10 QUESTIONS: How Gavin Rothery created the iconic design for Moon

Gavin Rothery was the Visual Effects Supervisor on the iconic sci-fi film 'Moon'. He designed everything from the Sarang facility to the costumes; the vehicles to the robotic assistant Gerty. The film went on to win a Bafta and a Hugo award in 2010.

The Moon base was designed by Gavin Rothery

He has also worked on the best-selling game franchise, Grand Theft Auto. Here, he talks about how it all happened and what's in store for the future...

QUESTION: How did you get into design following your degree?

I used to be an illustrator. Originally when I was doing my degree I was drawing comics, so I was all set to become a comic book artist. When I graduated in 1996, it was around the time that Sony were really heavily marketing Playstation 1. Around that time the bottom fell out of the comics industry and a lot of kids were spending their time playing games again rather than reading comics. The comics industry went through a real creative drought during that period.

So, once I'd finished college and I was looking for work, I found that the skills that were applicable in the comics industry were also applicable in the games industry. I've always been into sci-fi and a lot of my comic book stuff was very sci-fi, so it left me with this really good bunch of skills where I already had the figurative stuff down, the compositional sense and I had the narrative structure. So with the design and the visualisation aspect of creating fantasy worlds on paper, it just really leant itself to designing things for computer games.

I thought computer games looked really good so I popped into WHSmith and bought a copy of Edge magazine and there was a game in there called Lunatics that was in development and it had all these cool space ships in it so I sent those guys a few samples of my work. They invited me down to London and then before I knew it, I was living in London getting paid to design space ships for a living, which was pretty sweet!

QUESTION: How did you get into using 3D?

Once I got into the game studio and saw the 3D side of things, I knew that I had to get into it. So, I basically learnt how to do 3D myself and levelled up really. It's an ongoing process - these programs are still very broad.

The thing that I always wanted to do with my art was to create something that looked real, that wasn't.

So, I spent a lot of my time practising my airbrush illustration so I could get the realism techniques down. Discovering 3D and CG lighting was just fantastic because it was the optimum way to work like that - these tools were just gorgeous. It didn't take me long to learn modelling and texturing. You never really stop learning 3D as there are always new tools and new tricks to learn. Especially when you get into some of the modern renderers; some of the beautiful lighting techniques that are out there and the tools that are available it's an ongoing thing.

I was up-and-running with it within about 3 or 4 months. I had to make the transition from just working away at it to actually putting assets into the actual game. It's a real pleasure learning these programmes because they're just so much fun. I actually spent my entire student loan on an airbrush with a load of paints! I would just hide away at my drawing board for hours and practise with this airbrush so I could master it.

QUESTION: Could you describe your work process?

For design work, I find that 3D is just amazing. I tend to do a lot of my concept work in 3D, so if I have an idea in my head, it's like sculpting. So, initially I'll do a few sketches and then I'm usually straight into 3D and I'll start blocking shapes out.

You get a truer sense of the design because it's a full, 3D object and depending on what you're designing, if something needs to be animated or needs configuration you can rough that stuff up really early to make sure it's all going to work. Then you can go back to the illustration and use that as a basis. It's a really nice tool to fold into your workflow.

QUESTION: You have your own blog and you're on twitter a lot. How important do you think social networking is as a designer?

It's absolutely important. I mean, everyone and anyone can have a presence on the Internet. It's such a powerful tool - for networking and the whole communication aspect. Just having a portfolio up there 24/7 means that anyone can drop in and see your artwork; it's just too good to ignore. I really enjoy the social networking side of things because I like chatting with people and the sense of community you get from sci-fi fans.

I really enjoy the fact that people liked Moon because when Duncan [Jones] and I were making that, it nearly killed us.

There was one point when we were shooting it and Sam [Rockwell] is doing his thing and Duncan turned around to me and whispers 'Is this any good?' And I said to him, 'Honestly? I don't know.' We were so close to the project that we didn't have the prospective to know whether it was actually any good. Then I said to [Duncan] 'What I do know is, is that we're working our hardest to make it good and that's as much as we can do and we're really trying.'

We had a tiny budget and we were really trying to make it work so we could get what we had in our head onscreen. Just remembering that one chat and then fast-forwarding and there's Bafta's being won. It's just so lovely that people took the film into their hearts and liked it because some people are just so complimentary about it and it means so much because we really did try.

QUESTION: You shot the film over a period of 33 days. How did you cope with such a short time frame?

The whole thing had to be meticulously planned, especially the two Sams thing. Most of the film involved two Sam's so we had to be really crafty when it came to shooting it all. When Sam would be going from Sam 2, which was the healthy Sam into Sam 1, the make-up change would be about an hour and three-quarters.

How we actually ran that, was that Sam would read through the script and decide which one of the Sams was going to be driving that scene. We'd then do that Sam first and then he would go off and get made up and the sound guy would take a recording of his performance and get that upstairs to him so Sam could listen to it on his iPod whilst he was having his make-up done.

So, he would sit in that chair and listen to himself over and over again to come up with the counter-performance of that character. Then he would just burst onto the set and just rattle through it with this little earpiece in with the recording on for timing.

