Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Good/Bad/Ugly: Fictional Sets and Architecture

 Fictional Sets and Architecture
Heroes have their headquarters, villains their secret lairs, and adventurers stumble into lost cities in the middle of steamy jungles.  Even E.T. found a place to call home, although he didn’t really live there. Whether it’s a true sanctum or just a way station along the road to a bigger and more spectacular locale, a well-designed fictional setting is often as much a character in the story as the people in it.  The place has its own personality, which should play off the style and mindset of its primary inhabitant; when it doesn’t, the effect can be jarring. Who, for instance, would buy into a Bat Cave decorated with Andy Warhol prints?

   Bad design is not always a reflection of low budgets and tight production schedules, although those factors have resulted in their share of doozies.  More to the point, a bad design often results from reaching for grandeur at the expense of common sense – the surroundings may indeed inspire awe, but after a minute or two of thought, you’re more likely to declare them awful. 

   Ugly tends to be more intentional.  A scary scene often calls for a pretty nasty locale, with dilapidated ruins dripping with slimy mold and lots of cobwebs.  But sometimes the designers go too far, flinging so much grit in our eyes that the audience is repulsed, rather than intrigued.  Far worse is the unintentional ugliness that is spawned when a designer fails to step back and look at his creation from the viewpoint of the audience members, who probably have no idea why certain choices were made. They just know that the good guy’s place is harder on the eyes than the bad guy’s, and that’s probably not going to help tell the story.

   Let’s take a peek through the keyhole into a few examples from popular fiction, and see what works and what doesn’t, and maybe gain some insight into why.

   James Gurney is an amazing artist. The illustrations in his Dinotopia books are first-class imaginative paintings depicting life in a hidden world where people live side-by-side with civilized dinosaurs. He puts a lot of thought into every scene, and the result is often breath-taking.  Waterfall City, a locale central to the narrative, is a prime example.  Setting aside for the moment the question of why anyone would go to the trouble of engineering a stone metropolis on the brink of a raging cascade (waterwheel power, perhaps?), the design is visually striking.

©1992 James Gurney
©1992 James Gurney
   Gurney provides a lush assortment of fantastic scenes in these books, with fanciful architecture that ranges from crude treehouses to elaborate palaces, and even a blacksmith’s forge set on the rim of an active volcano. These books (and the miniseries that was based on them) all started with a couple of Gurney's original paintings, upon which he decided to elaborate with story and additional art, so it's no surprise that the amazing scenery and inventive architecture are given a starring role. They are definitely up to the task of carrying the narrative forward.

©1993 Universal Pictures

   Humans also interact with dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, although in this case, it’s the humans who have done all the construction work.  But the visitor’s center is spot-on in its portrayal of a high-budget themed attraction centered on formerly extinct giant reptiles. The faux stone columns, with their simulated fossil skeletons in situ, are just the right decorative touch, as is the colorful mural of the Cretaceous world surrounding the cafeteria (where, one would imagine, guests would be able to decide for themselves if compsognathus really tastes like chicken). 

©1993 Universal Pictures
   Not all theme parks are fictional, but their subject matter usually is. Case in point, TomorrowLand at Walt Disney World. The original design for this taste of the future was put together in the 1950s, so it’s not  surprising that it eventually became dated.  Looking to revamp it, the designers quickly realized that the same thing could happen again and again as any reasonable speculation on future technology and lifestyles would always end up veering wildly from the path of reality (anybody got a flying car yet?). So they wisely opted for another approach: embrace the inevitable and go for something truly timeless.  The result owes more to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells than to Robert Heinlein, with a healthy infusion of whimsy that garners some chuckles, but clearly proclaims that the out-of-date look is what they intended. 

