The coolest thing about Battleship? The sleek look of its alien spaceships and war machines. Tasked with creating a whole new alien race from scratch, designers who'd worked on Star Trek and The Matrix created some downright beautiful killer starships.
Check out an exclusive first look at the concept art of Battleship, by designer George Hull. We spoke to Hull, and visual effects supervisor Grady Cofer from ILM, about creating alien warships that were like nothing you've seen before. You'll definitely want to click this gorgeous concept art to enlarge and see it at its full resolution.
All concept art from George Hull for Battleship.
An Awesome Challenge: George Hull says he was first hired in September 2009 to work on initial designs for the alien warships:
The only information I was given [was] that "the Humans are fighting Alien warships at sea." What could that look like?.
I was actually planning to take six months off to work on a personal art project, and this call really made me pause. As much as i love creating art for myself... drawing/ designing warships and painting naval battles is pure cat nip for me! That's how I described it to my wife and friends. The 10 year old kid in me took over and I was drawing warship ideas on the back of bills and junk mail for the next four months. As the saying goes, when you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.
The opposite of naval vessels: Cofer says the designers spent a lot of time looking at real U.S. destroyers, as well as a Japanese destroyer, for the film. And these ships have a lot of detailed clustered on the tops of their surfaces, including antennae and towers and guns, and then the hull is smooth. So for the alien ships, the designers decided they should be the opposite: "We clustered a lot of detail on the bottom of our ships and left the top surfaces more smooth."
Actually, Hull says his early designs had a threatening silhouette of "a warship with weapons spiking upward from its spine, from head to tail." But Berg "wanted something more surprising, unexpected."
A big imperative from Berg was that the alien ships look like they had a sense of history and long use to them, rather than being fresh off the factory floor. This is a scout team who have probably checked out a lot of other planets before making it to Earth. "He didn't want the ships to look brand new," says Cofer.
From Space to the Ocean Depths: When Hull started working on the alien ships "there was nothing, zilch, only the brief and a blank sheet of paper."
So he started drawing "threatening battle cruisers that were more like alien submarines," with the idea that they could reveal their weapons in surface mode. "I always approach a design with function in mind," Hull adds. He thought that these ships would have to plummet from space and land in the ocean depths — so they would have thrusters for interplanetary travel, as well as submarine propulsion.
Stinger ships: The smaller alien attack ships are called "Stingers," and Hull's early designs imagined a "military crustacean aesthetic." He looked at horseshoe crabs and other armored shapes.
But Cofer says the final design is based more on waterbugs, "these bizarre kind of creatures. They can stand on the surface of the water. But with water tension, they actually can glide along that surface," says Cofer.
At first Hull was skeptical that the heavy alien ships could really stand on the water surface like waterbugs, but then he started thinking about the shapes that that idea suggested.
[I] focused on the raised shape and designing legs, wings and lobster like mandibles hanging down. Within a few days, using this waterbug idea I drew the first warship that the director approved of. My sketches moved away from militarized crocodiles to more of a wasp integration. This was a lesson in not letting your design sense become a slave to functionality all the time. Sometimes turning that off for a bit helps your brain consider new shapes and ideas in a new light.
And of course, he notes that he was a "hired gun" creating the big ideas and shapes, and there was a whole art department that took the designs to the finish line.
Jumping bugs: Then Berg came up with the idea that instead of just gliding along the surface of the water, these Stinger ships might "collect a lot of energy and then push it into the water, and launch themselves in the air." They can't fly, just leap — and then crash down into the water again. The VFX crew did an "animation test" showing a Navy vessel going up against one of these Stinger ships, which launched itself into the air and leapt, and it looked cool.
"It made for a really, really interesting kind of cat-and-mouse game of strategy, the way you would orient yourself against the ship you were attacking," says Cofer. "It became a really interesting characteristic part of these ships."
Also, the designers reasoned that the Stinger ships, which could submerge, would be like submarines: everything had to be shielded and covered up. So any weapon would have to come out of a port that would open up to let it rise out. "You get really creative ways of playing with the silhouettes of the ships. They might have a long, kind of sleek silhouette. And all of a sudden, when it feels like it's being threatened, all of these ports can open and all of these weapons can come out and aim," says Cofer.
