Absolute Watchmen is just that: complete, definitive, absolute.
The oversized hardcover edition of this ground-breaking graphic novel is considered to be a prized item to any collector of comics and graphic novels, as well as those of good literature.
The 1986 comic, Watchmen, was classed by Time magazine among its ’100 best English-language novels from 1923 to present’. It also won the Hugo Award as well as other prestigious titles. Absolute Watchmen is a collection which features digitally remastered line art and brand new colouring – overseen by original artist Dave Gibbons and colourist John Higgins – as well as 48 pages of supplemental material that has been out of print for nearly two decades. These incorporated pages include a sampling of Alan Moore’s script pages and the original series proposal, as well as a multitude of Gibbons’ initial character designs, cover sketches and promotional pieces.
The timeless aspect of this piece of landmark literature has been recently rediscovered with the release of the film adaptation Watchmen, over 20 years after the series began. Directed by Zack Snyder (300), the film’s crew includes Director of Photography Larry Fong (300), Production Designer Alex McDowell (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fight Club, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Editor William Hoy (I, Robot, Fantastic Four, 300), Costume Designer Michael Wilkinson (Babel, 300) and Visual Effects Supervisor John ‘DJ’ DesJardin (Fantastic Four, X-Men: The Last Stand, The Kingdom).
The crew applied themselves to the seemingly overwhelming task of adapting Watchmen – previously deemed to be ‘virtually unfilmable’ by those in the industry – for the screen.
The appeal of ‘the unfilmable’
Watchmen is an intricately complex, postmodern mystery adventure in which the narrative is conveyed in many layers. The tale follows a number of costumed superheroes embedded within the fabric of everyday society, albeit an alternate 1985 society in which the Cold War escalates under the presidency of Richard M Nixon. The narrative drives towards armageddon, charted by the Doomsday Clock which measures the tension between the US and the Soviet Union, upon which midnight signals nuclear war. The events unfold as the hands of the clock move closer to midnight.
The postmodern aspect of Watchmen lies in the subversion and deconstruction of the concept of superheroes. Under their masks and costumes these characters are shown to be more human than perhaps any characters who belong to this genre.
‘Watchmen is more complex in that it doesn’t just create an archetypal character; it goes through all the variations of why you would put a costume on, why you would want to fight crime,’ artist Dave Gibbons states. ‘Are you slightly mad? Are you altruistic? And what would happen if you did get super powers and you couldn’t care less?’
Gibbons, co-creator and artist of the original graphic novel, recalls the impact of the novel’s themes at the time, and how they still resonate today with the film’s release.
‘In the ’80s, there was a lot of paranoia about the Cold War – was it going to escalate and what would happen if it did – and how fragile our society was, how very little would have to be done to completely wipe out everything that we had,’ he says. ‘That was very real to me. And though it has receded a bit, there are new fears of mass destruction, so I think that paranoia is always going to be there.’
‘People always said Watchmen was the unfilmable graphic novel,’ adds Zack Snyder, director of the film. ‘The story itself is a pretty straightforward mystery, but inside of that, there’s this huge plot that has international intrigue and a super-villain and everything you want from a superhero story. There is a tonal quality to every bit of it, from the interaction of the characters to the design structure, whether it be a flashback or a flash forward, or a parallel story being told. It’s at once very traditional and also unusual in the way that it’s structured. It doesn’t owe anything to any specific genre; it’s just its own, true to itself and all of its characters.’
Recreating the Watchmen world
Filmmaker Zack Snyder was intent on keeping Watchmen as close to the original source as possible, when recreating it for the big screen.
‘Changing the time period, or emphasising any of the characters over the others, would never serve the story that’s told in the graphic novel, which has always been more than the sum of its parts,’ says his producing partner, Deborah Snyder. ‘For Zack, the key for doing this massive project was to always stay true to the graphic novel.’
Zack Snyder storyboarded the entire film, using the graphic novel, which became an important reference for the team, especially Production Designer Alex McDowell.
Unlike 300, Snyder’s previous big-budget feature where the visual landscape was created almost entirely on a computer, for Watchmen the filmmaker wanted the characters to exist in a more textured, ‘real’ world.
‘With Watchmen, the sets are so intimate,’ he notes. ‘As we started to build New York City, we realised these characters are going to be walking down these streets. You might as well build the whole thing. So, we ended up having something like 200 sets in the movie.’
Not limited to urban settings such as New York City, there is a large amount of action that takes place in less familiar environments, such as Antarctica and even another planet.
‘Watchmen is this gritty, real story, but yet a quarter of the film takes place on Mars,’ Snyder continues. ‘And other scenes take place in Antarctica, at a retreat built by a millionaire ex-superhero. So there are operatic aspects to it as well. I’m naturally interested in those big thematic visions of reality. That’s not to say Rorschach doesn’t walk down a seedy 42nd Street world, but at the same time, there is this giant glass palace that’s built on Mars. There are flying machines, huge blimps hanging over the New York skyline, and other things that we were able to layer in. I think that that’s part of the strength of this visual approach.’