  Photo ©2006 SteamFan      Design ©1998 Disney

©1954 Walt Disney Studios
   Speaking of Verne, let’s take a look at another Disney property, this one from the classic movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  Captain Nemo lived in a submarine, but he didn’t do it the way our modern navies do it. His Nautilus was beautifully appointed with all the comforts of home – a wealthy gentleman’s home, that is.  The opulent library featured a fine selection of artwork, a huge catalog of books, red velvet cushions and even a pipe organ.  Harper Goff, the film’s Artistic Director, explains that Nemo had built the ship from pieces he’d salvaged from sunken vessels (a departure from the original novel) and furnished it with items from the same – reupholstered and cleaned up, one would have to conclude. Nevertheless, the submersible salon is a faithful reflection of the captain’s origin as a cultivated man who has turned his back on the decadent surface world, yet retains a taste for its more civilized attributes.

©1972 Barry Loigman, MD   

  Another submerged set I’ve always liked is the secret spy base built into the half-sunken ocean liner out in Hong Kong harbor in the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun.  The Queen Elizabeth had been scuttled following a fire and left in place; in the movie, British espionage agency MI-6 has installed horizontal floors in all the occupied rooms and hallways, but left the rest of ship tilted at its disconcerting angle. It makes a certain amount of sense to hide in such a ludicrous place, but the set’s crazy tilt hints that this adventure is a bit of a lark.

©1974 United Artists

    A man who knows a thing or two about sunken ocean liners is James Cameron.  But his greatest triumph to date is the science fiction epic Avatar. There’s a ton of things to like in the production design of this movie, including the incredible scenes of the planet Pandora, most of which were created in CGI.  Cameron had been working on this design since he was fourteen years old, so he had a pretty detailed vision of what he wanted to put on screen, and it shows – from the giant tree that serves as the anchor for the Navi civilization to the deceptively beautiful jungle with its glowing flowers and flying critters.

   Anyone with a healthy fear of heights would have to agree that the floating Halleluja Mountains make quite an impact (or would, if they ever happened to fall out of the sky).  There’s a particular scene where the Navi climb up vines from one skyborne island to the next, and the next, in a long trek to reach the nest of the dragon-like banshees.  This rock island line is a mighty good road for such a purpose, as it clearly shows how much courage and persistence, not to mention stamina and agility, it takes to earn a place among these people.  Sure, we’ve all seen this kind of imagery before (Roger Dean’s covers for the Yes albums come to mind), but never has it been so integral to the story, nor so gorgeously rendered.

©2009 20th Century Fox
   There are plenty of spaceships and other large vehicles whose interior sets have a nice look to them.  The cryo-pods in Aliens, for example, open up like petals in a big, plastic flower, a statement about birth and life that is a fitting counterpoint to all the death and destruction to come.  But the one with the greatest legacy is clearly the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise from the original Star Trek series.  Legend has it that NASA sent a team to the sound stage to “study” its design, as if there was more to learn than what could be seen on the small screen.  

©1968 Paramount Studios

The cheap plywood construction notwithstanding, the design of the bridge was actually pretty cool, and fairly well thought out.  The captain sits in the middle, where he can swivel his chair to see any of the duty stations he wants.  Each station holds an array of inexplicable lights and buttons fanned out in an arc from the officer’s seat, with view screens above the console.  Helm and navigation sit side-by-side in front of the captain’s chair, making him basically a back-seat driver, but giving the audience a clear view of practically the entire cast from the point of view of the forward screen.  Now, if only Starfleet had thought to include seat belts, or at least bolted down the chairs so they won’t get tossed around every time the ship runs into an old-fashioned radio wave or takes a hit from a Klingon cruiser!

  ©2001 New Line Cinema
    It would take the Enterprise one of its famous time-traveling solar slingshot maneuvers to reach Middle Earth, but the trip would be worth it, especially if they got to beam down to the Shire and meet the hobbits from The Lord of the Rings.  Peter Jackson’s team did a truly wonderful job bringing this quaint village to the screen, carving up the New Zealand countryside to install the signature hobbit-holes in every available hillock.  Every circular door and window tells its own little story, and each home is done in such detail that one would swear the place had been occupied for centuries.  The interior of Bag End is even more enthralling, with its barrel-like halls and wooden arches.  The tricks of scale are quite convincing, especially when Ian McKellan (as Gandalf) has to stoop through every doorway and still manages to bang his head on the chandelier.  A horizontal cylinder is not the easiest shape to build into a house, but it does fit in with the concept of an underground burrow constructed by civilized beings.

