Jupiter Ascending has some of the most stunning visuals we've ever seen in a space opera. The movie's spaceships are just stunning, and unlike anything else in movies or elsewhere. We talked to lead designer George Hull, and he told us how Brutalist architecture and Siamese fighting fish influenced these ships.
We've featured Hull's artwork before — he worked on the Wachowskis' previous movie, Cloud Atlas, as well as Neill Blomkamp's Elysium, Amazing Spider-Man, and of course The Matrix. (Plus he has worked on development for Star Wars episode VIII.) Whether he's designing futuristic cities or weird spaceships, Hull has an incredible eye for form and architecture, and his designs for Jupiter Ascending are eye-popping.
He walked us through the designs for the main spaceships in the film, as well as the mech suits. Our interview with him is below, along with some concept art.
What was the brief that the Wachowskis came to you with? How did they describe what they wanted?
I was working on Cloud Atlas in Berlin and the Wachowskis were about to start shooting the film, but they wanted to get me working on design exploration for Jupiter very early on. They knew they wanted a visual style for their film that was unlike anything they had seen before, and naturally the Wachowskis are always striving for over the top aesthetics.
For me, this evolved like a dream assignment. The highest prize for a conceptual designer, is to be asked to help invent a bold new visual vocabulary for a world (or in this film several worlds). Creating something fresh even slighty in a genre that has a lot of movie space ships, robots and technologies, was the most challenging aspect of the design process!
I distinctly remember a dinner to kick off the small Jupiter team, where Lana asked me to really strive for a unique design direction within me as artist. These are coveted words for an artist to hear from a director, and from that point on I was on cloud 9.
This was simultaneously the biggest challenge for the biggest reward of my career. While they were filming Cloud Atlas, I got to draw space ships from my home in San Francisco, and collaborating with vfx designer John Geata. The directors would describe the feeling they wanted like elegant, or pompous for Titus' ship. I tried painting a spaceship made out of glass or computational architecture.
This was the "what if stage". What If the palace of Versaille was a spaceship? Would the richest dynasty in the universe decorate their vehicles with statues and over the top ornate decor? I love juxtaposing high tech with low tech. So in this film I tried things like a spaceship dock with a cathedral interior and Chandeliers. It all has to suport he story though, and in this case show the wealth of the characters. This type of brainstorming was simply awesome.
I have to add that I was not the only artist on the film by any means. There were many other talented folks including Tani Kunitake, Steve Skroce, Reid Southen, Julian Caldow, Dom Lavery, Jona De Ro, Will Htay and Charlie Revai (Supervising Art Director), and many more -that worked very hard on the layers and layers of the visual components. My focus was on the ships and vehicles, but there is obviously a whole film of other sets, costumes and environments. We were all working under the direction of Hugh Bateup, the Production designer. Plus there was a massive visual effects team that brought all of the drawings and paintings to life. Dan Glass was the visual effects supervisor that steered all that gorgeous CGI work, which I thought it looked stunning. I'm just glad I got to play a hand in the hundreds of people it took to bring the Wachowskis' visuals to life.
When you say you had to create a whole new visual vocabulary, what does that mean?
Let's start by saying the Wachowskis start with a descriptive screenplay and drive everything visually. The first layer of look is well in their minds from day one. Creating a new visual vocabulary means simply to design a new hierarchal look. For example the Egyptian design aesthetic permeated their entire culture, or the language of colors and shapes for the Nazis. As a designer, Im thinking about what visual motifs drive each world's form language, architecture, ship building, fashion etc. What new technology could we invent for this society which could connect all the visuals stylings?
I collaborated with John Geata, to come up with an idea for what we called "float components". We imagined a localized gravitation or magnetic field to suspend and control objects hovering in space. I took this concept of separation and drew spaceships with suspend sails, and vehicles with wings made up of segmented armor plates. Im always looking to give function to form even in fantasy scenarios, so I imagined this technology was developend to free objects from locked mechanical hinges, allowing ships to rapidly change the shape of its wings, or to array its cannons away from it body per targeting objective. Ultimately I had to put all the ideas together and draw shapes through my own artistic filter and make it all look harmonious
How many different types of spaceships are there in this film?
Each sibling of the Abrasax family has its own stlying language and fleet of ships. The main characters are Balem (Eddie Redmayne) and Titus (Douglas Booth). Separate from the various houses of Abrasax, there is a police force called the Aegis, and they have a spaceship called the Aegis Cruiser plus an armored patrol suit called the Zeros. Balem travels in his giant clipper that we see docking into his factory within the eye of Jupiter. He also has a fleet of attack ships called Shadows which we see shape shifting while chasing our hero and destroying Chicago. Titus has his private or clipper as well, larger and more of a flying palace. Plus a planet jumper that shuttles in and out of the large clipper's dock. Because of this main action point, I designed the dock to be a large design element embedded into the side of Titus's ship.
