Watchmen (2009): Fabricating and Transforming the Masks

The use of the graphic novel’s color palette extended to costume design as well. “We wanted to be very respectful to the source material, so that affected a lot of our color choices,” notes costume designer Michael Wilkinson. “We used a lot of greens, purples, oranges and browns…the murky secondary colors that darken as the story progresses.”


With the novel spanning several decades–from 1938 to 1985–and with much cutting back and forth between eras, it was essential to choose clothing that was appropriate for each period to make it clear where in the timeline a scene is taking place. The design team settled on “archetypal pieces that really summed up each decade and gave a sense of period authenticity to the movie,” says Wilkinson. While that sounds straightforward, the task was anything but, especially considering there were, at times, more than 300 extras in a scene. “There is a myriad of uniforms in the film–everything from World War II soldiers and sailors, to 1938 NYPD, to Vietnam War uniforms from both sides–and each one had to be meticulously well-researched. Adding to that, we had diner waitresses, prison cooks, security guards, flower children protesting in the 1960s, Soviet soldiers, astronauts and much more. I estimate there must have been about 150,000 pieces in our costume stock. We had a 600-page manifest, down to every last earring, and that’s a lot to wrap your brain around.”


The costumes for the key cast, like their environments, would need to be intimately designed, particularly their crime-fighting outfits. Wilkinson worked with the specialty costume company Quantum FX to create full body casts of all the major characters, upon which they then sculpted the details of each costume in clay. “We could then take those molds and render them in foam latex so you get a stylized physique–wrinkle-free and with beautiful, sculpted details, while being flexible and breathable for the actors,” he says.


For Dreiberg’s Owl costume, Wilkinson and his team researched 1970s aerospace technology to mimic Dan’s knowledge of birds and aerodynamics. “We looked at interesting NASA-style technology, things like exposed zippers, and air vents that might help him move through the air in a smoother way,” the costume designer offers. “At the same time, Zack wanted Nite Owl to be a little fear-inspiring; it’s important that putting on his costume has a very empowering quality. It helps Dan access a side of his personality that’s different from his very shy, retiring daytime character.”


The juxtaposition of daytime personality against the masked vigilante is also quite dynamic in the character of Silk Spectre. Sally Jupiter had created a sexy costume for her teenage daughter, a yellow and black mini-dress only marginally more modest than Sally’s costume had been. Wilkinson updated Laurie’s costume to be a form-fitting latex suit. “We wanted to keep the spirit of the graphic novel intact; Silk Spectre is in the same colors and has the same graphic silhouette as her costume in the book,” Wilkinson explains. “But we rendered it in latex because we liked the idea of that extreme, hyper-sexualized version of her character. It juxtaposes so beautifully with Laurie’s day-to-day look, which is very stitched together, tailored and precise, wanting to be taken seriously. We enjoyed exploring the two different sides of her personality.”


In contrast to the characteristically extreme costumes of the majority of the Masks is the almost non-descript costume of Rorschach: a simple trench coat. “When you read about the character in the graphic novel, he has a very bleak outlook on life,” Wilkinson observes. “He’s very misanthropic. He just wants to bring a little bit of justice in the world. In terms of his costume, there is the sense that he gave up caring about his appearance a long time ago. He just wears this outfit, not to make a particular impression, just because it’s what he wears. He keeps it in a dumpster. It has years of layers of grime and other encrusted crud on it. The whole litany of his past can be read through his trench coat.”

Transforming the Masks


Nevertheless, Rorschach has one of the most striking attributes of all the costumed superheroes: his mask of shifting inkblots. “The evolution of Rorschach’s mask was a long and complex one,” remarks Wilkinson. “We developed a printing process onto a fantastic four-way Lycra that enabled us to create a rough, canvas-like texture but also had a stretchy quality, so we could achieve that smooth, egg-like silhouette. And then the digital effects team created these beautiful moving inkblots on top of the fabric. It was a great collaboration between costumes and visual effects.”


In order to complete the effect of the perpetually morphing inkblot mask–which Rorschach calls his “face”–the lycra was embedded with motion capture markers. “It was covered in tracking dots, except for my eyes,” describes Haley, who dubbed his mask “the sock.” “Even though Rorschach’s eyes aren’t visible under the mask, I was able to see what I was doing. So, the material and the blots move; it’s just absolutely awesome.”


