Creative Director Alex McDowell doesn’t see the future, he designs it, and everyone from venture capitalists to Ford and NASA look to his work on films like “Minority Report,” “Fight Club,” “Watchmen,” and “Lawnmower Man” for inspiration. But unlike many futurists, McDowell’s futures aren’t robot-centric at all. Hear about his background with the World Building Institute and Experimental.Design, plus what the Sex Pistols and DARPA have in common.

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Episode Transcript

Alex Roy: On this week’s episode of No Parking, Bryan Salesky and I are going to talk to narrative production designer and creative director Alex McDowell, who’s been so influential in his production design that the films in which his work have appeared, have actually influenced real-world R&D and this includes the augmented reality in “Minority Report,” but he’s done so many movies like “Lawnmower Man” had VR in it, you know “The Crow,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Fight Club,” “The Watchmen,” “Man of Steel.” I mean he’s had a crazy career. He’s at MIT’s Media Lab. He’s the founder of the World Building Institute. He is a professor at USC, and it was really awesome that he actually came and spoke at Ford’s City of Tomorrow. I mean, Bryan, he stood out even among a lot of interesting characters.

Bryan Salesky: We had a ton of great guests at that event and Alex was among the best. Alex, I really thought it was interesting how … I learned a lot and I learned about how deep they go into the research in order to prepare for films like “Minority Report.” I thought, you know, a bunch of creative people get together, they think about all kinds of crazy ideas of what you know, virtual reality, augmented reality might look like in the future, what neat visualizations might be. But it turns out that it’s not just a bunch of people throwing ideas around in a conference room. I mean, they went out and they visited leading researchers in these areas, MIT Media Labs and I’m sure other institutions that are doing really great research in this area and-

Alex Roy: Are you telling me that you might actually start watching more science fiction?

Bryan Salesky: Maybe, but I was just blown away by the amount of prep that goes into it because what I thought was really cool is he talked about how they didn’t just want pie in the sky, like fantasy. He separated fantasy from like real sci-fi where it’s sort of on the edge of possible. It’s not there yet, but it will be. He was trying to show what a future may look like and what some of the social implications could be through this film. When I watched it, I have to be honest, I didn’t think about it that deeply. I just thought, “Wow, this is like cool stuff.”

Alex Roy: That’s where you and I differ. My takeaway was “I had no idea his music career was so nuts.” Let’s just dive right into it because it’s a really, really great interview.

Alex Roy: Your title in your Wikipedia page is “Narrative Designer and Creative Director” and those are kind of vague, vague titles, but looking you up, I realized that not only did you design the Ford’s streets display at CES, which was so cool in 2018, is that right? But more … It was 2017? What was really interesting to me, and we’re going to go down this list, is that you staged the first Sex Pistols headline concert?

Alex McDowell: Yeah. Headline is relative. I was booking the bands at my art school, Central School of Art, and a young man walked off the street and said, “Do you want a band to play for free tomorrow night?” And I said “Sure,” and it turned out that it was the Sex Pistols’ first gig.

Bryan Salesky: What are the things that go through your mind about how this could go poorly if you say yes

Alex Roy: The concert or the interview?

Alex McDowell: Interview or the, or with … Yeah.

Bryan Salesky: Well, we can get to the interview today. The guy that you know came off the street and asked you, “Can we play?”

Alex McDowell: You know, in an art school context that could not be anything that would be bad. I mean, in many ways it was constantly bad. So it was…

Alex Roy: Was it like that at Carnegie Mellon University, Bryan?

Bryan Salesky: In certain departments, sure.

Alex Roy: All right. So, moving forward some 30 or 40 years before you became a very, I guess, relevant person in technology and urban design transportation —

Alex McDowell: Just to say, though. Sorry to interrupt, because it’s my … I need to interrupt as much as possible. The, the Sex Pistols’ shift was both … It was very bad in the sense that, you know, they basically didn’t know how to play, but it was the most life-changing experience that I had, really, because it was all attitude and it was clear that playing well was not —

Alex Roy: Relevant?

