Designing a Sci-Fi Environment Scientifically

Intro

So I think it's pretty evident that I like science. But I love when science and film are integrated correctly. One way the VFX community can kinda get started on that is with environments. It’s not always about the simulation side.

So here are some fun ideas that might help your creative workflow when it comes to designing your own science fiction environments.

This article is going to be aimed at concept and environmental design as those two things work hand in hand. If something doesn’t look good in the concept art, it's not going to look good at all.

Also, side note. Someone please give me a short story of scientifically accurate stuff in LDR please. It's the perfect medium for science shorts in VFX. Also, whomever worked on Bad Traveling, you’re my personal hero. You all are…What a killer season 3.

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Also for the people who know what’s up: This article is dedicated to The Gremlin. May you find a better bean bag to terrorize.

Working with Concepts/The Concept Artist

Everything starts at the concept.

In a studio, the concept artist will work with the client, supervisors, and producers to create some good(hopefully great) direction for a production. They will visualize scenes from books, comics, movies, and sequels, if they are making something to fit in a franchise. They will also work with tons, and tons of reference to make sure the subject matter they are creating fits the world as best as possible.

They visualize important scenes that might take place in the plot, characters, items, and much more. They also try to convey a sense of mood and color throughout the scenes as well.

So it's right to assume that if you are injecting science and technology into your production, it's going to start at the concept stage.

When drawing out the concept for something you need to place yourself into the world the characters are living in. So if your characters are in a futuristic environment and they pick up the phone, what would that phone look like in that environment. Not every futuristic world should be the same. The phone might be wireless: But is your character humanoid? Will they need a different shape of button or handle to grab the object with because of their biology? Etc.

You also need to think about if the environment around your character is created by their own species, or by which of the world they live in. If they exist in a technology driven society, then technology might be there. Or if they are astronauts in space. Then maybe it's just a void.

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Keep in mind, one thing that I notice a lot of science fiction falls into, is the assumption that every species or creature in a sci fi film was built to evolve as a human. Especially if the character is very centric to the plot. The character might have a humanoid figure, carry antisocial traits as a human, or even have a home planet that resembles a human city.

As the crazy humans we are, we project our characteristics onto other creatures. This is something that needs to be avoided in sci-fi. If you don’t believe me, ask your cat.

You know that Captain Muffins the Third loves her snuggles. Or does the cat really identify as a muffin? You’ll never know.

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Everything you do when you create your concepts will directly influence how things are made when VFX teams start their work. So the more accurate you make something. The more accurate everyone else will be.

Start researching different ways of life. How different people exist throughout the world, and observing the small things about society. We often build things a certain way because otherwise the shape of the object, building, or environment might be too disorganized for us to look at. Or an object might be designed to be soothing because of its motion, or religious purpose.

Take Toronto for example. If you’ve ever lived here or walked through it, everything looks the same because of a variety of reasons. There are condo towers every other block because of the lack of space for housing. It's cheaper for condo developers to build the same thing with the same blueprint over and over. Most of the open green spaces are near the waterfront because it's unsafe structurally to build condos there, and people enjoy the beach. There is always construction in the way because of the ongoing subway expansions and constant damage to the roadways.Stores, locations and restaurants disappear if people can no longer make money off them. Details like that are important. There are way more, but those are some highlights.

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Environments around the world are also wildly different from each other depending on their climate and location. This means the creatures and dominant species in them have learned to survive in different ways.

For example, the creatures in the Sahara Desert, and Lake Athabasca in Canada have evolved differently, even though they both carry desert characteristics. One more than the other. Part of that is based on where they are located, but also due to the amount of survivable resources.

Details like this are going to impact how and where fx work might be needed, texture design, and overall modeling.

In science fiction these details get more complex. You have to think ahead of how these systems might evolve and where they evolved from. You are designing an environment that will last for centuries if no outside factors change it. Or if they do, account for that.

The other thing to keep in mind is that science fiction environments take time. They take a lot more time to design than a weapon or or object. The more time you can focus on designing the ideas of the environment the better.

Remember you’re not just building a background or an image. You’re building a purpose for people’s imaginations.

The other important factor is to always keep the goals of your client in mind. If you know that they will be ok with extra smaller details, go for it. If they want something basic: Then I’m sorry.

Now let’s dive into some environment design and helpful NASA references.

Off World Characteristics

Atmospheres

So now for the fun stuff. Let’s start with atmospheres and exoplanets first, as atmospheric effects is something I specialize in. Atmospheres are the one thing keeping any life on any planet alive, so understanding how they work is important. Plus, depending on the elements in the atmosphere, the sky might be different colors.

The best references for offworld science you’re going to get are the various space agencies around the world. They have tons and tons of information for people who are interested in aliens, other worlds, and much more. However, sorting through that information is rather tricky. So here are some key ideas you’ll need to incorporate into your environments if you are creating a world beyond Earth.

