THE HUNGER GAMES
Designing The Games
As the cast began to prepare for their adventure in Panem, Gary Ross and his
crew dove into bringing Suzanne Collin's vision of the futuristic world they
inhabit fully alive on screen. It all started with Ross' photographic concept -
to navigates Panem through the subjective experience of Katniss Everdeen, just
as Collins had done on the page - which came to life in a collaboration with
OscarĀ®-nominated director of photography Tom Stern (who recently shot Clint
Eastwood's J. EDGAR).
"One of the most important things to me and to Tom was to convey the
immediacy and first person point-of-view that makes the book so irresistible,"
says Ross. "This meant shooting in an urgent, intensely personal way that I've
always wanted to use, but has never suited the subject matter of films I've done
This first-person POV would imbue every detail of the film and also become
the cornerstone for the bold set pieces created by production designer Philip
Messina, who found himself in the position of turning portions of modern-day
North Carolina into futuristic District 12, the Capitol and the arena where the
Messina calls the look he and Ross established for the film
"retro-futuristic." He explains: "It's kind of as if you took early Mid-Century,
Depression-era America and suddenly brought it into the distant future, with
twists of high technology. The book created an alternative universe where on the
one hand, you have people scratching in the dirt to survive; and on the other,
you have flying hovercraft. So we wanted to stay very true to that portrayal."
It was something vital to all of the filmmakers. "Phil was really able to
create the future in a way that still felt rooted in the real history of North
America," notes Nina Jacobson. "We all wanted it to feel like this could be us
in a few centuries. And he did that, while creating a great range of sets from
The Hob in District 12 to the Capitol to the amazing forests."
Much like the actors, Messina knew he would be up against readers' high
expectations and personal imaginings of Panem. But, like Ross, he drew his
inspiration directly from the book wherever possible. "Gary was determined to
not only be true to the spirit of the book but also to the details of the book,"
notes Messina. "This meant that we never thought 'let's ditch this' when things
were complicated, but rather we asked 'how can this be accomplished?' We were
determined to design ourselves out of difficult situations in order to be as
faithful as possible to the novel."
Messina and Ross shared illustrations with Collins to get her input. "She
would sometimes say 'that's exactly how I pictured it,' Messina recalls. "Could
there be a better comment from the author who came up with this world?"
One of Messina's first tasks was creating the Seam, the poorest area of
impoverished, mining-focused District 12, where Katniss and her family live.
Shooting in an abandoned mill town in Henry River, North Carolina, he found a
grouping of 1920s homes that closely matched the environment described by
Collins in the book. "This area was absolutely perfect for the Seam," says
Messina. "We couldn't have imagined it falling in our lap any better than that."
For Ross, Messina's work on the Seam pulls the audience right into the
harshness and seeming hopelessness of life in District 12. "The Seam had to have
a feeling of squalor and decay," he describes. "It is one thing to live in
poverty, but it's another to live in a place without any individuality, where
all the houses are cookie-cutter and feel like they're made by a company and not
people. Phil found the perfect location to bring out the regimented sameness
For Reaping Day in the town square of District 12, the production shot at an
old cotton gin in Shelby, North Carolina, bringing in 400 extras for the shoot,
as well as building the tracks for a train system that carries the district's
precious coal to the Capitol. "It was a lot of work," says Messina. "We brought
in about 300 feet of railroad track and then had trains craned onto it."
Another intensive project was creating The Hob, the derelict but teeming
black market of District 12. "The Hob is the marketplace and souk of District
12," describes Ross, "where Peacekeepers turn a blind eye. Phil brought to life
an incredible marketplace where people sell all kinds of junk and things they've
found on the way. It really evokes the deprivation of the District."
All of this contrasted in the extreme with Messina's designs for the Capitol,
which were primarily built in a former Phillip Morris factory. "You see the
Capitol through Katniss' eyes in the book and we wanted to reflect the opulence
and vastness of scale she sees," he says. "I was thinking of these buildings
from the 1936 World Fair in New York that were kind of temples of industry and
we really riffed off that. The Capitol had to be imposing but also outrageous
because to the people who live there it's like Marie Antoinette's decadent
The colors in the Capitol are a mix of icy and acid tones. "There's color but
it's not necessarily friendly," set decorator Larry Dias comments. "There's no
warmth to the colors. Everything is assaulting."
Katniss' own senses are assaulted as she rides into the Capitol with the
other Tributes on the customary horse-drawn chariots that are part of the pomp
and ceremony of the Games. Messina knew this would be another key design. "I
tackled the chariots early on," he says, "and we looked at zeppelin-style
designs that would echo the Capitol's high-tech Maglev trains. We painted the
chariots with automotive paint in black and chrome and even though they are mean
looking, they also have the beautiful lines of sculpture. I think they hearken
back just the right amount to Rome."
Shifting gears again, Messina designed the Games' Training Center as a
bastion of raw sweat and anxiety. "The training center had to be scary and dark,
with some Roman iconography but also very American, too. Gary and I thought of
it as the scariest high school gymnasium you could imagine," laughs Messina.
"The idea was to take the fear from gym class and factor that by ten."
"The Training Center is where all the Tributes start to size each other up,
as they start using their skills," notes executive producer Robin Bissell. "Phil
did an amazing job of building a set that allows that to happen."
For the lush, perilous woods of the arena itself, Ross had something very
specific in mind and he found it in a pristine conservation area. "I wanted the
arena to be a hardwood forest," says the director. "I didn't want it to just be
coniferous. I wanted it to feel intrinsically American. In North Carolina, we
were able to find an amazingly verdant natural forest that was just right."
The arena also contains one of the most challenging of all of Philip
Messina's designs: the Cornucopia, a giant gold horn containing a cache of
Panem's hybrid weapons and valuable supplies that the Tributes must battle for
as the Games kick off. "I was a bit scared of how the Cornucopia was going to
look, but in the end it is one of my favorite pieces in the whole movie - a
huge, nasty sculptural horn in the middle of a field," says Messina. "We looked
at Frank Gehry designs and a lot of modern architecture with folded planes and
fractalized surfaces and kind of riffed on all of that. It looks like it fell
from the sky onto this field."
Ross notes: "Phil created exactly what I wanted to see: a large, metallic,
sculptural element that
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