Production designer Scott Chambliss on the design of Disney's new utopia
Tomorrowland wasn’t built in a day. To make it believable, its designers knew it would have to incorporate many yesterdays.
The city that gives the new film its name is a secret, otherworldly utopia where the best and brightest can unleash their intellects and imaginations, but it didn’t just spring into existence. In the story, it has been around a long time — the result of many decades of discovery and innovation. So, it had to look that way.
“The vision of what utopia is continually changes,” says director and co-writer Brad Bird. “The art deco streamlined utopia is not incompatible with the French futurism at the end of the 1800s. They can live with each other in the way that really old buildngs and new buildings coexist in New York, or Chicago, or Paris. You can make things from different generations that play well with each other.”
So, long before George Clooney’s Frank Walker was a disgruntled, middle-aged inventor-in-exile from this fabulous land, he was the boy genius you see above – piloting a homemade rocket pack (built on the bones of an old vacuum cleaner) through a Tomorrowland that is still under construction after many decades.
“To know what that would look like, we need to lock down who the influencers were,” says screenwriter Damon Lindelof, who wrote the story with Bird and EW’s own Jeff Jensen. “If we’re trying to figure out what Tomorrowland looks like, we have to figure out who its architects were.”
The science-fiction adventure takes place in the present day and centers on Britt Robertson’s teenage Casey, who seeks out Clooney’s hermit-like inventor to help her find safe passage to this futuristic world. But that world’s origins begin long ago: the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, where Jules Verne, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and Gustav Eiffel formed a secret society dedicated to creating a better future – whether on Earth, or someplace else.
That’s the starting place for production designer Scott Chambliss (TV’s Alias, the Star Trek reboots, Salt) — the true builder of Tomorrowland:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What were the first conversations like with Brad Bird, Damon Lindelof, and Jeff Jensen about what they thought this city should look like?
Scott Chambliss: It was a pretty interesting start. They had nothing but a blank space where any of Tomorrowland’s sequences were going to be, and basically the description in those couple of spots was: “And now they’re in Tomorrowland. We don’t know what it is, but it’s really cool, and something like nobody’s ever seen before.” They were looking for a designer to come up with the basic concept and then full development of what this utopia, Tomorrowland, was going to be.
We have this image from 1964 of young Clooney, Frank Walker as a boy, sneaking into Tomorrowland and soaring over it with a homemade rocket pack. It looks like the city is still being built.
He’s basically flying above Tomorrowland in its final stage of construction for that era. I don’t think it’s giving away too much to say that Tomorrowland, in our movie, was constructed over a period of a few decades—three, four decades, something like that. It was conceived long before that.
There’s an elaborate backstory about this scientific society known as Plus Ultra. What were you told about who was building Tomorrowland?
The conception of the city in our story was first thought up by the geniuses in the world in the late 1800s. It would be people like Edison and Eiffel and Tesla and Jules Verne and all of these forward-thinkers. They came up with the notion of creating a utopia to show the world how to live better, basically, on every level. As the years and the decades progressed, they kept inviting other creative thinkers and engineers and scientists with brilliant minds to join their secret fraternity.
Eventually they find a place that’s truly off the grid. [It would be a spoiler to say where.] And they start breaking ground.
When they got to the point where technology could support it, they started building, and they found the right place to do it. They started building a city in different phases. We say that they started building in the ‘20s, ‘30s, continued through the ‘60s when we would see young Frank flying over in that phase of construction that you see in the picture that you’ve got. And it would continue further into the future in our story.
Some of the buildings in the skyline look very Art Deco, very Chrysler Building.
That’s one of the first sections of Tomorrowland built. That’s what we were calling Founders Plaza. It had the earliest seeds of design innovation that people like [Metropolis of Tomorrow architect Hugh] Ferriss or some of the Bauhaus gang or the firm that designed the Empire State Building, [Shreve, Lamb and Harmon.] Those aesthetics and thoughts — times 10 — were manifested in the early stages of building the city, and then things continue to progress and become more modern-looking to the point of becoming futuristic, because technology and the new members in the society and all of that brought all of their gifts to the party and continue to evolve to what was there.
I love that it’s not one uniform design. That’s true to life. Every city is an amalgam of different eras.
It’s really true. That was a creative choice we made along the way, and part of that was from experiencing firsthand what planned communities that are planned by a single vision or a single person look like. They’re certainly uniform, but they are the opposite of vibrant, because it’s one thought being carried out on a massive scale. Even the most beautiful spots that I looked at have a level of oppressiveness to them, because you exist in only one point of view.
One of the skyscrapers looks a little like the Gherkin in London: tapered top, wide middle, some others towers look a little like sleeker versions of the World Trade Center. Were you “quoting” from real buildings?
We were taking inspiration from the total history of western architecture, from the point of late 19th century onward. We designed hundreds of buildings for the city. While I wasn’t conscious trying to knock off one specific building to the last detail, there’s certainly areas in the city that have a ‘50s, ‘60s vibe.
When did you say, ‘Okay, we’ve done enough echoing of the future that people imagined long ago. Let’s just open up our imaginations to something unique, with upside-down park spaces, etc …’
We flash forward to technologies that allow deep, super-crazy computer-generated shapes, and beyond that, just taking that philosophy and pushing it to an imagined place where we can blend nature and architecture together to create yet another foreign language. That was something we were visually promoting, although we didn’t really talk about it in the story. In some of the buildings that you’ll wind up seeing in the movie, there are structures—one of them looks like a gigantic corkscrew on its side—that clearly has an organic component to the whole thing.
How detailed did you get? As you say, some things aren’t really front and center in the story or on screen.
The buildings we came closer to, obviously, got the full detailing process, and others that are painted in the background. The goal was to be able to create a sense of history, even though we’re just flying over the city and brief passes through the movie, that the viewer would get a sense that this place has layers of history and years built into its story.
Many cities are shaped by their natural environment. Pittsburgh, for instance, is carved into angles by its rivers. Los Angeles sprawls because it has vast, open desert with hills only in the center and on the periphery. How does Tomorrowland fit into its environment?
In my version of a utopia, human civilization has come to respect nature to the same degree that we expect nature to give us what we want from it. There would be a partnership or a stewardship that human beings undertake to not only not exploit nature, but to help it grow and develop. The goal is to allow both nature and human beings to do things they couldn’t do otherwise separately.