Most planets have different atmospheres from Earth. We often hear about NASA and other space agencies looking for other planets that humans could exist on. But 99% or less of the universe isn’t human. So don’t plan for that in your story.

Most environments will be alien, uninhabitable, or slightly different from Earth. The atmosphere won’t be purely made of oxygen, nitrogen , and carbon. There might be more dominant elements in it as well. Or completely new elements that we haven’t discovered yet. But working within the science we know, let’s stick to the periodic table for this article.

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For a quick and easy example, let's take a look at Jupiter's atmosphere. Simply because gas giants have already been found to exist outside our solar system, and we know for sure humans cannot survive on that planet.

Jupiter has an extremely dry and dense atmosphere. The dominant elements in its atmosphere are hydrogen, helium, methane, and ammonia. These elements are also the main elements that make up our Sun, so understandably, they can be very toxic.

Most of the hydrogen that exists within Jupiter is liquid. This hydrogen liquid also exists in the planet's atmosphere. The extreme gravity on Jupiter draws the atmosphere towards its tiny core. It is speculated that because of the huge gravitational pull, that there is no clear distinction between the surface of Jupiter and the atmosphere.

Because of its gravitational compression. The surface of Jupiter is considered to be over 36,000 degrees F in temperature. But due to Jupiter being just too tiny in size, it can never become a star. Even if its internal temperatures get somewhat close to starting that process.

Jupiter also contains massive amounts of storms that are driven by its rotation, and surrounding motion. Most of its storms are driven by internal heat, as it is too far away from the sun to have solar flares or extra heat affect it. The winds in these storms have clocked at over 400 miles per hour.

Now for another planetary example, let’s take a look at Mercury. Which is literally the solar system opposite of Jupiter. Mercury has a very thin atmosphere that does not protect it from the Sun and surrounding space. There are no clouds in the atmosphere, and it is almost invisible.

The reason the atmosphere is like this is for many different reasons. The first being, is that Mercury is incredibly close to the Sun. The solar flares and heat from the star have helped heat up the planet, and greatly erode its atmosphere. The atmosphere is primarily made up of oxygen, sodium and hydrogen.

There is no clear weather system on mercury. Because of its long solar days, and faster than average rotation, Mercury also has very extreme temperature fluctuations. More than any other planet in our solar system.

If you were to stand on the surface of Mercury, the sky would appear black, and the sun would stretch over almost all parts of the sky.

So taking some main information away for this for world building:

The larger the planet, the greater the gravitational pull.
The closer to a star a planet is, the wilder the temperature patterns. The farther away it is, the colder it will be. But this also depends on size.
The greater the gravitational pull towards the center of the planet, the hotter and more compressed the atmosphere will be.
The closer to a star the planet is, the less of an atmosphere.
Large gas giants often have elements in liquid form in their atmosphere.

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What this might translate as in VFX is:

Objects will be heavier on planets with a lot of gravity.
Hotter temperatures mean warmer colors. This might mean more heat distortion, fire, and volcanic activity.
Less clouds the hotter the planet is. More clouds if the planet is large, and dense.
The colder the planet is, the more rocky and icy it will become.

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Now let’s jump into exoplanet atmospheres.

Because exoplanets exist far beyond our solar system, we don’t have too much specific information about specific planets. But here are some highlights of what we have found so far.

We have discovered common elements from our home planet in other ones across the galaxy. Such as sodium in planet HD 209458 b, water, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and methane in planet HD 189733 b as well.

NASA has also discovered gas giants with cloud free atmospheres as well. HAT-P-11b is a Neptune sized planet first discovered in 2014. They were also able to detect various water molecules in the planet’s atmosphere. They have also detected atmospheric layers in exoplanets. In June 2015, NASA reported that planet WASP-33b has a stratosphere. They found these layers as Ozone and other hydrocarbons absorb large amounts of radiation. Which in turn heats up parts of the atmosphere.Which makes this layer detectable through different spectrums of light. This planet is also the hottest exoplanet known, and the stratosphere is thought to be caused by large deposits of titanium oxide.

Winds reaching over 2km per second have also been detected on exoplanets. This is equal to seven times the speed of sound.

So when designing an atmosphere for a planet, it is very important to pick and choose your elements wisely. Simply because your life forms will be consuming those elements, and might be dependent on them. Or will be primarily made up of those breathable elements. The environment around them will also change with regards to the weather, and chemical changes.

It is thought that composition of atmospheres form through gasses being emitted through the planet’s forming crust. Primitive atmospheres mainly contain carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia, sulfur dioxide and hydrochloric acid. Water and oxygen atoms are only present in the atmosphere if their chemical compounds are starting to form on the surface, and if the star outside the planet has enough energy to heat up its interior.