Dr Manhattan’s glass palace on Mars would prove almost impossible to build and became one of the film’s all-digital sets. Alex McDowell explains that the design of the palace taps into the clock symbolism of the novel and film.
‘The design is a combination of quantum physics and a clock,’ comments McDowell. ‘There are layers and layers of references to clocks and watches in Watchmen – the ticking clock of the nuclear countdown, the watch Osterman wears and then leaves behind, setting off the chain of events that leads to the creation of Dr Manhattan. So, there’s some idea that the Glass Palace is an elaborate clock mechanism that he creates in reference to his father.’
In planning to build the many sets required to recreate the world of Watchmen, McDowell created a large schematic that incorporated images from the graphic novel, set designs, and other references to keep track of the multiple sets and characters and the timelines that define them. This schematic became a valuable tool for every member of the crew.
‘As we developed the language of the production, we used this as a way of feeding all the necessary beats back to all the departments, from set dressing, construction and costumes to the actors,’ he explains. ‘It was really a vital part of how we planned the film.’
Production and Set Design: building an alternate New York City
The filming took place in several locations around Vancouver, Canada and a number of sets were constructed on four stages at CMPP Studios (Canadian Motion Picture Park). Additionally, a new backlot was built from the ground up, in what was once a vast lumber yard outside the town, to accommodate for the construction of New York City. These included such Watchmen landmarks as the Gunga Diner, Rorschach’s alley, and The Comedian’s high-rise apartment.
‘In Watchmen, there are many subplots and threads layered within the imagery,’ observes McDowell. ‘It’s very very dense. As a production designer, one of the tasks it to set up an environment that the audience can enter and become completely immersed in, and then your work becomes part of the storytelling process.’
Each member of the production crew was given a binder of source materials which included extensive clippings and interviews with the creators, and the graphic novel itself, which was referenced on a daily basis.
The task of building an entire city was made manageable due to the construction of three intersecting streets. The relatively-upscale Brownstone Street incorporated Dan Dreiberg’s apartment and also that of the first Nite Owl, Hollis Mason, while Blake Street housed The Comedian’s high-rise apartment building. Blake Street was eventually converted to Riot Street, where the Owl Ship lands during a scene depicting the Keene Riots. The central hub street, intersecting both Riot and Brownstone and representing the seedier part of town, was called Porno Street. An off-shoot, called Fight Alley, became the site of a major fight sequence between Dan and Laurie and the Knot Top gang.
Also built at an intersection on the backlot was the Newsstand, a key element from the graphic novel containing the overlapping stories presented in the Tales of the Black Freighter novel-within-a-novel chapters. Snyder shot those sequences specifically for a planned feature on the future DVD.
‘One of the things that was great about working with Zack,’ says McDowell, ‘is that he was as fanatically interested in finding the Easter eggs in the graphic novel and pulling them into the film. On some films, you make a decision that you’ve gone deep enough; let’s just shoot the thing. But Zack shares my same obsessive interest in the fine detail, so it was great fun to do.’
Other significant sets constructed for the film include President Nixon’s bunker at NORAD, which was inspired by the famous War Room featured in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr Strangelove; the Gila Flats nuclear testing facility where Jon Osterman becomes Dr. Manhattan (actually Vancouver’s former Riverview Hospital); the Owl Chamber was created on a soundstage at CMPP, while the Saigon bar was situated within the New York environments.
The largest set on the soundstage was Adrian Veidt’s Antarctic retreat, Karnak, where the film’s climax unfolds. This set had multiple requirements, and the way it was constructed allowed it to be Veidt’s interior office if shot from one angle, and his exterior office if shot from another.
The Owl Ship
Nite Owl’s Owl Ship, also known as Archimedes or ‘Archie’ is a significant element of the graphic novel, and to recreate it lifesize Alex McDowell employed a team of artisans including sculptor and boat builder Jack Gavreaum.
‘Everyone, from sculptors and painters to set dressing and props, worked in this tiny little space,’ McDowell recalls. ‘But is proved to be one of the most satisfying sets in the movie for us. The idea with the Owl Ship is that form follows function, and everything is there because it has a purpose. In the Owl Chamber, we also incorporated dents and damage where we assumed he crashed while flight testing. It was very important for the audience to believe that this was a real craft, so it’s covered in scratches and scrapes.’
At the height of shooting, Dave Gibbons visited the set, an experience he found overwhelming.
‘I was just bowled over by the level of attention to detail,’ he attests. ‘Careful thought had been given to every little corner, even things I had stuck in the artwork that I hadn’t given a second thought to. When you draw something from your imagination, you have this misty impression of a picture that you then try to interpret. This was like seeing that misty picture crystallised into reality.’
