Alex McDowell is one of the most innovative and influential production designers working in narrative media. With the impact of his ideas extending far beyond his background in cinema, he advocates an immersive design process that acknowledges the key role of world building in storytelling.
In his 30+ years as a narrative designer, McDowell has worked with directors Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, David Fincher, Zack Snyder and Steven Spielberg, amongst many others.
cars2eFrom 1999-2001 Alex McDowell worked with Steven Spielberg to design and develop a world for the film Minority Report, prior to a completed script. The process that evolved changed the nature of film design from analogue to digital, and profoundly affected the nature of production, with a radical shift towards a non-linear workflow. Since this film, McDowell’s work has built on the dynamic  relationship between creativity and emergent technologies.

UD_03731McDowell is associate professor in Interactive Media, Production and Media Arts and Practice (iMAP) at the School of Cinematic Arts, USC, where he is director of the World Building Media Lab and the 5D Institute.
1019595As visiting artist at MIT’s Media Lab from 2006-2011 he designed the robot opera Death and the Powers for composer Tod Machover. He is a Getty Research Institute scholar, and a member of the AMPAS SciTech Council. In 2006, he was awarded Royal Designer for Industry by the UK’s Royal Society of Arts.
Alex McDowell is co-founder and creative director at 5D | Organization, a cellular and interdisciplinary transmedia design practice. “When you design in a pre-visualization space or an immersive design space, you are no longer working in a linear film production process. It’s no longer pre-production, production and post-production. Those are really anachronistic terms now. We’re working in a non-linear workflow where we’re equally working on post-production as we’re working on production and shooting. At the same time, when we build a set now, when I design a set, I build it in 3D space. I’m sculpting space with software and you’re immersed in 3D space. It allows for an immersive collaboration.”
new mandalaMcDowell recommends that universities rethink the way film or set design is taught. “I don’t think you can teach film design as it is traditionally taught without fundamentally understanding how animation works, how gaming works, how environmental design works. ”
Check out the upcoming 5D event this April at USC:


39 comments on “March 27 – ALEX MCDOWELL

  1. Dustin Reno says:

    In creating my own stories and worlds in past personal projects, I have found myself using a singular idea as a jumping off point and follow it to help flesh out the world. However, I sometimes find myself struggling to make sense of basic, fundamental elements as a result of a lack of planning at the offset.

    Are there a list or set of central ideas and elements that you wish to define and establish at the start of a world-building task that you use as a foundation for everything else to grow from, or is it a much more organic process that evolves out of following a path(s) for an idea that you fill in any holes for later on?

  2. Amy Lee Ketchum says:

    As a creative professional, how do you keep yourself inspired and your ideas fresh?

  3. Ryan Gillis says:

    I have the same question as Amy, with a few more particulars:
    I’ve only once tried to write a story that took place in an immersive universe. I found generating that much culture and design to be exhausting. But you seem to be able to do it consistently.
    So my questions are:
    -How do you keep from repeating yourself when the task of world-building is so enormous, and detail intensive?
    -When you’re working on a film that projects into our planet’s future- are you working towards the tone of the story always- or do you ever have a personal agenda that makes its way into the film? Whether to idealize or warn?

  4. Tristan Dyer says:

    When designing a world what comes first for you, form or function? I believe that there has to be a certain amount of both since you don’t deal in abstraction but do you ever get hung up on one and use the other to get you out of a bind?

  5. Caress Reeves says:

    Immersive environments and building non-linear narratives offer a lot of room for visual exploration. In what ways do you suggest animators explore the two?

  6. Cecilia De Jesus says:

    Reading through Alex’s bio has gotten me very interested in hearing his lecture. It sounds like he has had quite an amazing career. I was interested in the mention of the evolution of analogue to digital and how that changed nature of production. Could you elaborate more on this shift and how it’s affected the way you work?

  7. Evan Harbuck says:

    Can you speak about the development and design of the transportation in Minority Report, specifically the self driving cars and automated highways? Also, when can I buy a self driving car of my own?

