Sci-fi has given us some of the most iconic and daring designs in Hollywood history. We've selected the very best designs in sci-fi movies, and a host of influential designers discuss our picks.
From prosthetic masks to future costumes, giant starships to alien worlds, the world of science fiction movies offers a unique opportunity to the designer to create something new and mindblowing. The sky’s no longer the limit: the boundless landscapes of time and space offered by fiction's final frontier mean creatives can really let their imagination run wild. And in doing so, they've created some unforgettable designs with popular appeal far beyond the hardcore sci-fi niche.
Here we've selected our 30 favourites from the history of movie sci-fi designs. Plus we've enlisted some leading designers to help us pinpoint exactly why they've become so iconic. Have we included your favourite designs? If not, let us know in the comments below!
Bike - Akira
Hailed as one of the best animes of all time (and rightly so) Akira was based on the comic book series by Japanese artist Katsuhiro Otomo. The film was released in America on July 16th 1988 and this is often thought of as the date that the anime genre was firmly put on the map.
A never-aging tale, the story and characters are timeless creations. However, it's the electric bike ridden by the character of Kaneda that really strikes us as the stand-out design of the film. Created by Katsuhiro Otomo, it is stated in the film that the bike features "ceramic, double-rotor two-wheel drive, computer-controlled anti-lock brakes, and 12,000 rpms", and that you can "lower the rev below 5000 while changing gears".
The colour, stickers and slick design have made it a stand-out vehicle for decades. Many have tried to replicate the bike, with some claiming that there are three 'real' bikes still in existence. However, it will cost you around $120,000!
Aardman Digital's senior designer, Gavin Strange: "What's not to love about Kaneda's bike from Akira!? It's red, it's big and it's fast. Brought to life in Neo-Tokyo it just oozes coolness, especially in the opening scene of the film with the light trails (which is a feat in animation itself, especially considering it was made in 1988!). The bike is just a much a character as Kaneda or Tetsuo and I always wince a bit at the end of the film when the bike is battered and broken, it's a thing of awesomeness for sure!"
Founder of Pariah Studios and 3D artist, Rob Redman: "Motorbikes have always been a symbol of freedom, with a hint of rebelliousness. Akira took that feeling and combined it with Syd Mead style design and forged something newer and cooler but with a nod to nostalgia."
Animator, Illustrator and Digital Designer, Gareth Axford: "I first saw the anime version of Akira when I was about 12, and Kaneda's bike blew my mind. It's just so unbelievably cool, yet looks like it would actually work in the real world (as has since been proven, with various real life replicas in existence)."
Visual Effects Artist and designer of Moon, Gavin Rothery: "This is surely a classic bit of sci-fi design. It looked brilliant on-screen in that way that only Anime designs really can. It crosses the sweet spot of sci-fi with one foot in the present; one in the future. Nobody actually manufactures a vehicle like this, but it's not a huge leap to imagine them doing so."
Production Lead for Erskine Design, Wil Linssen: "The first thing you think seeing that bike, is how much you want one. When you think of cool Japanese engineering, your mind instantly goes to sports bikes, and it was right when the world was falling out of love with Triumphs, Harleys and BMWs. It's still looks futuristic 14 years later. Also looks like it would ride pretty well!"
U.S.S. Enterprise - Star Trek
To boldly go where no man has gone before, you need a pretty good ship. And that's exactly what millions of viewers got with the Enterprise. Although the ship first appeared in the television series of Star Trek, we felt that the design itself needed to be included in the list. After all, a refit of the original NCC-1701 Enterprise did feature in both the 1979 and 2009 Star Trek films.
Walter Matt Jefferies was the man behind the legendary Enterprise design. The appearance of the ship in 1964 was a revelation, as his original design went on the influence hordes of TV and movie spacecrafts. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry didn't tell Jefferies what he wanted to ship to look like, instead he told him what he didn't want. According to Jefferies, Roddenberry was also absolutely clear to avoid any resemblance to a 1960s rocket ship.
Speaking to Star Trek Magazine, Jefferies said that: "Gene described the 100-150 man crew, outer space, fantastic, unheard-of speed, and that we didn't have to worry about gravity. He had emphasised that there were to be no fins, no wings, no smoke trails, no flames, no rocket." And we think Walter Jefferies did a mighty fine job.
You can check out an awesome 360° view of the latest Enterprise design for J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie on the official Star Trek movie web site.
