Patrick Hanenberger has an unusual way of describing the sort of people he was looking for to be on his team – Swiss Army Knives.
“I wanted artists who could do anything, the Swiss Army Knives of production design,” he says. “A lot of production design is still very traditionally done, with drawings made with pencil on paper that are then handed off to the tech folks – the ‘CG guys’ – who translate them into the digital form. This approach just wasn’t going to work for Guardians, so I was determined to bring together a lot of young artists who were very tech savvy and weren’t married to the older way of doing things.”
Patrick is no aged veteran himself. The Rise of the Guardians is his first feature film as head of Production Design. But he’s been preparing for it his entire life. Growing up in Wiesbaden, Germany, he spent much of his free time meticulously producing stop-motion films shooting matchbox cars one frame at a time. In school, the margins of his notebooks were filled with drawings of imaginative science-fiction vehicles. After graduating, the only place to apply his design passions was in advertising, which he didn’t find satisfying, so he moved to the U.S. where he got a BFA in Industrial Design at the University of Michigan and then headed for Los Angeles, where he majored in Transportation Design, with a focus on Entertainment Design, at the Art Center College of Design and especially enjoyed an internship at Pixar Animation, which made him determined to work as a designer in feature animation. He joined DreamWorks Animation in 2004, where he has worked as a Visual Development Artist on Over the Hedge, Bee Movie, Monsters vs. Aliens and The Croods, and art directed the TV special, Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space.
When Patrick first heard about Guardians, he was eager to simply work on it as a visual development artist. But he got the top job when he presented his vision for the overall look of the film, which emphasized two imperatives: That the film should be visually organized around the individual worlds of the Guardians, and that it should be designed from a child’s point of view. The producers and director were impressed, and Patrick went from an artist with the long-term goal of one day being a feature-film production designer to suddenly having his dream job at age 31.
The overarching design approach for the film is what Patrick calls “edited realism.” He explains, “[DreamWorks Animation CEO] Jeffrey Katzenberg told us that we needed to make it look like the Guardians live on our planet and not in some mythical universe, so we consciously modeled the Guardians’ worlds after real places and then removed or added details in order to escape any sense of photorealism.”
For example, North’s world has the look of classic tapestry-laden Russian architecture, while Tooth’s world mimics ancient Thai and Hindu temples, complete with mosaics and elaborate murals. And, just like the real thing, these structures have rust and dirt. But some of the architectural minutiae has been deliberately “edited out” to make it clear that we’re viewing an artistic rendition and not merely a picture of the real thing.
The choices for the lighting design of each location further reinforced this concept. “We wanted it to feel like an animated universe, but real at the same time. So we designed the kind of lighting effects that happen in the real world, such as blooms, flares and edgewraps, in order to give viewers the sense that they are looking through a real lens.”
Each world is also individualized by its color palette, with North’s world featuring red, Tooth’s magenta, Bunny’s green, Jack’s white and Sandman’s yellow/gold. Each of these color palettes was chosen to complement the colors of the Guardian who inhabits it. For example, North’s North Pole world has a lot of cool ice tones against the cadmium red of his clothes, and there’s the magenta salmon marble of the Tooth Palace against Tooth’s teal iridescence. As Patrick says, “The idea is that the Guardians ‘pop’ in their environment to achieve the most magical and vibrant color mood.” But there are also unifying elements across all the worlds, such as the common type font and invented language that is featured in carvings in each of the Guardians’ buildings.
Then there’s Pitch’s lair. Of course, its color scheme is grey and black. But the whole place is disjointed and at all angles. “It’s as if the Medici palaces of Venice crashed into the ocean and got covered with mud,” Patrick says. “There’s a distressed majesty to it all, which combines to produce a sense of edgy unpleasantness.”
“Good design underscores the narrative and does not distract from it,” Patrick emphasizes. “Architect Louis Sullivan famously said that ‘form follows function.’ Well, in a movie, the function is to tell a story, so for us working in production design, you might say that ‘form follows story.’ Our team pushed the envelope in many exciting ways. But throughout it all, our overriding goal was to do many fantastic things to tell one fantastic story.”