The Secret Weapon on ‘Ready Player One’ and ‘Isle of Dogs’: Production Designer Adam Stockhausen

The Oscar winner of "The Grand Budapest Hotel" got his first taste of animated world building on back-to-back Wes Anderson and Steven Spielberg nostalgia trips.
Ready Player One
"Ready Player One"
Warner Bros. Pictures

For Adam Stockhausen, it was a wild ride doing back-to-back world building on Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” and Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One.” It was not only the production designer’s first foray into stop-motion and CG animation, but he also got to incorporate a cornucopia of cinematic references: ’60s Japanese movies for Anderson, and ’80s classics for Spielberg.

However, while the analog-driven “Isle of Dogs” was low-tech with puppets and scaled sets, “Ready Player One” offered cutting-edge digital tech for the eye-popping VR gaming world of OASIS. Yet both had to be built from scratch, piece by piece, and both started off with traditional  sketching and concept art before intertwining with their respective animation and visual effects teams. The common denominator was: “How do we make this feel real?” said Stockhausen (who won the Oscar for Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” before entering Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies”).

Read More: Isle of Dogs’: How Team Wes Anderson Created a Stop-Motion Love Letter to Japanese Cinema

The “Isle of Dogs” Relay Race

Anderson’s second stop-motion feature was conceived as a pack of alpha dogs exiled to a garbage dump as a result of a political conspiracy in Japan. So they crossbred many ’60s influences, from Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low” to “Godzilla.” The production design was co-supervised by Stockhausen and Paul Harrod (“Fantastic Mr. Fox”) in what they described as a relay race. Stockhausen worked for six months on the macro design with Anderson, and handed off the micro details to Harrod while he dashed off to work on “Ready Player One.”

They created the entire universe with 240 micro sets, from the red lacquered Municipal Dome to the monochromatic science lab to the ashen ruins of Trash Island with its overhead tram. Everything was built by hand, as the city was divided into traditional buildings and ’60s futuristic-looking architecture.

“Isle of Dogs”

Team Anderson began by studying 19th-century woodblock prints at the London Metropolitan Museum of Art. Then it became a sorting process with the art department compiling a dossier of items for specific sequences. They incorporated the texture and composition of the woodblocks into their animation.

“There were so many more pieces because every shot was a new set,” Stockhausen said. “There’s no turning around on anything. Everything is constructed specifically to the lens as it’s designed for that shot. And if the next character is speaking, each change of angle was a complete change to a new set.”

“Isle of Dogs”

But the dystopian Trash Island became the most demanding part of the world building. “During our very first discussion, Wes had this idea of different zones with different kinds of trash that helped define it and give it character,” Stockhausen said. “There was an area that’s all paper and an area that’s all cubes of crushed aluminum, and that was a real corollary to the landscape. There was lots of research into trash.”

Overall, Stockhausen was blown away watching Harrod and the art department rough in the sets with foam core and paint board to get the lens right, and then build to the lens. “You could do forced perspective specifically to the vanishing point, you could counter the distortion of the lens, you could work against the key stoning that the lens is giving you based on where it was sitting,” he said. “And so there was this symbiotic relationship between the development of the set and the camera that was so much fun to see.”

The “Ready Player One” OASIS

By contrast, Stockhausen’s experience on the Willy Wonka-inspired sci-fi adventure (based on Ernest Cline’s best-selling novel) was totally mind-blowing. Half the movie takes place in 2045 on real sets in London (principally, the Ohio trailer park known as “The Stacks”), while the other half occurs within the virtual world of OASIS, where gamers search for the Easter Egg through their avatars to win control.

“It’s a boundless mashup,” said Stockhausen of the colorful OASIS. “We spend significant time going to a race version of New York. We go to a zero-gravity dance club [the Distracted Globe], a first-person shooter planet covered with non-stop battles, and the virtual OASIS library (inspired by “The Breakfast Club”), where you can study the life of [OASIS co-creator] Halliday [Mark Rylance].”

“Ready Player One”Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

Stockhausen got to explore VR for the first time at Digital Domain, donning the headset and entering 360-degree virtual space, where DD’s virtual art department created version 1.0 of the OASIS sets rendered by a game engine. “I loved walking around with them and making adjustments so much that I asked them to build one of our real-world sets [the office and rig room of the villainous Sorrento, played by Ben Mendelsohn].

“Then Steven came to Digital Domain and put on the headset and made adjustments before we built the set in London for real. It’s such an incredible tool and is so applicable to the real world sets as well as the virtual sets.”

For the thrilling New York race, in which Wade Watts/Parzival (Tye Sheridan) attempts to win the first key in his vintage DeLorean from “Back to the Future,” Stockhausen constructed a non-stop adrenaline rush paying homage to “The French Connection,” with King Kong as the main obstacle. “The geography slides around and the Manhattan Bridge might connect to Liberty Island and that might connect to Chinatown, and then Chinatown might connect to Wall Street, and Wall Street might connect to midtown,” he said.

“Ready Player One”Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

But the roads work against you because they slip and turn like Hot Wheels tracks, and then the T-Rex from “Jurassic Park” comes from behind the corner. “And yet the look of it has grit and grime and elements that give it texture and definition, and some sense of reality and danger,” Stockhausen said.

Meanwhile, cramming so many pop-culture references became its own daunting design task. “A prime challenge of this piece was how to get all of these amazing properties into the film and get them to feel like they’re all part of the same world,” Stockhausen said. “How do you take the animation style of ‘Iron Giant’ and very gently tug it into the world of ‘Ready Player One’ without changing it? You want people to recognize it, but at the same time realize that they haven’t seen anything like this before.”

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