Alien Pegs: One of the things that's unique about the alien weapons in Battleship is the way the alien Regents launch "pegs," similar to the pegs you use in the board game. These pegs flip over in the water, and spike into a ship. At first, nothing happens, and then the pegs shoot downwards into the hull of the ship, causing immense damage with all the energy they've stored up. This was both an homage to the game, and a way to do a really unique weapon, says Cofer.
Hull had a hard time making this idea work at first:
How do you make white pegs look threatening? I decided to make the launching hardware around the pegs look as cool, alien but functional as possible. The pegs themselves were discussed having a delayed detonation capability. Once they were fired, they could smash into the side of a ship, and then explode like a bomb versus a typical missile. You can see in my sketches a missile launching weapon with the white pegs canisters loaded up like a peg dispenser!
Shredders: Berg had the idea that the aliens would launch "shredders" — which Cofer describes as "this kind of chainsaw wrapped around a sphere, that you could program to take out specific targets." Even though these aren't living creatures, Berg still wanted them to have their own personality, and calibration, and a thought process, while they're working to achieve their goals. They're tools, but they can also think for themselves.
Other Projects: Cofer says they were "very conscious of" working in the same basic genre as Transformers, and tried really hard to differentiate the technology and the mechanics of the alien weapons in this film. Also, he wondered, early on, if any of the designs from director Peter Berg's failed Dune project would make it into this film in some form — but Berg was eager to start fresh.
Water power: Because so much of the film's action takes place on the water, Cofer says they thought a lot about how to use water in a creative way. Says Cofer, Berg had the idea that these alien ships might
constantly recycle the ocean through them for whatever reason, like it's a coolant or it's a part of their propulsion system. We dropped all these hoses under these ships, so they suck up a lot of water out of the ocean. And then we placed a lot of water ports over the top surfaces, so the water pours out and splashes along the sides. It really became another kind of creative window into the personalities of the ships. So in a particular shot — maybe it's a face off between a Navy ship and an alien ship, and [Berg] wanted the alien to showcase how dangerous it is at this one moment, or maybe it's angered so it feels threatened. So we'd open all these water ports and just jettison all this water, splash it out and let it rain down. So there were interesting little animation cues we could do without spinning a lot of gears and waving the wings in the air, that we could give windows into little personality traits with them.
Humanoid aliens: As we learned when we talked to the film's writers, there were lots of weird ideas for what the aliens could have been like. Cofer says the concept art ranged from the "whimsical" to "the kind of monstrous," and Berg really kept leaning towards more humanoid creatures. Berg didn't want the aliens to be "this scary other," he wanted them to be "more familiar," says Cofer:
He was more interested in creating an opponent that was a bit more sympathetic and slightly familiar, and it's one of the interesting takes. One of the interesting things he does in this movie is create parallels between our Navy force and this alien force, and so he wanted us to create characters who were, in a way, kind of attractive. Like these kind of grizzled war heroes or workers from this other planet. He also wanted us to differentiate [among] the creatures themselves. He didn't want them to have one-dimensional perosnalities. [Berg wanted] to imbue them with the full spectrum of personality traits. He wanted one character to be overconfident, and another to be very curious, and another to be kind of scared. He didn't want them all to be kind of identical.
Class divisions: Berg wanted the alien race to have different classes. There are the leaders, the "Regents." And meanwhile, says Cofer, "this kind of working class level of these creatures are the Thugs. And [Berg] wanted them to feel like NFL linebackers, to have a massive amount of potential energy, an incredible strength and athleticism, but they often show restraint. [When] this creature walks into a room, you feel all that potential power, even if they're not using it all the time." The designers watched a lot of footage of football games and training sessions, and analyzed that and applied it to the Thugs, because Berg wanted there to be that parallel with NFL players. (The thing about the creatures being called Thugs and Regents is apparently in the original movie script.)