I read somewhere that Titus' spaceship is supposed to look like a cross between an insect and a bird, with huge solar sails... were there particular types of birds or insects you looked at? Was that the only ship that was designed to look like a creature? Did you try to make the other ships look as different from Titus's ship as possible?
The directors wanted the driving theme for Titus's ship to be elegant, pompous, rich beyond belief. They gave me ref pictures that spoke the them for gracefulness, and were very particular on the winged solar sail aesthetic. But putting it all together was a very hard challenge. I started by looking at elegant architecture, Art Deco, even Indian wedding jewlery. But elaborate and over the top embellishments were often busy and not graceful.
Eventually, I remembered no matter how cool an idea is conceptually, the most important attribute is always silhouette and proportions. All the decorative aspects should come later, so I went back and studied elegant animalistic forms. Butterflies, moths, but also Siamese fighting fish, and peacocks. Drawing a unique shape that had never seen before in the long history of movie space ships was the hardest challenge by far! I absorbed all of the references in my head and just started drawing ideas through my own design personality. I was also studying decorated weapons from various cultures and I came across an Indian knife and pistol combination that had a very unique shape. I merged this inspiration with a rotated butterfly, I new I was onto something a bit different.
For Balem's ship, Lana referenced Albert Speer, who was a chief architect for Adolf Hitler. So I used more brutalism cues, a bit of gothic and merged with my own industrial shape vocabulary for an imperialistic motif. Lana and Andy are obviously very artistic minded and we would discuss things like linear forms to contrast the curved language being created for Titus's aesthetic. Shapes, textures and color palette all were carefully considered with Hugh Bateup acting as Production Designer.
It looks like there are some great space battles in this movie. Did you think of the spaceships in terms of their offensive capabilities? Also, how much thought did you put into how the ships would take damage?
The script called for a stand off between the Aegis and Titus ship. So I designed the back half of Titus's ship to be for armaments and sectioned for military. The ship is more ornate towards the front and the back as a tuning fork shaped tail, open on the end. This shape allows gun turrets to swing port and starboard without shooting it own fuselage.
What was the wildest idea you were able to use for a spaceship design? Were there ideas that were too wild to use?
Perhaps this isn't the wildest idea, but it is a concept in the film that I'd like to share... While working on Balem's ship, I was struggling with a overall theme for its shape. I asked myself what type of engines could I invent that is different from most films, which typically use cylindrical thrusters, like Star Wars.
I thought, if these Dynasties are plundering planets all over the galaxy, the fuel must come from space itself. I began researching dark matter engines and was excited to read it was a realistic theory, one that posits that the invisible particles could be scooped up from the ship, and collided together to thrust the ship forward. In turn, scoop up more dark matter for fuel, and so on.
Of course, no one has any idea what this would look like, but as a designer I used the sail motif of the film and drew them as a floating array of magnetized armor plates. I imagined between these plates a field could be generated to collect dark matter particles, and when the field interacted with them, some sort of blue illumination or current would arc between the ship and the wings. I thought it was a cool element but was kept subtle as not to repeat the lightning on the hovercrafts within the Matrix films.
What can you tell me about the mech suits? How were they different from mech suits in Avatar, Edge of Tomorrow or other recent movies?
The task of designing the mech suits was quite a challenge. The script called for them to be Armored Patrol Suits, human in shape with the wing theme that ran throughout the film's style. Making it different than other movie robots or mechanized suits was much harder than you might think. If a human pilots it from the head, and it has arms with guns, walks on legs- no matter how much you style the forms, it WILL look similar!
So we looked at the script and saw the Zeros only needed to fly and attack like a fighter ship, and never required it to walk. I asked myself how can I make this different, less anthropomorphic. This inspired me to aim for more insect silhouette when flying. I removed the typical 2 strong man arms, and replaced with an array of 6 floating cannons.
I remember meeting the directors in the kitchen one morning, and saying, "I think I've had a breakthrough on the Zero." I showed them some sketches of it and asked, "What do you think about having the guns float away from the body (in the controlled magnetic field technology) and array themselves differently per targeting objective? They could array all together for a big artillery blast, or array individually scattered as they weave through the chaotic minefield written in the script." This was one of the few times I've ever heard them say awesome!
Finally, what's the best part about working on a totally original space opera, as opposed to other genres? What were you most excited to be able to do from scratch? Also, what are you most excited for people to see?
For me I have always loved to read stories and see movies that in various ways ask "can you imagine if…...?" Sure its a bit of childhood wonderment, gee wiz. But even though movies are in the business of entertainment, I like to think creatively inspired minds leaving the theater is a good thing.
It is rare a film makes me really push aesthetics, but with the Wachowskis they are always imagining big! I love that feeling while working day to day — as well as seeing other filmmakers' creative work myself. It was a fantastic experience of my career, highly creative as always with these directors, always looking to push the boundaries visually. In my humble option, It is a great action movie meant to be a fun ride with amazing visual world building. I hope you support their world and go enjoy the show!
See more of George Hull's concept art here.