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 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:
Rama – 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.)
Rama 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 Eon, Greg 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.
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.