Founder of Pariah Studios and 3D artist, Rob Redman: "Depending on your age you probably hate some Enterprises and love others. I'm an Enterprise D man myself and its smoother, flowing lines were very much of the period, with 90s sci fi being quite clean. Throwbacks to 2001 and lots of clean white panelling were the thing. The Enterprise D was also one of the earlier proponents of flat touchscreen interfaces. In fact there were hardly any buttons anywhere. On top of that the space docks had fixed the sliding door mechanisms too."
Animator, Illustrator and Digital Designer, Gareth Axford: "A true classic, everyone recognises the Star Trek spaceship, even if they've never seen an episode or film in their lives. About as iconic as it gets, and pretty much timeless."
Visual Effects Artist and designer of Moon, Gavin Rothery: "One of the surest signs of the integrity of this ship design is the amount of iterations it has been through over the years and always looked classy on-screen. It's unique amongst fictional space vehicles as it's progressed through every decade from the 1960s to the present day and has remained as relevant as it ever was."
Prawns - District 9
Telling the tale of an alien invasion with a twist, District 9 went on to become a huge success when it was released in 2009. The film provided an allegory for the political and social struggles faced in South Africa, and around the world. Director Neill Blomkamp wanted the feel of the movie to be as 'real' as possible, hence the clever cinematography and documentary style film-making.
Renowned design company Weta Workshop (who are also part owned by producer Peter Jackson) were hired to create the most important element of the film - the aliens nicknamed 'prawns.' Neill was very clear that he wanted the aliens to have a strong insect feel, with varying colours and contrasts while being non-reptilian.
The final alien was created by whittling down a number of illustrations, before using programmes such as Maya to create the finished 3D version. Lead concept designer Greg Broadmocare had already worked on the likes of Avatar and King Kong, proving that the prawns were created by some of the best artists of our time.
Founder of Pariah Studios and 3D artist, Rob Redman: "Alien yet so recognisable as beings with personality, the Prawns are some of the best alien designs in recent times. Weta did a fantastic job of making them completely odd yet letting the viewers empathise. Credit has to go to the animators as well as the creature designers, of doing fantastic work on portraying emotions believably."
Animator, Illustrator and Digital Designer, Gareth Axford: "The prawns are so disgusting to look at, I'd say they were definitely inspired by 'Brundlefly' in Cronenburg's version of The Fly, yet are imbued with such personality. Kudos to the animators for making these guys characters we can empathise with."
Visual Effects Artist and designer of Moon, Gavin Rothery: "Designing an alien species that you can empathise with is no easy task, especially when they look like insects. This shows very clearly how good the team on District 9 are because they pulled it off beautifully."
Loosely based on a large green robot called Gnut, from Harry Bates' 1940 short story Farewell to the Master, Gort is the robot accomplice of the humanoid alien Klaatu. It is perceived that Gort is the servant of Klaatu throughout the film but it is revealed at the end of the film that Gort has been the leader the entire time.
On screen, Gort appears to be around 7ft 7in (the height of actor Lock Martin) and made entirely from 'flexible metal'. Two suits which were designed and built by art director Addison Hehr were attached to the actor front to back so that the robot could appear seamless. Lifted boots were also used, whilst air holes were placed in the chin of the robot helmet.
What makes this design so worthy is the subtle scariness achieved with minimal effects. Gort's 'eye beam' is terrifying, whilst still adding a slight human aspect by actually giving the robot an 'eye'. It's clear that Gort's design has gone on to influence other sci-fi baddies, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey's HAL, with his one red eye and monosyllabic tone. As for the remake? We won't go into that.
Founder of Pariah Studios and 3D artist, Rob Redman: "Gort is an icon, pure and simple. Many many designs owe their look to it - Cylons and even Hal's glowing red eye harks back to it. Who can argue that a giant metal robot forged from millions of tiny nanobots isn't cool?"
Visual Effects Artist and designer of Moon, Gavin Rothery: "Again, a design classic. Perhaps a little dated by today's design standards, but pure vintage class. The glowing robotic slit-eye opening is one of the most perfect images of robotic menace I've ever seen on-screen."
Wall-E - Wall-E
After a huge string of hits including cowboys, lost fish and big, blue monsters, it was certainly time for animation kings Pixar to dive into the world of space. The only hurdle however, was that the main character couldn't talk. Fear not film lovers, for Pixar went on to create one of their best characters to date.
For a robot that couldn't talk, the design had to kick ass. He needed to be able to capture the hearts of the audience (and make them cry, obviously) so what were the designers to do? Thankfully, director Andrew Stanton and his team were able to turn Wall-E into a wonderfully expressive and highly emotional mechanism. His eyes, modelled on a pair of binoculars and his Charlie Chaplin inspired clumsiness makes him the child-like star of the show.
