Captain Marvel Production Designer Andy Nicholson on Building Worlds from Scratch, Blockbuster Video, and More

For the first time since the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel Studios took a step back in time for an entire movie, setting Captain Marvel right in the middle of the 1990s. In the leadup to the film's home media release this Tuesday, ComicBook.com sat down with production designer Andy Nicholson to talk about the MCU release.

From building a life-size Blockbuster store to cobbling together alien worlds from scratch, here's what Nicholson had to say about his work on Captain Marvel.

ComicBook.com: With a massive blockbuster like Captain Marvel, you have your own department and you're designing how everything looks. Can you tell us a little bit about the collaboration on a movie this massive, say with the visual development team, the visual effects team? And then you have Anna and Ryan, you know, directing it all.

Andy Nicholson: It's an interesting process when you're building worlds for shows. I've done it on other science fiction projects before and this was a very different and more important and tougher challenge because prior to starting the project, I was sent a massive package of the history of the Skrull and the Kree because these are the two worlds we were principally developing. Looking through, you know, every single reference there was to them in going back over many years of graphic novels, there wasn't really a definitive look difference between them apart from that the Skrull and their shape-transforming and shapeshifting abilities. When I joined the project, Anna and Ryan were trying to find a way into both worlds and both universes and visual development had done a little bit of work so my main thing was to come in here and realize that these two worlds were going to be playing throughout the movie.

You're going to need to know the differences between the species and you're going to need to know differences between their desired environments, their occupation, their spaceships. In those differences, they're very important because even the most basic level you have to be able to tell at a moments glance what a Skrull ship or Kree ship is, if we are in Hala again or somewhere else. One of my first presentations to Anna and Ryan when I first started the show was that we needed to look at this as two very distinct looks and try to make them as different as possible, so it's easy to tell the sides apart.

We started focusing early on, on the organic nature of the Skrull. Mainly because they shape-shift and I kind of imagined, you know, lets maybe extrapolate that because they have the ability to assume many different forms. Let's just extrapolate that and make it so their technology has the same basis and everything because they can change shape, they expect everything they work with to be able to change shape, so we gave their space ships, which is the main design theme, you see of them we don't travel to any Skrull planets. Organic forms, shape-shifting forms, there's a lot of stuff in the book of the arts that shows a lot of stuff which we didn't end up featuring that much in the movie. With their exoskeletal built, with ceramic coating, hardly any straight lines at all and everything is curved and also everything can change shape and move things. Their ships change shape depending on what they're doing.

Since we were good to go with them, we wanted to contrast that. For the Kree, we went with the more authoritarian, hard-lined look and took that into a military-industrial species that have been at war for millennia. Then the architecture you see on Hala, there's no real curves...it's a lot of straight lines and architectural forms like that. That was where we started and then moving forward from that it was about not just about doing it for this movie and I was very aware that this was the first time any of the fans would be seeing the world of the Skrull and the Kree in any kind of detail.

We've seen a little bit of Rona's' ship before and Ronan himself so there was a bit of Kree there but really he's a sort of subset. When we meet him in Guardians of the Galaxy, he's broken away from Star Force. We took hints from his own spaceship and turned it into the Accuser ships and stuff like that but in a very so different version.

You mention the Kree, the Skrulls, and the fact we've seen Ronan before. When it comes to Captain Marvel, did Anna and Ryan say “Hey you know what they did show some stuff in Guardians, they did show a little stuff in Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D", did you reference those at all or were you given free rein since this was a prequel?

No, we were given free rein. Because it's going forward for future versions of movies, which will be taking a drawing from the stuff we've outlined in Captain Marvel. We really were given the option to start over again. Obviously, we looked back at the historical precedence in the books. There wasn't an awful lot of stuff to go on, you know the cities, the Skrull and Kree cities, the comics are kind of the same because they're just little background pieces they're not whole designs, so we sort of went that.

Going back to the stuff, Anna and Ryan were keen on the idea of using the Skrull transformation and wanted a bit of their physiology to bring it into their world as well and that sort of led into everything else. Yeah, in terms of Ronan, really the only totemic thing that I wanted to use from him was the shape of his ship cause it was so identifiably from him and he was going to be in the movie. So we sort of took an earlier, sort of pre-version of the Guardians Ronan ship.

Hala is this beautiful, you know, expansive new world and part of that in the comics is the Supreme Intelligence. In the movie, was there ever a point where you actually had started working on designing that big floating green head that the Supreme Intelligence is noted for or from the beginning was it always techo-based, pseudo-hologram set up

It came and went. As an idea, it was never rejected. It, at one stage, was one part of the movie. I'm not the person to say whether or not that will eventually come back in, but it was part of it. It's the floating head, which in all other things wasn't rejected, for her story it wasn't suitable that that was the character straight away. Whether or not that will be something that is brought into something in the future, I couldn't tell you. But it was there. We did develop a line where within that space from the...there's a big pool of water in the back of the room and we discussed that eventually, that's where the big green head would come out of. I think eventually for the final scene of the movie, it would've taken away from what was the core focus which was, it would've been a big spectacle which would've overwhelmed the main thrust of what we were doing which was talking about Carol's development and transformation into Captain Marvel.

Opposite all of this with the gorgeous space battles, we go back to Earth right. Except we go back to like 20-some years ago. When you were designing Los Angeles or wherever she crash lands, were you just directed that this film took place sometime in the 1990s or were you told "Hey, this movie is set in the fall of '95, so make sure no products from '96, '97 are in it?"

