Smooth Moving Spaceships

by Graham Edwards

Everyone has a favourite spaceship. Let’s face it, one of the reasons we like a good sci-fi movie is to ogle the hardware, right?

But beauty’s more than skin deep. As every visual effects afficionado knows, it’s not enough for an interstellar hot-rod just to look pretty. Motion pictures are all about – you guessed it – motion.

Here’s a Top 3 list not of my favourite spaceships, but my favourite moves.

Smooth Moves - The Empire Strikes Back1. Millennium Falcon approaches asteroids – The Empire Strikes Back

It’s a no-brainer that Han Solo’s pirate ship should be on this list. But she’s such a smooth mover that picking just one shot from an entire saga is a real challenge.

The shot I propose comes right at the start of the asteroid field chase sequence, just after Han’s opined that the Empire would be “crazy to follow us.” The shot’s square-on from the side, with the Falcon flying right to left, gaining a little in the frame. Deploying one of her trademark drunken rolls, she veers hard to port to avoid a spinning rock, swoops right up to the camera until she fills the screen, and shocks approximately half the audience into jumping violently enough to hurl their popcorn in the air.

On paper, it’s just a throwaway editorial beat. In practice, ILM’s effortless wielding of the motion control camera combines with John Williams’s triumphant score to create the cinematic equivalent of a sharp intake of breath before the exhilarating rollercoaster plunge.

Smooth Moves - Aliens2. Dropship exits SulacoAliens

Some spaceships mean business. Ships like the dropship from Aliens. It looks its absolute best in the audacious shot that comes at the climax of the “prep for drop” sequence, during which the Colonial Marines get psyched for planetfall. You know, the one where that futuristic Apache doesn’t just exit the Sulaco‘s hold … it plummets.

This dynamic shot was produced by Brian Johnson’s company, Arkadon, using a 100-foot motion control track. Conceptually, it’s a stunner. The camera starts off looking straight up at the Sulaco while the dropship plunges towards it. A rapid track and pan enables the streamlined craft to perform a close fly-past before powering away from camera and diving into the planetary atmosphere.

Technically, the last few frames are creaky, with visible matte lines and shaky tracking of the background plate marring the comp. I can forgive that. At its heart, this is a dizzying, celebratory shot, perfectly timed to ram the narrative unashamedly into a higher gear.

Smooth Moves - Apollo 133. Command Module falls towards Earth – Apollo 13

Sometimes (often in fact) less is more. Of all the gorgeous space shots produced by Digital Domain for Apollo 13, my favourite is the one that heralds the final re-entry sequence. It follows the moment Tom Hanks tells his fellow astronauts it’s been a privilege flying with them.

The shot begins with the Earth’s limb occupying most of the frame,with just a sliver of starfield visible top right. As the camera performs a gentle roll, the command module enters from camera right and drops away in a smooth, straight line towards the centre of the screen. Barely three seconds long, you could say the shot performs the same “take a deep breath” trick as the Empire shot. You could also argue that it resembles the Aliens shot in that it features a ship falling towards a planet.

But the Apollo 13 shot is chalk to their cheese. No high-octane thrills here, just the simple message that here is a shining silver capsule with three living souls trapped inside. The tiny craft looks impossibly vulnerable before the immense face of its parent world. And it’s falling …

Every shot tells a story. The ones on my list tell theirs supremely well. Now it’s over to you. Can you come up with moves that are smoother than mine?

23 thoughts on “Smooth Moving Spaceships

  1. ALIEN – when the Nostromo disengages from the refinery, before heading down to the planet.

    It does a beautiful roll to the left, enhanced by a rising swell of strings courtesy of Jerry Goldsmith.

    • I can see it now, Phil (we must have watched it many times together). Good choice!

    • Also one of my favourites of all time: the music and movement pushes me to the edge of tears every time. Sheer majesty.

  2. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In the Mutara Nebula, the Reliant feels it way towards the camera, its dorsal hull and weapons pod framing the screen. Then something starts to happen in the background: the Enterprise majestically rising up behind, outmaneuvering Khan’s ‘two-dimensional thinking’ and preparing to fire. And the audience goes nuts.

    • JJ Abrams clearly loves that shot too – he’s referenced it twice. In “Star Trek” we saw the Enterprise climbing out of the clouds of Titan. In “Star Trek Into Darkness” she rose in spectacular fashion from the Nibiru ocean. For some reason she’s at her most dramatic when travelling vertically. As Spock would say, “Fascinating.”

