The future is perhaps uncharted territory for most, but not for production designers! We asked colleagues about their design process on futuristic projects.
"There are a lot of subtleties to designing something that hopefully no one has ever thought of or seen before."
"It's important to be careful not to create designs that are too far away from anything that the audience can relate to."
"Designing the near-future in a sci-fi movie is the same as designing any period movie, but without being bound by historical research and pre-existing conventions."
"Science fiction is tricky. It can go horribly wrong fast if you try to create a world without knowing what is within it."
February 5th, 2023
How do you design the future?
Production designer Kevin Jenkins most recently collaborated with director Colin Trevorrow on "Jurassic World: Dominion", and with JJ Abrams on "Star Wars: the Rise of Skywalker". He has had a long relationship with Lucasfilm, serving as design supervisor for Rian Johnson on "The Last Jedi" and as art director on "The Force Awakens".
Kevin has a twenty-year background in both physical production and visual effects, creating art departments for Framestore and ILM London. He is an award-winning illustrator of storytelling, games, advertising, and book jackets.
As a designer I've always lived in the world of futurism and science fiction. Even before I was in the film business I was a book jacket illustrator and conceptual artist, and all of my book jackets were science fiction and fantasy.
I grew up with the original "Flash Gordon" TV show in black and white, books such as E. E. "Doc" Smith's "Lensman" series and the Isaac Asimov “Foundation” series, and other science fiction novels that date back to the 40s, 50s, and 60s. However, despite all of these sources of inspiration, for the most part I never look at other science fiction work, but rather real world things that influence science fiction. I have a deep interest in actual technology science, such as NASA.
There are a lot of subtleties to designing something that hopefully no one has ever thought of or seen before, or to working within a science fiction franchise movie. I think you have to do a huge amount of research so that it doesn’t look generic.
It starts with story. I never ask the director what they want to see but rather I ask them what they want to feel. Then through the entirety of the design, I try to create threads that make sense of the spaces, planets, worlds, buildings, or whatever is being put together. Even if no one else needs to know it, I need to know why things are there in order to make them. Otherwise they're just things and that, to me, is not good design. I believe in a very old school, very clear storytelling - everything has to have some semblance of a reason to hold it together. This includes simple color palettes that lead you through sets, and locations and that take you through an episode or a sequence.
Science fiction is a very visual genre compared to a lot of other genres. I tend to begin by creating a story visually on the wall, so everyone can walk into a room and see it. Normally that gets everybody on the same page very quickly and so I do that on every show, even if they get replaced later by definitive designs and locations. It also helps that I can literally sketch on anything - I just find that the easiest way to talk to people is to show them things visually.
I am a fan of slightly old school methods that just bang things together to see what we get. I don't tend to do much concept art on my shows. I also don't like to over-design things. I never want the world to feel like Apple designed the future. For props, I mock up models in 3D and then make physical ones with model makers. We then look at the models together and rip them apart to figure out their essence.
The biggest challenge for me when working on futuristic films is time. Good design that looks different just takes time and you've got to let it sort of sit, you can't just knock something out. Normally you might get the fundamental direction very quickly, but there's a lot of nuance that shapes the design in science fiction to make it feel individual. It's how you pace yourself, give yourself time to get it right.
You have to make sure that the vision works, because you can't stop, you have to keep moving forward all the time on a production in order to deliver it. The shows and films that I am used to working on have enormous teams. We have to work out a way of communicating that allows an enormous movement of bodies and people to build multiple sets in multiple locations or stages, all at the same time. Then we have to make it feel like it's all intrinsically knitted together, so that when you see the VFX it hopefully comes together with the intended vision that was made with the director.
Alexandra Schaller is a production designer from London based in New York City specializing in the creation of immersive worlds for film, TV, commercials and immersive events.
