That’s No Moon!

by Graham Edwards

Elysium over Earth

Big Dumb Objects. Science fiction is full of them. You know what I’m talking about – those super-giant floating constructions that loom large in your spacecraft’s viewport and just keep looming … and looming … and looming …

The Death StarThe most iconic BDO in the movies is probably the Death Star, that planet-busting weapon of the Galactic Empire that was surely too big to be a space station.

The first sighting of the Death Star by the crew of the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars is a masterclass in how to wow a cinema audience with a sense of rapidly changing scale. Here’s how it works:

  • Start the BDO small in frame and then just keep closing in
  • Show the BDO dwarfing something whose scale you already know
  • Pattern the BDO with successive layers of increasing detail – a thousand large panels are composed of a million smaller ones, which in turn break down into a billion tiny articulations
  • Direct your actors to adopt the patented BDO “Look At The Size of That Thing” facial expression
  • Hire a top-drawer composer to write the perfect bombastic BDO score

Sadly, as BDOs go, the Death Star is rubbish. Once you get past the tractor beam, all you find inside are endless corridors filled with clueless stormtroopers too dumb to duck when they go through a door. Ultimately, it’s just a great big corporate headquarters.

The true BDO is something else altogether.

The term Big Dumb Object was probably coined in 1981 by writer Roz Kaveney, in her essay Science Fiction in the 1970s. Kaveney was using it to describe the ultra-massive structures that appear in the novels of science fiction writers like Arthur C Clarke and Larry Niven. Let me tell you, those guys really knew their BDOs. For example:

Rendezvous With Rama - Arthur C ClarkeRama – the awesome centrepiece of Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama – is a vast, space-going cylinder 34 miles long and 12 miles in diameter. Glued by centrifugal effect to the inner surface of this rapidly-spinning craft, Clarke’s astonished human explorers find themselves looking up at an extraordinary landscape of alien cities and cylindrical seas. (Morgan Freeman is apparently interested in bringing this classic SF story to our screens, as reported by HitFix.)

"Ringworld" by Larry NivenRama is just a baby compared with Larry Niven’s Ringworld. This circular ribbon of superstrong material, with a sun set neatly at its centre, has a circumference of around 600 million miles. If you want to imagine this gargantuan world on which the horizon curves constantly upwards, think Elysium … but on an unimaginably vast scale. Yet even Ringworld is dwarfed by Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville – a spherical shell that completely encloses its parent star. The mind-bogglingly enormous inner surface of Orbitsville provides as much potential living area as five billion Earths.

BDOs can get weird too. Author Stephen Baxter created gigantic, glowing, time capsules called Sugar Lumps; in EonGreg Bear brought us the Stone, a giant asteroid containing a pocket universe that appears to go on forever; in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C Clarke brought us the legendary black monolith that opens a gateway to the distant stars.

Only recently have the movies started to show us objects resembling the true science fiction BDO. What’s behind this emerging trend? Well, visionary filmmakers for one. Unbelievably good visual effects for another.

Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion delivers an impressive BDO in the form of the Tet, a 60 mile-wide pyramid that turns out to be something other than what it seems. Both the Tet’s geometric design and its enigmatic intent are straight out of the kind of novels I’ve described above.

The Tet - Oblivion

Then there’s Elysium, the Eden-like space station constructed exclusively for Earth’s elite in Neill Blomkamp’s film of the same name. The “spoked wheel” concept came courtesy of legendary visual futurist Syd Mead, and recalls the inspirational paintings of Chesley Bonestell.

For visual effects artists on both films, depicting the vast size of these space structures proved a tremendous challenge. The Tet’s smooth, ceramic design forbade the traditional use of madly-encrusted detail to create a sense of vast scale. And, while the scene in which Jack Harper’s bubbleship approaches the enormous pyramid recalls the classic Death Star approach, the team at Digital Domain had to cheat the scale of the tiny craft simply to make it visible against the Tet’s overwhelming bulk.

With a diameter of around 25 miles, the Elysium space station is somewhat smaller than the Tet. Realising it through visual effects, however, was just as big a deal. The station structure is packed with so much complex detail that, in any one scene, VFX facilities Whiskytree and Image Engine found themselves wrangling up to 200,000 assets and ten trillion polygons of geometry.

What really excites me is the next step. Given the success of these recent BDOs, I think it’s time visual effects facilities rolled up their sleeves and showed us something really big!

