Meet the Artists – Alex McDowell (Production Designer)

Alex McDowell

Alex McDowell is one of the most innovative and influential designers working in narrative media, with the impact of his ideas extending far beyond his background in cinema.  Alex advocates an immersive design process that acknowledges the key world-building role of design in storytelling. He currently serves as adjunct professor at the Interactive Media Department/School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California.

With Death and the Powers, Alex brings his considerable experience in film design and animatronics to the stage for the first time. The stage represents Simon Powers’ house, but this room will gradually reveal itself to be a vast, interconnected, intelligent system—Simon has turned himself into the room, or vice versa. To accomplish this effect, Alex and the Opera of the Future team at the MIT Media Lab designed a “robotic architecture” that appears to change its shape, undulating, vibrating, pulsating, or pounding. The System, programmed to create sculptural images, moving patterns, and even human-like gestures and expressions, will show the audience the disparate, fleeting thoughts and memories from Simon’s inner world. Just as Tod Machover’s Valis and Brain Opera completely changed the nature of live, interactive musical performance, we believe that Death and the Powers will launch a new era of opera production.

Here is an excerpt from Scene 7 of Death and the Powers, shot at rehearsal in Boston, August 2010. In this scene, Miranda and Nicholas feel Simon’s disembodied presence all around them in the System.

Alex trained as a painter in London in the seventies, then opened a graphic design firm where he built his reputation designing album covers for seminal groups in the London punk scene. He moved into production design for music videos and commercials, settled in Los Angeles in the mid-Eighties, and moved into film in 1990. Since then he has designed in cinema for directors as diverse as Steven Spielberg (The Terminal and Minority Report) and Terry Gilliam (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; and The Crow), Tim Burton (Corpse Bride and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and David Fincher (Fight Club).

Alex most recently completed work as production designer for Warner Brothers recent release Watchmen, directed by Zack Snyder. He is also making his producing debut as a co-producer on the upcoming indie film Bunraku, starring Woody Harrelson, Ron Perlman and Josh Hartnett, for which he collaborated with director Guy Moshe on a new approach to story development using design and visualization tools.

With many awards for his film design work, Alex was named Royal Designer for Industry by the UK’s most prestigious design society, the Royal Society of Arts, in 2006.

Further reading

The Minority Report Blu-ray Future with Alex McDowell

TED Talk 2010Minority Report science adviser and inventor John Underkoffler (an M.I.T. Media Lab alumnus) demos g-speak — the real-life version of the film’s eye-popping, tai chi-meets-cyberspace computer interface.

Faculty profile at USC School of Cinematic Arts.

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