LA Design School
Profile / Alex McDowell [EXTRACT]
From Punk to production design: the widescreen career of Alex McDowell
Alex McDowell sees his work as a film production designer as a form of painting in multiple dimensions. His unique and collaborative approach implicitly questions the accepted view of the insular workings of the auteur. Working on mainstream films in nearly every genre, including Fight Club, The Crow and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he builds virtual models for the construction of full-size sound stages and computer-generated imagery for post-production and he has pioneered digital tools to pre-visualise film sets, camera angles and shooting sequences, His experiences working with scientists and futurologists while researching the future world of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report have inspired him to form Matter Art & Science, a virtual alliance of thinkers and practitioners across a diverse range of interrelated disciplines.
‘I am beginning to think that Matter is the real expression of co-ordinated thinking across all boundaries, not only within art, but in engineering, science and everything. I’m concerned with how a network co-exists. The raw materials of film are the people and the talent. Every film has the same opportunity to be good or bad. What’s different is the way that the social structure works.’
Yet in many ways McDowell has remained true to his roots in the turbulent days of London’s Punk scene. Back in 1975, while studying painting at the Central School of Art, he was involved in staging the first ever full concert by the Sex Pistols. Forging a friendship with Glen Matlock, he briefly printed T-shirts for Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood and then managed Matlock’s career for a short time. He set up Rocking Russian to design record sleeves for Matlock’s band Rich Kids, and later designed covers for Iggy Pop, Siouxsie & The Banshees and others. Assisting Terry Jones, he co-edited i-D magazine at its launch. By the early 1980s he had moved on to art-direct pop promos for hundreds of artists, including Madonna, and from there TV commercials for the likes of Levi’s and Nike. These were influential and formative years packed with energy, ideas, connections and openings. There was never any master plan: McDowell merely followed his instincts, immersing himself in each new creative challenge. Yet his work, while seldom displaying any obvious or overriding stylistic sensibility, has an overall conceptual framework that informs the varied projects that come his way.
For McDowell, seeing the Sex Pistols play was ‘a life-changing moment’. Until then, he had been making paintings that ‘were just about trying to shock people in the most extreme way possible’, but within Punk he instinctively saw a place of dissolving creative boundaries with few entry restrictions, where he could explore a more constructive yet no less rebellious way of working.
‘Coming from painting, my perception was that I was still a fine artist, but my translation into music, fashion and street culture was via an appreciation of Andy Warhol’s Factory. Rocking Russian was going to be the open network space that would be able to do whatever it wanted to do. It was a fine art project in the back of my mind. It wasn’t entrepreneurial – I knew nothing about business. There was a naive sense that you could launch off with the best creative intent and stuff would fall into place. We were surrounded by bands who’d picked up a guitar the week before and were producing records a week later. That’s the way the world worked. We didn’t have any frame of reference other than if you wanted it to happen, it would happen.
‘Whatever opportunity raised itself I took, because I couldn’t prioritise between them. I was equally interested in magazine design, releasing albums, selling T-shirts and designing record sleeves. It was all one big art project, and I continue like that to this day. In fact I am really back full circle now, to the point where I am really clear about the travesty of too much categorisation, too many sub-divisions of talent into speciality areas.’
A fortuitous opportunity in the mid-1980s landed him in Los Angeles for an initial extended period. He had gone over with director Peter Care to shoot a Bananarama video, but when that was cancelled they ended up with Robbie Neville instead. When Neville’s single went to number one, McDowell and Care were inundated with more work. For a lengthy period he was immersed in establishing himself on the West Coast, letting instinct guide him. [. . .]