Credit also has to be given to legendary sound designer Ben Burtt for creating the amazing noises throughout the entire film. Without him, we wouldn't have Wall-E's adorable 'Eve' exclamation. You can even check out a 'real-life' Wall-E at Disneyland now!
Animator, Illustrator and Digital Designer, Gareth Axford: "Aaaah, Wall-E, loveable, shambolic Wall-E. He's a metallic Charlie Chaplin! Again, the designers and animators did an amazing job in making it so easy for the audience to connect with a little rusty yellow rubbish collector. Sublime."
Visual Effects Artist and designer of Moon, Gavin Rothery: "Gorgeous design. The texturing of this character is so carefully handled; he's essentially a scrappy pile of old rubbish himself but he comes across so well on-screen. He has everything he needs to emote to the audience without over-complicating his design. There are many similarities between Wall-E and Johnny 5, which I find strange as I never really bought into the Short Circuit robot (despite him being designed by the legendary Syd Mead), but Wall-E had me from the start. Perfectly handled."
Designer and web developer, Simon Jobling: "The sleek lines and shapes, the shiny materials, the smooth motions - Eva was the ideal contrast to Wall-E's rigid, clunky, clumsy appearance - but it was captured in the most adorable robot ever created. The hat-tip towards Apple in his startup chime was a lovely touch too (also a nice reminder of the Pixar history and connection)."
The Excessive Machine - Barbarella
Who can forget the super-sexy first lady of sci-fi, Barbarella? So the actual film may not be Oscar-worthy but it's a rip-roaring ride of big hair, space travel and some very skimpy outfits. The movie solidified Jane Fonda as a forerunner in Hollywood and spurred a number of sexy sci-fi flicks.
The Orgasmatron - or as it's referred to in 1968's Barbarella 'The Excessive Machine' - is as over-the-top as it gets. But you know what, we relish a bit of excessive design when it comes to sci-fi and why not? It's 1968, so the time calls for a machine that pleasures you to the point of death right? Right?
The Excessive Machine is operated by the film's antagonist Dr. Durand-Durand. Resembling a clamshell, the machine grasps the entire body below the neck and massages the passenger by flexing its upper half with a wave-like motion from right to left. The lid is made of long, rigid rod-like paddles that lie in a row, side by side. It is operated from a keyboard resembling that used to control a large organ.
Visual Effects Artist and designer of Moon, Gavin Rothery: "To be honest, whenever I watch Barbarella, I find it hard to look at anything other than Jane Fonda. I know there are some other shapes and colours in that film and perhaps some noises..."
You can read a Barbarella post on Gavin's blog.
WOPR Computer - WarGames
WarGames was released at a point in the 1980s when films became obsessed with video games. This story, starring Matthew Broderick, takes the video game boom to the extreme when reality is confused with game-play and Broderick's character almost starts World War III.
The computer at the helm of all this is called 'WOPR', which stands for War Operation Plan Response. Some claim that director John Badham initially called the machine NORAD SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan) but eventually decided against it. The computer itself was created by production designer Geoffrey Kirkland, with influences from Tabulating machines, consoles and metal furniture. The images he created were then adapted by art director Angelo Graham.
Although some reckon that the entire design of the film has aged badly, it's important to remember that at the time of release, it worked impeccably well and WOPR is often hailed as one of film's most-beloved computers. The vocal design for the machine only adds to its charm - and the name it responds to, 'Joshua', is a perfect heart string tugger.
Creative Director at 2Advanced and designer, Shane Mielke: "There are several awesome 80s design qualities about the WarGames super computer. The first is the fact that the acronym WOPR and its word origins of “War Operation Plan Response" are ominously stenciled on the side of the mainframe. The next classic 80s sci-fi manoeuvre is the randomly blinking LED lights grouped into the shape of a face that flash, blink and oscillate with no real meaning but require white coated technicians walking around it scribbling notes to monitor its activity."
Creative Director of Northern Lights, Paul Kelsey "I'm old enough to remember War Games the first time around, a time when homes (certainly not in estates in south Manchester!) just didn't have computers. At the time the WOPR computer was mindblowingly exciting in it's scale and complexity and made us in awe of this thing, with all it's buttons and flashing lights and endless banks of monitors - I also was struck by the WOPR's pretty distinctive type on the main hub, that seemed perfectly at home in the context of this awesome machine."
