"My mother was a nurse; she retired and moved to the countryside and had a small holding farm in a place called Devon which is in the far southwest of England," says British Production Designer Guy Hendrix Dyas as he reflects upon his childhood. "So I grew up about as far away as you can get from any sort of design or artistic endeavors."
In the world of academia, the youth floundered. "I was not a great student at school. I didn't really excel at anything. I was pretty hopeless at sports, mathematics, English and the sciences but I could draw really well.
No matter where I went I was always the best artist in the school. So I pursued the direction of art school because it seemed to be the only option open to me." Dyas found himself in an environment with liked-minded people. "I felt I had a technical ability to build things and understand how things worked. That in turn led me into first Interior Design at the Chelsea School of Art and then Industrial Design at the Royal College of Art in London." The college specializes in a wide range of master degree programs; counted among the illustrious alumni are Production Designer Stuart Craig (The Elephant Man) and filmmaking brothers Tony Scott (Man on Fire) and Ridley Scott (Prometheus).
At the same time as Guy Hendrix Dyas was graduating in 1991, Britain was in political and economic turmoil due to the collapse of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government. "We were thrown into a mini depression and it was extremely hard to get work, especially if you came out of a flamboyant course like Industrial Design at the Royal College of Art. No one was interested in that.
You either had to be a banker or somebody who had a very practical skill, which I thought I did. But obviously the country didn't think I did, so I tried to get work in several places." The unemployed college graduate was rescued by the Japanese who were scouting schools in Britain, France, Germany and Italy to form a think tank for Sony.
"I was lucky enough to be shortlisted, went to Tokyo at [age] 21 for my interview and got the job. I have absolutely no idea why because I was probably the person in my class that seemed like the least likely candidate. I was designing everything from chicken houses to monster vacuum cleaners, there was absolutely no reason why a company that specializes in electronics, audio equipment and televisions would want to hire me, but they did. I was put into a large development lab with some graduates from computer schools and various other universities around Europe; we were asked to basically brainstorm and make things. That's precisely what we did for two or three years there."
While in Japan, the concept artist put together a small exhibition of his personal designs at a gallery, with a Japanese editor friend.
"The exhibition was visited by an art director from ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] who was curating the George Lucas Retrospective which was going on at the time," remembers Guy Hendrix Dyas who was given a business card and told that the company was looking for new talent to help with the making of the Star Wars prequels. "I came to California, had an interview and before I knew it I was offered a post as a visual effects art director."
Dyas accepted the job offer. "It was a film school for me. That's what ILM was. I got to do a little bit of everything there. Editing, directing music videos, learning how to storyboard, illustrating, [and] making miniatures became this wonderful backbone of my film education."
The training proved to be indispensible as illustration and concept design at the time was being done with Magic Markers and drawing boards.
"I came down from ILM equipped with programs like Photoshop and Painter and so what I found myself in was a position of uniqueness. I was able to produce digital paintings which were easy to email, I could print them out any size, [and] changes were as easy as simply starting a new layer and erasing what you had done.
I suppose I was part of the wave of change we're caught in now which is the advancement of CGI and new computer-aided tools that's affecting everything from illustration, modeling, measured drawings, animatics, [and] digital photography."
"I worked for Tim Burton as an illustrator on Planet of the Apes ," states Guy Hendrix Dyas who worked in the same capacity for a number of films such as Mimic (1997), Thirteen Days (2000) and King Arthur (2004).
"I was hired initially by the Set Decorator Rosemary Brandenburg, to help realize a design that they were struggling with – the design of some red tents."
Tim Burton and his Production Designer Rick Heinrichs liked the concept resulting in the native of Britain being called back to do more work for the remake of the 1968 classic; he was also an illustrator for The Matrix Reloaded (2003).
"I recall at the time, the sequels were the projects everyone wanted to be a part of."
Asked to explain the various terminologies, Dyas replies, "Illustrator, sketch artist, concept artist, [and] conceptual artist, they're all just variations on the same role which is somebody who comes in to aid the production designer , the director, [and] maybe even a costume designer, in realizing a vision."
Making the transition from being an Illustrator to a Production Designer was not difficult for Guy Hendrix Dyas because of his job experience in Japan. "Once the opportunity was given to me by Bryan Singer, it became very clear to him and to everybody else that understanding how things were going to be budgeted and how to manage people were all things that I could do."
The duo worked together on two comic book movies which garnered polar opposite reactions from fans and the movie studios. "X-Men 2  was an opportunity for Bryan to expand on the characters that he had established in the first film," says Dyas as he explains his theory as to why there was a difference in opinion. "If you look at Superman Returns , Bryan was doing exactly the same thing. He was laying down a foundation.
