The Umbrella Academy, Watchmen Production Designer Brings Unique Superhero Worlds to Life

This year may go down as the year superheroes on television began breaking away from the Marvel and DC Comics universes. Netflix’s adaptation of Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá's The Umbrella Academy was one of the year’s earliest examples and was successful enough to be renewed for a second season.

Yet to come in 2019 is HBO’s Watchmen series, based on the seminal comic book miniseries by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. While DC Comics published that story, it stood apart from the DC Universe. HBO’s version, helmed by Damon Lindelof, also seems distinct from any of the DC-based television offerings on The CW or the DC Universe streaming service.

One thing both of these shows have in common is production designer Mark Worthington, who worked on the pilot episodes for each series. Speaking to over the phone, Worthington explained how these projects each presented challenges. For The Umbrella Academy, it was determining how best to bring the comic’s wild story into live-action and have it be believable, especially when it came to Bá's stylized artwork.

“There's an extremity to what he does, which I think is really interesting, which was hard for us to lean into in the context of bringing it to the moving image,” Worthington says. “The whole sequence about Paris and the Statue of Liberty and the robot, Eiffel, evil robot, all that, which is crazy and amazing in the original comics, how do you do that in live-action and not make it seem kind of ridiculous? It's something you can do in a comic book. It's effortless. You never question that in the comics, but it was a struggle.

“I know that Steve Blackman, the showrunner, was cognizant of that and I think that's why he chose to go in certain directions to ground it a little bit more,” Worthington continues. “I think what we were interested in was, so much of what makes that comic compelling is, the psychological issues surrounding these kids, who have been brought into the world in this very weird way, collected by this guy, Hargreaves, who sees it, stands in for their father because he sort of has to, but doesn't play the role of nurturing father at all. The kids are kind of damaged, as we see. They break apart when they're teenagers and come back together. What's really compelling about that story is the nature of those relationships based on that shared experience, which is the only experience they have but is deeply dysfunctional and leads to these problems. It's a really interesting idea that basically leads to the end of the world, technically, if you see Vanya as the most extreme example of the dysfunctionality that Hargreaves has created, and it leads to who she becomes and with her power, she's able to do what she does. It's both whimsical and funny and quirky and really profound and psychologically compelling all at the same time. It's really interesting stuff.”

The Umbrella Academy
(Photo: Netflix)

By comparison, Dave Gibbons’ artwork in Watchmen is much more realistic. That might lead some to believe that bringing that story to live-action would then be easier. Worthington can’t say much about the yet-to-debut HBO series yet, but he explained that the show has its own hurdles, including how to make it distinct from but respectful towards the original series.

“Damon Lindeloff has a very specific approach to that material,” Worthington says. “I can't tell you what that approach is. What I can say is we are guided more by that than anything else. Damon is a geek, too. He was obsessed with the Watchmen series as a kid. I think we all were. That was a watershed graphic novel for the whole form, as we all know. You're inspired by all of it. There it is. There's the original object and it's what you get excited about, passionate about it. I think Damon's take will be different, is different. It inherently has the DNA of the original Watchmen with a very specific take that he will put on it.

“It's yes and. Yes, of course, we're inspired by the original. Yes, of course, we're respectful of what that meant and what it is as an object. But then Damon has his own way of extending that and taking it to a new place because he's not redoing it, he's creating something that's other than that. I don't know. We'll see how people respond. I think people are going to like it.”


Worthington says they took a similar approach to how the series relates to Zack Snyder’s 2009 Watchmen movie. “All respect to the Zack Snyder movie, which I know was controversial at the time,” Worthington says. “Considering that he had to take that entire story and put it into one, I think he did an amazing job. Again, Damon… I think he's going to a different place. We're all affected by what went before, but I think he's letting the new aspect of the story guide what he's doing and letting that be the lodestone as opposed to necessarily aping or rejecting anything. I don't think he does that. It's not he's rejecting something. It's not like he's embracing something as ‘the way.’ All of that material exists. It affects you. It's part of your collective memory of what the thing is. Now you're doing this other thing, this new thing with it that has its logic and has its own aesthetic, which of course will be affected by the past but is its own thing.”

What did you think of The Umbrella Academy? Are you looking forward to Watchmen? let us know in the comments.