Bill Brzeski (TSOA ’79) and
Desma Murphy (TSOA ’97)
It was a dream assignment: create a fantasy world of your own design.
When Bill Brzeski was asked by director James Wan to make all of the visual details—including the city of Atlantis—for the 2018 Warner Bros. superhero movie Aquaman, the longtime Hollywood art director and production designer came to the project with an open mind about what the underwater kingdom should look like. “James was brilliant. He had a lot of ideas,” Brzeski says. “But we had to make up all of the rules of a world underwater: how the vehicles work, how the characters talk, how they entertain, who they are …”
Brzeski, whose credits include The Hangover, Iron Man 3, and Wan’s The Fate of the Furious, quickly assembled a team that included fellow NYU grad Desma Murphy. The two had worked together on and off for more than 20 years, since being introduced at the Tisch School of the Arts.
“The world was our oyster,” Murphy says, with no hint of irony, when describing the team’s work. “No one spends any time deep underwater, so we could really go anywhere with the designs. For example, the Fisherman Kingdom was very romantic and soft, sort of like those beautiful fish with the really long fins—light and airy. But when you get to the Brine Kingdom, it’s all crusty.” It was akin to “building a world on another planet,” she adds. “It was like, ‘Go have fun and let your imagination run wild.’ ”
The movie’s only true source material was the DC Comics superhero on which it was based, but that posed its own challenges. “Comics are an art form not based in reality,” Brzeski says, “and then we have to take humans and put them into that reality. In the comics, it’s easy for a guy to just bash through a wall; it’s not so easy in film.” Even a fantasy movie has to make sense: “We knew people would have to swim, not walk, down sidewalks. They’d be flying over the roads. But we put the roads there to show that at one time, they were humans and part of our planet.”
And the coloration had to make some sense. “There is a lot of blue,” Brzeski says, “because water is mostly blue. James really wanted to make a ‘blue sky’ movie. We wanted it to look really beautiful, not dark and dismal, which is how it would really look thousands of feet below the surface.”
Below, we take a deeper dive into Aquaman’s underwater world of Atlantis with Brzeski and Murphy.
“Comics are an art form not based in reality—and then we have to take humans and put them into that reality.”
A Deep Dive into the Underwater World of Atlantis
1 The subaquatic vehicles “are all inspired by fish and other things found underwater,” Murphy says. “Each kingdom has its own style of watercraft that mimics the architecture of that species.”
2 “In the legend of Atlantis, they created this power wheel that imbued their bodies with power,” says Brzeski. “[But] you can’t live underwater if you don’t know how to turn on the lights. This wheel creates day and night and gives Atlantis power.”
3 “If you were to live underwater, you wouldn’t build with steel or concrete,” says Brzeski. “You’d build with coral or seaweeds, and you’d use the natural form of the jellyfish to create structures.”
4 “The old Atlantis is definitely of Greek, Roman architecture,” says Murphy. “When it collapsed, what you see on top of it is the new Atlantis—new technology, new architecture, modern in form.”