Dream Landscapes – Outer Space

by Graham Edwards

“The kinds of landscape I try to find in my films exist only in our dreams” – Werner Herzog

Space, as every good Trekkie knows, is the final frontier. It’s also the place where no one can hear you scream. Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, claimed that space “can never be conquered”. And, in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, writer Douglas Adams gleefully informed us that:

“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

As for taking a trip through that great celestial void, well, for most mortals the promise of interstellar travel is just a dream – despite the recent surge in commercial space tourism projects like Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures. I mean, have you seen their ticket prices?

If you really do want to explore other worlds, however, the answer is really very simple: go to the movies. Not only are the tickets cheaper, but also you get popcorn.

But just how do filmmakers go about putting the wonders of the cosmos, big and small, on to the silver screen?

The sea of stars visible in "Destination Moon" comprised some 2,000 automobile headlight bulbs strung on 70,000 feet of wire.

The sea of stars visible in “Destination Moon” comprised some 2,000 automobile headlight bulbs strung on 70,000 feet of wire.

Seeing Stars

Look up into the sky on a clear night and you’ll see a vast starfield comprised of a gazillion tiny pinpricks of light. You might think it’s easy to re-create that view by using, well, tiny pinpricks of light. But, as discovered by the special effects team on George Pal’s 1950 production of Destination Moon, seeing stars isn’t quite as simple as that.

According to screenwriter and author Robert Heinlein in his essay Shooting Destination Moon, first published in the July 1950 edition of Astounding Science Fiction:

“The greatest single difficulty we encountered in trying to fake realistically the conditions of space flight was in producing the brilliant starry sky of empty space. We fiddled around with several dodges and finally settled on automobile headlight bulbs. They can be burned white, if you don’t mind burning out a few bulbs; they come in various brightnesses; and they give as near a point source of light as the emulsions can record – more so, in fact. We used nearly two thousand of them, strung on seventy thousand feet of wire.”

Watch a behind the scenes video that was broadcast live from the set of Destination Moon in 1950 as part of KTLA’s City at Night talk show:

Six years later, when creating starfields for the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet, A. Arnold “Buddy” Gillespie rejected light bulbs in favour of tiny discs of reflective Scotchlite material, meticulously adhered to a slab of black masonite. Illuminated by a ring of floodlights arrayed around the camera lens, this low-budget solution is described by Gillespie in his book of collected memoirs, The Wizard of MGM:

“[A] jet void, bejewelled with diamond stars and suns, and billions of light-years-away other galaxies with their own myriad stars and suns … It worked beautifully and inexpensively.”

After early experiments with backlit holes drilled in sheet metal, the stars for "2001: A Space Odyssey" were created by airbrushing constellations on to black paper.

After early experiments with backlit holes drilled in sheet metal, the stars for “2001: A Space Odyssey” were created by airbrushing constellations on to black paper with white paint.

In 1968, Wally Gentleman, the original special effects supervisor on 2001: A Space Odyssey, planned to generate starfields for Stanley Kubrick’s seminal sci-fi film by drilling small holes into metal sheets and backlighting them. As Gentleman explained in Cinefex 85, the concept worked well enough … but only as long as the camera remained stationary:

“As the camera tracked by, the holes became elliptical with relation to the lens, and the light intensity changed and the stars either faded out or twinkled.”

Frustrated by the challenges of working with the film’s notoriously demanding director, Gentleman eventually walked, leaving the film’s credited special effects supervisor, Douglas Trumbull, to step up to the plate. In the same Cinefex article, matte artist Richard Yuricich revealed Trumbull’s homespun solution to the starfield problem:

“Douglas would take an airbrush, and he would turn it down to where the pressure was maybe a couple of pounds. He would take this black paper, stretch it and glue it to a piece of board; and he would just sit there and squirt out these stars. In a matter of seconds it would be done – ‘There it is, boys!’”

Trumbull’s airbrushed starfields were photographed on an animation stand, using polarised light to eliminate any glare coming from the black paper. This technique – and variations upon it – became the industry standard for many years to come.

