Since as early as the silent film A Trip to the Moon in 1902, there has been a need for spaceship design in science-fiction movies. For over a century, the genre has amassed a catalog of intergalactic vessel design styles– from the flying saucer of The Day the Earth Stood Still, to the bulky space truck of Alien, to the sleek flagship of Star Trek, to the triangular Star Destroyers in Star Wars.
An exhaustive number of looks have been realized and riffed on, making it a challenge for production designers to tackle a new science-fiction movie without facing a core question: how do you create a spaceship design that audiences have never seen done before? Guy Hendrix Dyas — who has worked with Christopher Nolan, Steven Spielberg, and Bryan Singer — has answered that challenge with his stunning (even scene-stealing) designs for the “Avalon” in Passengers (in theaters today).
Serving a Dual Purpose
Creating that look was guided in good part by where all movies begin: the script, which already offered a glimpse of a far-from-ordinary spaceship. In the movie’s fictional future, the Avalon was created to escort thousands of hibernating people on a 120-year journey to colonize a new planet. It wasn’t so much like the humble vessel transporting small crews we often see in sci-fi, but more like a long-range Noah’s Ark — an ark specially built to provide comfort once its passengers arrived at their destination, woke up from hibernation, and had to rehabilitate on the ship for four months before settling on the planet. In other words, The Avalon is two things at once: a transport vessel and a cruise ship.
The relative uniqueness of that combination provided Dyas with a head start to begin approaching the design challenge of reconciling the ship’s dual function. He did so with the production-design equivalent of method acting: he imagined himself as the person who would be responsible for designing the real Avalon. “I literally had to put myself in the head of someone that doesn’t exist yet,” he explains. He didn’t vanish entirely into the hypothetical person’s head, however, as he channeled his time in industrial design in the 1990s to decide how to begin: function, then form. “I started from the outside in,” Dyas says. “I needed to design a vessel that was going to fly through space.”
The first sketch of the Avalon (then called the Excelsior), inspired by the seeds of the sycamore tree. Art by Guy H. Dyas.
Inspiration From Nature
Above all else, that meant creating a spaceship design that would address gravity. That was important to Dyas, not just to live up to the “real-world” concerns of the character he was embodying, but also the expectations of theatergoers. “Audiences now are at such a point of sophistication in terms of their expectations of what they expect to see. They want to know that the designer and director and cinematographer have thought about all of these issues,” he says. Dyas very much thought of them, and inspiration came from an unlikely place: sycamore-tree seeds and their helicopter-like descent when they fall. “It got me inspired to think of a design that was very kinetic and had a lot of motion within it,” he says. The result was the ship’s distinct gravity-enabling exterior: a core spine with crew quarters in front and engine in back, as well as three hulls (one for storage, one for passenger living, one for a giant mall-like concourse) that rotate like those falling seeds.
The Grand Concourse Bar was designed with a strong art-deco theme, in contrast with the antiseptic, modern styling throughout the rest of the ship. Photo by Jamie Trueblood.
Once Dyas had that structure locked in and approved, he proceeded in the same way some people approached puzzles — after completing the outside border, the interior can be filled in. “The breakdown of the various environments inside the ship came very quickly, because they followed the natural geography that existed on the outside,” he says. There are more traditional spaceship spaces (and aesthetics) to be found in the Avalon (crew quarters, hibernation areas, maintenance rooms), but it’s in the environments where passengers would spend their downtime once they woke up that a real opportunity presented itself. For those, he says, he studied how cruise liners deal with housing and entertaining passengers for long periods, and was able to really depart from traditional spaceship design, focusing on what makes the Avalon unique.
A still from the film showing the VFX extensions and the glass canopy five floors above.
Think of the interiors in the 2004 Battlestar Galactica TV show, or the Nostromo in Ridley Scott’s Alien. All the spaces share a similar look because the entire ship has a singular function. “There would be no reason for the film designer, or for the real architect of the ship in the imaginary world, to concoct a different look for each space,” Dyas explains. But the Avalon would need different looks. After all, no passengers would enjoy a movie theater, restaurant, or clothing store that looks like an engine room or crew mess hall.
Luxury in Space
Avalon’s passenger environments required open spaces with warm, diverse, and inviting designs, Dyas explains. Especially because the two main characters — Jim (Chris Pratt) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), who wake up 90 years too early — would spend so much time in them. “Our characters go to restaurants, they go to swimming pools, they go to luxury suites. They go to all these different environments. I was faced with a huge opportunity to have us walk from a sleek, grand concourse that’s designed with beautiful off-whites and alloy metals, straight into a warm inviting bar that’s designed in 1930s art deco and feels more like a jewelry box from the past,” he says.
The forward observation deck was a technically complex set to design and build. The observation deck is geographically at the forefront of the ship’s second rotating hull. Photo by Jamie Trueblood.
One of the most beautiful rooms he created is one of his favorites: the “forward observation deck,” which features a Japanese Zen garden and amphitheater with a beautiful design. “If you look at a contour map, it’s usually made up as a series of lines that depict different levels in the Earth. This set was designed in a very similar way, where the shape is a series of wonderful, sweeping ceiling ribs that curve down into the main set,” he says. “The idea is that it’s a communal space where passengers can go and mediate — look out into space and dream about the new life that they’re soon to have.”
What’s notable about that is that it nicely encapsulates Dyas’ production-design work in Passengers: creating spaces that are beautiful to look at, serve a practical (and intended) function in a functional world, and are entirely unique to the audience. It’s appropriate that Dyas explains that his goal was to imagine himself as “somebody who would have designed a ship to put people at ease, make them feel excited, and be filled with wonder about the ship design.” Those feelings may have been intended for fictional passengers, but it’s hard not to share that wonder as an audience member seeing his work in Passengers. That too, it turns out, was intended. “You want people to say, ‘Wow. How did they think of that?’ Or, ‘Wasn’t that a cool idea?’ That’s always what I strive to do.”
Top image: Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt in Passengers. All images courtesy of Sony Pictures.