How the Hunger Games’ Designer Built Its Epic Dystopian World
Panem in The Hunger Games franchise is unlike any world before it. Ostensibly, it’s America, but with an impassable chasm between haves and have-nots, with starkly different environments for each: for the rich, the opulent, modern Capitol; for the poor, the monochromatic Districts. It’s as beautiful as it is bleak—and the perfect playground for a guy who designs sets for a living.
“It’s not a dystopian future like in some movies where it’s this scorched-Earth civilization with destroyed buildings,” says production designer Philip Messina. “The way I got my head around it is that I thought of it as an alternate universe. It really was up to us to decide what that world felt like.”
For four films now, Messina has meticulously built that world. From the Brutalist, Roman-inspired buildings of the Capitol to the shacks and mines of Katniss Everdeen’s home in District 12. For the final chapter—The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 2, out this week—he had to craft the underground bunkers of District 13 and turn the Capitol into a booby-trapped battle zone that Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and her fellow rebels must navigate to complete their uprising against President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
Thankfully, he didn’t have to build them from scratch. Many of the sets in director Francis Lawrence’s final Hunger Games film already exist in Europe, including Krampnitz, a former Russian military barracks near Berlin that served as a Capitol battle site, and a chateau in Paris that became President Snow’s mansion. But those were but a small part of the world Messina has designed. And while he had great reference works in Suzanne Collins’s best-selling book series, that source material came with both blind spots—and a huge corps of fans to appease.
“The way her books are written, some people think they’re very specific. But she writes in a way that really lets your imagination fill in the blanks,” Messina says. “It’s liberating and tough in equal doses. You want to meet fans’ expectations, but you want to show them something new and cool. That’s my goal as a designer: to show them something they hadn’t seen before but that feels true to the source material.”
WIRED asked the franchise’s Head Gamemaker (so to speak) how he made some of the Hunger Games’ most complex scenes. See how he designed everything from the Quarter Quell to the Hob in the gallery above.