  ©2001 New Line Cinema

   Not all of Middle Earth is full of goodness and light.  The pitch-black halls of the Mines of Moria are the landscape of nightmares, even with Gandalf’s glow-stick staff lighting the way. There’s a similar complex under the Lonely Mountain, and although it’s not quite so dark, it appears to be just as vast. Which brings up my main problem with these particular locales. We are told these impressive spaces were carved out of the rock by legions of dwarves many generations ago. Now, dwarves aren’t exactly known for their towering height, so why would they create such enormous open spaces, with ceilings much higher than those of our greatest cathedrals?

©2013 New Line Cinema

   Perhaps they were overcompensating. Or maybe they were simply exploiting the natural caverns they found inside the mountains, but if so, shouldn’t we be seeing more evidence of the original stalactite-encrusted ceilings? And just imagine the scaffolding needed to get those little guys – and their tools -- up high enough to carve those geological roofs with geometric precision!  And why are there no handrails in sight? You’d think that with all the trouble the builders had taken to sculpt such artful columns and statues, they could have taken a bit of time to at least put in a few guardrails.

   Sure, our world is full of bridges that don’t have any such safety features, but these are almost always low spans over narrow waterways, where a fall would not likely leave one in a crumpled pile of shattered bones. The dwarves, on the other hand, constructed these death traps over yawning abysses and bottomless pits. Even accepting the idea that a stalwart miner should not be intimidated by such a precipice, one would have to wonder about engineers who never stopped to consider that the lights might go out, and it would be a good idea to have something to grope for in the dark.  But I guess none of those guys were around later on to make such a suggestion.

©2005 20th Century Fox

    The dark side of things can certainly get out of hand, even in a galaxy far, far away.  Fortunately, there are plenty of Jedi masters around to slice its adherents up with their light sabers.  But the council room where these guys meet in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is set in the penthouse of a lofty tower, with expansive picture windows all around it. Not only is this probably the most vulnerable site for a meeting of the least expendable beings in the galaxy – regarded as the wisest of the wise, to boot – it’s smack dab in the middle of a downtown intersection.  Now, this is less a failure of design than a reluctance to rein in the 3-D animators, who just couldn’t help showing off their state-of-the-art rendering prowess.  But all that air traffic whipping by was distracting enough to the audience; imagine how much it taxed even Yoda’s ability to concentrate on the discussion at hand.  Samuel L. Jackson must have been dying for someone to throw a mace through that window! As impressive as the animated background was, the scene would have been much better if, after a second or two, Yoda had simply hit the privacy button on his chair and made the glass opaque.  No wonder the Sith knocked these guys off!

   And now, back to the future: the recent re-boot of Star Trek, with J.J. Abrams at the helm, was controversial for a whole galaxy of reasons, but one of the things that really irritated me was the design of Nemo’s ship, the Narada.  The exterior looks like a giant squid (was that supposed to be an homage to the nemesis of the Nautilus?), which is fine as far as it goes.  But once you get inside, it’s like stepping into Dr. Who’s TARDIS, where the inside is much bigger than the outside.  Really, where among those spiky tentacles is all that interior space hiding? The designer stated that the ship was supposed to be quite big, but not as big as V’Ger. Well, if the Enterprise needs some 400 crewmen to keep it running, how many more would you expect to see aboard the much larger Narada? I guess they’re all off doing other evil things, because you hardly see any of them, even in the background of those practically infinite vistas branching off of Nemo’s great room.

©2009 Paramount Studios
    This is a recurring problem with sf movies: the need to impress upon the audience that the invaders’ ship is way more powerful than anything the little ol’ Earthlings could cobble together, because it usually means incorporating huge gulfs of space within the ship’s hull.  Remember Independence Day? How about Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Imagine keeping these things filled with breathable air, not to mention the heating bill! Navy submarines are compact for just these reasons, and yet out in space, where air is even harder to come by, we have ships with voids in which a fighter squadron could practice maneuvers? The Narada also features multiple levels of jagged-edged floors (apparently for no other reason than to give Kirk something to hang off of by his fingertips for the umpteenth time).  Is this a ship, or the home of the dwarves? The designer says that the original concept included handrails, which would have made at least some sense, but then that idea was scrapped, probably to amp up the drama of the fight scenes. Apparently, the Romulans don’t have anything like OSHA (and if they did, they’d probably just kill it out of spite).