Her recent projects include the post-apocalyptic series "Y: The Last Man" Y: THE LAST MAN (FX, Hulu), the series "Little Voice" (Apple TV) and Kogonada's critically-acclaimed futuristic film "After Yang" starring Colin Farrell (A24). Alexandra recently wrapped production on "House of Spoils" (Blumhouse, Amazon) directed by Danielle Krudy and Bridget Savage-Cole. While on production in Hungary, she met her cat, Tibi, with whom she travels the world.
I’ve been fortunate enough to design two near-future projects, the movie "After Yang" directed by Kogonada, and the series "Y: The Last Man" created by Eliza Clark based on the graphic novels of the same name. Each project was very different thematically as well as in both scope and scale, as one was a smaller independent movie and the other, a large world-building show.
The fun thing about designing the future is that, though it might not seem so at first, it’s essentially embarking on the design of a period piece: the future is a period like any other, except it’s one that doesn’t exist yet. For me, that’s both exciting and daunting in equal measure. During prep, there are always lots of questions like, “Would that exist in the future?” and the freedom of that is that the only arbiter of how the future looks is you, the director/ creator and the story.
There is also a lot of external influence about “how the future looks” from the amazing movies that have come before and seeped into our shared consciousness, but the future is probably the time period that is most open to interpretation and the possibilities really are endless.
Personally, I don’t like to watch “future movies” as reference. I feel like there’s enough infiltration as it is, so I Iike to focus on the themes rather than the genre. Both of my projects focused on the characters’ lived experience as they inhabited their world, and in both cases, I found that looking at immersive work, site-specific installation and three dimensional graphic design, was thematically important in my design process. It also influenced my ideas about custom tech and props.
In both cases, we wanted to present an expansive future, one that’s layered and not driven by a singular aesthetic, not unlike our world today. Being able to draw inspiration from a wide range of time periods, places and cultures was helpful in not limiting my initial ideas.
Sometimes it can feel daunting to have to predict how the future will actually be, particularly with stories set in the near-future, as that time period is theoretically so close and very recognizable from today. In those cases, I find it helpful to remind myself that I’m a visual storyteller and not a trend-forecaster, which helps take some of the pressure off. I try to banish those thoughts from my mind and focus on the script and characters and on how we want the audience to feel. For me, the way the sets should feel determines how they should look, and I’d say that that’s the same regardless of the genre or time period I’m designing.
On Y, we were tasked with creating a world without cis-men in the aftermath of a cataclysmic event that eliminated all organisms with a Y chromosome from the planet. I was thrilled when I got the job, but shortly thereafter I remember sinking into the sofa feeling as though I had the weight of the world on my shoulders with the responsibility of such a big task.
I pulled myself together by remembering that this version of the future is one of myriad possible versions, and the version I was designing would serve this script and this story and wouldn’t be an absolutist vision of the future. That idea applies to all forms of design, which I find really helpful to remember while always returning to what the specific story is trying to say.
In terms of the overall design process, it’s been really helpful for me to establish a couple of key rules of the world that we, as a team, can return to in a moment of doubt or debate. As long as there aren’t too many of them and they aren’t too restrictive, the rules of the world always guide the way. These rules emerge from concepts or themes within the story, and the design develops from there.
For instance, on "Y: The Last Man", one of our core rules was that there was no power in the world and that concept would influence how all the characters would adapt to their environments. This concept of power guided all aspects of the design: the electricity was out, the seat of power in the government had been disrupted, and there was a constant power-play within the various factions that formed around the world, and so on down the line. Resources equalled power. This dynamic played out in nearly every scene, and is something that we wanted to reinforce in the design of our future world.
On "After Yang", we only made one hard rule for the overall aesthetic of the film, which was that there would be no plastic in the world and that everything had to be made from either renewable resources or biodegradable materials. This rule emerged from a desire to create a future with a symbiosis between humans and nature, and we wanted to feel the presence of greenery and the natural world in all of the sets.
Though the effect is quite subtle, I think it can be felt in the overall design - that concept also infused Arjun Bhasin’s wonderful costume design (most sneakers were out!) as well as many of the props and set dressing that we created for the film. It was a really useful tool for all the departments for answering questions that came up during the design process.