As mentioned at the beginning of the article, elements appear in different colors. Our sky looks blue, because the water molecules in the air refract blue light. However, Helium will appear pink, Neon will have a red and orange color, and Argon will appear blue. You can’t make every atmosphere blue, and have the plot describe the planet as having a methane rich atmosphere. That is just not fair.

The last thing you need to know about habitable planets is that NASA looks for life on other worlds by the amount of methane in their atmosphere. It is considered a way of possibly tracing life on other worlds. Methane is also a major resource when it comes to powering rockets and other propellants. Methane in its natural state is both colorless and odorless. So visually it's very hard to detect.However, it can be detected through infrared techniques.

Methane can be produced through decomposing life forms, and other extruded gasses from them. It can also be used to detect how long or when life might have existed on a planet.

So in summary, if you have a sky in the background of your world, take into consideration the elements that exist on that planet. That in turn will give you a better sky development, and lookdev.

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Some World Building Summaries:

Exoplanets share common elements with Earth
Some atmospheres are cloud free, while others have similar clouds you would see on Earth.
Exoplanets have cloud layers in their atmospheres. Such as Earth’s Stratosphere. Just like how Earth has high, Mid-Level, and Low Clouds. They also have cloud types as well.
Some Exoplanets have high wind levels.
Elements appear with different colors in their liquid, gas and solid states. So they have to be represented as such.
Methane is a hugely important feature, for having life existing in your offworld environment.
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Planet Surfaces

Every planet has different terrain. And that terrain is developed by a planet’s atmosphere. As well as climate, gravity, surrounding life forms, and fauna.

Let’s start with how Earth’s terrain developed, as I think that is very useful for understanding overall geography. Geography and atmosphere is highly dependent on how a planet evolves. Earth’s geography is constantly changing due the Earth Crust, and chemical reactions happening at the planet’s center.

Scientists believe that rocky planets were formed through rapid gravitational collapse of dust clouds that were brought together through strong gravitational forces. It’s also suggested that planets grow gradually over time to form their final shape.The more debris drawn towards the forming planet, the more likely the planet is to change shape and grow.

George W. Wetherill of the Carnegie Institution of Washington suggests that it can take 100 million years to form a 10km large planet.

Thermal changes will oversee how a planet shapes its terrain. Depending if the planet has a magma based interior, this will dictate if volcanoes are active on its surface. It took 4.14 billion years for an atmosphere on Earth, and even longer for the one that contains us to form.

Continents form on a planet's crust through geothermal cycles, which are driven by the convection in the mantle. The more fused together the continents are, the less geothermal activity there is. As well as less Earthquakes, and crust activity overall.

Terrain is built with a variety of elevation, slope, and other terrain features. Terrain affects water flow and its distribution. Large terrain can affect weather and climate patterns. Two different types of elevated terrain right beside each other can cause extreme precipitation patterns to happen.

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It’s important to understand terrain as humans can only thrive in certain types of it, as well as other forms of life. Flat plains are usually great for farming settlements, and plant growth. Rock outcrops and mountains are usually not great for permanent shelters. Terrain is also important to understand if you are working with agriculture, hydrology systems. You need to be able to identify watershed boundaries, drainage characteristics, drainage systems, groundwater systems, and different types of water movement. Otherwise good luck having water quality, maintaining rivers, and predicting water systems. All of which can impact your character's environment.

A large part of terrain systems is how the soil moves. Soil contains resources for life, and transports minerals around. Terrain can also affect aircraft systems as well. The larger the vertical elevation change, the more likely it will affect range and performance of radar and radio.

Geomorphology is the study of the formation of terrain or topography.It covers:

Geological processes: Migration of tectonic plates, faulting and folding, mountain formation, and volcanic eruptions.
Erosional processes: glacial, water, wind, and chemical movement. Such as landslides, downhill creep, flows, slumps, and rock falls.
Extraterrestrial: meteorite impacts.

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So science wise. Build your terrain with this in mind:

Terrrian will change over time. So picking a state to showcase your terrain is highly dependent on everything surrounding it, and how it evolved.
Erosion and waterways are key details for terrain. If an environment is water based, then the erosion from the water will make the terrain change faster than if it had none.
Understanding which state the planet itself is in will determine what state the atmosphere and terrain is in. A younger planet will have a thinner atmosphere, and wilder terrain. An older planet will have thicker atmospheres, and clearly defined terrain systems.
The larger the planet, the longer it takes to form. The hotter the planet, the more tectonic plate movement, quakes, and volcanoes. The cooler the planet, the more likely the plates will be more fused with each other.

Future Dystopias and Sci-Fi Worlds

So….How do you predict the future, without knowing it? Well you need to look at how technology evolves. AS well as society does in general.

