Designing "The Nautilus"

In July of 2010 I joined Production Designer, Bill Boes and Art Director, Bruce Hill in their endeavor to create the world of Journey 2: the Mysterious Island. A sequel in name only to “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” this film follows a family of adventurers as they travel through a strange Pacific island where the worlds of Jules Verne, Jonathan Swift and other fathers of Science Fiction Fantasy collide.  We started design work in Los Angeles before moving over to the island of Oahu, HI where the first half of filming took place in the fall of 2010.  Soon there after, a separate crew stared stage construction in Wilmington, NC where the remainder of the film was shot.

 "The Nautilus"Early 'exterior' concept drawings by Miles Teves  "The Nautilus"'Interior' set rough layout by Chad Frey From the beginning, my primary task and focus on J2 was the design of “The Nautilus.” Bill and Bruce wanted the set to be drawn by hand and, as I am a big proponent of hand drawing, I was more then happy to oblige.

As with all designs of this type, we created a series of concept illustrations in conjunction with a series of set sketches, drawings and models prior to landing on a universally accepted layout. The Director (Brad Peyton) did not want the “nautilus” of Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea nor, ultimately, did he want anything that would have actually been created or engineered to work in the real word! Indeed our “Nautilus” was a creature meant purely for the digital universe.  I found I was designing more of an underwater spacecraft then a submarine as the shape of the vessel became that of a mutated manta; ray complete with one big eye in the middle of its forehead and gaping jaws with teeth. Reluctantly embracing this fanciful and far fetched idea (I really wanted to design a submarine, not a spaceship), I started to design the inside of the vessel as though it were the inside of a sea creature.  Thinking of the whale Monstro in Disney’s Pinocchio, I stripped away the interior hull to show the “ribs” of the monster.  Down the center of the ceiling I added more ribs and lit panes of metal grating to serve as the “spine” of the beast.  To the walls I added cable, pipes and metal grills. On the deck I put pistons and gears and under the center walk of the main deck I placed a huge drive shaft.  Clear tubes of fluid ran along the walls and floor near the “dive chamber.” All of this to show the “guts” of the creature and to create visual interest as the submarine “came to life” after a century of lying dormant in an ocean cave.

"The Nautilus"'Interior' loft - aft section of hull by Chad Frey…of course none of that happened...

The idea of multiple levels came and went. The idea of the drive shaft, pistons and gears…all gone. The shape expanded and shrank as the budget ebbed and…well…ebbed some more. Ultimately, the biggest driving forces of the design became the relation between the interior and exterior of the vessel and the director’s desire to have an enormous front window looking out from the “bridge” and, as the script continued to develop, his desire to see a fight with a giant sea monster at the back of the vessel complete with the ability to travel the camera “stem to stern” in one shot.

Roughly 90% of “The Nautilus” was drawn by hand. I lofted the initial shape of the vessel  with a pencil and used those drawings to construct a series of study models of the boat.  As the size and shape of the windows (and vessel in general) changed, I was not revising the drawings but simply “hack and slashing” the models to make things fit in order to get a look that Bill and the Director could agree to.  When it finally came time to marry the original drawings to the approved model, I turned to the use of the computer and some quick digital modeling to merge the various compound shapes together and create a fast and accurate loft of the new bulkhead.  -  Once this task was complete, I set aside the digital tools and returned to hand drawing.

"The Nautilus"3D computer model of forward hull by Chad Frey.Revised 'exterior' concept drawing by Miles Teves as influenced by set 'interior.'

*  *  *

Why not draw it all on computer?For years the mantra in Hollywood has been “all digital – all the time” and, while I fully appreciate and utilize digital tools, I’m a firm believer that the two are meant to work in tandem in our industry instead of being mutually exclusive. I believe in the simple idea that if something is going to be built by hand, it makes sense to draw it by hand. (It is a proven fact that Construction Crews tend to understand and interpret hand drawings better then digital ones resulting in fewer questions, fewer mistakes and ultimately less work for the Art Director.  There are also a number of managerial and work-flow advantages to having hand drawers in the Art Department; particularly when it comes to “rushing” a set out the door.)  Similarly, if all (or part) of a set is going to be cut or milled by a machine, or if the set will have extensive life/use in the digital realm of post production, it makes sense to draw it on a computer.The choice of which tool to use is not arbitrary and my approach is based on years of experience with construction crews and post production houses both as a Set Designer and an Art Director. I know not everyone agrees with this philosophy and I am not espousing it as gospel. In my experience however, this approach has met with great approval and appreciation from the Construction Department (a group who’s good opinion I hold in high regard) and Visual Effects Groups alike.Originally scheduled for early August, our move to Hawaii was pushed multiple times and we did not land on Oahu until the second week in September.  (A long story best left for another time.) By the end of our second week in Hawaii our Art Department office was kind of up and running, the primary locations had been scouted and surveyed and I could once again turn my focus to “The Nautilus.”  The general design had been approved and I was starting serious construction drawings with an eye on the calendar. 