©1994 Warner Bros. Television
   At least the creators of Babylon 5 had a good excuse for their space station’s deficiencies: in those days, CGI was just starting to take the place of miniature modeling, and computers had not quite attained the ability to render things realistically yet.  However, there is one flaw that cannot be so easily forgiven. At the pilot episode’s conclusion, when the commander announces that “Babylon 5 is now online,” the camera view is a look at the main characters from outside the command deck’s picture window.  Backing away, we see that the rest of the station is spinning, which we know is how they create artificial gravity around its edge (a major plot point in one or two of the later episodes). But these people are not standing on that edge; the command deck seems to cross the end of the cylinder, just above the docking port, which is understandably on the central axis, where gravity is nil.  The characters could be wearing magnetic boots, but there is no mention of it in all the years this show originally ran.  This is not the only instance where the spindle shape of the station is alluded to, but the people are standing on something perpendicular to the curved walls. It’s a pity, because I actually loved this series about a space station was a meeting place for representative of all sorts of alien species.  The storyline truly invoked my sense of wonder, but the gravity thing just made me wonder what in the worlds they were thinking.

©1978 Warner Bros.
     Perhaps the most familiar representative of an alien race is Kal-el, also known as Superman.  Orphaned when his home planet Krypton exploded, he went off to live with human foster parents on planet Earth. As shown in the Christopher Reeve movies, when he’s all grown up, he finds a cryptic crystal, takes it all the way up to the North Pole and promptly throws it away. It hits the ice and basically snow-balls from there, forming an enormous ice palace that’s all angles and sharp edges. Supposedly, this is how technology worked back home, where whatever structure you wanted could be grown like rock candy on steroids.  It certainly looks alien enough, if you forget that our world is chock full of quartz and salt and ice (although on a much smaller scale), but as a place to call your Fortress of Solitude it leaves a lot to be desired.  Namely furniture, and windows, and anything resembling a TV set or computer (there is a refrigerator, but it’s outside – everywhere outside).

   I suppose when you have super hearing and telescopic X-ray vision, you’ve got a front-row ticket to any show in the world, as long as you can focus adequately.  Sounds like a bit of a strain, though, even for Superman, who really just needs a place to chill out.  But who would want to live here, where the only form of recreation other than skating appears to be an interactive video of your birth-father? Fascinating as this quality-time may be, how long before your dad starts going on and on about how he met your mother?  And do you really want your dad looking over your shoulder all the time, especially in your place of solitude? What if you want to bring Wonder Woman over for a couple of cold ones? As man-caves go, this crazy igloo is an epic failure; you’d be better off hanging with Bruce Wayne –he may not be the best the best company, but at least he can afford cable.

©1998 Touchstone Pictures 

Courtesy NASA/JPL
    Jagged shapes sprouting at conflicting angles make their appearance again in the movie Armageddon. In this case, it’s supposed to be the core of a rogue comet that has plowed like a linebacker through the asteroid belt, throwing all kinds of debris toward the earth.  How that stuff gets here days before the comet does is something the NASA boys never question, but they react by assembling a team of oil-drill roughnecks and shooting them off in twin space shuttles to plant a nuke inside this big interplanetary kidney-stone so they can split it into two somewhat smaller ones that won’t hurt the Earth so much as they pass. 

   We’ve all seen photos and science-based renderings of asteroids and comets, and none of them looks even remotely like this. A comet is a loose ball of rock, ice and other frozen chemicals that the sun heats up until they go blasting out in a huge, glowing tail like a cosmic blow-torch. This would wear down those pointy rock formations pretty quickly, leaving a rounder, smoothed-down surface, pretty much like most asteroids are today – in real life.  