“It was fascinating how Jackie was able to communicate so much emotion through this medium,” comments Deborah Snyder. “The patterns were designed as a reflection of his performance, and it was amazing how much complexity Jackie brought to Rorschach through his voice and body…how the mask became part of him.”


The visual effects team, under the supervision of John “DJ” DesJardin, animated the transitions between the inkblot patterns at different speeds, according to what Snyder wanted for the given scene. “We tried to model his expressions after the ones Dave Gibbons drew for the graphic novel,” DesJardin reveals. “The inkblots are not just black and white; the edges are grey and animated in a way that makes it look like the ink is coming out of the cloth and sinking back in again.”


Snyder and DesJardin engendered a natural collaboration in ensuring the tone of the visual effects would align with the vision the director was creating on the live sets. “The visual effects are a partner in the movie,” says Snyder. “Whether it was extending practical sets or inserting floating blimps in the skyline, or rendering Rorschach’s mask or Dr. Manhattan’s body–those are all things that have to go into the pipeline. And DJ did an amazing job of keeping this massive endeavor down to a very personal, shot-by-shot approach to the movie.”


Beyond visual effects, the embodiment of Dr. Manhattan hinged primarily on the actor playing him. “Dr. Manhattan was the biggest challenge for us,” says Deborah Snyder, “because we had to figure out how to create this god on earth that glows blue light, who can be 100-feet-tall, then shrink down to human size. At the same time, there was a real person playing Dr. Manhattan, through the medium of performance capture. It takes a really disciplined actor to pull that off, and Billy did such a great job.”


Billy Crudup’s performance would provide both the physical and the emotional anchor for the superbeing. Notes Levin, “Manhattan is an amazing, fascinating character, yet I never made the kind of emotional connection to the character in the book as I did watching Billy play him. It was deeply moving. There are so many moments in the film where the material coupled with the cast’s performances resulted in the kind of alchemy that only great actors are able to conjure when bringing a character to life.”


In addition to his physical embodiment, Manhattan has an effect on the environment around him: a blue glow that emanates from his body. “When I read the graphic novel, Manhattan was the only element that made me think, ‘How do we do this'” recalls cinematographer Larry Fong.


Together, DesJardin and Fong found a creative solution. “We ultimately made a suit that had all the tracking markers we needed for motion capture but also thousands of LEDs that put out this nice, diffuse, blue light,” DesJardin explains. “Zack’s idea was that when Jon Osterman pulled himself back together, he made this ideal male form for him to embody. So, while keeping Billy’s face and remaining accurate to his performance, we created a CG character with a powerful, ultra-ripped, perfected body.”


Other cast members, however, could not rely on digital effects to alter their physical appearance or to prepare them for the intense action sequences in the film. Instead, they each undertook an individualized training program under the guidance of veteran stunt coordinator Damon Caro and his team.


“We looked at the characters specifically to determine what would be needed for each of their fight scenes, and all of the actors brought so much energy and enthusiasm to the table” says Caro, who had also worked with Snyder on “300.”


Malin Akerman had never done any kind of fight work so, Caro relates, “We pieced together a series of drills for her and she was so game to learn everything.” The actress also worked closely with her stunt double, Bridgett Riley, whose background is in women’s kickboxing and boxing.


“Bridgett trained me so hard, but I loved it,” Akerman states, admitting, “After the first week of training, I was thinking, ‘What did I get myself into’ But then it got easier and it was such an amazing experience to learn the fight choreography. It brought out a whole different side of me that I didn’t know was there,” she smiles, “and definitely helped me get more into the character.”


For Rorschach, whose stature belies his strength, Caro offers, “Going in we figured that since Rorschach wears a mask, it would be easiest just to double him. But it turned out that Jackie was so psyched to do it. I looked at his movement and martial arts ability, and it was awesome. We ended up using him a lot.”


Haley adds, “I’ve been working out for a long time, doing different things to stay in shape. When I got this part, I started a new regimen to increase muscle mass and I also started to look at the proper way to eat. It was all about core training, and I started getting results that were off the hook.”


