Inside 'Watchmen'

Dr. Manhattan, one of the main players of "Watchmen"
Dr. Manhattan, one of the main players of "Watchmen"
Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Picutres/Clay Enos

­More than two decades since "Watchmen" debuted as a 12-volume comic book, later compiled as a graphic novel, the Alan Moore-Dave Gibbons cult favorite has finally become a movie, with most of its violence, nudity and sex in tact. As you might expect from Zack Snyder, director of the similarly R-rated "300," this is decidedly not your kid's superhero movie.

Set in an alternate-universe in 1985, Richard Nixon is still president, the Cold War is about to go nuclear, and costumed superheroes are outlawed. "Watchmen" follows a bunch of flawed costumed crime fighters known as Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the all-powerful Dr. Manhattan and psycho vigilante Rorschach, who's investigating murders in their midst.


­­So complex and daunting was the project that four movie studios committed and uncommitted to making "Watchmen" before Warner Bros. gave it the green light once "300" hit it big.

Snyder's primary focus was replicating the tone, style and look of the graphic novel, and he drew detailed storyboards that became the production bible for everyone involved. Following the color palette of the comic, production designer Alex McDowell ("Fight Club," "Minority Report," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") deviated from the typical superhero primary colors. "Red was there for blood and yellow for the smiley face and blue for Dr. Manhattan but other than that we didn't use those colors at all."

But as faithful to the book as Snyder endeavored to be, some things had to be cut for various reasons. While the original graphically depicts the bloody results of New York's destruction, the filmmakers felt that showing that on screen post-9/11 was insensitive. Time constraints meant losing the comic-within-the comic story "Tales of the Black Freighter" and non-essential scenes.

"Watchmen's" ending also diverges from the novel, as it was agreed that too much time and exposition would be necessary to explain the sudden appearance of a giant space squid. The change has the blessing of illustrator Dave Gibbons, who served as a consultant and drew storyboards for the new climax. Snyder thinks even purists will agree. "They'll either like it or they won't, but they have to acknowledge the custom aspect of the movie." We'll explain about that in the following sections.



Dr. Manhattan Project & Rorschach Test

Roughly 25 percent of "Watchmen's" $100 million budget went toward visual effects, and $17 million of that for Dr. Manhattan. Meeting in January 2007, director Snyder and VFX supervisor John 'DJ' DesJardin determined that CG was the best way to go, blending it with the actor's performance via motion capture and HD 'witness' cameras on the set. Billy Crudup wore a pajama-like suit and helmet covered in blue pinpoint LED lights, his face marked by tracking dots.

Doc's look began with a bodybuilding fitness model named Greg Plitt, "but we had to make him even more ripped," says Peter Travers, the FX Supervisor at Sony Imageworks in charge of Doc. "Billy is 5'8" and Doc has to be 6'2". We had scaling tools to make the proportions work."


Of course, in the instances where the giant version of the translucent character appears, "There's no way the light suit would work," Travers  points out. "The Vietnam environment was virtual so we didn't have to put in any representation on set." At Karnak, "We had Billy on set off to the side and the witness cameras captured his performance, but the film camera was pointing up into space. He mimicked what he'd be doing if he was 100 feet tall and we matched it."

With Doc, lighting was a major issue. "How do you light a light bulb? How do you read his performance when he's one of the brightest light sources in the room? It was a constant battle," Travers notes.

Doc's eyes were another concern. In the graphic novel, Doc has white eyes and Snyder wanted to preserve his distant look, but lifeless eyes wouldn't read well on screen. "Doc is a light source and we made his eyes a bit more of a light source, brightest at the pupils and getting darker as you get into the white of his eyes," Travers explains.

Next to Doc, Rorschach's mask, with its ever-changing inkblots, was the biggest R&D challenge for the VFX team. "It completely covers his face, but we had to be able to read what he's doing with his eyes," says DesJardin. Holes in the latex hood allowed Jackie Earle Haley to see, and tracking markers captured his movements. VFX house Intelligent Creatures then rendered the CG replacement of Haley's head and animated the blots to reflect his emotions. "It was a pretty complex rig."


The Sets of "Watchmen"




According to John DesJardin, there are over 1,100 CG shots in "Watchmen," created by four visual effects houses. While the Owl Ship was a practical set, its flying version was a CG invention, "a mixture of a spinner from 'Blade Runner' and the Millennium Falcon," he describes. MPC created that and the craft's light beams, and also worked on fire and riot scenes on the streets of New York.

­For the opening title sequence that provides "Watchmen's" historical context, CIS recreated Times Square in the 1940s, as well as the JFK assassination, incorporating footage shot on a Vancouver parking lot repainted and dressed as a road.