      • Agreed. I’ll also add to that the shot in Abram’s first film where Starfleet is answering the Vulcan distress call following Nero’s assault on the planet. When Enterprise emerges into the debris field above Vulcan and Pike/Sulu are maneuvering through it, the ship does a barrel roll! A barrel roll!? I couldn’t believe it when I saw it and still can’t. But it looks amazing though and is on my list of movie bits I can’t get enough of 🙂

  3. Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. In orbit above the Genesis Planet, Kirk has just found out that his son has been murdered by Klingon Commander Kruge. Refusing to be cornered by what appears to be a ‘no-win scenario’, he sets off the Enterprise’s self-destruct mechanism (with surprised looks from Scotty, Chekov and us, the audience) to wipe out the Klingon boarding party and to try to gain some advantage from a dire situation (if this were a Saturday morning serial, this would be the point we’d have to ‘tune in next week’ to find out what happens next!)

    If this were a normal, anonymous spaceship it would have gone up in a spectacular, but nondescript, explosion – the point being to move our heroes forward in the story and show how clever Kirk is. But because this is our beloved Enterprise being scuttled, she has to go out in a slightly more stylish manner. The design of the destruction shots is amazing to me in the way the explosion is stretched out as far as is reasonable to show off the beauty of the ship and the pathos of never seeing her again once this scenario plays itself out.

    The first thing we see is the bridge going up in close-up, then a medium shot showing the result of that, the ship slowly being forced out of orbit. This in turn shows another close up of the ship’s registration being eaten away by internal fires within the saucer section followed by an almighty explosion. At the time, I thought that was it, but no. The next thing we see is the mortally-wounded Enterprise, with half the saucer missing (I doubt a repair job at the nearest star base is going to help here!) emerging from a HUGE fireball and finally dropping into the Genesis Planet’s atmosphere where we next see her from the crew’s point-of-view tracking across a red sky in flames with the obligatory orchestra playing a swelling, manipulative ‘goodbye’ in the background, Kirk wondering if he’s just done the right thing and Bones reassuring him he has.

    Now, while not a ‘move’ in exactly the same way as described, this has always stuck in my head over the years as a perfect example of how visual effects can be used properly to enhance a movie and connect an audience emotionally to what is ultimately an object being destroyed.

    Nuff said (for now – I may think of something else later…)

  4. Star Trek Into Darkness. Kirk and Admiral Marcus have just had a verbal stand-off that ends with Kirk deciding to head for Earth at warp speed to drop Khan off for justice, Starfleet-style. Unexpectedly, Marcus’s ship, the Vengeance, has followed Enterprise into its warp corridor and is proceeding to beat the hell out of it with torpedoes and other cool-looking super-weaponry.

    Now, for me, the shot where we see the dreadnought very easily catch up to Enterprise was jaw-dropping. I think the sound effects helped here as it sounded like….actually I don’t know what it sounded like, it came across as high-technology ‘danger’ that really made the Enterprise come across as obsolete (after one-and-a-bit movies??!). But when she gets pummelled out of the warp corridor into regular space was half-comical, half-scary, especially the way she spins and attempts to regroup. It came across to me like two hot-rods racing and one spins out of control and off the track.

    I guess the point I’m trying to make is the way how we’re being made to look at Star Trek ships in a completely different way than we’ve been used to which kind of makes sense when you think about how fast real-world spacecraft actually move. Isn’t escape velocity supposed to be over 17000 mph? Think about how fast that is in comparison to, for example, a fast-moving F1 car going at just under 200 mph. And our starships are shifting at speeds well in excess of the speed of light, way faster than anything in our experience. That’s speedy! 🙂

  5. For me it has to be two shots from 1972s Silent Running. The first (at about 6 mins in) features Bruce Dern looking out of his ‘Kitchen Window’, the camera slowly pulls back to reveal the sheer scale of the the ‘Valley Forge’, the American Airlines Freighter that he is travelling in. In the background are its sister ships, the ‘Berkshire’ and the ‘Sequoia’. The shot is neither majestic nor spectacular (although it is breathtaking). It merely sets the tone. These are big (the original models were 26 feet long), slow and serious spaceships. What follows is a film which is, like all the best sci-fi, rooted in humanity rather than technology. What makes it one of my favourites is that at the culmination of an exciting, tense, emotional and thought provoking film, that first shot is repeated. Once again the camera pulls slowly back from the spaceship. This time however, the Valley Forge appears small, alone and insignificant in the vastness of space. Those of you who have seen it will understand what I mean, if you haven’t seen it, do it now.

  6. A favorite of mine has always been the shot from 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the Orion and the space station are finally in rotational sync. The wide shot where they roll together in profile. Simply elegant.

    • That shot certainly certainly falls into the ‘less is more’ category. Elegant indeed, and still looks fantastic more than forty years on.

  7. Gus and Chaz – eloquently described, both. And a reminder that the key to a really smooth move is a commitment to storytelling. No one shot exists in isolation, but as part of a greater narrative flow.