I find it such a juxtaposition that he [Sam Rockwell] really isn't into technology at all in his everyday life but in such a technically demanding role he just came in and absolutely smashed it. We never had any issues with anything - not even an eye line in any shot. He made it plain sailing all the way through.

QUESTION: What was your actual role on Moon?

I had to do so much of the work myself because we had so few resources. My responsibilities on the film were all over the place because of the nature of us working together so closely. There was period of about 22 months when all that happened in our flat was Moon related.

Over the course of the film I had to basically work with everybody. We were even collaborating on the story right from the beginning. Along the way I got to work with some really cool people like Bill Pearson and the effects team at Cinesite were fantastic.

It was really interesting just watching the project develop; from what we thought we were going to get at the beginning to what we actually finished with. You always get this sort of drift with any project - it's always going to shift. It's part of the job to try to keep it to what it was supposed to be or letting it drift into areas where other people can take it somewhere better.

QUESTION: You started off in the games industry and many people would be content with that. What led you to progress from that into film?

I actually started before that as a commercial illustrator for a couple of years whilst I was at University because I didn't want to be unemployed when I finished. I was doing editorial illustration and approaching publishers with my portfolio pretty much as soon as I had started my degree because I knew it was going to take a while to build up my contacts.

When I was in school, I had a meeting with my careers advisor. I was in the air cadets at the time and they basically said, 'You're in Yorkshire, it's the 80s; you can either go into the RAF or you can join the Halifax building society.' And I just thought, 'Is that it?'

So they asked me what I wanted to do and I replied by saying I wanted to be an illustrator and draw Judge Dredd. They told me it was too difficult to get into and that I should just give up that dream now. As a kid at school, I had to reel against that. I wouldn't accept it. Fortunately, my parents were really cool about it all and supported me throughout my illustration degree. It's a good job I didn't listen to the career advisors after all!

QUESTION: So you left the games industry because you felt you had gone as far as you could with it?

Well, I sort of felt like I'd done it. I mean, games keep developing but I've worked on so many titles; loads of which never actually made it out. I worked on GTA3 and that's one of the biggest selling games ever, so I kind of felt like I'd done games.

Every now and again I would get a really sweet job in where I'd be designing all the vehicles and I would get really enthused again. On the Nintendo Battalion wars games, I pretty much designed all the vehicles in the Battalion war's franchise and that was a really sweet job. I was working with a studio called Kuju, who are now called Headstrong Ltd in London. A lot of it wasn't really lighting me up any more.

It's a hell of a grind at the other end of a computer game. The industry really does grind people up and spit them out.

So, it was that combined with me wanting to get the film done anyway - there was just a bright light pulling me towards it. I have this thing where, especially at the beginning of Moon, where I don't appreciate the odds stacked against us and we overcame obstacles on an individual basis when they were in front of us. We never sat down and sized up the scale of the challenges that were waiting in front of us.

QUESTION: What are you working on at the moment?

Since Moon happened, I'm working as a writer and director now. I have two projects in development, which are both being written at the moment. They're both sci-fi but both quite different. One of them is a love story and one of them is a full on balls-out action film.

It takes such a long time to get a project up on its legs that when you're actually doing the whole writer/director thing, it can take a couple of years from when you have the idea to when you have the first draft of your script.

I always find with sci-fi, the best sci-fi stories tend to be people stories and the science fiction aspect has been used to put a new perspective on the human condition. That's the kind of stuff I like. Even though I'm writing an action story at the moment, it's all about people and the action is driven from the circumstances that they find themselves in and the way they try to extricate themselves from it. It's all about people and they've all got different motivations that cause problems.

Gavin Rothery's concept art character design

QUESTION: And finally Gavin, where do you find your inspiration?

GR: I guess like everybody, I've kind of soaked up every single thing that I've seen or heard.

I'm a big fan of swimming around in your subconscious.

I mean Moon certainly has a certain vibe to it but that was very conscious. It came out around the same time as Avatar and Transformers 2, which both spent quite a bit of money on visual effects. We weren't going to be able to compete with any of that sort of stuff, so I was really keen to get the aesthetic of a lot of the movies from the late 70s and early 80s. So, the whole design and the whole look of it all was designed to sit beside things like 2001: A Space Oddysey, Outland and Alien.

It was designed to feel like that kind of period of sci-fi. I used things like miniatures just to get this feel of those kind of films. And also because I couldn't afford to do anything with CG! I had to figure out another way of doing it otherwise there was no-show.

I was a huge fan of 2000AD as a kid and when I watched Star Wars it just affected me so much. My mum still teases me because I asked why we couldn't have a car with no wheels like Luke Skywalker's. I was 10 when The Empire Strikes Back came out and I just couldn't believe what I was seeing on-screen - I thought they were real.

I've always had this real suspension of disbelief with decent sci-fi; it's one of the only things that I do suspend my disbelief for. It's probably the reason why I'm so drawn to it.

See why we included Gavin's design in our 20 best designs in sci-fi movies. You can see more of Gavin's work on his website.

Next Wednesday we'll be putting 10 of YOUR questions to legendary web designer Jeffrey Zeldman. What would you like to know? Let us know in the comments box below, on Facebook or Twitter.