I mean Anna and Ryan were very keen on it being 1996. Ryan had worked, I think, at a Blockbuster and he was very keen on that should be the place that she lands. It gave us a great opportunity to explore the movie. We were given six months within 1996. The shopping mall that she lands in and walks around at the end, we filled that with quite a few LA stores which had since gone out of business, just on purpose, some of them were very specifically LA stores. I think we didn't get permission to use a couple of them, but other ones that we could get permission for, we made a point of putting them in there so people would remember, so it was like "Oh they don't exist anymore!" because it's changed so much that whole kind of world.

We kind of took it from there and then yes, it was an awful lot of fun. We found a shopping mall, which was in its hay-day, 1996, and was now derelict at the basis for where we dressed the Blockbuster and the RadioShack and the dry cleaners and the toy store and the other things that in the background in those scenes.

Our set dressing department, one of the things that took a long time was getting enough video cassette cases and video cassettes of the original films to fill the store with. In terms of even just doing one dressing deep, because it's not like people keep VHS tapes online, I mean there are shops of VHSes because nobody really buys them to use anymore.

I want to talk about that a little bit. So you build this Blockbuster from the ground up with the iconic sign out front and it's all very very nostalgic.

Yep.

Inside it's practically a real store. Were those actual VHS tapes from the era that were on the shelves?

Yeah, absolutely. The thing about VHSes is when you can find them, they're not expensive because no one really wants them because they're such low resolution. It took a lot of time with my set decoration department to source everything we needed, but none of the things were expensive.

Occasionally they'd go on eBay and they'd find you know a crate of videos, but it was about getting the ones from the right year. It wasn't difficult it just took a lot of time and you know, if you go to the library for a film, there are places you can rent books by the yard from but that is not the case for VHSes and there's not that much call for them, so it took a lot of time."

We bought a boatload of empty Blockbuster style cases for a lot of the stuff, that was the easy part of it. But you know in Blockbuster, you would also have the original covers and getting enough of those for the store was quite something.

Are there any other kind of Easter eggs inside the Blockbuster store?

There was the True Lies lobby art poster I cut out of Arnie, where he gets his head blown off. That was quite good fun. That was a good story too because in order to blow Arnie's head off, we had to get permission from Arnie in person, and he was very cool with it. That took a while because he had just had an operation, I think, and it took a while to get feedback from him.

I mean it was the one place when we're shooting the crew just walked in and went “Ahh I remember this!” because I think there was, at the time we made the movie, I think three Blockbusters left. All in Alaska, or places where you can't get internet fast enough to get Netflix or HBO or watch any other movies, so that's the only reason they're still there.

I mean this little set piece kind of all hinged on getting permission whoever owns the Blockbuster brand anymore, right?

Yeah, absolutely.

Was there a plan B in place if Blockbuster didn't give permission?

No, I don't think so. I generally don't get too involved in the clearances, because that's a legal thing that gets set up. We send off a bunch of requests and they come back. They clearly still existed at that time, I think they still do as an organization, but obviously massively reduced from what they were. But no, I don't recall the clearances being a problem at all with that.

So between the space designs or between the Earth-bound stuff, was there one kind of set piece, was there something that was really, really tricky to design and wrap your mind around?

Well apart from building the two worlds, the fact that knowing they were going to be taken forth by other people working on other movies in the future. That was a big responsibility and was a constant headache, that was what I thought about more than almost anything else when I was coming up with the looks for two different worlds. I think that designing Torfa was a challenge because Marvel has done so many different planets, that coming up with a new look for a new planet that was quite unique was tricky because you go down to almost any look, from a swamp to a forest, to a desert, to a volcanic rock base, to a sulfur pools based planet. The geology of that has been seen before in different Marvel shows, so coming up with something new with a new style of architecture for that opening sequence in Torfa took a lot of time.

Also, I think generating Hala was the most difficult because it's a global city, I recount the idea quite early on of it having two levels and then we worked a lot on the transport system. There are a couple of scenes, I don't know whether they'll be in the deleted scenes or not, but the train capsule Vers and Yon-Rogg are in travels not just horizontally, but vertically and in different directions. The idea being you can get to anywhere else in the city no matter high it is. There is a sequence which we shot, during that dialogue scene, where they travel along, they change across from one side of a train station to another side of a train station instead of just going straight along, the capsule just shoots up vertically. We cut down the amount of time of acting that's in the movie so we can see it.

That was tricky because again, it's developing a new thing and the city is a big thing to work out. You've got to make it look like it contains people so the buildings have to have a certain look but yet they have to look alien and that's a fine balance. It's a tricky thing to do and when you're dealing with something that enormous place, it's har. I think the most sensible suggestion I made was having them be in a train that was taking them somewhere rather than having them walk through the streets. It just means you can develop a much bigger world in the CG background than if you're just walking down a couple of roads which was how the script was originally written.

But those two things, Torfa and Hala were the biggest challenges because they're long sequences and you see a lot of them and they've got to mean something. And the fact you know in the future, you may well be going back to them or different parts of them in other movies, so it's important that the basis and groundwork are all done.

*****

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Captain Marvel is now available digitally ahead of a home media release on June 11th. Avengers: Endgame continues its box office run while Spider-Man: Far From Home swings into theaters July 2nd.

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