Odds and Ends from my brain and interests. Given that it is meant to be much like my old cartoon strip at the Lowell Connector, I suppose it is eponymous (I also like that it does make an oxymoron of sorts)

If there is to be anything here of any regularity it should be about sci-fi, computers, technology, and scale modeling with origami thrown in on the side (at least not infrequently). Oh, I would also expect some cartooning too

Friday, May 06, 2011

SF Visuals (III): Spaceship Design - The Frameworks

No matter where you go, there you are

The working title for this section alludes to an undeniable fact about creative work which is that you can never remove yourself from the picture. By the same token, you can never really remove yourself from the world you live in. As much as visual art appears to make amazing leaps outside of what we are used to, following the influences of the artist often shows a clear path from one standard to a new vision.
    Spaceship conceptual designs are also influenced in much the same way and as a result can reflect the world they were created in. What designs look like can depend on many questions an artist can ask: How would it work? How do people travel in them? How do they fit with "bleeding edge" commercial design and art guidelines? How do they fit with the engineering of such a ship? Does it fit a look that I want? The answer to these questions can only come from something the artist has come to know.

The Rocketship

Allow, if you will, that the fundamental unit of spaceship design is the rocketship. This is really the only method of space travel that we know of first hand and can readily understand how it works. Beyond rocketships, we really only have flying saucers and other reports of UFO activity. The saucer shape, while not infrequent in motion pictures and illustrations, is limited in the vagueness of eyewitness reports and by our inability to know exactly how a saucer flies. It is also by definition always "saucer" shaped. The rocketship has no such problem; fire and thrust comes out one end, and it moves in the opposite direction.
ketch comparing filmed saucers vs. rocketships. Saucers are by definition saucer shaped, but rocketships can come in many varieties. Saucers do have the benefit of generally using propulsion that's beyond explanation

Before Rockets

Trips to space predates by far the ability to actually reach space. The rate of progress by the 19th century must have made no idea impossible and perhaps explains the success of speculative fiction at the time. Still, our experience with distant travel was based on railroad cars and steamers. Not surprisingly the inside of Verne's Columbiad looks a lot like luxury travelling salon car. The idea of railroad car in space is particularly apparent in the design of the Edison spaceships in Edison's Conquest of Mars. At least these fictional design are starting to consider some real factors such as weightlessness and the vacuum of space. Spaceships of this time period are sometimes nothing more than super lifting balloons of some kind or the result of some mysterious lifting material. Even the Flash Gordon serials of some 30 years later would still have rocketships navigating between clouds as well as between planets.

Having conquered the air...

By the early 1920s, the rapid development of air transport must have made the idea of space travel inevitable. Still, the understanding of how it was to happen was perhaps not clear (The NY Times eventually apologized for criticizing Goddard's physics regarding rockets and travel in a vacuum). The pulp cover designs are full of basically rocket aircraft, perhaps inspired by the scenes of air racing and experimentation shown on the newsreels.
    Design was also influenced by the idea of streamlining and art deco which was so much a part of commercial design during this time period. The classic rocketship design used in the movie "Just Imagine" shows this influence. It also became a seminal design for many movie rockets as the ship and its copies were re-used countless times in the serials of the 1930s.
The "Streamliner" is a generic representation of the spaceships prevalent between the 1920s and 40s. In film, typically a finned rocket propelled by sparks and smoke.

Once you have seen the real thing, though...

What the real thing look liked became terribly apparent at the end of World War II and so the shape of the V-2 became the emblematic shape of the spaceship. The classic finned needle nose design, with it's smooth shape, and near windowless aspect became the standard to which many ships were designed. Looking at covers of pulp fictions and the ships of such films as "When World's Collide", "Destination Moon", and "Abbot and Costello Go to Mars", the German rocket's lineage is clearly visible.
The post war spaceship was heavily influenced by the Von Braun's V-2. The long slender ships were typically singly staged and with only slight variations in their fins.