Let’s take Ringworld as an example. My rough calculations suggest its structure has over one trillion times the volume of Elysium. That means one trillion more assets, and one trillion more polygons. I reckon those poor guys at Image Engine will need to upgrade their render farm before tackling that behemoth.

Even assuming you can build the damn thing, how do you compose your shots? Do you go for a lengthy power-of-ten approach, letting the camera linger on a steadily-advancing wall of detailed superstructure? Just how big can you get your BDO in the frame, and just how tiny can you get your approaching shuttle, before the two cease to exist in the same space? Do you ignore the fact that space is a vacuum and use atmospheric haze to provide a much-needed sense of aerial perspective?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I’m optimistic that pretty soon someone’s going to provide them. Yes folks, the space epic appears to be prepped and ready for a spectacular relaunch. In July 2014 the Wachowskis hurl the incredible-looking Jupiter Ascending on to our screens. If you’re one of the few VFX fans who hasn’t seen the trailer yet, here’s your chance:

Then in August we’re going to meet the Guardians of the Galaxy. Later in the year comes Christopher Nolan’s eagerly-awaited Interstellar, while 2015 will whisk us back to a galaxy far, far away for Star Wars VII. Which brings us right back to where we started. Will JJ Abrams bring us a new Death Star? Will any of the above films fill our screens with the kind of BDO I really want to feast my eyes on? I don’t know.

But I’m going to be first in the queue to find out!

Now it’s over to you. What are the BDO scenes that really dropped your jaw to the floor? And is there any limit to what visual effects artists can do when playing with scale?

Just how big can a Big Dumb Object really be?

Elysium image copyright © 2013 Columbia Pictures. Oblivion image copyright © 2013 Universal Pictures. Death Star image copyright © Lucasfilm Limited.

5 thoughts on “That’s No Moon!

  1. James Bond movies had BDOs, although not planetary scale. If I’m not wrong, in You Only Live Twice, Blofeld had a spaceship that swallowed a space capsule whole, and in The Spy Who Loved Me, Stromberg had an oil tanker that opened up to swallow nuclear submarines. Cool stuff! More recently, Star Trek gave us the Borg cubes, no doubt inspired by the Death Star(s).

    • The Borg cubes definitely tick lots of BDO boxes: geometric design, massive size, enigmatic intent. I think the Bond examples might be stretching it a little though 😉

  2. THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY has several moments depicting impossible hugeness, but they don’t scale well on a smaller screen– you really need theatrical presentation or maybe Blu-ray to make out the detail. The Death Star ‘patterns within patterns’ approach is the way to go.

  3. This was the first question I asked Neil Blomkamp when I interviewed him for the Cinefex story on “Elysium” last year:

    Q: Did your inspiration for using a giant space wheel owe anything to the huge alien torus featured in Halo?

    A: No. It’s actually not connected at all. When I was doing Halo, if you get into the mythology of that, the ring is actually very much based on Larry Niven’s Ringworld, if you know that. And the scale and the size of that was just absolutely mind-boggling.

    Q: Yes, it’s 600 million miles wide.

    A: Exactly, so what that means is you end up with this ring which is – although it’s cool, it’s kind of almost too large to grasp, in a sense. Like it’s just so inconceivably massive to a human being. And that was the world of Halo.

    It was also fun chatting with director Joseph Kosinski last year about the inspiration for the technology of “Oblivion”. His references were sci-fi art book collections from the 1970s, notably Parallel Lines by Peter Elson and Chris Moore, and several Chris Foss titles including Future Visions and 21st Century Foss — I think you can really feel that influence in the film. Movies, I think, have only really scratched the surface of that kind of graphic design.

    • Thanks for sharing that, Joe. It’s fascinating to learn that both Neill Blomkamp and Joseph Kosinski were actively referencing the classic SF Big Dumb Objects in their films.

      Your remark about artists like Chris Moore and Chris Foss reminds me of a quote from Foss that caught my eye recently. After all those unused designs he turned out for Alejandro Jodorwsky’s abandoned “Dune” project, maybe his time has come at last:

      “Just before Christmas, I was installed in London’s Shepperton Studios to dream up spaceships for a new Marvel film. After I sat down, I was joined by these whiz kids with computers, who were all there to do the same thing. I was the only one with pencils and paper. They told me, ‘You are the one that inspired us to get into this.’ That was a great moment.”

      Here’s the full article from The New Yorker, February 20th 2014:

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