Except for a 20-foot x 20-foot bit of ground shot on a green screen stage, the surface of Mars is completely CG, as is the glass palace that emerges from it. "Some of these pieces were 20 feet tall and five feet thick, so it was an enormous amount of glass," says Peter Travers. "And it had to work with everything else going on in the scene, particularly when it was coming out of the ground, with all the debris and rocks and dust coming up. The rendering times on that were tremendous."

Imageworks also created Ozymandias' pet Bubastis, combining elements of a lion, a tiger and a lynx, and digitally destroyed New York City. "We started with models that we had before, from movies like 'Spider-Man' but then we had to build all the interiors, the internal structures that had to interact," notes Travers.

His team was also responsible for creating the ­Vietnam flashback. On set, a small rice paddy was built against a blue screen (used instead of green screen when there are green elements in the scene) and supplemented by a few miniatures for trees and fire.

­CGI effects and set extensions, though expensive, prove to be cost-effective, says producer Deborah Snyder. "It allows us to build less physically. It helps our budget and allows for more spectacle."


Costume Drama of "Watchmen"

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian in "Watchmen"
Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian in "Watchmen"
Photos by Warner Bros. Pictures/Clay Enos

­As with everything in the movie, the graphic novel served as inspiration for the superhero suits and civilian clothes that spanned five decades. Costume designer Michael Wilkinson ("300") had to stay true to the book and the eras, yet use modern materials and constructions that made the costumes as comfortable as possible for the actors. Nevertheless, the stars found them pretty unbearable.

Matthew Goode winces when he describes the black nylon "onesie" that was covered in powder before he could don Ozymandias' supersuit. Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Comedian costume was equally complicated, and included a muscle torso prosthetic under foam latex and leather. Nite Owl's cape, made of layers of sprayed latex, weighed 10 pounds (about 4.5 kilograms) alone.


Wilkinson made every effort to lessen the discomfort by constructing the costumes "so that we were able to take the torso or the bottoms off and let the actors breathe between shots. And we always had fans on them between scenes and cooling rooms just off the set where the temperature was a lot lower."

Wilkinson and his team spent several months designing, building and fitting the costumes in Los Angeles during pre-production. "The 1980s superhero costumes were definitely the most challenging because they went through the most in terms of stunt sequences and close-up work and had the most time on screen so they had to be 100 percent spot-on." he outlines.

Meanwhile, actors were digitally scanned, and the information was used to create body casts. "We sculpt on top of that in clay and make molds. Foam latex is injected into the mold and we fit the various pieces into a body suit," Wilkinson continues. The process takes about three months once the design has been approved. "You get the one and them start making the multiples," nine or 10 for each principal actor. That covers wear and tear and unforeseen calamities.

­Supersuits aside, Wilkinson's main task was dressing hundreds of actors and extras in period garb, including hippies, soldiers, disco dancers and some pop culture figures seen in the opening sequence. "Mostly we gathered costumes from existing stock, but the key icons, we did those from scratch."


On the Set of "Watchmen"

Part of the set of "Watchmen"
Part of the set of "Watchmen"
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/Clay Enos

­New York City was created on a three-acre lot at an old wood mill in Vancouver. Using the real city lacked the specific perspectives required and proved to be too costly, as did shooting on the Warner Bros. back lot. "Converting a lot of pre-existing sets was more expensive than building them from scratch," says production designer Alex McDowell.

McDowell's team built roads, sidewalks and multiple facades for the New York set that spanned three city blocks. "It had to play for all of our urban scenes from 1939 to 1985. We'd have one façade for a shot from 1950 with young Rorschach and then attach a front to it for a different scene," he says. Later, "We converted one piece of brownstone into Saigon."


Several Vancouver soundstages were used for interiors like Ozymandias' artic lair Karnak, a complicated set "because it was pretty much 360 degrees, had a big ceiling and had very few walls. There's no place to hide," explains McDowell. Breakaway walls and a staircase allowed for equipment movement on the stage, which was also used for Ozymandias' office and reception area and the Nixon war room. An adjacent stage housed several apartment interiors, the Owl Chamber and Dan Dreiberg's brownstone.

The Owl Ship itself had to work practically as an interior and exterior, and be sturdy enough to hang from cables. Its huge round eyes "made it tough to shoot without seeing the interior, so it made sense to create a single unit," explains McDowell. "But we were careful to build it in such a way that half the side could come off."

Theorizing that Dan Dreiberg would have assembled the ship secretly from aerospace or military parts, "we determined that it would fly like a Harrier jump jet with the structure of a submarine, but look as if it had been through the wars," with dents and scratches. The Owl Chamber was similarly distressed to reflect mishaps from imagined launch attempts early on.

