makes it come together."

When we immerse ourselves in a film as viewers we're ignorant of cameras, lights, and other gadgets; those parts of the set we see are all that's of immediate importance. "It's not an exact science," Scholl says, stressing the importance of a continual dialogue with the director, "trying to figure out what he needs in the set; and then you look at the scenes that are going to be there, determining how much or how big or what you are going to build. But you never know until they've actually shot the set what angles they're going to pick.

"I try to design the sets to give the director what he needs or what he requested," Scholl continues. But at the same time, he adds, he's always happy when the set "seduces the director," and opens up new avenues of possibility.

And it works the other way, too.

"I like to be challenged as a designer by the director," he says. "I tend to be too rational, so sometimes I like people who push me into the other direction, just to see what's coming back." And what comes back may be an idea, a statement, that's not logical in itself but which furthers the story logic.

For the most part, though, it's got to make sense and be rational, and that's why Scholl likes science-fiction, with a plausible what-if - whether it's "an extrapolation of today's technology or, as with Lord of the Rings, a totally independent environment - that is consistent. Star Trek, for example, has a very consistent environment. Then it's fun for the viewer to try to figure out the logic of what's there, what could happen, what couldn't… I don't like science-fiction that breaks its own logic.

"I think we have a logic in The Time Machine," he says, and spends the next couple of minutes showing how some time travel theories work and how some don't. Regarding the past, what if you could go back in time and then kill yourself or your mother before you were born? The logic, however, seems cut-and-dry: "You actually couldn't have gone back in time because you never existed." Perhaps traveling forward, into a future where loose ends have not yet been tied, is more plausible. And it is precisely this, after all, that Alexander Hartdegen succeeds in doing.
Having an attractive, convincing-looking machine certainly helps.

In fact, Scholl asserts, "The main object of design in this movie was the time machine itself. There was a collaboration with Simon Wells and official model builder Tim Wilcox, who helped modeling while we were scribbling designs for the pitch to Warner Brothers, and who later on helped further develop the time machine.

"Then, when we were in production, I got two real model builders - Dana Juricic and Andrew Jones - to build an art department model of the time machine and to develop the model in actual 3D." Scholl seems particularly proud of their contributions. "They were hired because I thought that, given the intricacy of the machine, you couldn't really develop it only in drawings. You have to go with the physical models to see what happens in space with it.

"While Dana and Andrew were developing the model, set designer Darell Wight was drafting the machine. He took the basic sizes, dimensions, and ideas for the model… developed it further, then tied it all together and did an amazing job with it." The models, drawings, measurements were then turned over to special effects coordinator Matt Sweeney and his crew, and in their studio the full-scale and all but fully operational time machine was built.

Oliver Scholl is convinced that people viewing The Time Machine will themselves be pleasurably transported into another land, another reality.
"I think we've done our job right."

Next: 3D computer designer Tim Wilcox.

 

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