Over time, the randomly spitting airbrush gave way to the modern VFX artist’s ever-growing box of digital tools. In 1998, Dream Quest created scientifically accurate starfields for Armageddon using a database of constellations as seen from Earth – a procedure refined further by the VFX team at Double Negative for the recent hit Interstellar, as explained by visual effects supervisor Andy Lockley in Cinefex 140:

“Rather than painting star fields or trying to build little bits of geometry to project them onto, Oliver [James] wrote this renderer that referenced NASA star field maps. We could tell the renderer where it was pointing into space, and it would reference that star map and place pixel dots representing each real star in that position.”

MPC created three categories of digital star for Danny Boyle's "Sunshine".

MPC created three categories of digital sun for Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine”.

Lighting Up the Sun

Seeing stars from a distance is all very well. But what happens when filmmakers want to get up close and personal with a blazing sun?

In the 1986 sci-fi adventure Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Captain Kirk and the crew of his captured Klingon “Bird of Prey” spacecraft enjoy a close encounter with Earth’s parent star. The sun’s flaming surface was created by ILM using – of all things – basic bathroom accessories, as described by effects cinematographer Don Dow in Cinefex 29:

“Pete [Kozachic] came up with the idea of taking two pieces of Flemish glass – which is plexiglass textured like shower doors – and motorizing one of them so that it would turn against the other and give us a moiré pattern. We backlit it with a gelled 10K to give it a yellowish color and we vaselined the areas around the edge where we wanted it to fall off.”

However, filmgoers had to wait until 2007 for a movie that put the sun front and centre. For Danny Boyle’s Sunshine – in which humanity’s guardian star was almost a character in its own right – MPC forged three categories of sun shots, using Autodesk Maya to model the basic geometry of the star, combined with particle and fluid systems to generate the complex motion of its blazing surface.

For "Gravity", Framestore created a hyper-detailed volumetric rendering of Earth capable of holding up during the film's long takes.

For “Gravity”, Framestore created a hyper-detailed volumetric rendering of Earth capable of holding up during the film’s long takes.


Stars are too big and hot to stay around for any length of time, so let’s move on to something a little more manageable. Like planets.

One of the earliest cinematic representations of a planet appears in Walter R. Booth’s whimsical 1911 film The Automatic Motorist. However, if you’re looking for a realistic portrayal of this most essential of heavenly bodies, you’re in the wrong place. Just scan forward through this video to the 2:20min mark and you’ll see what I mean:

For Forbidden Planet, Buddy Gillespie created wide shots of the alien planet Altair-4 by hanging painted balls – the smallest only six inches in diameter – in front of his background of Scotchlite stars. Dimensional models were still being used in 1981, when Film Effects of Hollywood photographed a large, spherical miniature of Jupiter to create the background vistas seen in Outland. Atmospheric effects were added to the gas giant by superimposing airbrushed artwork over the original stage photography – not to mention the time-honoured trick of smearing Vaseline on the camera lens.

In this same era, all three films in the original Star Wars trilogy were proving that spectacular shots of distant planets can be created very effectively just by using flat artwork. Orbital visions of Tatooine, Hoth, Dagobah and the other exotic worlds in that galaxy far, far away came courtesy of matte artists Mike Pangrazio and Ralph McQuarrie.

When it comes to a planet as familiar as the Earth, the real-world imagery made available by NASA and other space agencies has in recent years given filmmakers a wealth of reference material to draw from. When Robert Zemeckis made Contact in 1997, senior VFX supervisor Ken Ralston’s multi-vendor team had access to hundreds of highly detailed satellite photographs, which they re-purposed to conjure up realistic views of the Earth as seen from space.

By the time Framestore constructed the Earth seen in Gravity in 2013, satellite imagery had been discarded for everything other than visual reference. In order to accommodate the film’s long takes – during which the camera typically passed over a huge swathe of the Earth’s surface – VFX supervisor Tim Webber’s team had no choice but to re-create the planet as a highly-detailed volumetric rendering that accurately reproduced not only landmasses and oceans, but also atmospheric and meteorological effects.

