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Art for Planets, Spaceships and Alien lifeforms (Dev Diary: Living Universe)


Daniel Balage, our resident art director, worked for a very long time on the Living Universe speculative documentary. Here’s his take about the art direction of it:

I’ve spent a very long time on this project, and produced hundreds of concepts for it; all of them didn’t end up in the final documentary, which could prove a bit frustrating, though! So, to sum up how the project went, it has been a bumpy road on the production side of things. The Australian director wanted the documentary to focus on the spectacular while the French (and eventual) director, Vincent Amouroux, relied more on sheer scientific fact. Everything worked out in the end and we are very proud of the result!


Science vs. Art

I had to make a lot of planets for the purpose of this documentary, as seen from space and from the surface. This was an absolute blast to make; I had to ask scientists about those. How were the winds behaving? How did they affect the shape of the clouds? Would I have to make whirls or V-patterned clouds, or the cloud shapes we know on Earth (which are actually quite unusual)? They also documented me on color and texture, but they couldn’t tell me everything because knowledge only went so far. This meant I had quite a lot of freedom to design landscape and planets. But at times, the consultant scientists got in touch with me to tell me “Science has advanced, and the art you’ve done is incorrect.” So I had to entirely re-design a few of these planets because of scientific progress! Out of the twenty-ish planets I’ve designed, we’ve used only five, and not even the most spectacular of them.

Living Universe is all about this huge ship crossing space itself. There’s been quite a few ship designs, because the ship itself is telling a story. I definitely wanted something that stood out on screen, something that was beautiful but it had to stay practical and, science-wise, plausible. Please note that I say “plausible” and not “accurate”, since we don’t have the technological tools to actually make this kind of spaceship. So we wanted to ask scientists if the ship felt accurate. However… Scientists are reluctant to speculation and approximation. They had trouble pretending that ship could exist, because it couldn’t be done yet. If my fusion core reactor wasn’t exactly what could work today, the answer I’d get would be “Oh, you know, if it’s made that way it’s obviously going to blow up. So no, it’s not scientifically accurate.”.

The director wanted to show that colonizing exoplanets was a huge undertaking, and was very unlikely to happen, and that reflected in the design of the ship: it is massive, very complex, with solar panels, reactors, an intricate structure with a lot of moving parts, and is going through a lot of difficulties. But I got a lot of help from these conversations with the scientists. Let’s take the width of the solar panels as an example: I had it wrong the first time, as they needed to be of a certain minimum size to be effective. The engine was at the wrong location at first, so I had to relocate it as well. So the ship is mostly a compromise between scientific plausibility and artistic vision (on-screen presence).


Minerva: Alien(ated) design

As for the planet Minerva itself, the script itself was more precise and remained constant even with all the twists and turns of the project. The general idea was that the planet had almost no lifeforms, or that the sensors didn’t detect much except for a few bacteria and scarce vegetation, but then they would go underwater and find out different, vivid, forms of life. All of that amounting to the realization that life was on the brink of extinction on this planet.

To design it, I had to research a lot. And when you depict alien life, there’s a science-fiction trope that it should look really different. Most of the time, the designs are all over the place, they are not practical at all. The thing is, Mother Nature has worked well down here on Earth, and has experimented a lot; terrestrial lifeforms are incredible and can assume many shapes, especially under the surface of the oceans. Aren’t corals or deep sea fish kind of alien? That protean aspect of life led me to think about these aliens with a different perspective: I would find something that was unusual, such as propulsion swimming (used by bivalves and octopi) and translate it to another kind of fauna. So we have fish that swim with propulsion techniques and that can stick onto others to travel, like remoras. The animal was designed around these features, and I designed a few of them.

Then I thought the rest as a landscape, an ecosystem, that would feel alien, and designed that. It felt much more organic this way.


To learn more about Living Universe, here’s its dedicated page!

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