Alex McDowell: … the point. And that kind of anarchic pace has driven my career, I would say.

Alex Roy: And then you became friends with Tony Wilson? And we’re in…

Alex McDowell: No.

Alex Roy: No? No, not friends? Never met? Tony Wilson was one of the founders of…he would claim…Factory Records. He would claim to have discovered Joy Division, New Order and created rave culture, much of which is a function of a film called 24 Hour Party People. Is that film an accurate depiction of those events?

Alex McDowell: You know I, it was interesting because they were really separate, like Manchester scene and London scene were very removed from one another. So I’m not sure I could judge that.

Alex Roy: Bryan, are you fan of any of that music?

Bryan Salesky: I have never been to a rave, but I will absolutely crank up rave music in my house on occasion, absolutely.

Alex Roy: And we need to sail through this so we can get the technology part, guys. I’m sorry, but I have more questions. Siouxsie and the Banshees, you designed the album covers?

Alex McDowell: Yes.

Alex Roy: Very cool. Depeche Mode, you designed their album covers, too?

Alex McDowell: No, I did a music video with them at the Berlin Wall, which was very cool. I started doing music videos within a few years of record sleeves, but the Depeche Mode was before the wall came down and my memory is that I carried smoke bombs on the plane to Berlin. It seems impossible, but we had smoke bombs when we got there. Somebody brought them. Anyway, but yeah, it was a lot of record, a lot of videos at that point.

Alex Roy: So now that we’re done with all the setup, I’m sorry, that was very selfish of me, Bryan, we’re here to talk about technology. I’m really fascinated by the fact that you directed the movie “The Lawnmower Man,” because for many people of a certain age, virtual reality, it was defined by that movie. I guess I was 15 or 14 and I saw it. I’m like, “Well, that’s what it’s like.” That looks like it’s not so good. I don’t believe in that anymore. Thanks. Thanks for that, McDowell.

Alex McDowell: So again, sorry to correct you, but I designed, I didn’t direct.

Alex Roy: You designed the virtual reality component.

Alex McDowell: Yeah. Yeah, so that connection gave us connections … Sorry, that gave us connection to NASA, to research that was going on in JPL. I think I wore one of the very early —

Alex Roy: Remote —

Alex McDowell: … headsets, and full haptics that was, you know, tens of thousands of dollars with a 2D-graphic of a palm tree and a sea. Absolutely like three colors and 2D, and it was amazing because you reach out on these cutout coconuts and a tree trunk were there, and parallax was enough. It’s another huge piece of the understanding that haptics and sound and those kinds of things are as important as anything we do visually.

Alex Roy: So this is it. From “Lawnmower Man” through what I saw at the Ford display at CES, your job title of “Narrative Designer” doesn’t really … to someone who hasn’t seen what you’ve worked on can’t grasp it. It would seem that if one could really describe your job … you have crafted the depiction and perception of future technology in pop culture in such a way that it had pretty much defined how people believe it should be or will be … right or wrong?

Alex McDowell: Yeah. Well, I think the opportunity we had, and it stems from “Minority Report,” was being asked by Steven Spielberg to portray a future that wasn’t science fiction. And even though there are components that are well out of our reach, things like autonomous vehicles in 1999, that came out of that film just because we were asking questions about how Tom Cruise gets to work.

So we weren’t really trying to design AV, but the solution was form follows function, and so that’s kind of the impetus. Narrative design really means connecting, sort of listening deeply to the narratives that are out there and kind of building off of as much as we can the real research. And then, putting fiction into that and displaying it visually.

So to me the visual piece, the design piece, is a translation because the visual is understandable across all borders, across languages. The storytelling and the fiction piece is the most powerful weapon we have to make change, because people aren’t constrained about the way they think about the future once you say it’s fiction, but most of its implementable.