   Ugliness, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder.  The neighbor’s car might be the apple of his eye, but to me it’s just a rusting hulk sitting on four concrete blocks, serving no purpose but to drive down property values.  Aesthetics aside, there is a crucial distinction between intentional and unintentional ugliness, something to bear in mind when designing sets for movies and television shows.  If your objective is to evoke a feeling of disgust or terror, then an assault on the eyes may be just what the evil doctor ordered.  You can still go wrong by doing a sloppy job of it, though, as witness all those cheap horror flicks, but it’s not the inherent repulsiveness of the set that is at fault. Substandard workmanship and poor decisions can turn what should be a beautiful place into a visual torture chamber, and it is this kind of accidental ugliness that is the most inexcusable.

©1931 Universal Pictures
   We will start with the intentional; call it “ugly with a purpose.” Investing a set with gritty detail helps ground the more fantastic elements in reality, thus earning the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief. Some characters are pretty unsavory, and so their surroundings should be, too. A classic example is Dracula’s castle in Transylvania. It’s an imposing stone mansion, as all castles are, but just like its master, this place has been dead a long time and just doesn’t seem to realize it. There are spider webs everywhere, and even a tree branch has been allowed to grow right through a broken window and into the front hall. The purpose here is to intimidate the visitor and tell him right away that something is a bit off, even if the vampire himself isn’t fully aware of the impression he’s making.  

   Perhaps an even more extreme example of purposeful dilapidation would be the sets built for Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.  Calypso is a dark sorceress whose home is stuffed to the gills with all kinds of creepy things, including human skulls and shrunken heads.  She’s not a CSI tech, she’s a witch, so keeping things neat and tidy is not exactly at the top of her voodoo to-do list. Neither is personal hygiene, but she manages to get by on the stains of her teeth.  Davy Jones’s ship is a rotting hulk of barnacle-encrusted wood. But what would you expect of a derelict that’s been resting on the seabed for untold years? Jack Sparrow doesn’t have that excuse, though, and the decks of his Black Pearl are long overdue for a proper swabbing. But pirates are rebels; proper discipline is not exactly their strong suit, so a few layers of grime can give their world many fathoms of depth.

©2006 Buena Vista Pictures

   Authenticity is one thing, but there is such a thing as taking it too far.  After a while, the filth gets to be too much.  Other than the headquarters of the British noblemen, there doesn’t seem to be a single location in this whole series that isn’t suffering from a lifetime of neglect. The cleanest environment I can recall is that white expanse of beach where they fight over the dead man’s chest.  What does it say about your self-restraint when the cleanest element in the entire trilogy is the dirt itself?

   Sometimes, even restraint needs to be reined in a bit. In the HBO series Game of Thrones, the throne room in King’s Landing is a prime specimen of Spartan minimalism.  The spare set speaks of a kingdom well past its glory, of hollow victories and priorities beyond interior decorating. This seems to be the designer’s intent, but I wish there were more to see here, like perhaps those big dragon skulls that the characters say used to be on display.  Unfortunately, there is only one piece of furniture (perhaps because the courtiers were afraid it would clash with anything but a wrought-iron brazier), and it’s on a level of ugliness all its own. The eyesore I’m talking about is the iron throne.

   Now, I’ve never read George R. R. Martin’s books on which the show is based, but I can imagine this collection of welded swords is true to the author’s intentions, and it certainly fits into the storyline about a king long ago forging the many warrior bands into one mighty empire, but must be a royal pain to sit on. Ostensibly this is by design, as the king who made it proclaimed that “a king should never sit easy.” Surely those swords were forged of steel, with hilts plated in silver, gold and brass, yet they all appear to have the dull gray of a cast-iron door hinge.  It may be a potent symbol, but it’s hardly practical. That shortcoming could be redeemed if there were a climactic scene in which one of the heroes, in the midst of a desperate battle, draws a fully-functioning hidden sword out of the throne and cleaves his assailant in two. 