(...One important item that I have not yet mentioned; Hannah & I were expecting our second child at the end of October 2010. It is no minor thing to leave out of the narrative particularly as it was now late September and, assuming the baby kept to the schedule, I had a scant 5 weeks to get everything drawn before heading back to the mainland...)

This was a period of heads down, six days a week work. Sundays were for laundry, groceries and sight seeing if I had the energy (…which I never did). I would occasionally pull off of “The Nautilus” to crank out some small set while everyone else dealt with the locations and the growing chaos that was Hawaii. All was moving along as well as could be expected under the circumstances until early October when I got a call form Hannah; it seemed baby #2 had decided to show up a little early!

  "The Nautilus"Construction drawings by Chad Frey

On October 6th I was on a plane to LA. Less then 72 hours later we had a second healthy, happy and very loud little boy. All was good at the Frey house and we were all glad that I was home. Of course, there was one little hitch; the drawings for “The Nautilus” weren’t done!

 ...And this is when things got really fun and interesting…and I mean that sincerely...

From the start Bruce, Bill and I had discussed the possibility of my early return to LA due to the pregnancy and it was decided that, if possible, I would complete the work form a home.  After a week off to welcome our new little one and share in Hannah’s lack of sleep, I was once again back at the drawing board trying to stay ahead of the construction crew that was now starting to build in North Carolina.  This was where the combination of digital technology and traditional design was magical.

The original drawings were shipped back to LA along with my equipment and, once set up in a friend’s garage (it was just too noisy and chaotic at home), I continued to develop and release new drawings, revise sheets and communicate efficiently with both Bill and Bruce in Hawaii as well as our North Carolina Art Director (Jim Gloster) and his Construction Crew. 

Here is how it all worked…

During the early days trapped in our hotel  without an office in Hawaii, (again, a long story I that must wait for another time) we Set Designers had set up a “cloud server” so that we could easily share drawings, photos and other information while working from our individual rooms. When we finally had offices and a large format machine, we made sure to scan all physical drawings as they were created (as well as printing any digital ones) and uploading them to this server so that we had both a physical flat-file of drawing and an identical “digital” flat-file of everything that existed on the show.

Once back in LA, I would scan and upload completed and/or revised drawings to the server where they could be accessed by either the North Carolina or Hawaii Art Departments.  Using a web conferencing service from Adobe, I would then communicate in real time with Bill and Bruce over the drawings (complete with the ability to draw & sketch over existing work). I could also visit with Jim Gloster (NC Art Director) and Tom Morris (NC Construction Coordinator) over released drawings to answer questions and discuss construction issues. With the exception of the slow internet connection when Bruce was at the hotel in Hawaii, the system worked quite well!

  "The Nautilus"Digital detail drawings by Chad Frey

The Digital aspect...

As previously stated, 90% of the drawings for “The Nautilus” were done by hand.   As a matter of using “the right tool for the right job,” [see pop-out: “Why not draw it all on computer?”] and after discussing my approach with Bruce, I elected to draw some of the details digitally.  These design elements (custom grate & metal work, consoles, etc.) were going to be fabricated by machine so drawing the details on the computer meant both maintaining control of the design and eliminating the digital re-draw that would have been required had those elements been originally drawn by hand. In the case of “The Nautilus,” the digital drawings I created (and the accompanying digital files I provided for fabrication) not only provided the technical information for construction, but kept the overall control of the design “in house” in stead of relying on an outside vendor to interpret a drawing and hope he got it right.

In the end the set was built and shot on schedule without difficulty, the combined use of traditional and digital tools made a seemingly impossible situation into a manageable one and I now get to tell the world that I designed “The Nautilus.”

…even if the film is forgotten by next Tuesday.


Journey 2: The Mysterious Island

A New Line Cinema Presentation

Release Date: February 10, 2012


LA based Art Department:

Production Designer – Bill Boes, (Supervising) Art Director - Bruce Hill, Assistant Art Director - Gary Warshaw, Illustrators – Daren Dochterman, Andrew Leung, Miles Teves, John Eaves, Greg Hill and Michael Jackson, Model Makers – Tony Bohorquez and Brett Phillips and, last but certainly not least, Set Designers – Greg Papalia, Stella Vaccaro, Dean Wolcott and yours truly, Chad S. Frey. 


North Carolina Art Department:

Art Director , Jim Gloster and Set Designer  Alex McCarroll.


Copyright © 1997-2013 Chad S. Frey. All Rights Reserved. Do not duplicate or redistribute in any form.