Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture
A machine that can tell if you are human, another that can share your dreams with others, a television system that shows four versions of the same event simultaneously…
Designing convincing props to represent the world of the future is one of the hardest jobs in film. They have to serve a purpose, whether advancing the plot or simply helping to realise a believable environment for the characters, yet should also be almost invisible, not drawing attention to themselves beyond the minimum necessary to achieve that aim.
Computer-generated imagery has transformed utterly the production of visual effects in science fiction cinema since its maturity in the early 1990s, making it much easier to create any scene set in deep space or on another planet as well as the spaceships or aliens that might be found there. Real-world locations can be altered just as easily, and even studio sets are now routinely enhanced, extended or completely replaced digitally.
But when it comes to something for an actor to drive, use or simply watch, that thing has to be physically fabricated, assembled, dressed and placed into the world that the filmmaker has fashioned. And first it has to be designed.
Prior to the 1960s science fiction film, particularly if action-orientated, looked back to its literary and especially comic book sources for hints as to how such items should look. Here, ray guns inspired by electrical fittings, robots made of sheet metal and spaceships recalling Art Deco architecture featured prominently. This, and the perception of the genre as being largely for a juvenile market, ensured that there was little consideration of how these objects might actually look were they real.
The pulp image from the pages of Astounding Stories and numerous dust jackets thus drove motion picture visualisations, and the resultant look is familiar from films such as Forbidden Planet and Things to Come and Saturday-morning serials like Flash Gordon.
It took the dawning of the Space Age with the 1957 launch of Sputnik to transform the way in which vehicles intended to travel beyond the Earth were designed, with the first real-world examples as inspiration, but rather longer for a similarly grounded view of smaller items to filter through into the movie world. If the common assertion that science fiction doesn’t predict the future but rather explores the present is true, this may be the key to understanding why.
As society changed into the new decade, it brought a different sensibility to its culture. A connection with reality came to be demanded from cinema audiences even in an essentially unreal genre. The explosion in science and technology and its rapid trickle down to a level which could be recognised by the public was also critical; in a consumer-led market, each breakthrough seemed to promise a new future. These included demonstration of a working laser (1960), the first man in space and introduction of the contraceptive pill (1961), launch of the pioneering transatlantic communications satellite Telstar and first commercially viable hovercraft service (1962), first flight of the TSR.2 advanced prototype military jet (1964) and rapid progress in computing throughout the period.
Production design – instructively, the term itself dates only from the early 1960s, recognising the need to shape the entire envelope of a film’s world – was therefore required to reflect a meaningful reality at all levels, and a new generation of film-makers determined to achieve this.
Predictably, the catalyst was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968. Two of NASA’s designers and engineers, Fred Ordway and Harry Lange, were engaged during the making of this epic to ensure that the multi-stage journey from Earth to the Moon and on to Jupiter that would occupy much of its running time was not only completely realistic but actually completely unremarkable to the characters in the film and the audience watching.
As well as the NASA influence, the team responsible for the miniatures used to film the craft adopted the technique of ‘kit-bashing’, or scavenging model kits of real aircraft, vehicles and ships for parts, to bring them to life. This automatically added a level of reality to the enterprise.
The smaller, more domestic products in Kubrick’s film – seat-back televisions, zero-gravity toilets, video phones – show that the same attitude to verisimilitude permeated all aspects of the design process. Visible brand names of actual companies – Howard Johnson’s, AT&T – completed the illusion.
Subsequent films, including Silent Running (1972) and Dark Star (1974), took their cue from Kubrick, as of course did George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977). Despite this it was only two years later with the release of Alien (1979) that critics finally agreed the fully-rounded ‘blue collar’ future had arrived. The lived-in, not to say tatty, space freighter Nostromo was seen as a new milestone in depicted futures, but the film’s director and creative force, Ridley Scott, would soon return to science fiction with a film which would eclipse this and set a standard that may never be beaten.
The near-future life shown in Scott’s science fiction film noir thriller Blade Runner (1982) embedded a dense grain of reality into its main subject matter of human life natural and artificial, from architecture to magazines. Amongst this array of the everyday is an item whose presence is indicative of something very different. Used to help distinguish a human from a replicant, its artificial and dangerous equivalent, the Voight-Kampff machine is a crucial part of future life for the Los Angeles Police Department.