Gibbons, who had previously seen only his Owl Ship on paper, had the rare experience of physically exploring his creation.
‘I looked at the model of the full-size Owl Ship, knocked on it, stood inside it, moved some of the controls,’ he marvels. ‘It was so fantastic for somebody who lives in their imagination a lot of the time to see these things actually become solid in the real world. It was one of the most exciting experiences I’ve had connected with comics.’
Worlds within worlds: on paper and screen
The cast was equally inspired by the world within a world they inhabited for a few months over a Vancouver winter. Jeffrey Dean Morgan who portrayed The Comedian asserts, ‘The details of it were just astonishing in their quality, right down to the smallest detail. I’ve never been a part of anything like this in my life. Every day I came onto the set and I was blown away by the scale of it, the work that so many people put into this thing. The novel literally came to life.’
One of the most subversive elements of the novel, which Alex McDowell sought to incorporate into the film, was ‘the twisting of the conventional primary palette of comic books into the secondary colours. It immediately made the Watchmen series into an incredibly striking package. People had not seen those colours in this medium before. Watchmen had fantastic graphic decisions throughout, from the smiley face cover onward, so that was the key for us.’
What would not work on film were the clean lines of a graphic novel.
‘To embed these characters in the real world, clean lines don’t translate,’ the production designer says. ‘But we found that it we took a grittier, more textured style, then added the strong secondary palette of the graphic novel to it, it became a way to find a common language of stylisation.’
Costumes for superheroes
The colour choices were also restricted by the graphic novel’s colour palette with regards to the costume design.
‘We used a lot of greens, purples, oranges and browns,’ recalls Costume Designer Michael Wilkinson, ‘the murky secondary colours that darken as the story progresses.’
The costumes for the key cast, like their environments, would need to be intimately designed, particularly their crime-fighting outfits. Wilkinson worked with the specialty costume company Quantum FX to create full body casts of all the major characters, upon which they then sculpted the details of each costume in clay.
‘We could then take these moulds and render them in foam latex so you get a stylised physique – wrinkle-free and with beautiful, sculpted details, while being flexible and breathable for the actors,’ he says.
One of the more complicated characters, Rorschach, played by Jackie Earle Haley, conveys his emotion via a mark of shifting mirror image patterns of black and white, similar to the inkblot test from which the character gets his name.
Wilkinson, describes the evolution of Rorschach’s mask – or his ‘face’ as the character insists – as long and complex.
‘We developed a printing process onto a fantastic four-way Lycra that enabled us to create a rough, canvas-like texture but also had a stretchy quality, so we could achieve that smooth, egg-like silhouette. And then the digital effects team created these beautiful moving inkblots on top of the fabric. It was a great collaboration between costumes and visual effects.’
To achieve the effect of perpetually morphing images, the Lycra of the mask was embedded with motion capture markers. These markers covered all of the material, except for Haley’s eyes, and allowed the patterns to reflect the actor’s performance. The visual effects team under the supervision of John ‘DJ’ DesJardin, animated the transitions between the inkblot patterns at different speeds, according to what Snyder wanted for the given scene.
‘We tried to model his expressions after the ones Dave Gibbons drew for the graphic novel,’ DesJardin reveals. ‘The inkblots are not just black and white; the edges are grey and animated in a way that makes it look like the ink is coming out of the cloth and sinking back in again.’
The impossibility of Dr Manhattan
The embodiment of Dr Manhattan hinged primarly on the actor playing him, as this character is the only one in Watchmen to have physical superpowers. Manhattan also has an effect on his environment: a blue glow that emanates from his body, illuminating his surroundings.
‘When I read the graphic novel, Manhattan was the only element that made me think, “How do we do this?”‘ recalls Director of Photography Larry Fong. Together, DesJardin and Fong found a creative solution.
‘We ultimately made a suit that had all the tracking markers we needed for motion capture but also thousands of LEDs that put out this nice, diffuse, blue light,’ DesJardin explains. ‘Zack’s idea was that when Jon Osterman pulled himself back together, he made this ideal male form for him to embody. So, while keeping Billy’s face and remaining accurate to his performance, we created a CG character with a powerful, ultra-ripped, perfected body.’
Deborah Snyder states that everyone involved brought unparalleled passion and commitment to their work in bringing Watchmen to the screen.
‘Watchmen is not only significant to the comic book community; it has so much significance as a piece of literature. Our hope is that whoever sees the film discovers or rediscovers the graphic novel because there’s so much more than we can possibly get on the screen.’
For more information about Watchmen, the film, visit the
Paramount Pictures Australia website
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Dave Gibbons
Price: $75.00 US/$86.00 CAN
Printed and bound in China
For more information about this publication please visit the Tower Books website