To create the asteroids used in "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones", VFX artists at ILM scanned the miniature rocks used in "The Empire Strikes Back" and mapped the textures on to new digital models.

To create the asteroids used in “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones”, VFX artists at ILM scanned the miniature rocks used in “The Empire Strikes Back” and mapped the textures on to new digital models.

Rock and Roll

Space might be big, as Douglas Adams contested, but if sci-fi filmmakers are to be believed, it’s also full of rocks. For the breathtaking asteroid field sequence in The Empire Strikes Back, the visual effects team at ILM used flat painted artwork, stacked up in multiple layers to create the sea of rocks seen in the backgrounds of the spectacular chase scenes.

Asteroids passing closer to the camera were constructed in miniature and photographed spinning against bluescreen using motion control cameras. Also present, of course, were the speeding Millennium Falcon and a parade of hapless TIE fighters. The resulting chaos was described by visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund in Cinefex 2:

“By the time you’ve shot four ships, ten or twelve separate rock elements, three background paintings, a star field, plus miscellaneous explosions and lasers, you wind up with maybe twenty-five separately photographed pieces of film, each of which has to be broken down into color separations and … have all the intermediate bluescreen steps to extract mattes. So all together, you have maybe a hundred and twenty pieces of film involved.”

Twenty-two years later, ILM modelled a set of digital rocks for the asteroid chase in Attack of the Clones by resurrecting all the asteroid miniatures originally used for Empire. Having scanned these old-school rocks, they projected their textures – combined with procedural crater maps – on to new geometry, creating a randomised field of digital space debris. In a nod to verisimilitude (and just possibly a sideways swipe at the real world) they also had Jango Fett blow up a NASA computer model of Eros, one of the large asteroids in our own solar system.

A miniature asteroid also featured in Armageddon, for which Dream Quest built three practical versions of the giant rock that’s closing in on the Earth. The biggest of these – which was sculpted from foam and mounted on a steel armature in front of a greenscreen – measured a whopping twenty-five feet by fifteen feet. Not quite big enough to destroy a planet, but quite enough to keep a crew of thirty special effects artists busy.

Dream Quest constructed a number of miniature asteroids for "Armaggedon", the biggest of which measured twenty-five feet by fifteen feet.

Dream Quest constructed a number of miniature asteroids for “Armaggedon”, the biggest of which measured twenty-five feet by fifteen feet.

Dreams of Outer Space

From big to small, from stars to asteroids, the endless expanse of outer space is full of wonders. However, you might be wondering why I’m talking about outer space at all, given that this series of blog articles is titled Dream Landscapes. After all, there’s no land in outer space, is there?

The answer’s simple. Landscapes are all about the view.

After I’ve bought my ticket to the movies, picked up my popcorn and taken my seat, what’s the one thing I want to see when the camera pulls back? The answer is a spectacular view. That might mean a burning sunset lighting up the ocean, or the craggy slopes of a precipitous mountain range. It might mean a sea of desert dunes, or a glistening Arctic wasteland.

Or it might mean a cosmic vista filled with fiery stars, spinning planets and tumbling rocks.

Whatever that wide shot may be, filmmaker Werner Herzog was right: the place such landscapes – or spacescapes – really come to life is in our dreams.

In other words, when we go to the movies.

All the Cinefex articles quoted can be read in their entirety as part of the Cinefex Classic Collection, available for iPad. Related blog articles:

“Destination Moon” photograph from the May 1950 edition of “Popular Mechanics”. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” photograph copyright © 2005 by Touchstone Pictures “2001: A Space Odyssey” photograph copyright © 1968, 2001 by Turner Entertainment Company. “Sunshine” photograph copyright © 2007 by Twentieth Century Fox. “Gravity” photograph copyright © 2013 by Warner Bros. Entertainment. “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones” photograph copyright © 2002 by Lucasfilm, Ltd. “Armaggedon” photograph copyright © 1998 by Touchstone Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer, Inc.