  8. Miguel Jiron says:

    With the lines between pre-production, production, and post blurring more and more through emerging technologies, what’s the best way to communicate to the director and your crew the vision of the piece? Is it more directorial in nature, like pitching and presentations? What
    is the process like of harmonizing your ideas and concepts to be in tune with the director’s vision?

  9. lisa chung says:

    Among the directors you’ve worked with, who has been the most open to your ideas and most willing to collaborate your and his/her vision.

    Working on a stop motion film such as Corpse Bride, what were some restrictions or advantages when designing for the film?

    I would love to hear more about the interactive projects you’re working on and future ones you are eager to develop.

  10. kvalanejad says:

    It seem obvious that the script shouldn’t be completed until the potential of the story world is explored. But should the story change through this process? If so, what are some examples.
    Also- should writers share credit for script (or story) with world builders?

  11. Ruthie Williams says:

    I think your ideas about creating through various stages simultaneously and leaving behind the linear process of pre-production, production, and post-production are very interesting and exciting. How did you start reformulating your approach and what pitfalls do you think we as new film makers can avoid by following your lead and stepping away from working in a linear process?

  12. Which is more challenging for you: creating worlds that are similar to or grounded in our own, or creating largely fantastical and surreal worlds? Which is more fun?

  13. Dan Wilson says:

    When you think about a non-linear workflow and mention that filmmakers need to understand animation and games, do you see some sort of convergence of film and interactive, where non-linear storytelling becomes common? I think of some adventure games, which basically let you choose which cutscene/ dialogue to play in what order, with different outcomes depending on the order and choices made.

  14. Linda Jules says:

    It was really wonderful reading about your past as a production designer both in cinema and in interactive media. My question is how has your perspective on the future of production design changed or stayed the same by working in Interactive media in a teaching facility? Are you inspired by the fresh and raw ideas that come out of the program? Do you have any recommendations for students who might be interested in working in the world of interaction?

  15. Cheng Teng says:

    When you working in a big team constitute by different kind of people, How to make this team keeping together and working effective?

  16. Joseph Yeh says:

    What is the reason you produce art? What is the best way to improve your work? What are your philosophies on life? Thank you!

  17. before you start to create the world, what kind of research will you do first; and what do you think is the best way to train the ability to design.

  18. Hi Alex, Can you talk about your plans for your new lab in Zemeckis next year? What is the research you are planning with USC students?

  19. Brian Rhodes says:

    So much of production design seems to deal with technology, be it past or present. Are there any specific resources you use or go to frequently for research and inspiration?

  20. Corrina Nedell says:

    I would like to know more about the end of linear production, and how exactly this relates to digital mediums or interactive entertainment.

  21. Ivan Sayon says:

    What were some of the challenges with designing the world of “Watchmen” or other narratives with worlds originally created for graphic novels, literature, or other non-motion picture media? How much creative freedom do you have to alter these previously envisioned worlds and what are some of the obstacles and limitations?

  22. Yang Liu says:

    I would like to hear about how different it is to work with live-action film than fullly CG film in terms of production design. it’d be great to hear more about the process of the workflow for production designer, such as how close they will be able to communicate with upstream and downstream departments.

  23. Brandon Lake says:

    As standard of a question as this might be, which director was the most positively responsive to your work? How often do you find yourself unable to initially capture the ideas of those whose vision you are trying to explore?

  24. chaoqi zhang says:

    I would like to hear more about of his word of rethinking the way film or set design is taught.

  25. Rada Vishnubhotla says:

    What are some of the ways you stay inspired?do you often have difficulty with communicating ideas when working with directors?

  26. As media is becoming more interdisciplinary, what are some of the key ways we need to rethink in establishing worlds and stories? Are these new thought processes limited to more imaginative stories, or is there room for it to function in the more mundane stories that are told from time to time too. Is there room to place truly simple and mundane stories in elaborate settings, or is it still too expensive to showcase fantastical setting without making that setting be a showpiece unto itself.