This rule was particularly helpful when it came to the design of props, cars and lighting because those are the areas of future design I find most challenging and are often the subject of the most cross-departmental debates. For me, these things are really specific at referencing time in that their design is intrinsically linked to the period in which they were created and they are the things that change most quickly through the years. They anchor you in a specific period, making them hard to repurpose.
One of the important sets of "After Yang" was a self-driving car and the idea of creating one on an indie budget felt impossible. For a while, we considered using a Tesla, but a Tesla felt very specific and very current, which ultimately wasn’t right for our film. I was concerned about the budget, about the fact that I’m not very techy, nor a car designer, so to approach the design, I focused first on the director’s vision for how he wanted to capture the scenes and applied the rule about how to use materials in our world when approaching the aesthetics.
Our rule dictated that we would incorporate plant-life, wood and copper, among other things, which shaped the overall design of the car. With those initial ideas having formed, I worked with an amazing concept illustrator with experience in car design, Oliver Zeller, to create the preliminary visuals, and took those to my wonderful art director to figure out how to practically build the thing once the overall picture was more clear. This, in turn, helped us get the producers and other departments aligned with the vision.
All in all, I’ve found that designing the near-future in a sci-fi movie is the same as designing any period movie, but without being bound by historical research and pre-existing conventions. I try my best to give myself the space to think big. I’ve found it really important to carve out this time in prep before starting to solidify the designs, because I find that the most helpful process is, ideas first and budget second, regardless of the scope and scale. It’s also important to be surrounded by collaborators on your team who can bring their own ideas and practical skills to the table to help the future feel broad, expansive and unique to the project.
Dreaming can be daunting without a framework, so, with the team, I focus on a couple of rules, taking them always from the source material, which helps me focus my creative work as the designs begin to solidify and coalesce into the shared vision that translates into the real built sets, props, and set decoration that make up the world.
What’s also cool about designing a movie set in the future is that it allows you to create a version of a future world that you wish to see, and I’ve had a lot of fun with that!
Sophie Becher is an award-winning designer for film, television and commercials. Having started her career as a Sculptor and Theatre designer, Sophie worked her way up through the ranks of the art department to production design. Her credits include the films "A Private War", "Flawless", "Alfie", "Hysteria" and the TV shows "Halo", "Mars", "And Then There Were None" and "The Borrowers", for which she won an RTS Award for Best Production Design as well as two BAFTA nominations for Best Production Design.
In commercials, Sophie has worked with directors such as Kathryn Bigalow, Chris Cunningham, Fredrik Bonds and Nagi Noda for brands such as Coca Cola, Gucci and Heineken.
Each type of futuristic project requires me to have a different approach and use different sources of inspiration.
For the more factual futuristic projects, such as the "Mars" show I did for National Geographic, I focused on the actual science behind colonizing Mars. I researched plans and proposals for traveling to and colonizing Mars, as well as the challenges that needed to be overcome to make it a reality. This involved consulting with experts, and keeping up to date with the latest advancements in space travel. This project was extremely challenging as it had to be based on actual science and was open to scrutiny when published in The National Geographic magazine!!! Luckily I had a few science geeks in my art department!
"Halo" on the other hand was a sci-fi based futuristic show that involved world building on a higher level. I had to create the idea of different planets and societies, each with its own look and set of rules. Here I dug deep into a more fantastical realm and imagined what it would be like to live in different environments and how one would create a society there.
For a dystopian future, I would look at current events, global issues, and potential future scenarios. I look at current social, political, and environmental issues, and then take these trends to an extreme.
In all cases I also refer to books, movies, and other works of fiction that have explored similar themes, to get a better understanding of what has been done before and to avoid repeating common tropes.
