The Creator doesn’t look like anything else out in theaters right now. While it obviously expands on visual precedents from films like Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner, and Akira, the latest sci-fi action movie from Rogue One director Gareth Edwards feels equally indebted to the mood and spirit of our contemporary reality, thanks in no small part to Edwards’ decision to film on site across eight different countries, including Nepal, Cambodia, and Thailand.
The film stands apart from its contemporaries in its pronounced emphasis on strong art direction, grounded in an emphasis on tactile retrofuturism. It’s evident in everything from the costumes and robot designs to the ominous jagged silhouette of NOMAD, the low-orbit nuclear warship that hovers in the sky throughout the majority of The Creator.
Via Zoom, Polygon spoke to The Creator’s production designer, James Clyne, to talk about how he and Edwards honed in on The Creator’s unique aesthetic. We discussed the importance of graphic design in worldbuilding, and how the 1982 movie Pink Floyd – The Wall inadvertently inspired NOMAD’s design.
Polygon: What was it like working with Gareth Edwards on the aesthetic of The Creator? What were your visual and philosophical guiding principles for how this particular universe should look and feel?
James Clyne: That’s a big question. I mean Gareth, on so many levels, he’s very hands-on with his filmmaking. He likes to operate the camera, he likes to be involved on every level, and that includes art and creating what this world could be. So a lot of our initial discussions were just influences, what were we influenced by. We’re kind of the same age. We grew up in the ’80s with all these great sci-fi movies like Total Recall and Blade Runner. But then we’re also influenced by movies like Apocalypse Now.
There was one specific movie that stuck out — Baraka. In a way, we looked at that movie and thought, What if Baraka was made 60 years from now, and we were able to watch it today? What would that look like? What does that mean, what does that feel like? Because Baraka is such a great documentary of today’s culture, of humanity, where we are and where we’ve been and where we’re going. And Gareth has a bit of a documentarian sensibility, in that he wants to just go into a location and shoot it as is. That’s what we did a lot in the film, just go into these real locations in Southeast Asia and shoot beautiful photography.
So that was one thing we knew we wanted the movie grounded on, these very exotic natural locations. And then we asked what kind of world we wanted to build on top of that, which was another big discussion. Because it was Southeast Asia, we were influenced by Japanese culture of the ’90s and how they built their technology. Walkmans, televisions, and stereo equipment, they all had this very tactile look. We’re so used to iPads and iPhones — a sheet of glass laminated onto a metal backing. We just thought that wasn’t going to be the most cinematic thing.
So we thought, What would a Walkman look like 60 years from now? How do we keep it tactile, with real buttons and real LED displays, but make it our own kind of future? What if that technology from the ’90s just went in a different direction, and we still used very tactile equipment? That plays into everything from the costume design and props to the vehicle designs all the way up to the design of NOMAD itself.
The robots in this movie are fascinating, specifically the insectile facial structure of the older-generation robots with their pincer-like mandibles, compared to the newer “Simulant” models. How did you settle on both of those designs?
With everything on this movie, we started with really rough sketches, whether it was in a sketchbook or we would work on the computer. We wanted to keep things loose. This insectoid look came about where we didn’t want them to look humanoid, but we wanted them to display their own evolutionary process. Like a certain animal evolves across millions and millions of years into something else. What if robots took the initial idea of the human form and evolved into something else? We just latched onto more of an insectoid appearance. Insects themselves almost feel like they’re made out of some other material; they’re not made of flesh. That just seemed appropriate for our designs.
With the Simulants, there was a desire to make sure they could emote like humans, so when we look at Alphie, or we look at her room, as an audience, we would feel what they were feeling. But when they turn their head, there’s a hole in their head that goes all the way through. There’s a cavity in the back of the head that is fully exposed, that’s an impossibility to do with just makeup. The actual design language of that goes back to this idea of retrofuturism, of old tech mixing with new tech. Maybe there’s a battery pack that loads into the back of the head, this emphasis on physical and tactile elements, rather than this more slick, almost Minority Report version of the future. Which I also think is cool, but we wanted to take this different approach, and make it more grounded in some kind of reality.
Another interesting robot design was the suicide-bomb androids the U.S. military deploys near the end of the second act, with the way they salute their commanders before scampering off to kill their targets. What was the thought process behind those?
We wanted to create something that, even if it were just standing there and not doing anything, it would intimidate the audience and make them go, That’s not a robot, that’s a bomb. The best shape we were able to arrive at was kind of a big cylinder. It looked like something that would be dropped from a plane or shot out of the barrel of a cannon off of a tank or a battleship, but it just happened to have legs and arms. We didn’t want to create something so abstract that the audience wouldn’t understand that this thing is going to explode, so we put caution stripes on it and other graphics that gave off the idea of “Don’t mess with this thing.” We wanted to make it cool, functional, and believable.
You mentioned the design of NOMAD, the flying nuclear warship that hangs like a sword in the sky for most of the film. It’s one of the most striking designs in The Creator. It reminded me a lot of the orbital laser from Akira, and I know Edwards has compared it to a “bird of prey” in interviews. What was the inspiration behind that?
I think a sword is a great analogy for what NOMAD is, which is a weapon. We did thousands of sketches and thought about shapes that were aggressive and intimidating. I remember getting a little frustrated while trying to nail down the meaning behind NOMAD’s design, so I sent Gareth an image from this movie called Pink Floyd – The Wall. I saw it as a kid, and it really messed with my head. Some really disturbing images of war, one of which was this raven-shaped bird of prey that flies over the landscape looking for unsuspecting prey. It had these really hard, aggressive lines to it.
Gareth really liked the idea of NOMAD looking like this massive eagle in the sky that slowly circles its prey. Once we had that metaphor, we were able to dig into the design, giving it almost like a head, or fangs — these really strong wings that protrude from either side. Hopefully that comes through when the audience sees that without any context, that this weapon is aggressive and something to stay away from.
This is getting into the nitty-gritty details, but I love the design of the title cards in this movie. When I noticed the little “Nirmata” logo in the corner, I thought, Wait, are we actually watching an in-universe propaganda film about the events of The Creator? What went into the design behind those?
I like that idea a lot. [laughs] I thought those title cards were beautiful. Those were done fairly late in production, and I can’t speak to the design themselves. But what I can speak to is Gareth’s love of graphic design and typography, which is laid into everything in the film from the police vans to the big door that Joshua opens up to find Alphie. Gareth not only had an eye for the set design, but also the graphic design as well.
I think sometimes that’s often overlooked, and you can tell in a movie when it’s overlooked. We paid a lot of attention to the size of logos, like the tank [the U.S. deploys to assault the AI compound]. There are little logos all over it that give the idea that there’s a manufacturer that built the tank, so they put their name right on the side to advertise themselves. All those details you might not see on the first viewing, but hopefully those details pop out through a second or third viewing.
One of my favorite aspects of The Creator is the film’s emphasis on art direction, and one of the ways that’s seen is in the film’s teaser poster. The key art of this robot standing in a field with bulbous structures in the background, and a brilliant pink sky. Do you know who designed that illustration?
Well, I do know, because he is me. [laughs] I can’t take full credit; Disney proposed some ideas. But Gareth and I just sat down and said, OK, what are all the most favorite elements we want to have in here? Disney did the final pass on it, but I did these initial sketches of a robot with structures in the distance. We just figured out what kind of posters we were attracted to, and what elements we wanted to emphasize about the film.