Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
With the success of Gravity and Interstellar, and the recent premiere of The Martian, outer space has been a trending setting in film. Audiences loved the realistic depiction of outer space in these films because it takes them to a place that not many have seen in person. Special effects, specifically for low Earth orbit and the local environs of the solar system, has evolved in the past century.
Professor of Film and Media Studies Bob Rehak gave a faculty lecture on October 07, 2015 at McCabe library about the evolution of the depiction of outer space in film. Rehak presented a comprehensive analysis of the history of outer space, a “super genre,” as he calls it.
The lecture began with a clip from Europa Report, a perfect example of how far along special effects has gone in terms of recreating outer space in film. The film prides itself on its incorporation of scientific data and its use of scientific instruments to capture images such as the texture of Jupiter’s surface. I’ve never realized how far special effects has come until Rehak started talking about artist Chelsey Bonestell, who was a major influence on science fiction art and illustration.
Bonestell’s artwork was used in a shot in Destination Moon, panning the landscape of the moon. Premiered in 1950, the film of course did not display extravagant CGI projections of space as we have in film today. Instead, Bonestell painted in the mountains, craters, cracks, and stars that filled the screen as the camera scanned the moon. I was amazed by Bonestell’s artwork because it was imaginative and dream-like. It wasn’t the most realistic depiction of space, but it truly was fascinating to look at since it was very detailed considering it came from a 1950s film.
Another major player in science fiction film that Rehak mentioned was Stanley Kubrick. He pushed the bar forward for more astronomical details in the outer space setting and destroyed the notion of what a spaceship should like. Kubrick pushed special effects towards realism in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
With the advent of digital representation came the departure of science fiction artwork. Rehak stated that the depiction of outer-space co-evolved with the coming of the space shuttle program, as visualization of space shifted to a digital representation rather than two-dimensional artwork. There was enough technology and data to portray space in three-dimensions and to illustrate the complex shapes and details of space more accurately.
A great example was the last clip Rehak showed from Contact. The shot presents a zoom out on earth, then on the planets of our solar system, then on the milky way galaxy, then on the entire universe until the shot culminates into a girl’s eye. Watching the shot, I was astonished at the immense feat the film was able to pull of. Special effects and depictions of space had grown into a great spectacle on film.
Rehak ended by pointing out a trade-off in the digital representation of outer space. No longer could the public dream or fantasize about space because digital representation has created such a realistic depiction of it. People now have a standardized notion of what space looks like because of movies such as Gravity and Interstellar. Even though fantasies about space have faded, digital representations have brought humans closer to a whole other world.
Featured photo courtesy of University of Virginia.