I believe it's important to research and visit locations when working on science fiction. The goal is to create a future that is believable and relatable to the audience, and this can only be achieved by incorporating elements that are familiar and grounded in reality. This involves observing the architecture, infrastructure, and public spaces, and taking note of how people interact with their environment. This information can then be used to inform my designs, so that the futuristic places I create feel believable and grounded in reality.
It's important to be careful not to create designs that are too far away from anything that the audience can relate to. Futuristic designs that are too radical or disconnected from reality can be distracting and detract from the overall experience. That's why I strive to balance the familiar with the innovative, and to create designs that are both believable and visually engaging.
On every show I create some sort of bible with guidelines. This is an essential step in the design process, as it helps to ensure that everyone is working towards the same vision and that the final product is consistent.
The guidelines, or "Bible" of the series or film, consist of a collection of references, research, and design decisions that serve as the foundation for the project, something we can all refer back to at any point in the creative process. This might include information about the technology, architecture, culture, and aesthetics of the future world, as well as any specific rules or constraints that we have set for the project.
Having these guidelines in place helps to provide direction and consistency throughout the production process, and ensures that everyone is working towards the same goals. As the designer I work with the director and director of photography to develop the guidelines, as we are often first to sign on to a show and it is our responsibility to set the path for the rest of the production.
I always try to ensure that the design of the set is in harmony with the set decoration. This close collaboration ensures that the sets create a cohesive and believable world. As part of the art department, the props department plays a crucial role in building the design world of a particular project. When designing futuristic gadgets it's important to understand the rules of the particular project and make sure the design fits within that world. For example on a project like "Halo", we had to adhere to the specific design rules established in the game. The same goes for a factual futuristic projects like the "Mars" project where we had to design within the rules of reality and what could be realistically possible for space travel.
One never has enough money, we all know that!!! The challenge on every futuristic show is to create a believable world and believable technology. What are the screens of the future? How do we achieve them on camera? What will people eat? How will they live? With a set of rules you can start rationalising things, so for example if we have a world where 3-D printers are prominent, then we know that the food will look 3-D printed and we won’t have ovens.
Futuristic design requires a lot of creativity and problem-solving skills. This process can be exciting and is usually one of my favourites - taking everyday items and transforming them into something unique and new. One of my first stops on any futuristic show is the local DIY shop and Ikea! A cutlery holder can become an engine part or a washing machine barrel can become a futuristic light. Looking at existing objects in a different light can be great fun .
I feel extremely lucky to have been involved in more than one Futuristic project as they afford us a lot of latitude and creativity a designers dream!
Raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Petruccelli studied Film at Penn State University and gained his experience in a variety of production jobs, including camera, art direction, set design and set decoration.
Kirk’s film design credits include “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and its sequel, “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life”, as well as Roland Emmerich’s “The Patriot”, “Mystery Men”, “Blade”, “Geostorm”, “Midway”, “ White House Down”, “The Incredible Hulk”, “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” and “Ghost Rider”. Most recently he designed the science fiction adventure “Moonfall” and the courtroom drama “The Caine Mutiny”, directed by William Friedkin.
It’s so much fun creating worlds for futuristic projects. The first thing I rely upon is the discussion with the Director. Their vision is the most important of all preliminary ideas and opinions. Once we begin the ongoing conversation, it's vital for me to start a deep dive into the heart and soul of the story. It will be my guide as to what influences will come to bare as the design process begins.
Sources of inspiration can be anything, literally. Is the film a believable projection of our future? Then I expand upon and use the realities about current human life, social institutions, engineering principles, art and technology and every aspect of possibilities and probabilities that I can imagine. If the story is a journey into an unknown universe, not dependent on mankind’s rulebook, then I think about philosophical and technical possibilities that would apply to say, a species from a different world than ours. What do they want? How would they live, what environment would they exist within, how would the species survive and thrive, how would they move, etc. Our laws and basis for existence would not necessarily apply.
Science fiction is tricky. It can go horribly wrong fast if you try to create a world without knowing what is within it. Once I understand the nuances of the world that must be built, the research and inspirations will lead me to designs that I can share with the director and hone in on designs that will drive the process from that point forward.
