The Master Builder
Production designer Norman Reynolds has received six Academy Award
nominations and has twice won, for his work on George Lucas' Star
Wars and Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark.
But Sphere presented quite a different challenge from the
pure world of science-fiction fantasy. For Reynolds and his team
of art directors, set designers, builders and artisans had to
create environments at once original and yet wedded to some form
of scientific reality, or scientific projection into the near
Reynolds worked closely with Levinson on the film's designs, making
a crucial decision early on: the Habitat would be built in one
complete "practical" piece, rather than be comprised
of small sections scattered throughout a soundstage. This meant
that the claustrophobic interior of the Habitat, as described
in both book and script, would be truly claustrophobic, not only
for the actors, but also for director of photography Adam Greenberg
and his camera crew. However, it would create an authentic milieu
in which to create the tense human drama and psychological suspense
of Sphere. Because there were relatively few "flyaway"
walls, the director would often have to work from wooden platforms
on either side of the set with his bank of video-assist monitors,
then climb through the labyrinthine Habitat to work directly with
his actors between takes.
Another major set piece was the crashed spacecraft, which was
built in two sections on Mare Island soundstages: the flight deck
and the mysterious, eerie catwalk that leads into the cargo bay
where the Sphere is discovered. Reynolds chose to design a vessel
both vaguely familiar and otherworldly. "The catwalk is all
very spooky and threatening. I went for big, simple shapes, odd
pipes and ballast, and Barry shot it in such a way that you don't
know where it begins and ends."
The art department was also involved with the design and construction
of the underwater tanks, and particularly the huge Habitat exterior
sets built inside of them, including the "moon pool"
that leads in and out of the facility, the mini-submarine hangar
dome and the 50-foot long coral cave and working airlock that
leads into the spacecraft entrance, as well as ocean floor seascapes.
"We had to build sets that were tolerant of the type of water
in the tanks," explains art director Mark Mansbridge, "which
was somewhat corrosive to aluminum. We used fiberglass, some vacuum
form, metal and paint, which we had to seal carefully to keep
the water as clean and clear as possible."
Reynolds and company also designed two submarines, one for the
descent and another for the ascent, the first a work of pure imagination,
and the second based on a working prototype but "Normanized"
for its Sphere usage.
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