He was establishing characters, getting everyone to understand who the various people were, and I believe personally that if Bryan had gone on to direct and write Superman: Man of Steel  he would have done exactly the same thing he did with X-Men 2."
"When you go on a journey with Terry Gilliam it is like following Don Quixote," enthuses Guy Hendrix Dyas. "You feel like you're going against the tide, everything is going to be an uphill struggle but that's part of Terry's process. That's part of his brilliance."
Reflecting on his collaboration with the Monty Python alumni, he remarks, "I think working with Terry on The Brothers Grimm  was truly one of the highlights of my career so far and I would do it all over again without any changes."
Comparing Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam, each of whom can draw and have very distinct cinematic styles, Dyas observes, "The funny thing about both those guys is they are brilliant artists who could easily, if they had ten years to make a film, design everything themselves."
The key to pleasing the two filmmakers was to become a chameleon. "What I try to do in both their cases is channel their style and try to become them when I draw. That's always been a very successful technique for me."
"To me it's all about research," says Dyas, when it comes to constructing an authentic cinematic environment such as for Agora (2009).
"In that film, you will notice that the prefect of the city of Alexandria has a throne with two enormous lions on either side; the detailing came from tiny bits of jewelry that have been found by archeologists from the period.
I simply took those jewelry details and basically scaled them up to adorn the throne. So with some imagination, and mixing that with a little research we were able to create a world that is relatively realistic and accurate." Unlike Agora there were reams of documentation as well as existing buildings to use as visual references for designing a historical sequel.
"What was difficult about Elizabeth: The Golden Age , if I'm honest with you, is that we were challenged with the same budget as Elizabeth , only now we had to expand her world as she had become a very powerful individual in Europe.
We had to make everything richer, detailed, and adorned in gold; that was extremely hard to do on a limited budget but we somehow managed it."
"Every film designer's job is made easier if the script is excellent," states Guy Hendrix Dyas. "Inception  gave so many opportunities for the Art Department to shine. The main protagonist in the film is not only an architect but a dreaming architect. So right there you have the canvas to design things that are beautiful and serve the story."
A wide range of environments needed to be created. "One of the sets people refer to a lot is Saito's Japanese dining room with all of the hanging lanterns, and how beautifully that set glowed thanks to Wally Pfister's amazing photography.
That was on a soundstage. It was a relatively straightforward set to build and it was a piece of cake to film for Chris [Nolan] and Wally." But not everything went smoothly.
"Then there's the other extreme and that's going 7,000 feet up on a mountain where the air is thin, where the temperature is but minus 20 degrees, you have 200 miles-an-hour wind and a world class genius director like Chris Nolan turns to you at that location and says, ‘We need to build a hospital set here.' Then he takes off on a helicopter and you're left to figure it out." Further complications arose upon the discovery that the site was a protected area thereby negating the ability to build a concrete foundation.
"As I was sipping on my drink, alone at the hotel, I looked down into the ice in my drink. I realized that by boring holes and pouring water around the wooden framework of the hospital and then letting that water in the holes freeze solid, I was essentially simulating what concrete did. That's how I was able to overcome that problem because once springtime rolled around and we'd finished shooting the set, the ice simply melted into the soil."
"What Steven told me was that he keeps a little black book," says Guy Hendrix Dyas while explaining about how he first came to the attention of Steven Spielberg. "Every time he sees something in a film that he likes, he takes out that little black book and writes [some] names down. My name was lucky enough to be one of the ones he wrote down after seeing Superman Returns." Dyas was hired to be the production designer for Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (2008).
"The spiral staircase is one of those occasions where you pitch something to Steven and he likes it and wants to put it in the movie but then you have egg on your face because you have to figure out a way to make it work." Creative minds prevailed. "Thanks to the help of my crew and the involvement of Dan Sudick's special effects crew, we were able to make the staircase retract.
It was a homage to all of the amazing trapdoors, rolling balls, spitting poison darts, and creepy crawlies we saw throughout the three Indiana Jones films that we all grew up with." The two colleagues are collaborating once again on a cinematic adaptation of a techno thriller by Daniel H. Wilson.
"We've tried to respect Daniel's vision in the book Robopocalypse in the way we've tackled the designs here [at DreamWorks]." What is unusual is the amount of time Dyas has been given to design the picture which is scheduled to be released in 2013. "I've joked often and said, ‘I'm the person you call in when you have 10 weeks to build Rome!'"
"I think the very best visual effects supervisors and production designers will survive," contemplates Guy Hendrix Dyas as to the future of his profession.
"They're so interwoven that it's only a matter of time before the role becomes a one-person situation."
The one-time struggling student has become an Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning Production Designer. "Each film presents special challenges and really, the greatest joy of my job is that no two jobs are the same."