  27. Joanna Barondess says:

    Alex McDowell’s talk tonight about world-building was extremely interesting and thought-provoking. The graphs he put up with circles that defined the biology and cultural elements that make up an entirely new world were helpful in explaining how content creators can build something from scratch–how each real-world element interacts with each other to create a generation. I enjoyed that Alex, despite the fact that he mostly uses computer graphics when world-building, comes from a fine arts background and can appreciate the use of a giant matte painting of a runway instead of CGI in a Hollywood film. It was enriching to see the thought process going into creating a separate world and how certain real-life elements have a hand in building a believable universe.

  28. Louis Morton says:

    I enjoyed hearing Alex talk about his unique new approach to film design, especially the inclusion of “design visualization”. As I’ve learned it’s so important to develop Style Frames that set the definite look of a project from early on, and to stick to that design. Alex’s approach emphasized this early attention to design but also demonstrated that a filmmaker must be flexible and fluid throughout the project. It’s definitely something I will keep in mind when making films in the future.

  29. Jason Ronzani says:

    Alex mentioned that the method for game world building differentiates slightly from film because of the interactive aspect. I am curious what some of these differences are and at what point the interactivity is brought into the process. I would imagine that the actual interactive idea would come first and then the world would be built around that. Perhaps this is how older games were conceived in the commercial games industry (and indie games nowadays) when the medium was new and interactive game genres were being invented. Now with these genres established, it seems people have the opportunity to think of a world first and discover which game elements are best suited to that world.

  30. Einar says:

    I greatly enjoyed Alexander’s talk. The detail and work that goes into his designs is nothing but astounding and really fun to hear about. The story about the Fight Club house, paired with his illustration of its function was very enjoyable as well as his recount of how a giant matte painting was created to cover the windows in The Terminal, complete with automated lighting to simulate the time of day.

  31. Yizhou Li says:

    I never realized how important a person’s role in building up a story’s world could be. The kind of job that Alexander does is so important, but it’s easy to overlook it when it is done well. It’s exciting to see how a lot of his concepts and approaches to movie/story making have influenced other projects and ideas in real life. I really liked this talk!

  32. Erin Shea says:

    I really enjoyed hearing about how in the world-buidling process, Alex refers to experts in various fields to get insight into different realms of life like biology, fashion, etc. I think he’s totally right that calling upon other experts and creating interdisciplinary connections can lead to the best results . . . and I wish we could have professors and professionals from different fields present their research in Seminar – I think we’d all draw a lot of unexpected inspiration from it!

  33. linhuiwang says:

    The buildings, the world design is amazing. the dream in childhood like “I wanna make a world one day by myself”, you made it come true. to create a world, I don’t know how to describe the feeling, but I really felt shocked when you showed those pictures to us, like…there is a new door opened on front of my eyes. There is a career called world creator. Terrific!

  34. Emily Chung says:

    The works that Mr. Acdowell showed us are FANTASTIC! Great inspiration for all of us!!!!!

  35. Yifu Zhou says:

    Mr. Acdowell’s woek is so good! Looking at his work, you can feel each design he does has it’s own personality. Very inspiring.

  36. JavierB says:

    Very, very, cool , all the element Alex gathers to create his work is inspiring.

  37. It was very cool to see the work of Mr. McDowell. I like the idea of world-building very much. I wonder though if it’s really changing the way films are constructed or if it’s just a buzzword some people are using to give relevance to film-making. The fact that they were referring to the movie upside down to a bad movie with an awesome world makes me inquire if creating the world first is evolving the way we do the movies or just creating better decors.

  38. Robert Calcagno says:

    My favorite films are the ones that take you to a different place; even if it’s in the modern day, I want the feeling that I’m being introduced to a new perspective on things. Even better if it’s literally a different time and place. McDowell’s portfolio is a familiar style in modern films but his films’ production design works better since he seems to use, literally, the science of world-building to dictate the direction of the look and feel of it.

    You can’t just make any type of concept design and use just that; you have to consider why something exists, how it would exists, how the environment around it reacts to something like that existing…and also just what the nature of the culture and how youre depicting that culture.

  39. Simo Liu says:

    The works Alex show were totally amazing. Even though, I’m not a CG fun, but I was totally impressed by the amazing works. And I enjoyed when he talking about his unique approach to film design. It inspired me a lot.

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