Alex Roy: Bryan, you saw “Minority Report” in the theater. Did that inspire you in your later work in robotics?

Bryan Salesky: I mean, I think what it did was it opened up a whole new world of possibilities and sort of opened our minds as to what could be done eventually with really interesting visualization, sound, haptics and so on. A lot of us were talking about what we saw in that film saying, “Will it happen someday? How can we do it? What’s the … ”

Oftentimes, these are concepts that are depicted in the movie. They’re concepts, right? But the implementation doesn’t follow exactly, but the concept is really powerful. So much of robotics is visual, we can’t build these systems, debug them, understand how they work without really rich imagery and video that gives us really an insight into what the AI is thinking, what it’s doing, how it’s reasoning about things. And so, we would always make comparisons to Minority Report and say, “Well, gee, if we just had that, it would be so much more obvious.

Alex McDowell: And that’s called designed fiction, which is a process, a methodology we use a lot, which is taking the lead from something that you’ve seen and then extrapolating forward and saying, “If this can happen, and you add 10, 15 years to it, why could it not do that?” Not to follow the trend of where it looks as if it’s going along this line, but really saying, “If it can do that, we’d really like it to do this,” and then you throw back into the present and you shift it.

Bryan Salesky: That’s right. I mean, it really became a challenge to people, to say, “Well, but this is a better design. Figure out how to get there,” right?

Alex McDowell: Yeah, and the way we got to it, it is really important, the deep research. We were talking to DARPA. We were talking to MIT Media Lab. We were talking to Lexus. We were talking to advertising agents. In each piece that we needed to work in “Minority Report,” we went out from the film business, which was really unusual. And the reason we were able to do that was because Steven Spielberg opened all these doors for us, and we were saying, “Well, we need to know.” We were just asking questions all the time, “How would this be? How would this be?”

Because Steven’s directive was that this should be future reality, not science fiction, we were asking those kinds of questions, so in the end, it wasn’t that we were being so clever. It was that we were listening carefully, and the reason that it kept paying off, year after year after year, one thing or another, kept being referred to as referencing “Minority Report,” was that we were listening carefully, and most of those labs were working on 10-year plans, so as they came out, you know, it was a sort of natural evolution of the science process.

Bryan Salesky: That’s really interesting. I had no idea how much had gone into forming what we saw in the movie.

Alex McDowell: And there was no script.

Bryan Salesky: Yeah.

Alex McDowell: I have to shut up. There was no script, so that was the other liberating piece, very unusual to start a film without a script.

Bryan Salesky: Which allowed you to pursue these ideas.

Alex McDowell: Exactly. So, we actually had, in a way, a very indulgent period of time, where we could say, “What if? What if? What if?” But it was also really necessary for a world that complex. It’s a lot of what Hannah was talking about, that I think we’re very much in agreement about, that if you have to envision a whole spherical world before you know what the linear narrative is, you’re actually putting the logic of the world together, and it’s completely possible to put a completely different lens on that. You could say, “Well, actually we’re interested in urban design, and the film can answer those questions.” “We’re interested in the future advertising only.” The film can answer those questions, because you have all of these moving parts that are interconnected holistically.

Alex Roy: I’m always amused when people put faith in future technologies, but they think of them in like a single vector. So much of science fiction is bad because the author has not educated themselves at all on the sociopolitical ramifications of a technology being deployed. For example, “Knight Rider.” I loved “Knight Rider” as a kid, but looking at it now, it looks like a comedy, because in what universe would someone be capable of building a fully autonomous, intelligent general AI that can inhabit a vehicle, only build one, and give it to this guy? And that’s all he does with it, and solve these BS crimes? Think of all the other things one could do if one was capable of building that. Then the enemies decide to build a rival vehicle? That’s all they would do? Multidimensional science fiction is the only work of value, because it posits all these potential scenarios and all the third- and fourth-order consequences.