  8. Once of my favourite spacecraft shots is also in the asteroid sequence of The Empire Strikes Back. The Millennium Falcon is heading straight towards a Star Destroyer. Suddenly we switch to a shot looking “up” at the scene from underneath (although technically there’s no “up” or “down” in space), as the Falcon turns through 90° and heads off at a completely different angle to try to evade the TIE fighters. For my money it’s a better and subtler illustration of “three-dimensional thinking” than the Wrath of Khan scene.
    It’s at the 20 second mark in this clip:

    • Awesome choice, especially when you think about what it would have taken for ILM to produce that shot. From programming the motion-control rigs to simulate the spaceship movement, to compositing the final shot(s). No CGI, all blood, sweat and tears. But the final results would have been worth it 🙂

  9. ROTJ the Millennium Falcon negotiating the Death star with smaller ships. The difference in mass and size between the craft are handled like character animation. Tense and exquisite moves with added fun of roller coaster ride in space.

  10. Who can forget one of the greatest spaceship moves ever? Following the opening crawl of ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’, a planet rises into the frame then we see a fast-moving ship fly into the picture under attack. Then we get to see why it’s running. A wedge-shaped ship is after it, but we get to see how HUGE it is. It’s also moving into frame in the same manner as the first, but it keeps on coming. And coming. And coming. And coming (…you get the picture, we’ve all seen the movie)

    I remember seeing this scene at the time of the original release of ‘Star Wars’, and thinking something along the lines of:

    “How big is that ship?”,
    “Actually, how BIG is that ship??”,
    “When’s it going to stop?!?”,
    “Oh man, this movie’s going to be great!”.

    What I love is that the camera is pretty much static during this introduction, but through very simple forward motion of the two ships, a message has just been delivered to the audience that says that this is one movie that may not quite be like anything you’ve seen before……….

  11. Best one ever? The opening shot of the Imperial Star Destroyer in Star Wars, i.e., the shot that changed cinema and visual effects forever. Also changed the lives of many of us fans, and of those who went to work in the visual effects field. For better too.

  12. Looks like we have a couple of votes for the opening shot from “Star Wars”. Just a straight-line move but a truly spectacular high concept shot, and one that resonates with audiences to this day. Love it!

    • But what about the shot that inspired it – the shot of the huge alien warship passing the camera in Space:1999’s “War Games”? Brian Johnson and Martin Bowers.

  13. It’s really not one of my favorite movies, but I have to give props to the original Star Trek: The Motion Picture for opening with one of the greatest cinematic science shots of all time:

    At the beginning, we see three Klingon warships in formation, flying toward us en route to the V’Ger cloud thing. In a proud and stately manner, the warships are coming toward us … closer … closer …

    Normally we’d expect the camera to turn to let the ships move past us on side or the other, like sea ships or airplanes. That’s what almost every cinematic or TV depiction of spacecraft has done in the past (and continue to do).

    But no: Instead, the three warships pass BENEATH us, and the camera pans DOWN to let them slide by, below. And — wow — we see an infinity of stars down there! Intellectually we knew this, but normally we don’t see them in this kind of shot.

    And then the camera has to turn and roll to keep the warships in view and they continue on their way.

    What’s cool about that shot is that it uses space as more than a painted backdrop. It shows space as a 3-D environment, infinite in all directions, with blackness and stars strewn everywhere you look. The shot is a powerful reminder that our point-of-view is not that of a person standing on the surface of a planet. WE ARE FLOATING IN SPACE.

    Majestic, it is.

    The music in that sequence is pretty cool, too.

  14. The whole space station docking sequence from 2001, while not technically a ‘shot’ it sets the bar for me. And to think I saw it prior to Apollo 11!

  15. 2001 has been the benchmark. I’m old enough to have seen Destination Moon when it premiered and Forbidden Planet and many others with bad models and quivering matte lines. Effects progressed slowly in the 50s and 60s, and then came 2001. The POV shot going through the rotating space station and the arrival of the PanAm shuttle, and suddenly the bar had been raised. Now we have Gravity, and the bar has gone up once again. For admirers and practitioners of effects and those of us lucky enough to have been with Cinefex since Volume 1, No. 1. it’s been a great ride.

  16. My vote goes for the very short sequence from Star Wars 4: A New Hope.

    The X-wing fighters, on the attack formate and then make their first dive into the channel running around the equator of the Death Star.

    It lasts only about a second or two, but that one shot (in a pre-3D world) had me convinced that I was in the pilot’s seat executing the roll into the dive, as convincing as any roller coaster car rolling off the top of a hill climb into a dip. Wow! What a ride!

    Every time I watch the film I wait for this one shot, and revel in the memory of seeing it for the first time as a kid….

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