Dawn Brown is a multi-talented Hollywood artisan who has worked on some of the biggest films around. Her credits include: Ocean’s Eleven, Planet of The Apes, Big Fish, The Ring, X-Files and Charlie’s Angels, just to name a few. She even did design for the aborted Superman Lives movie with Tim Burton. Currently, she completes work on J.J. Abram’s feature film Star Trek, a big budget reboot of the legendary franchise. She’s also a costume illustrator on the highly anticipated Watchmen, from director Zack Snyder, adapted from the landmark graphic novel.
In this revealing chat, Dawn tells us why monkey brains splattering on a wall demands a new paint job, reminisces about eating lunch in Wayne Manor Library and talks right on up to what will surely be some of her most scrutinized work ever in Star Trek and Watchmen. For no matter the ultimate reception to both movies, they’re two of the most eagerly awaited films in recent memory.
Did you always admire set design? Recently, I watched an episode of Rod Serling’s classic series, The Twilight Zone. It occurred to me without the amazing set, the story would have lacked dramatic power. Was this evident to you as well at an early age?
Absolutely, I would give credit to Ralph McQuarrie’s beautiful paintings in the “Art of Star Wars” books. Along with Joe Johnston’s storyboards, and the models and creature sculptures…That was the first time I was aware of how the design of movie sets and shots and characters play such a vital role in telling a story.
What was a big surprise while working on your first set or any set – something that surprised or fascinated you about the whole process?
My first feature film was Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusions. I was the art department coordinator and spent most of my time in the art department. For one reason or another, one day I was asked to sit in with the Second Unit shooting company. I was excited to have the opportunity to actually be on set and see what they do. The scene they were shooting involved a baboon puppet being shot in the head, and his brains explode everywhere.
It was close up shot, and the puppet had a tube fed into its mouth. The tube ran into a bucket filled with movie blood and bits (Caro syrup, red dye and bits of cut-up sponges) On cue, an air mortar forced blood through the tube, out the back of the head and splattered all over a white brick wall. It was fascinating! I loved it!
Then the second unit director decided he wanted to do the shot again and yelled “Set up for Take 2!” Everyone starts scrambling around. I’m just sitting there, watching. He looks at me and says, “Art Department! Get that wall ready for Take 2!. Clean those brains off the wall!” Surprise! It suddenly became very clear why I was asked to sit in with Second Unit that day. Anyway, I had to clean that wall, and when you try to wipe red Caro syrup off a white wall, it just turns into a pink smear. It was easier to repaint the wall.
Before working on Watchmen were you a fan of the graphic novel?
I first read Watchmen in the late 80s when I was in college. There was a lot of hype about Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, and the explosion of the whole “graphic novel” concept. I clicked with Dark Knight immediately, it remains my favorite book of all time. I remember not quite getting Watchmen at the time. It seemed a bit stuffy for my tastes. I read the book again last year when I was hired to work on the Watchmen movie. I enjoyed it much more the second time around!
How closely did you work with or consult – if at all – Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons while designing costumes?
Not at all. The costume designer Michael Wilkinson gave me very specific direction on the design of the suits. Obviously we are all aware of what Dave Gibbons did. Some character designs are very faithful to the book. Others will be COMPLETELY different.
Before working on Star Trek were you a fan or did you admire sets used in the various TV shows and films?
Honestly, I am more of a Star Wars girl. But of course I have seen Star Trek movies and TV shows. I definitely have an appreciation for Star Trek.
How much did old Star Trek design influence the sets? Did J.J. Abrams insist on a strong connection between what came before and new designs?
Not much. And I think a lot of hardcore fans are going to freak out. As far as I know, only the exterior of the Enterprise had to stay the same. I don’t know if that came from J.J. or Paramount.
What Star Trek set are you most proud of and why?
I can’t answer that. Sorry.
Which Star Trek set came out best as you envisioned?
Actually, nothing came out as I envisioned. I am surprised every time I walk on stage. You can read into that however you like.
Can you give us a feel for the Star Trek sets? I guess you can’t talk in detail, but is there anything you can offer up in terms of a glimpse into them?
I can’t discuss any details, all I can offer is that you lose all your expectations of what Star Trek should be. If you see this movie with an open mind and take it at face value, you may have a great time.
Are digital sets used in combination with green screen – a technology you ultimately welcome? Are digital sets just one more tool in a film maker’s arsenal or do you see it entirely replacing real material sets in the future?
I am not a fan of the digital and green screen or blue screen sets. I understand they have their place, but I think it usually looks better when things are physically built. It gives the actors something to react to. The design of the film belongs to the art department! Not the visual effects department! I worked on a very large set on Star Trek that would have been an absolutely fantastic physical build. But it became a visual effects shot instead. My involvement was reduced to marking out blue screens and platforms. We have so many talented carpenters and scenic artists and sculptors, and I have seen some truly amazing sets. It is a shame to trade their contributions for green screens.
What’s been your most satisfying experience on a big movie set project, in terms of the environment, co-workers, challenge of the film production, etc?
This might sound strange, but I am going to say Batman & Robin. Yes, that is a terrible movie. It’s absolutely awful, but if you can imagine from an art department perspective, it was fantastic. To this day, it had the biggest physically built sets I have ever worked on.
We built some really massive, amazing sets. I was just starting out at the time and everything was so new and exciting. I remember taking my lunch breaks in the Wayne Manor library, watching them put together the Batcave just a few feet away. We had the most talented sculptors, carpenters, and scenic artists I have ever worked with. We had enough time and money to get everything as good as it could be. It’s a shame all that talent and energy was wasted on such a stupid script. That said, it was silly fun and I made a lot of great friendships that I still have to this day.