Alex McDowell: Yeah, I mean, I think if you look at William Gibson or Neal Stephenson, it’s really an insight into the future, because their research and their knowledge from which they’re building those narratives is so deep and rich. It’s very unusual, I think, for a single author to be able to… in a way, to be curious enough to develop all of that, but certainly to have the kind of skill to weave all of these things together. A lot of our process says a single author, actually, is not a way to get to an outcome. Collaboration is a huge piece of this.

The other liberating piece, I think, is that I would say now there is no science fiction, because there’s nothing that we imagine that we cannot do. That separates from fantasy, but I do believe… I mean, everything that Neal Stephenson and William Gibson, as examples were imagining, you know, Neal Stephenson imagined a million-person army of young girls who went out and changed the world. We saw that three months ago, in Amsterdam, you know, 200,000 16-year-old girls fighting for global warming, against global warming, so each of those things, you sort of… They are not science fiction. They’re not exactly predictive. They’re just, again, listening really carefully to the opportunities for learning, and then playing that out, and playing it out very entertainingly, which is where the fiction piece comes in, and the piece that really engages the audience, but the real underlying purpose is change.

That’s why I think the idea, now, that we really can do anything that we can imagine has been… I mean, that way of thinking has been… People like yourself are just going like, “Why can’t we do this?” and just doing it.

Bryan Salesky: Who do you think is doing the best job of envisioning the future today? Sort of an implementable, like not so far… Like, you separated science fiction from fantasy, which I like how you put that, right? What are some examples of what kids are seeing today that you think are really interesting examples of things that we’re likely going to see in the next few decades?

Alex McDowell: That’s a great question. I think first of all, it’s very divided. I think very few people are looking holistically at the technology that they’re exploring, developing, being connected to everything else. So in some ways, I feel like most of that is doomed to fail, because unless it considers the human, social, political implication of what they’re doing, and everything else, we work with a system which looks at governance, infrastructure, culture, and energy, or the sort of sense of resources, let’s say, and those all have to interconnect for us to be able to tell a story. That’s not exactly answering your question. It’s not answering your question at all. But I think —

Bryan Salesky: Well, that’s the setup, though. That’s the test.

Alex McDowell: Yeah.

Bryan Salesky: Yeah.

Alex McDowell: It definitely is, and that kind of extrapolating forward, if you say, “Well, this piece of technology you’re doing is interesting,” and then you apply this idea of narrative to it and play it forward, you can kind of work out which of these things are going to work, because at some point they either collide with human need or they … in a negative way, or they interlace with human need. So, there’s things like VR, for example, which is of course on many conversations. My feeling is people misinterpreted the use of VR completely. It’s a terrible entertainment platform.

Bryan Salesky: Yes. I agree.

Alex McDowell: You know, who wants to put a box on their head? It’s completely the opposite of the idea of a cultural kind of initiative. It’s a fantastic tool for design and learning.

Bryan Salesky: That’s right. “Star Trek” got it right. That’s what we really need, is the Holodeck.

Alex Roy: The Holodeck.

Bryan Salesky: Right? That’s what we really need. I’m looking at Pete in the corner here. Pete is a huge “Star Trek” fan. If you need any information, anything on “Star Trek,” Pete’s your guy. Were there multiple versions of the Holodeck?

Pete Rander: It progressed.

Bryan Salesky: It progressed? Okay, it progressed in capability, right? If I remember correctly. I don’t know if that’s implementable, but that’s the entertainment platform you ultimately want.

Alex McDowell: That’s right, and that’s the kind of design fiction piece, or the narrative design piece, actually, is “Star Trek” was so important because they thought about all of the things and their connective, even if it was extremely fictional at the time. A scientist like Neil Gershenfeld, at MIT Media Lab, has kind of devoted his whole life to making that possible, and he’s done it, you know? It’s not molecule-sized robots that he’s developed, or just all of those interfaces that “Star Wars” connected, drove… And I think those kinds of things in fiction drive the scientists and the engineers who are actually capable of implementing it. That’s the balance, right?