Research and location references are invaluable. Not only for the design aspect of the piece but also for the reality of how to make the picture. Big questions of where you would think the story will unfold, what world do we want to tell our story are always inevitably subject to a practical reality. Tax Breaks, crew, accommodations, stage availability. Things that make you laugh until they bite you on the nose later.
Having time with the director to discuss, daydream, sketch, and most of all listen early in the process is priceless. But inviting the creative team is an amazing way to write a song. As an example, on "Moonfall", Roland Emmerich and I would spend time chatting about the project with Pete Travis, our Visual Effects Supervisor. Every morning it was coffee and physics. Roland would give us the problem to solve, Pete would give us a tutorial on astrophysics (yeah he is THAT smart!) and I would create models in both Sketchup and Maya so each of us could bring our technical abilities into a forum where something amazing could happen as a whole. Instantly our preliminary discussions could be used to start previsualization, construction designs and budgets in one fell swoop.
Once we all start refining the concepts, the look of the picture materializes. Concept art is an amazing way of working out what the film will look like. It is a way to communicate ideas to everyone who walks down the hallway in an art department. Everyone who later joins the team is influenced by the concepts. We touch upon color, light, shape, and scale that influence the photography as well as wardrobe, makeup, and visual effects worlds.
Everyone sees things from their perspective, their optics. If you hang a landscape painting on a wall, some will see the color, others the trees and landscape, still others will see the frame, others even how the picture is placed on the wall. Everyone will see the painting uniquely on their own terms. Each is absolutely essential. The studio has been involved with the project far longer than most of the filmmakers, and has some built-in assumptions that have been gestating before and during the design process. I like to include them in the discovery as allies. Tom Rothman was looking at my concept illustrations on "The Incredible Hulk" and on the strength of three images he said he could sell the movie. He and many studio and -production teams are very invested in the look and feel of the film or TV project. Getting them excited about the designs and ideas can help overcome any anxiety they may have. Being fresh, new and forward thinking is a great way to sell their product.
The first people I need to bring in are the set decorator and art director. Concepts are one thing, reality is another. I’m very hands on and passionate, but my job is not to mandate everything - it is to inspire them to bring ideas to the table that can be accomplished. We sit with each other and go over concepts and conversations that I have had, and work out a game-plan for how to connect the idea to real materials and scope we hope to attain.
Textures, colors, found items, builds and fabrication are all on the menu. Real scaled working drawings not only provide a more refined idea of possibilities, but also drive the information through the pipeline that will inevitably take over once the physical shoot is complete. Every set decoration element is an asset that has to work into the whole of the design. In so many ways the set decoration team creates the living structure to the film. Practical lighting drives virtual lighting. Real scale drives extension and replication. Those things that an actor touches or makes inference to drives the heart of the story.
I’ve had a lot of fun creating a variety of crazy things that have challenged the prop teams. It all starts with a concept illustration. We work out what the story and design need first. I prefer building the designs in 3D first and work out and execute the construct form there because gadgets look cool until they are actually in the hands of cast. Building the gadget in 3D offers exact reproduction specs and adjustments in real time. We can figure out details if there is anything that say set decoration or construction must provide. Generally, the prop department is set up to create the gadget with a specific manufacturer and then integrate it with any other department that has to amend or add to the piece. In addition, the gadget, if built in 3D, will work its way through the Visual Effects pipeline as an asset which they can use in a seamless transition if needed later.
These days the biggest challenge for me is the timeframe both in preparation and shoot. Both prep and shoot timeframes have been reduced to the leanest possible timeline because of cost. What was once a six-month prep, and 90-day shoot is now four months and 50 shooting days. But the appetite is just as big. So, any way that I can become more efficient helps. That’s why including every department in discussions early, and embracing the technologies that best helps the process is priceless. Besides, it’s better to control all the assets and the look of the picture early in the process to prevent chaos after I’m long gone.