©2011 HBO

   Another place to find a lot of cleaving swords (and a clanging hammer) is the movie Thor, where the biggest bad guys are the Frost Giants.  They live on the world of Jotunheim, which, believe it or not, is a frozen wasteland where all their buildings seem to be undergoing a slow self-demolition.  It’s no wonder these guys are ticked off, since they don’t seem to have anything to eat (except maybe sno-cones and popsicles) and probably haven’t had a hot bath in ages. The message the set design is sending out seems to be one of resentment, a grudge that goes way back to the time Odin and his Asgardians sent the snow men packing. It’s a chilling emotional undercurrent, and the frigid CGI sets bring it across rather well.

©2011 Paramount Pictures 

   Another emotion that can be expressed visually is despair.  Take a look at the mysterious Skull Island in the most recent iteration of King Kong, where the starving descendants of the magnificent people who built the great wall are trying to eke out some sort of subsistence without access to the lush vegetation on the other side.  These people are so bereft of resources that their clothing is made out of their own hair!    

©2005 Universal Pictures

  As the ship’s boat approaches the island, it passes a series of gargantuan statues, including some rough-hewn monoliths with screaming faces carved into them.  This island is so terrible, even the rocks are trying to get away!  Of course, it’s never explained how the builders of that big wall thought it would keep out flying pterodactyls or a giant ape who seems to be a pretty good climber, but maybe that’s why they keep sacrificing their young women out on the overgrown gorilla feeder. And if that doesn’t make you desperate, I don’t know what will.

©2005 Universal Pictures

   Wanna see something really ugly? Take a trip to the heart of the galactic empire in Dune and check out the imperial throne room.  No Westeros minimalism here; instead, it’s an over-sculpted cathedral to tackiness, like the innards of a giant gold-plated watch. The piston-like columns and gear-toothed arches echo the brute force of the emperor’s machinations, which of course go all to pieces when a powerful messiah rises from the desert to throw a humongous monkey-wrench into the works. The emperor is forced to retire, and all he has to show for it is this big gold watch.

©1984 Universal Pictures

©1986 20th Century Fox

   Humans certainly don’t have an exclusive contract with ugliness.  There are plenty of bug-eyed monsters roaming the spaceways in search of another hapless planet to conquer, and they bring their inhuman aesthetics with them. Case in point: the movie Aliens, which centers on a battle between Colonial Marines and a really big, really bad mother of an alien. The scene in which the marines find their way to the queen’s chamber is eerie as all get-out, and that’s exactly what it makes you want to do: get out! It’s just another part of the basement in a human-built complex on some far-flung planet, but the room has been turned into a nursery for grade-X extra-large eggs. There’s biological slime and goo all over the place, and some skin-like tissue suspending Big Mama’s glowing abdomen, which is really pumping these babies out. The result is a feeling of disgust and abject fear fueled by our inherent squeamishness toward bugs, maggots and anything that might like to use its face-huggers to plant little horrors inside our bodies. That the manmade room has become the queen’s incubator serves as a metaphor – and a warning – about what could happen to us. 

©2009 Universal Cable Productions
   Now we come to the unintentionally ugly: hideous by accident.  Sometimes that’s just a matter of substandard CGI, as in the case of the interior of Warehouse 13. The exterior seems to be of the other kind, as its abandoned look serves as camouflage to hide the wonders within.  But the inside is another matter entirely.  The live-action sets are okay – they do look like some kind of industrial warehouse full of disparate objects, although I would expect some kind of numbering system on the aisles so a person would have an idea where he was – but pull back to a wide shot of the whole place and the illusion shatters into a billion pixels.  For one thing, there are some pretty big artifacts stored here, and yet we don’t see a hint of them among the regular rows of shelving, which robs us of some of that wonder we came inside to see. For that matter, these rows should not be all that regular.  The closer shots have dead ends that block off various rows like the walls in a labyrinth, and there are some shelves that are not even set at right angles.  There are also plenty of things that don’t even fit on the shelves, and these are displayed wherever a space can be found.  Not so in the wide shots, where the only time something interesting is seen is when some kind of special effect is happening (fireworks, a massive energy discharge, etc.).  At all other times, it looks like it was built in Minecraft.  It’s dull, dull, dull. And a little bit drab, to boot. But at least there are handrails!

