I’m sure you can recall a book, movie, or TV show that left you with a feeling of awe and indescribable wonder; a story that has stayed with you for weeks or even years, which you can recall vividly in an instant. When a good story—be it visual or literary—makes that kind of connection, it transports the audience to a completely different world and becomes a part of them in a way that nothing else can.
Design plays a major role in how the audience experiences and interprets books, movies, and TV shows. For traditional novels, the cover art presents a huge opportunity for design to influence readers, but for more visual mediums like movies and TV, the design component plays a significantly larger role, touching on many aspects of the production process. The forethought and effort put into the design of production elements like sets, props, CGI and other on-screen graphics creates a visually rich, mesmerizing environment into which the audience becomes fully immersed; making them feel like active participants rather than mere observers.
Here are the seven ways that design takes your sci-fi experience from entertaining to explosively engaging:
1. Graphics can add strength and reinforce the tone of the story.
Many movies or TV shows use text or on-screen graphics to communicate information or enhance a particular scene. Historically, we’ve seen this for opening or closing credits, sub-titles for translation, or for something as simple as indicating a date or a location. The movie Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy uses tutorial-style illustrations to accompany excerpts from the guide. Anybody who has read HGTTG knows that it is a crazy, zany book filled with bizarre randomness that, in its totality, makes for a unique and amusing read. The art used in the movie is colorful, simplistic, and over the top. However, it’s perfect in that it is a visual equivalent of the whimsy of the book.
In recent years, on-screen graphics have become common for showing non-verbal conversations like texting or emails. When these graphics are well designed they can reinforce tone of the story, adding a level of quality and polish to the production. For example, BBC’s Sherlock Holmes does a great job of integrating text messaging. The simple, clean font parallels Sherlock’s utilitarian lifestyle, as well as his razor-sharp focus.
2. Elaborate set and prop design adds dimension to a story and ensnares the audience’s imagination.
When we think of design we often think about traditional art and two-dimensional mediums. However, set design is a vitally important aspect to any production and this is especially so in sci-fi. When a story involves another world, an alternate universe, or gadgets an audience has never seen before, it’s the details and the quality of the set and prop design that bring visual depth and dimension to the story.
Pandora, the fictional planetary moon in the movie Avatar, took our breath away with a lush, gravity-defying, earth-like forested world that blew our minds again when it lit up at night. The glowing foliage and luminous flowers created a colorful environment of abundance, full of intrigue and wonder that the audience ached to step into. The Fifth Element, Total Recall, and Star Wars featured detail-rich urban scenes with gritty, dirty, overpopulated cities, but still featured a wealth of futuristic detail that, given the opportunity, one would be eager to explore. The bridge in the rebooted Star Trek movies is so detailed it makes the audience members feel like they’re standing right there on the bridge.
3. Digital props deepen the mystery by enhancing the illusion.
Many sci-fi books, series, or movies revolve around technology in some form. This is a huge opportunity for designers to turn a film from pretty cool to wickedly awesome.
There is no shortage of great examples of fantastic digital interfaces. The design of the hand phone interface in the Total Recall reboot fit the movie seamlessly. When the person pressed their palm to any glass, the phone would convert from audio to visual and the design of this feature drew viewers deeper into the mystery and intrigue of the story’s plot. Audiences of Minority Report were left in awe of the curved, clear glass monitors displaying an abundance of information in a complex yet elegant manner. The Skynet computer interface in Terminator Salvation was a wonderfully designed confection of technical illustrations, data, and security access. Getting a glimpse of Marcus’s inner robotics made you want to reach out and touch them. Watching Tony Stark in Ironman 2 weaving through the myriad of colorful, highly detailed, holographic blueprints was mesmerizing. Watching him crumple the animated, 3D illustrations and toss them across the room into a virtual garbage made the audience ache to get their hands on this technology.
4. Rewarding loyal viewers with insider knowledge deepens the connection.
Many books have experienced the transformation from page to film. By using good design and attention to detail, sets and props can be created to include details that aren’t explained in the movie. Only fans who have read the novel before seeing the movie will understand their true significance, rewarding hardcore fans and with a richer, VIP experience.
The book version of The Martian was full of information that was glossed over in the movie. One of the best aspects of the book was Mark’s show-your-work-style explanations for each task he took on and watching the movie, readers were amused to see Mark’s adventures brought to life.
5. Borrow a “feeling” by reusing styles from a different era.
Battlestar Galactica did a great job of infusing a fifties look and feel into the sets of Galactica. Since the series takes place 150,000 years in our past, it pre-dates our perception of “antique,” but by giving the ship what we perceive to be an aged feel, the viewers can infer that the Galactica is not a cutting edge ship. The visuals on this ship bring to mind an age that was slower and less efficient than our present day and that feeling illustrates perfectly the ship’s capabilities in contrast to the newer ships and advanced technology that since replaced it.
6. Using repetition can draw feeling from previous work.
This is particularly important with a series or a movie franchise. By reusing a look and feel from previous productions, a type of consistency, or brand, is created. This consistency acts as a promise to the audience, that what they’re about to see is on par with what they’ve come to expect from the series.
Reinvention can be a good thing but determining which elements should be reinvented, and which should stay the same is crucial. How many loyal Harry Potter fans were disappointed in the landscape and other changes between the second and third movies? Arbitrary alterations of sets and props steal focus from the story – shattering the illusion and leading to a diminished experience.
The reboot of the Star Trek movies ruffled a few feathers with story inconsistencies, but a lot of the design is reminiscent of the original series: The fonts, the logo, uniforms… even Uhura’s earpiece is similar. While these details aren’t exact, they’re close enough that most viewers who are familiar with the original series would have an appreciation for the refresh and the nod to tradition.
Designers should feel free to embrace innovation. When Star Wars episodes I, II, III and VII came out, modern advancements that improved the graphics, sets and props were welcome and expected, but they were done in a way that still paid homage to the original three movies.
7. Detailed CGI makes the unbelievable possible, and the average amazing.
Computer generated graphics play a huge role in most sci-fi films and series and, like all of the other design elements that make up a production, success is in the details. The dragon in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire would have been much less convincing if it didn’t look quite so detailed and scary. The balloon ghosts and the action-packed finale of the new Ghostbusters wouldn’t have been the same without those vibrant colors and detailed ghosts. The more rich and detailed the graphics are, the stronger the illusion and success of the story.
There is no shortage of examples of movies or TV series with sets, props, or graphics so breathtaking that they weave an audience directly into the fabric of a story. Of course, a lot of credit is owed to the writers of these stories who create and invent such vivid ideas, but it’s the masters of design who understand these seven points who really bring the magic, elevating the audience’s experience from average to extraordinary.
This post was written by Kris Trudeau
Kris Trudeau lives in on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The completion of her debut novel, TimeShift, marks the end of a six-year journey that began in Winnipeg, Manitoba from where she originally hails. Owner of a website development and graphic design firm, Trudeau spends her days helping organizations across Canada grow their businesses. Writing became a passion for Trudeau in the last decade both in business and for leisure. For fiction, she finds the creative process to be a fascinating, magical experience and is looking forward to exploring several ideas for future stories.
For more information about TimeShift visit www.TimeShift-Novel.com