While Downsizing‘s protagonist, Paul (Matt Damon), is shrunk down to five centimeters in height in the pursuit of a better life, Italian production designer Stefania Cella found herself creatively stretched on her first Alexander Payne-directed project. Employing forced perspective tricks and a complex interplay of cinematography, production design and visual effects, Payne’s latest satire is a departure from his traditional style, playing nonetheless as a human, character-driven story—and intentionally so.
Bringing a breadth of experience in commercials and feature films to bear, Cella collaborated closely with cinematographer Phedon Papamichael and VFX supervisor Jamie Price to create Paul’s economically friendly, miniaturized world, from the perspective of average-sized humans and the tiny individuals who inhabit Leisureland.
Downsizing marks your first collaboration with Alexander Payne. How and why did you come on board?
I met him several years ago for Nebraska. A year before we started to do Downsizing, he sent me the script, and I did a visual presentation. We met, he hired another designer; then, something happened, and then he brought me back in. I’ve never done big science fiction, so maybe there was that kind of insecurity of, Is she going to be able to do it or not?
Then, we decided, actually, that because I’d never done science fiction, I was the right person to do it. I’ve done big commercials for Apple, and stuff like that, with a lot of visual effects. But the kind of movies that I’ve done till now were more [in the style of earlier] Alexander Payne—the ones that are less visual and more a human story.
I think the reason why we found each other understanding the script the same way, was because I never saw it as a big science-fiction movie, but a story of a man, and I didn’t want to turn it into just a visual attraction that was disturbing the human story. To me, after reading the script for 10 minutes, I forgot that they were small. I wanted to do the same for the audience, and not just keep bringing in the big/small factor.
Were there certain visual inspirations or references you brought to the task at hand?
When I take a meeting, I always do a visual presentation of how I see it. I try to be as specific as I can be, because my dialogue can just be visual. So, I brought in visual references of photographer, or I did a few Photoshops. I did the story kind of scene-by-scene with a document, then had a couple of visual renders designed that I was working with. We started with that and then developed it from there.
Can you describe the intersection of cinematography, production design and visual effects on Downsizing?
Even if there is a lot of technology that allows you to do a lot of tricks, in terms of designing 3D, Alexander’s stories are very real, so this was [largely] built in-camera. Phedon [Papamichael, cinematographer] has the same vision that I have, in terms of trying to build as much as we can and shoot it on camera. Even with Jamie [Price, visual effects supervisor], we shot a lot of the stuff that needs to be turned [into a bigger version]; and we shot models, and then they become bigger elements.
We built a lot of the stuff that is small into exaggerated scale, because that this was a particular movie that has a balance between science fiction and reality that had to feel real. It’s not Transformers, where everything can be digital. A lot needed to be on-camera, to be believable and approachable.
We wanted to build a perfect, banal world—I’m talking about Leisureland specifically. Leisureland is a mix of 1950s real estate boom with Disneyland, golf courses and gated communities with houses. Of course, there are a lot of visual effects on the landscape, and on the distance. But we tried to shoot as much as we could on camera.
How much of the size tricks we see in this film came down to forced perspective techniques in production design?
The scale was seven times more [in the traditional human world]—everything was seven time larger on a normal human being. All the traveling boxes—the buses, the airplane—all that, was built big and small, meaning we built the models, and then we built the larger size of the models to shoot the actors in them.
The Alondra was all built with scenic large-scale wood, large objects built for making the inside of a trailer as a kind of project housing—the trailer where Ngoc lives. All of those were built: We built a gigantic side of a trailer for the exterior of the Alondra. We built four floors, so the others were added digitally, but “added digitally” meaning that we shot the pieces and then we tiled on top of them. So, it was physically all real. The exterior, for example, when the bus goes through the wall and arrives in the square with the trailers, we built an entire square with all the trailers, and then we scaled down and built a gigantic façade for our five-inch tall people to enter.
The whole village was built in a quarry, with larger-side wood boards, so the houses look a little bit like toys. Something that was important for me was that I didn’t want to make it exaggerated, and make people be distracted all the time by the difference of size. I wanted to be subtle; I wanted people to ask, “Is that what I’m seeing? Is that the real scale?” It’s about scale. Because it’s not a child’s movie—the story is important, so I wanted [the design] to be quiet.
