In Dark City, the latest visual nightmare from writer-director Alex Proyas (The Crow), a race of Nosferatu-like beings manipulates the memories of humans as part of a fiendish experiment. The Strangers, as they're called, also exert their will on the very look and layout of the urban milieu they use as a giant petri dish. From their underground lair, they throw up a neoclassical structure here, pull down an art deco one there, constantly re-creating the disconcertingly ambiguous landscape above. Dark City's production designer, Patrick Tatopoulos, can relate to the Strangers' aesthetic activities, only he had to create the film's sensuous sets the hard way: starting with a pen, a pencil and a blank sheet of paper.

The first person in Hollywood to receive credit as a production designer was William Cameron Menzies, who, in the eyes of producer David O. Selznick, merited the new title for going beyond mere art direction on Gone With the Wind. Menzies designed its sets with specific camera angles and lighting strategies in mind, giving the film a coherent visual sensibility despite its three directors. Ever since, production designers have been in charge of conceiving the space within which a story unfolds. They can add layers of meaning to a film, as with Lawrence G. Paull's dystopian designs for Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, or deepen our sense of character, as with David Bomba's chilling replication of suburban banality in Todd Haynes' Safe.

When the Paris-born Tatopoulos, 40, came to Hollywood in 1989, after working as a magazine illustrator in Europe, he made small contributions to other people's visions. He learned creature design and effects working on films like Gremlins 2, and for no screen credit sketched an inkwell, a cane and a helmet for Coppola's Dracula. For Tatopoulos, production design was never the only goal – “I don't want to get stuck in one area” – but he remains fascinated by its possibilities. “I was always interested in creating different worlds,” he says, referring back to a childhood devoted to drawing. “It was all fantasy. I was a very happy child, but I always had to have something weird going on.”

Tatopoulos' collaboration with Proyas on Dark City began some two years before the start of pre-production. “I think we have a very similar vision,” says Tatopoulos, “and that doesn't happen every day. I'm a gigantic fan of Murnau. I like that kind of plastic look that's not completely real. In The Crow, when you fly over the city you know it's not a real city, but that flavor is what we're looking for. It takes you into this dream world. It brings you back to your youth, to the beginning when you saw those old movies.”

Initially, Tatopoulos worked alone on the worlds both above and below – Proyas shot one urban scene exactly how the designer sketched it – but when pre-production began in Australia, production designer George Liddle came on to assist with the expressionistic city sets. A dying race of gelatinous bugs who inhabit human corpses to survive, the Strangers live in an environment that's a textured hive, an eerie fusion of organic forms, oxidized industrial material, Gothic arches and art nouveau.

This combination of the alien and the ancient is something Tatopoulos is known for through his work on Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin's Stargate and Independence Day. In January, he completed work on their Godzilla, for which he thoroughly redesigned the monster. Although he's limited to what he can reveal about Godzilla's new look, he will say it's “a very serious animal.” Read: mean and fast.

Like many artists who think visually, Tatopoulos can't always express exactly how he works – “I'm not very intellectual about it” – but at the beginning, at least, it's a process of letting go. “Your first vision should be expansive, should be crazy, just go for it.” Then comes the hard part: seeing what's possible within a tight budget. “That's why some of the most incredible artistic talents will never be production designers,” says Tatopoulos. “They don't need the stress.”

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