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The Art of 'Inception': Dreaming Big

Production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas on giving form to Christopher Nolan's dream world

Even in London, where "The King's Speech" clearly had home-court advantage at the BAFTA Awards, the royal movie didn't win everything. One of the areas where it fell short was in Production Design, where the elaborate and densely layered work on "Inception" took home the prize for Guy Hendrix Dyas, Larry Dias and Doug Mowat.

Guy Hendrix DyasThe three are also nominees at the Oscars in the Art Direction category, where they once again appear to be in a tight race with "King's Speech" for top honors. (The other nominees: "Alice in Wonderland," "Black Swan" and "True Grit.")  Before the BAFTAs, Dyas spoke to TheWrap about his experience on the film, where he was one of the first crew members hired by Christopher Nolan and where he spent his first month working out of Nolan's garage as they planned the look of the film's multiple dream levels. Note: Because it comes up in the conversation, it's worth noting that we spoke in a lower-level lounge at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, in a dining area with a bar at one end of the room.

Dyas' comments on the look, feel and execution of "Inception":

Turning Japanese: "One point of pride is that when I read the script, the castle was undefined as any specific style. It read very much like a European medieval castle, and I remember one day saying, 'Chris, what do you think about this being a Japanese  castle?' Not only because the character we’re introduced to is Saito, but because Japanese architecture is so quintessential to any architect's understanding of what architecture is. And he just looked at me and said, 'Great, do it, I love it.'"

True Colors: "It was extremely important that we made all the different dream levels read as very different places. With the quick cutting style of Chris and Wally Pfister's photography – they don’t hang around too long on any one shot – I thought it would be important to use color. The human eye's an amazing thing, and you can give someone a quick read by coming up with a different color scheme for the different levels of dreams.

"So when they're trying to seduce their target, it's an environment not dissimilar to where we are now: a warm, stylish, relaxing hotel, perfect for a seduction. Whereas if you're out in the street and you want to scare someone s___less, then you want to have a rainy, stark L.A. street."

Dream On: "In dreams, at least from my experience, our focus is on what's directly in front of us, and everything else merges away. And the only way I could figure out how to portray that in the real world was literally removing the detail. For instance, if you and I were on a set in 'Inception' right now, everything in front of you would be real. We would avoid CG at every cost. And we would start removing things from the background. So, for example, that bar in the back wouldn’t be there — it'd just be a plain wall. There'd be no glasses on the tables adjacent to us, and as you went further back the detail would drop off.

"Now, there's a very eerie effect when you do that. When you walk onto a set that's been that carefully art-directed in terms of the details, you do notice it. The same thing happened when we stripped everything away downtown. We took all the advertising out, we took a lot of the street furniture out, so you have these insane chases with motorcycles and vehicles and all that flash stuff, but instead of having just a typical street, there's something eerie about it. You can't put your finger on it, but you feel it."

Downtown Train: "Of course, the freight train that we drove downtown was a dressed-up semi. It was just after the morning commute, and there were still some stragglers going to work with hangovers, I think. And they were literally looking up at this enormous 18-foot freight train driving down Sixth Street in downtown L.A."

InceptionThe Real World: "As you can see from the end of the film with the spinning top, everyone's saying, 'Well, is this real or is this not?' Part of that is because Chris made a very smart decision to say, 'We need to do a lot of this for real, we need to put it in camera, so that people can't really determine where they are.' Is this a dream, is this reality? And that's why they did these effects practically, and used beautiful visual effects exactly as they should be used – as a support to the main event."

One Good Turn: "The rotating sets were a challenge, putting together these frightening sets that would rotate and tilt. And of course all of those have to be padded. Things that look like metal in those sets were actually molded of rubber. It's extremely difficult to mold a rubber light fitting when it had electricity running through it, trust me. But I can do it now, if it ever comes up again."

Baby It's Cold Outside: "A lot of people think that entire 300-foot-by-200-foot fortress in the snow, with the 80-foot tower, was CG. No, we built a substantial set 7,000 feet up from sea level, where the air was thin. And it not only worked for Chris as a set, but also it housed a lot of our crew. We fed our crew from that building, kept camera equipment in there, had green rooms in there. We sort of built an all-purpose exterior set with some interior sets, and big spaces where we could hide our crew. Because it was cold  up there."

The Last Word: "It was very, very hard, but very exciting and rewarding. I mean, you go through all the research to make sure that everything is going to be right on the day, but to actually see some of those sets working – tilting bars, fake trains smashing through real cars, 200-foot corridors that rotated like tumble dryers, mountaintop fortresses that were built on foundations of ice because I wasn't allowed to put concrete in the ground… What can you say? It was an amazing opportunity."