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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 future.

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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