Spaceships in the Space Age

Curiously, the V-2's designer got the opportunity to put in print what people carrying orbital ships would probably be like in a series of Collier magazine articles. As a result ships are more frequently designed with stages, or fuel tanks, and more spindly for operation in the vacuum of space as Von Braun and others designed them for the magazine and subsequent Disney documentaries.
Post Collier designs often featured girder work and visible tanks. Streamlining was reserved for ships that actually traveled through an atmosphere

While not often seen in films of the time there are a couple of notable exceptions: "The Conquest of Space" (1955) which was heavily influenced by the Collier designs and the Russian movie "The Road to the Stars" (1958). Ships with visible fuel tanks and girder work instead begin to appear more frequently in SF artwork around this time along with speculative non-fiction works.
     Artists also appear to be inherently more aware with what space hardware might really looks like. Perhaps as a result of wartime experience or actual interest in current aerospace, illustrators and designers start to incorporate typical details that are visible on military equipment such as stenciling and warning decals. They also start to weather the models to reflect usage and exposure to the elements (curiously absent earlier on these models in spite of the fact that it was an age old technique used with more traditional subjects such as railroad cars and ships). One of the first studios that excelled at this type of design were the model makers who worked on Gerry Anderson's popular puppet sci-fi shows under the direction of Derek Meddings.
Some space age designs began to incorporate the types of markings visible on then contemporary military craft, particularly things such as warning marks, panel lines, and instruction decals.

The greater familiarity with real space going hardware also started to influence the look of some designs. An interesting similarity exists between the Lost in Space "pod" and the Apollo LM. This is particularly striking given the rather spare design of LIS's hero ship itself - the Jupiter II saucer.
The "Lost in Space" pod from season 3 (1967) is on the left; the Lunar Module is on the right, much like it looked in press releases between 1966 & 67

Filming the Future

Of course the truly "wow" event for science fiction film was the release of 2001:a space odyssey. In this case the design was made based on then current engineering proposals (all of this is wonderfully documented in Piers Bizony's Filming the Future, see refs). The designs also incorporated many elements that had been used in film models for years: large scale models, weathering, subtle paint variations, and lots and lots of details even if they would not be clearly seen on screen. All of these things would work to create the illusion of size and functionality.
    The wealth of small details such as pipes, radiators, gears, and boxes stuck on these models have come to become known as "greeblies" and have been a dominant aspect of screen starships since. They are particularly important as part of what is called "kitbashing" where parts from model kits (or even everyday items) are assembled together to create a design that photographs well (sometimes cheap kitbashing can make use of highlighters or disposable razors to make engine pods as shown in an the Star Trek episode of "Reading Rainbow").
    The post-2001 ship was typically long, heavily greeblied with odds & ends, painted white or off white, contrasted with gray weathering & panel lines.
Since 2001, filmed ships have used these basic techniques to create fairly realistic looking designs. It has come at the price though of a certain sameness to many of the ships. The designs have a gray aspect to them, and the profusion of greeblies even in situations where streamlining makes more sense (such as atmospheric or watercraft). There is also a rather common design element, an equatorial seam. The reason for this last bit is unclear, perhaps because it was good for hiding physical seams for circuit access inside the physical model.
    Outside of film, the variety of designs are just too great to number. It's unfortunate that some of the neat shapes seen in covers by artist such as Chriss Foss and Peter Elson didn't make it to film (Chris Foss did work on early concept art for the "Nostromo" and other designs in "Alien"). Still, the look of many of these covers have been influential in the ships that appear in current video game titles such as "Homeworld." The colorful designs owe much to comic book art and pop art elements. Outside of Barbarella, comic book inspired design can be seen in the flying taxis and luxurious space ships created by comic book artist Jean-Claude Mézières for "The Fifth Element.".
comic book styled rocket, somewhat flat and under-engineered, but pretty
A comic book styled rocketship, somewhat flat and under-engineered, but colorful and pretty. It provides a contrast to the greyness of most film ships.

Where to now?

Well, there are many possibilities. For film, the period between the 60s through the 90s was dominated by the basic need to create physical models that photographed well. As computer power has increased and gotten cheaper, the ability to create a wider variety of designs is now possible. There is the possibility to revisit older types of ships and get them to look more sophisticated than just silver painted wood. Complicated and yet extremely detailed work can now be rendered on any scale with the same model. Also it has never been the case that spaceships have to be rocketships (just very common). As mentioned earlier, flying saucers already benefit from strange forms of propulsion. At times, the desire to be totally alien demands that whatever you come up with, it should not look like anything you have seen before or have elements that defy what you would consider explainable. Computer graphics have greatly enhanced the capabilities to do the latter as modes of operation can involved disjointed physicality or weird fluid motion or shape.
Comparative sketch of just a few spaceships that are not saucers or rocketships. The classic reason for most of the illustrated ships is that the way they work is totally beyond our understanding (the space clipper was probably meant to be an allusion to the swashbuckling movies of old)

    Just as current artists have a wealth of art history to draw upon, starship designers also have a huge set of material to draw from, either the design elements of 19th century or modern (or post-modern) artists. Moreover, the tools for creation and dissemination have become cheaper than ever. It will be interesting to see what will come up next.

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