Tripods - War of the Worlds
Surprisingly, the original Mike Trim illustrated versions of the tripods have never actually appeared on film. That iconic Jeff Wayne album cover went on to become one of the most recognised images in science fiction and it's sad to see that they've never been fully reincarnated in physical form.
In 2005, Steven Speilberg attempted a remake of the original 1953 version. Although the film itself was somewhat panned, you have to give credit to the design and special effects team. The trusted professionals at ILM were hired to give their spin on the iconic tripods, with Ryan Church head of the creature design.
Speilberg was adamant that he wanted the audience to be terrified of the machines themselves and not just what was inside them. Concept designer Doug Chiang heavily researched previous versions of the tripods but also, intentionally steered away from the obvious as they wanted to create something entirely unique but still play homage to the original illustrations. We think they did just that and that's why the 2005 tripods deserve some recognition.
Animator, Illustrator and Digital Designer, Gareth Axford: "The Speilberg versions managed to convey a really good mixture of organic vs machine that was truly menacing, however I have more of a soft spot for 'The Masters' from the 80s TV series 'The Tripods', they're the ones that made me hide behind my sofa!"
Scorpion Ship - Avatar
One of the most successful films of all time and a James Cameron classic, Avatar had all the budget and scope to really get stuck into the design elements. The battle scenes needed some serious ship weaponry and we think the Scorpion ship is the best of the bunch.
The AT-99 'Scorpion' Gunship is a VTOL ducted fan rotor, Mosquito class targeting and missile launch platform. It was designed to work within the Earth's atmosphere and that of Pandora's. It has two forward-mounted stub pylons that are armed with four gimbal-mounted .50 calibre guns with 700 rounds per minute cyclic rate of fire as close-range primary weapons. It carries two gun-type weapons, two dual 50 cal. machine guns and two triple 20mm Gatling guns. With two pairs of huge stub-wing pylons to carry its armament of 150 TK-411 WAFAR (Wrap-Around Fin Aerial Rocket) in ten 15-tube rocket launchers, all-in-all it's a pretty badass ship.
Animator, Illustrator and Digital Designer, Gareth Axford: "The best thing about the film, in my opinion!"
T800 Endoskeleton - Terminator
Another James Cameron creation makes it into the list. Well, it'd be rude not to have some Arnie present and what a scary creature he is! The original concept for Terminator was created by James Cameron who some claim got the idea after falling ill and dreaming about a deadly cyborg chasing him (pretty cool, huh?). The 1984 film was a revolution in sci-fi and still to this day, remains an absolute must-see.
The T-800 Endoskeleton - and all the other Terminator models for that matter - was created by Stan Winston and his team. The T800 was fully armoured in a hyper alloy sheath around vital areas, with critical components being housed in case-hardened constructions. Its nuclear plant was heavily armoured and in the event of critical damage, a secondary power source was installed to allow the unit a margin of time to continue/complete its mission. It was covered in living human flesh, which meant that it could easily disguise itself to carry out the killing.
The Terminator launched the career of Stan Winston, who went on to win an Oscar for his work on Aliens and a further two Oscars for Terminator 2. A brilliant and timeless design, the Endoskeleton remains terrifying to this day.
Animator, Illustrator and Digital Designer, Gareth Axford: "A piece of nightmarish genius. Stan Winston's Studio did such an amazing, iconic job with the T800. The moment when it's first revealed in all its unstoppable glory, clambering from the wreckage of a burning juggernaut is still so powerful, plus it was all done with stop motion miniatures which makes its impact all the more impressive."
Visual Effects Artist and designer of Moon, Gavin Rothery: "A design classic. It's really the skull that does it for me, as the feet always annoyed me a bit. The big ball-bearing on the heel just looks awful for any practical mobility. The chrome skull though, with the glowing red eyes: perfecto."
Production Lead for Erskine Design, Wil Linssen: "New breed of sci-fi/horror (aliens too) with Cameron at the helm. Technology was a thing to be feared and marvelled at in equal dose. Grunge/metal, and there's loads of leather and rebellious themes. The first thing you see are the eyes, like a mix of demon and machine."
Creative Director at 2Advanced and designer, Shane Mielke: "It has beautiful lines, a shiny Coltan and Titanium alloy structure (no plastic on this bad boy), ominous glowing red eyes and a structure actuated by a powerful network of hydraulic servomechanisms. All of those features combine to make the Terminator endoskeleton design super awesome, super strong and completely unstoppable (except by molten metal and liquid nitrogen)."