Of course, we did [use forced perspective with] the carry boxes, the big roses, the water bottle. The water has a different consistency if you’re small. There was a lot of that. It was there, but it wasn’t intentionally a mockery, or the main subject of the movie. But of course, there was a lot. We had two studios. I had like 10 stages. We built a gigantic document when he signed his divorce, we built the gigantic table where the lawyers come. It was all about that, but without being Ant Man, which is all about that.
What experiences prepared you for the unique technical logistics of this shoot?
I’ve done a lot of commercials with a lot of visuals, and I learned it along the way, with Jamie and Phedon. Even if you have knowledge of the technique, something like that could bring you to discover a new way to do things. Because we didn’t want to do anything that was necessarily how they normally do it. It was a learning curve for all of us together, including Alexander. We learned and we decided that we wanted to do it in a different way. Again, we wanted to do it in a human way, and so we experimented.
I had almost nine months of prep. I did a lot of photographs on macro [lenses], to see how all the texture transforms when we are five inches tall. We did a lot of models, we did a lot building in 3D to see where we wanted to put the camera, and what was going to be the best angle to do this. Of course, you know higher camera angles makes you look smaller; lower camera angles makes you look bigger. There’s all that, as well—the intensity of light. Bright light, you are smaller, because the light is much brighter if you’re five inches tall.
The funny thing is at one point, all day long for a year and a half, we talked about what it means to be five inches tall, and we were talking about it as if it were the most normal thing in the world. It became such a part of our daily life. Everything was becoming a part of that world.
How did you achieve the manufacture of the giant props you mentioned?
Those are built with metal, aluminum, and wood, and painted. For example, the spatula, where Matt [Damon] gets picked up, it was a real oversized spatula that we put on a crane. We had to build an engine that made the same movements as a hand picking something up from a gurney, so we had to study the exact movements, and we put it on a cherry picker.
For the carry box [at the high school reunion], we had to put it on an engine that is made out of pistons that came from Vancouver, where it was mocking the same movement as the guide, and carried the traveling boxes for them so we were able to shoot them on kind of a gimbal. There was all that flying camera, all over the stage, through cables, to find the distance at a human height—all that wonderful stuff. [laughs]
What was it like shooting in Norway, on the water and in the post-apocalyptic sanctuary you created?
It was amazing. We went to Norway the year before, and we found the yacht the fjord that we wanted to use. We had to decide everything almost a year before we went to shooting because then when we started, we knew that you could reach the Northern part of the island. We shot in the very North of Norway, so we were above the North Pole and it was beautiful in the summer.
But we had to go a year before, and I hired a crew from Oslo. The village was built in Canada, near Toronto, in a quarry near a lake—so, the village was dropped digitally into the fjord. But the boat and the port and the wagon, that was all in Norway. Obviously, there was a long research process on how to reproduce Norway in Canada. I went to Norway several times.
Can you expand on the process of designing the homes we see in Leisureland?
That is a very interesting question because to me, that was a very interesting part of the design. It was inventing a new world that hasn’t been seen yet, so the first stipulation to me was the real estate boom of America, post-war in the ’50s, especially in the West, where they were selling the American dream of the perfect world, with a stable economy and the association of a perfect life with material goods. Everything that you desire.
I took inspiration from there, and from a mix of golf courses and retirement communities in Florida. We had a couple of urban planners that were consulting for us as we designed a city that, from far away, when you’re up above, has the iconic characteristics of a real city. So, we leaned on an urban planning firm, who helped us to design the size of the roads, the sidewalk—a lot of details that we didn’t know. We wanted to be really real—you can’t fake it, because then it becomes a toy, and it doesn’t have the same view you have when you’re landing in Nebraska.
Then, a little bit of inspiration was the ideal of a city of the Renaissance architects, where the urban plan is circle and the center is the square. Those are very repetitive themes through all the centuries of architectural history because every map the architect has tried to design, they’re all ideal cities. So there was a lot of material.
We wanted to be normal and believable and real; we didn’t want to do a fairy tale, so you had to contain yourself with the instinct of overdoing it.