Unlike his partner, Patrick Wilson, as Dan Dreiberg, aka Night Owl II, had to appear alternately mild-mannered and threatening. The actor actually put on a fair amount of weight to reflect the contradiction between his alter egos. “I was in a different place from the other guys because I needed to be in shape to do all this fighting, but I had to gain 25 pounds or so to do the role; there was always an issue of Dan’s weight. I’m a runner but I had to stop doing any sort of cardio. Instead I did weights and more strength training because I needed Dan to be big but a little soft.”


Executive producer Herb Gains remarks, “We put the actors through physical training; aging makeup; wigs; prosthetics; bulky, uncomfortable suits… Everybody had a tremendous amount of pressure put on them and everybody delivered.”


Apart from the cast, the combination of intense action sequences and digital effects, done in such a stylized way, put specific demands on Larry Fong and editor William Hoy. “I tried to get my cues from how Zack wanted to apply his visual style to the film, from the complicated title sequence onward,” says Fong. “The shots he wanted were very precisely designed; they’re very specific, if you look at the storyboards.”


“The whole idea of symmetry plays a big role in the graphic novel, and Zack took that approach in composing shots,” comments Deborah Snyder. “The best way to do that was with a single camera. There’s not a lot of SteadiCam. The action plays out within the shots almost like the frames of a comic panel. It was something we all gave a lot of thought to and worked closely together to achieve.”


Every shot was highly controlled. “There were certain iconic frames that we wanted to stay true to that relate back to the graphic novel,” says Hoy. “These are the images you want to just burn into the viewer’s mind, but not to encroach on what’s happening emotionally among the characters.”


In addition to the characters who are so well known to Watchmen aficionados, the film has glimpses of some famous people of the day. A team of special make-up designers, led by Greg Cannom, created facial prosthetics to bring to life the many historical and celebrity figures that were integral to their respective eras, including Presidents Kennedy and Nixon, and younger versions of Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Annie Leibowitz, and The Village People.


Music also plays a major role in establishing the timeline of the story. Snyder affirms, “Music is really important to me because not only does it set us in a place in time, it has the ability to evoke a flood of images and emotions.”


“Watchmen” features a collection of classic songs from such legendary artists as Nat “King” Cole, Billie Holiday, Simon & Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. In addition, the group My Chemical Romance performs a reinterpretation of the Bob Dylan song “Desolation Row.” The film’s musical score is by composer Tyler Bates.


Snyder asserts, “It’s a history with similarities to the one we all know. The big events–the sounds and sights–are largely the same. It’s the details that are different.”


“All of the different elements of the film made it hugely complex logistically and a colossal endeavor overall. I have to commend Zack, who took the whole thing on his shoulders and never seemed to break a sweat,” says producer Lloyd Levin. “He knows how important Watchmen is to so many people. But he embraced it fully and completely, without any fear.”


Producer Lawrence Gordon agrees, adding, “Perhaps equally as impressive as his exciting vision for the movie was Zack’s ability to remain a nice guy throughout the making of it. And now that the film is finished, I can say it was well worth the wait.”


Deborah Snyder states that everyone involved brought unparalleled passion and commitment to their work in bringing Watchmen to the screen. “Watchmen is not only significant to the comic book community; it has so much significance as a piece of literature. Our hope is that whoever sees the film discovers or rediscovers the graphic novel because there’s so much more than we can possibly get on the screen.”


Zack Snyder reflects, “Watchmen is such a milestone; it was a privilege to direct this film. Deborah and I had so much fun working alongside everyone involved to finally make it happen. For me, the ‘why’ of this movie is all the small moral questions that lead to a giant moral question, and that question has no real answer. The end of the movie is meant to spark debate. I hope people come out of it thinking about which side of the question they might fall on. The graphic novel makes you question who is a good guy and who is a bad guy, and I hope the movie does the same thing.


“What is it that someone does that makes him a hero, even in real world terms Those questions aren’t always as cut and dried, or as easy, as they are in movies. I think in the end ‘Watchmen’ wants to make that really difficult for you. And I think that’s how it should be.”