©2009 Universal Cable Productions
   Space may be infinite on the outside of a starship, but on the inside it’s extremely limited. Or at least it should be.  The laws of physics and economy of resources compel real-world engineers to make use of every cubic inch, which is one of two reasons submarines are so claustrophobic (the other one being the hazardous environment beyond the hull).  But motion pictures and television shows need a bit more elbow room, if for no other reason than to ensure that not all the drama stems from crewmen fighting over the arm of a chair. The spacious corridors in the original Star Trek series were dictated by the width of the wheeled base of the rather cumbersome camera dolly, but it also provided enough room for a good hand-to-hand tussle when the story called for it.
©2009 Paramount Pictures
    In the most recent Star Trek movies, though, J.J. Abrams has taken this idea of interior space to the final frontier and beyond.  When I watched the scenes playing out on the Engineering deck, with all those metal tanks and catwalks, the first thing that came to my mind was that they had simply dressed up a brewery. Turns out, that’s exactly what they had done.

   Now, unless the ship runs on Romulan ale, the only reason I can imagine for doing this would be to portray a really immense mechanical environment at fairly low cost.  But why bother?  They wouldn’t need all that space if they’d just shown some bits and pieces of the engine itself.  In the original series, they got by with a wall of controls and a window looking out on a matte painting. In every other version of the series, they simply got to the heart of the antimatter by showing the warp core itself, augmented occasionally by smaller sets, such as the Jeffries tubes that art director Matt Jeffries had introduced.  I can understand the desire to show how a big ship would need a really big engine (after all, those three nacelles make up three fourths of the whole spacecraft), but it could have been accomplished with one high, curved wall of mechanical relief sculpture, a few levels of service catwalks and some impressive lighting effects.  You can’t underestimate the power of the imagination, either: a simple sign stating “Level 83” is a pretty low-cost way to imply the thing has at least 82 more levels below and who-knows-how-many up above. Unfortunately, they chose a 21st-century beer factory, and all the set dressing in the galaxy couldn’t make it look like a marvel of futuristic technology.

©2009 Paramount Pictures

     Things aren’t much better on the bridge. Although the general layout of the new command deck is the same as that of the original, the Abrams version is all white plastic and transparent displays – it looks like something Steve Jobs might have dreamed up.  The problem with this space i-pod styling is that it is seriously distracting. The focus should be on the actors and what they are doing, not on all the lights and animated display screens. The original set was impressive and stylish, but those black panels tended to recede behind the colorful uniforms of the officers, allowing them to “pop” out from the background. Here, the white backdrop pushes its way to the forefront, fighting the characters for dominance.  The bridge set for Star Trek the Next Generation, with its cushy leather chairs and swooping hard-wood countertop, was once compared to a hotel lobby; this antiseptic set is more like a hospital operating room (and just as inviting).  The glaring whiteness almost makes me thankful for all those horizontal lens flares that obstruct the view in practically every shot. You’d think they’d have at least corrected some of the flaws of the original, though, like bolting the chairs to the deck. But apparently they didn’t want to interfere with a mistake that had so boldly gone before.

©2009 Paramount Pictures

    In the set-piece battle to capture the hearts and minds of entertainment consumers, there are winners, losers and those whose efforts have gone above and beyond the call of beauty. The design and execution of the main sets has a profound effect on the credibility of the story, which is critical to the audience’s ability to buy into even the most fantastic premise. In all fairness, I must point out that a lot can happen to a concept between the initial visualization and what actually makes it to the screen, and not all of the decisions are in the hands of the production designer or his team of artists and artisans. It’s not always about money; I’ve seen some amazing things done on miniscule budgets and terrible things done with Narada-loads of cash.  Given the chance, cleverness and good storytelling can overcome just about any financial hurdle.  Surely even bean-counting studio executives can understand how much depends on the visual impact of their characters’ make-believe world, especially in this age of sequels and franchises. Satisfied viewers keep coming back for more, which brings in more money, and soon the executives can afford to buy more comfortable furniture for their throne rooms.

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