With its uneasy combination of consumerism and security, the airport terminal can easily operate as a metaphor for contemporary society. The possibilities in such a setting were certainly not lost on The Terminal director Steven Spielberg and production designer Alex McDowell, who have put the film's physical environment front and center, along with star Tom Hanks. The actor is cast as Viktor Navorski, an Eastern European visitor trapped for 11 months by political circumstance in Kennedy Airport's international transit lounge. There he eats, sleeps, shops, endures official indignities, and falls in love with Catherine Zeta-Jones. In other words, he becomes acquainted with the American way.

“The brief was to create a full environment, which is an unusual design job,” says McDowell, who previously worked with Spielberg on Minority Report. “It's mostly justified by the amount of screen time that was spent in this one space, which determines how you approach it: whether you try to find the location or whether you build it.” Although a few working airports expressed interest in hosting the production, issues of control as well as post-9/11 complications caused the film makers to dismiss the location option. At the same time, no soundstage in the world, certainly not in Hollywood, could accommodate the scale McDowell wanted to achieve. Finally, a former 747 hangar in Palmdale, CA, was commandeered for The Terminal, and the 75,000 sq. ft., 360' × 270' × 60' high title set took root.

This three-story, through-designed space, which is based on an amalgam of several international airport terminals, was no simple set construction job. Its requirements included architectural and engineering elements, from a structural steel frame and truss system to electrical wiring and air conditioning. The first working escalators built expressly for a film since One From the Heart were installed, complete with a 4' deep pit for the motors. “The only way you can get a film made is to put together a collection of experts,” says the designer. “If you're doing a period piece, you bring in historical advisors. This was a real-world kind of problem we had — to put that much steel in the air, you had to absolutely bring in an engineering firm. Risha Engineering analyzed our drawings, gave us an engineering and structural analysis of each girder, and did structural tests of every weld.”

The nature of the set and the length of time that would be spent in it (about seven weeks during filming) also affected the materials used, including real marble for the floors. “Normally, you would try to replicate marble, because it would be cheaper,” says McDowell. “But because the set was standing for so long and had to withstand so much wear and tear, it was clear that there would be so much maintenance expense that it was actually cheaper to use real materials. Our prime materials were marble, steel, and glass — very little wood, which is what you mostly use in a film set. There was not much faking it.”

Whatever faking it there was extended to the use of mirrors for lengthening some corridors and, most of all, to the atrium-style set backing, a 112,000 sq. ft. painted rendition of an airfield created by matte artist Robert Stromberg and JC Backings. Touted as the largest architectural backing every painted in Hollywood, the drop is festooned with 2,000 miniature lights for day, night, and seasonal changes.

Greatly facilitating the communication of drawings and other information between the various production entities and outside vendors was the extent to which McDowell utilized a digital design-based art department. “On the simplest level, it's about transfer of information and keeping a library of digital images that's available through a network to all departments,” says the designer, who has also worked in such a manner on Minority Report, Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat, and the upcoming Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. On a more complex level, it allows the design team to precisely map out a space, create 3D models for props, and set the scene for previsualization animations to aid the director and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski in planning shots.

Even set decorator Anne Kuljian can feel the benefit of 3D digital design, since it gives her a jump on the parameters of a space long before the set is actually built. In the case of The Terminal, one of Kuljian's biggest tasks was receiving and properly placing merchandise from 35 retailers, including Starbucks, Burger King, Borders Books, Hugo Boss, and Hudson Newsstand. “It's always a question as a production designer, whether you get on board with a lot of product placement or try to avoid it,” says McDowell. “But in the case of something like The Terminal, you really have to take it on, because it's what gives reality to the space.”

Taking it on also contributed to an unusually complicated and lengthy strike process after the film wrapped. “It took five months to construct and three months to strike,” the designer says. “All of the contents of the shops had to be packed up and inventoried and returned to the owners. Then, you've got to deal with how you pull apart a glass-and-steel set like that.” But pulled apart it was, proving itself to be as ephemeral as any other film set, no matter how solid of construction.