­A paper factory was transformed for Dr. Manhattan's lab and apartment and the prison. "The floors were in place but we built everything else," notes McDowell. "Because of '300' I think people have this sense that Zack is all about CGI, blue screen and green screen, but it was very practical to shoot a lot of the film in camera. There was very specific blocking and it would have been impractical to go out and find a location. In the end, it was efficient. We could go from stage to stage and turn over sets on a daily basis."


"Watchmen" Stunt Training


­Several of the actors, including Malin Akerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Patrick Wilson, had fight training prior to the shoot. First, Akerman spent two months learning to be fierce from a former Navy SEAL. "It was all obstacle courses and dragging 50-pound weights and getting roped up to a fence and running and doing push-ups. Then we went on to Vancouver where we started training with Damon Caro ("300")," outlines Akerman, calling the experience "frustrating at times. It was as if I was a ballerina trying to do fight moves. It did not look tough at all!"


Wilson, who put on 25 pounds and added muscle to play Nite Owl, admits his martial arts skills are not up to par. "Luckily, we had a great team of doubles and fighters, though Damon wanted to use as much as he could of us." Fight sequences were shot with the actors and with the doubles so they could be edited together.

Jackie Earle Haley, a black belt in Kenpo, was exempt from the fight training but still had a double for the dangerous or tougher moves. Matthew Goode missed the fight lessons because he arrived late in Vancouver from the "Brideshead Revisited" set, but says that in the climactic confrontation, "quite a lot of that was me."

Morgan, who had to prepare for the opening brawl that took about a week to shoot, found fight training difficult. "I'm not a kid anymore. I was sore. I got a lot of bumps and bruises," he says. Learning to use a machine gun on several trips to a firing range was more fun, but it was of no help in the flamethrower scene.

­In the Vietnam flashback, "Zack wanted me to keep the flamethrower on this guy for like 10 seconds, but I kept pulling up, thinking, 'I'm gonna kill this guy.' I kept having to redo it." So much gasoline had built up around him that flames came dangerously close. "It's coming right up my leg, and all I can think about is 'I can't ruin the costume so I'm gonna have to put it out myself.' It was a nightmare. But I kept the cigar lit the entire time!"



"Watchmen" Actors' and Filmmakers' Upcoming Projects

Billy Crudup plays J. Edgar Hoover in "Public Enemies," opposite Johnny Depp and Christian Bale (July 1).

Malin Akerman has two romantic comedies in the can. She plays Ryan Reynol­d­s' ex who tries to win him back in "The Proposal" (June 12) and pairs with Vince Vaughn in "Couples Retreat" (Oct. 9).


Jackie Earle Haley appears in the Martin Scorsese-directed mystery "Shutter Island" (Oct. 2).

Jeffrey Dean Morgan joins Kirsten Dunst and Ryan Gosling in the mystery "All Good Things," out July 24. He plays a married father having a clandestine affair with Demetri Martin in Ang Lee's "Taking Woodstock," set behind the scenes at the 1969 music festival (Aug. 14). "Shanghai," a mystery with John Cusack, follows Sept. 4, and re-teams with "P.S. I Love You" co-star Hilary Swank in "The Resident" as a landlord obsessed with his new tenant.

Matthew Goode's next movie is the drama "A Single Man," co-starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore. He'll head to Ireland this month to make the romantic comedy "Leap Year" with Amy Adams.

Patrick Wilson stars opposite Judy Greer in the comedy "Barry Munday"

Zack Snyder's future slate includes "Guardians of Ga'Hoole," "The Illustrated Man," and a "300" sequel but the action fantasy "Sucker Punch" is first up. VFX supervisor John DesJardin will join him.

Michael Wilkinson, whose costumes will be on view in "Terminator: Salvation" (May 21), is working on the remake of the 1983 fantasy "Tron," creating futuristic armor-like outfits literally glow.

David Hayter is working on the script for a film adaptation of the video game "Lost Planet"

Dave Gibbons has a few D.C. Comics projects in the works, as a writer, and "The Adventures of Martha Washington," the series he collaborated on with Frank Miller, has been anthologized as "The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the 21st Century" for publication July 4.

­Alex McDowell's next project, the animated "Fantastic Mr. Fox," comes out Nov. 6. He's currently working on "Guardians of Childhood," a contemporary fairytale based on existing fairytale characters, for Dreamworks Animation. A 2011 release is planned.



Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Alex McDowell and Michael Wilkinson interviewed February 24, 2009
  • John DesJardin interviewed February 23, 2009
  • Peter Travers interviewed February 19, 2009
  • Zack Snyder, Malin Akerman, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Dave Gibbons, David Hayter, Deborah Snyder interviewed February 18, 2009