Bryan Salesky: You’ve given me so many reasons as to why kids should be watching-

Alex Roy: “Star Trek” and not “Star Wars?”

Bryan Salesky: Sci-fi.

Alex McDowell: Absolutely.

Bryan Salesky: I mean, this is… We’re sparking ideas at an early age, so that when they grow up to be scientists, or engineers, that-

Alex McDowell: Or artists —

Bryan Salesky: Or artists.

Alex McDowell: Yeah.

Bryan Salesky: That this is so cool. You have boiled down, in the most fundamental way I’ve ever heard, what the true spirit of product management should actually be. You know, too often, I hear everyone espouse their view of what product management is or isn’t, and its amazing how many people will give you their definition and not actually bring up the customer, the people. It’s about humans at the end of the day, and what do they want, what do they need, what will make them better, more efficient, and so on? But you just boiled down a creative process here that, to my knowledge, isn’t really taught anywhere. Is it?

Alex McDowell: It really isn’t. To the extent that my studio, which is a relatively small studio, but to specifically look at this intersection of art and science, we find it really hard to hire people, because unless they’d been taught and brought up in a cross-disciplinary or post-disciplinary way, and kind of have an equal interest, for example in coding and its visual outcome, anybody who’s been trained strictly in film, or strictly in science, can’t negotiate the complexity of the world that we actually are moving towards, or are in the middle of. So, I think that it fundamentally has to change in education, and that essentially redesigns the entire education system, which is why it’s being resisted, perhaps.

Bryan Salesky: What would it be called? What’s the curriculum? What would it be called? If we had a course on this, or even a university, what would it be… I don’t know.

Alex McDowell: Well it would be … This is not a good thing to call it, but it would be art science, you know, it would be that integrated thing where my lab at USC where we’re working on the pancreatic Beta cell in my design lab, driven by molecular biologists also at USC and in order to change the language, the core language at the molecular level of the pancreatic Beta cell, we’ve had to integrate in the most complete way I think probably is being done anywhere where the artists and scientists have to completely interlock and the only way we can really functionally design a new model of a protein is totally based in understanding the science but is also totally based in the pushback of what the architecture of the protein is and how that translates to high school students, let’s say.

So it’s extremely social and political, all those things and it has an opportunity to change the artists and the scientists, but only because that one plus one equals three formula is in place.

Bryan Salesky: This is fascinating.

Alex Roy: It is and really 30 minutes isn’t enough time. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to pull us back and ask you a couple of questions. Do you drive a car?

Alex McDowell: I do.

Alex Roy: And do you enjoy driving?

Alex McDowell: I love driving. Yeah.

Alex Roy: Do you think you’re a safe driver? Have you had any incidents?

Alex McDowell: I haven’t had many incidents. Yeah.

Alex Roy: I mean where I’m really going, this is 20 years ago, “Minority Report” had AVs in the film, and I believe that technology is inevitable.

Alex McDowell: Agree.

Alex Roy: How do we teach or convince, how do we get people to trust technologies that are profoundly different from the ones they’re familiar with? And in this case, one that would have clear benefits. How do you get someone into an AV?

Alex McDowell: I think it’s a great question. It’s sort of in a parallel way, it’s the question that people are asking about AI and my view is that it is human augmentation. So, if it makes our ability, the things that we think and do, allow us to do those things better or indeed inspire us to think differently about the way we imagine the capability of the human body, let’s say. Then there’s lots of practical reasons, like being able to work while you’re driving and those kinds of things. But ultimately if you see AV as allowing us to perform better, an extension of our body, let’s say, there isn’t a negative side to that. If you think about it as product design and sales, that somewhat conflicts with the basic idea that it’s ultimately a social system that’s being engaged and being pushed forward and a social system that is about the complete integration of the human insists.