In Philip K. Dick’s source novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the verbally-administered test – using the “Voigt scale, altered three years ago by Kampff” – is clearly inspired by actual psychological testing systems such as Rorschach and Holzman. As with many of Dick’s technological concepts in the book, the aids used to measure the results are described in only the crudest terms, here a small light shining in the eye and an adhesive wire-mesh disc attached to the subject’s cheek. Together they measure “capillary dilation in the facial area […] the so-called ‘shame’ or ‘blushing’ reaction to a morally shocking stimulus” and “fluctuations of tensions within the eye muscles” and display the results on two gauges.
For the film, something more convenient, futuristic and sinister was needed. Syd Mead, a highly experienced industrial designer who had initially been hired only to shape the film’s vehicles, explained how this, the latest addition to his workload, came about: “One of the things I liked most about Ridley was that he could coach you along by giving you almost tactile word pictures of what he was after”.
Mead elaborated, explaining that Scott wanted the machine “to look very dangerous, sitting on a desk, very threatening, and sort of like a giant tarantula. Since its isn’t dangerous because it’s large, it has to be dangerous because it’s threatening. So we decided it should breathe”. Thos was achieved via a set of bellows, and was justified by an additional function not in the novel – sampling the air for pheromone changes.
Mead – perhaps looking to his experience working for electronics giant Philips – conceived a neat electro-mechanical device that, when lying unused, would form a clean, flat box but, when “it starts itself as soon as the subject walks into the room; this arm moves around and focuses at the subject’s eye. It’s sort of alive in a way all by itself”.
Mead’s design cleverly and convincingly incorporated all of this, along with monitoring screens for the operator. The final machine as fabricated for the film differs from this in detail and is rather more static than intended, but the concept remains intact and the machine’s cool gaze became one of Blade Runner’s central images.
Christopher Nolan’s Inception features something much smaller but far more critical to the plot – the machine contained within a briefcase which allows the film’s characters to share dreams. Tubing runs from it to a needle inserted in the arm of each dreamer, with fluid pumped from vials inserted into the machine.
A name for this fictional machine was created: the PASIV, or Portable Automated Somnacin IntraVenous device. Somnacin is the fictional drug cocktail that is mixed by ‘the Chemist’ of the script and actually makes the dream sharing possible when it is circulated between individuals by the machine. Derived from Somnus, Roman god of sleep, no attempt was made to suggest constituents or a formula, but the PASIV machine itself did receive attention from the filmmakers.
The design team for Inception, led by Guy Hendrix Dyas, looked principally to the medical sphere to visualise this fascinating technology.
Small pumps of several kinds are currently used to infuse patients with drugs, via the same tubing (cannulae) and needles seen in the film. For some years, patient-controlled analgesia has seen such devices placed under the command of the patient themselves. On a larger scale, cardiopulmonary bypass, or heart-lung, and kidney dialysis machines are familiar and provided additional touchstones. In particular, the visibly-rotating elements of some of these machines was borrowed directly when making the PASIV prop, as both reinforcement of its possible reality and a useful piece of movie shorthand that quickly says to the viewer ‘this is a pump’.
Beyond this, the mere fact of the PASIV being housed in a slick, brushed-metal briefcase is also a small but subtle connection with the expected. Briton Dyas once worked for Sony as a product designer, and this experience clearly influenced him in being able to cloak a medical device in a consumer-type shell.
The final layer of reality applied to this design is found, of all places, in the film’s publicity material. A PASIV Device Technical Manual was created and used as a marketing tool, in hard copy and online. In typical instruction book format, it shows a user how to connect people to the machine, how to load the Somnacin, and so on. This approach cleverly suggests that the PASIV exists.
It is a mark of the intelligence of Inception that neither the PASIV nor Somnacin are named or explained in the film. Instead, audiences are given the bare minimum of indications through script, direction and even sound design (the PASIV is introduced off-screen by the click and whine of its operation on the audio track) and expected to deduce its function. That this succeeds shows how facile modern film goers have become at absorbing information, aided by the designer’s skill at creating a mental link between fiction and reality.
Reality of a different kind led to the invention of the Multivision television system for Norman Jewison’s Rollerball (1975). The film presented a near-future world run by vast corporations and with a population kept passive by the vicarious thrill of watching the violent sport of the title.
The Voight-Kampff machine in Blade Runner, as designed and visualised by Syd Mead and as it appears, only slightly modified, in the final film (unrecorded; eandt.theiet.org)
Not available in the shops; the PASIV device from Inception being hooked up and as shown in the film's publicity material (Warner Brothers/photobucket.com, playthroughline.com & tomsguide.com)