One thing about science fiction films or shows is that their backgrounds can be very generic. I’ll take the film Passengers and for example. I didn’t work on this film, but I do want to point out some interesting things I noticed while viewing it. Maybe someone else can elaborate more.

Passengers, if you haven’t seen it, is a film about two people who wake up on a spaceship when their stasis pods malfunction, and they now have to live the rest of their natural lives through a journey in outer space. The film is more or less a love story, rather than about the science fiction scenarios. There are some truly beautiful visuals about it, such as the design of the spaceship. It is very unique, and grabs your attention immediately. When you look at this ship, you can visually make sense of how it is powered, and how it moves. As well as if you know a tiny bit about science, you might say: Oh, that ship looks like it might be powered by an ion engine.

However, because most of the movie is the characters running down hallways, you get a lot of hallway shots. And at certain points, you start to see the same holograms, shapes, and designs over and over again. This is a bit questionable to me, as humans love eye candy. When you are working, living, or in a building that is built to accommodate large amounts of people, there is always something decorating the place. Either that, or tons of advertisements. Advertisements can also be used to help age, and theme a plot.

However, there are amazing sequences at the beginning of the film that show you how the spaceship is thinking and behaving according to its surrounding environment. You also see this throughout the film, when the ship is damaged, or needs to look after its occupants.

Because this movie is a love story between two characters, it really relies on the background to set the tone, theme, and overall scene to explain technology that the characters are existing in. Especially since the characters aren’t your usual tech wizards that you would see in normal science fiction films. So they can’t explain it properly in the plot.

I’m using this film as an example, because the plot is arguably not the greatest. But the visual effects are quite stunning. I would also say, you learn more about the spaceship in the movie, than you do about the actual characters.


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Now onto some other science fiction designs.

There is something I worked on in the past couple of years that has to somewhat remain anonymous, because I don’t want an angry supervisor hounding me. But hold my beer and let me explain myself. But all you need to know is that the production has aired so I’m free to talk about it.

A long time ago, I had the chance to work on a science fiction film that followed human colonies to other worlds. Things happened on this journey, and building the effects for the film was a blast. It still to this day was one of the coolest and fun effects I’ve ever worked on.

However, one thing bugged me alot. It was the design of the spacecraft. The main craft just looked like a generic cargo ship. But in reference to the plot, it was supposed to be a ship carrying humans for thousands of light years. There wasn’t a clear visual storytelling element to it, you couldn’t really understand visually how the craft was powered, and it didn’t have any markings on it to tell a story. Such as a name, or corporation the craft was from, or even country. You couldn’t even tell if this ship was from the good guys.

There was no purpose to the ship other than to look after the crew for a mission. When you have humans living in anything, we will personalize it to make it ours. Either that, carry things with us to make ourselves feel more comfortable.

The other detail that sat with me awhile was that the landing craft was a spacecraft modeled after one that was supposed to land in water. But in the plot, the smaller craft heads towards a planet with various landmasses, and even crash lands on one. After the crash, there are even survivors. I remember pointing all this out at the time as a junior to the modeling team, but they couldn’t really do anything based on the reference they were given. So this is one scenario where you can absolutely see that concept development is key.

I think there was only one spacecraft that I saw where it was undoubtedly very cool looking, but aerodynamically could never fly. That craft was a modified helicopter craft .

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(Now because some of my old coworkers do follow my blog work. You’ve probably taken a very accurate guess on what production I am talking about. Yes you’re correct, but let’s turn those production nightmares into something useful. Think of this as donating organs to science. We can make this one count!)

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This movie in question was also a love story. It follows the two characters as they create feelings for one another. The main VFX element that was in this production was very cool in the sense that it showcased what everyone was thinking. So it added to the communication of the film, and gave it tension as well. So there were some good concepts there.

The reason I am comparing Passengers and “Unnamed Film”, is that they were two different science fiction films that both went through development hell, and suffered from a confusing/lack of plot. But you could also say both tried to use VFX to fill in the gaps.

Part of VFX is making sure whatever we create tells a story, and builds an additional story around the plot of the production. When you look at Asgard in a Marvel movie for example, you know that other stories are taking place out of frame. Based on the various houses you see, characters, and crafts. The same has to be done with spaceships, traveling vehicles, or things that are essential to characters. Humans will always want to make something ours, and our personalities are something that will not change in the future. So that needs to be factored into your designs. Your environment doesn’t always have to match the personality of your characters, but it needs to give them that opportunity to help them grow, and learn around them.

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So before we move onto some actual technology concepts, a brief summary:

Remember to build your environment around the plot of your story, and use it to build upon the lore.
Build concepts that have personality. And that drives your characters` personalities.
Scientific reference is key.
Factor in how your concept or design should move. Then look for technology that could do that. Look at physical blueprints of mechanics.
Is there anything you can add that would help with the communication of your production/plot?
What can your environment do to tell the story better?