So Jim Hackett talks about this in incredibly inspiring, visionary ways because he absolutely understands that the human is at the center of this. It’s all very well connecting, you know, the smart cities to smart mobility. So, in those ways, I think everything that we’re developing that’s at the edge of science and engineering needs to be tested against that. If it’s purely engineering and we build it because we can, it’s gonna fail.

Alex Roy: So technology as a means, good, as an end, bad.

Alex McDowell: Yeah. Yeah. And the end is the result of it, but you’re testing it. And that’s also, I think something that you were referring to Bryan, which is the product development is always about the three-year plan or the strategy for this thing. And unless you are thinking about this thing, which is way further ahead, the need to just deliver …

Bryan Salesky: So it undermines the whole innovation process, right? Yeah, absolutely. I mean, absolutely.

Alex Roy: We’re out of time, gentlemen. I’d love to sit here and listen some more. Oh, McDowell, if we wanted to learn more about you and what you’re working on, are you on social media? What’s your website? Where can we learn more?

Alex McDowell: Experimental.design. That’s the website and the name basically. LinkedIn, the same thing. Experimental Design. At USC, it’s the World Building Media Lab, World Building Institute.

Alex Roy: All right, well thank you so much for joining us.

Bryan Salesky: One other thing.

Alex Roy: Bryan, you ask him.

Bryan Salesky: So we have a tradition on the No Parking Podcast we ask most of our guests except when Alex forgets, we ask what’s the craziest thing you’ve seen on the road recently?

Alex McDowell: You know, the craziest thing, the most attractive thing to me now, 1950s cars that are totally hacked. You know, like low rider kind of stuff. Like the really like hanging on with bare knuckles to these beautiful objects that are not going to survive.

Bryan Salesky: You just gave me a great excuse to purchase a whole bunch of chopped and dropped classic vehicles to our test track. Thank you, Alex.

Alex Roy: What’s really interesting, I was struck by, even though he’s such a futurist how much he really cares about people. Like he definitely believes that design isn’t just something he does for a job, for film, but that design is essential for improving people’s lives. I went back and rewatched “Lawnmower Man,” remembering it very fondly and it struck me that the depiction of virtual reality in that film I guess did lead to NASA and a lot of people wanting to talk to him, but that the plot of the film really took whatever we might learn about VR and made it look like a really evil thing. Like technology’s bad. We should be really careful about … Maybe you’re right, most science fiction really is junk. Maybe you’re just right, it’s something to think about.

All right, we’ve got to wrap this up. Anything you want to say about McDowell?

Bryan Salesky: I learned a lot through that whole session. It was really incredible stuff.

Alex Roy: I don’t know. I want to say I don’t often see you humbled, but actually I do because you’ve got those Midwestern values. No, I admire that. It’s really cool.

Bryan Salesky: He’s a really smart guy who’s done so much. I feel like he’s lived maybe five or six different lives already and he’s still looking for it and he’s like continuing to work on really amazing projects. When you meet people like him, you realize, wow.

Alex Roy: It is interesting, you know, to spend time with people. I consider you one of these people who are like major personalities in their field, talk to other big personalities in their fields and see what they share value wise but are unaware of on the other side of the fence in terms of actual day to day work.

Bryan Salesky: Yeah, I mean like I feel like I’m on chapter three or four. I think he’s on chapter 20. He’s just lived and seen a lot.

Alex Roy: I think he’s got about 30 years on you.

Bryan Salesky: Yeah, he does. But like concert promoter to film designer. It just goes on and on. It’s really cool.

Alex Roy: Yeah. Well, you know, I have something to say about the concert promoting side, but that’s for another show. This has been No Parking Podcast. You can follow us on Twitter @NoParkingPod. You can check us out on the internet at www.noparkingpodcast.com. If you want to be a guest on the show or know someone very special, who wants to submit to this, guests@noparkingpodcast.com is the email address. You can reach me at alex@noparkingpodcast.com. You cannot reach Bryan on any social media because he does not believe in it, to his credit. Thank you very much. Look forward to seeing you next week.