The 5 greatest CG spaceships ever

From the earliest days of cinema, film-makers and audiences have had a mutual fascination with the cosmos. Inspired by the 19th century works of Jules Verne and H.G Wells, cinema came along in a period where ‘scientific romance’ was in the ascendance.

As far back as 1902, French director Georges Méliès was presenting his vision of scientific romance - or sci-fi as we now know it - in Le Voyage dans la Lune.

In Méliès’ case, the craft in which the intrepid space tourists journeyed to the moon was nothing more than an over-sized bullet, but as cinema and science progressed, so too did the spaceships that would define each era of sci-fi.

Lang to Lucas

By 1929 spacecraft had taken on a more recognisable form, and in Fritz Lang’s Frau im Mond we see a ship that stands upright, has a conical nose, and sits on four boosters - in fact, it looks extremely close to the rockets used in the first manned space programs of the Vostok and Mercury missions.

By the 50s and 60s the flying saucer had made its way into popular fiction, with movies like Forbidden Planet and The Day The Earth Stood Still popularising disc-based spaced travel, and by the end of the 60s Stanley Kubrick redefined our vision of space travel yet again, as 2001: A Space Odyssey (and its iconic spaceship the Aries Ib) wowed movie-goers around the world. (In this era TV also got in on the act, via shows like Star Trek and Flash Gordon - which had moved to TV from earlier film serials.)

The 70s and 80s brought us the likes of Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and the Alien series, and with them spacecraft that would become as iconic as any leading character.

Dawn of CG

The ships in these movies and shows were all brilliant creations, but it was CG that heralded a new era of sci-fi effects, and in the last 20 years we’ve seen some of our favourite ships of old re-imagined, as well a host of stunning new spacecraft being introduced to TV and cinema.

Because it would be a predictably dull affair if we didn’t, we’ve chosen to omit those CG ships that were based on earlier miniature models (such as the X-Wing and Battlestar Galactica), and in this article we celebrate our top 5 CG spacecraft, and the visionary designers and studios that imagined them into existence.

05. Starfury

Babylon 5's Starfury was created using LightWave

Babylon 5's Starfury was created using LightWave

This one is for the spacecraft purists out there. It might not be a ship that would initially spring to mind, but when you consider that this piece of CG work was created 20 years ago, and for a TV show, Babylon 5’s Starfury was a truly groundbreaking piece of VFX work.

We’re now accustomed to TV budgets being up there with those of many movies, but when Babylon 5 was in production the VFX team was still working on Amigas.

Created by Steve Burg (designer) and Ron Thornton (co-founder of Foundation Imaging) the Starfury certainly has nods to some classic spaceships of the past, most notably the Star Wars X-Wing and the Gunstar from The Last Starfighter. These are more of a direct tribute, though, the design team having cited them as inspiration, rather than anything more oblique.

Hidden gem

Using LightWave 3D Ron Thornton was responsible for all the CG work on the ship models, and because of the large number of craft on screen in some of the show’s scenes, the designs were often amended to keep the model's polygon count to a minimum (Amigas, remember).

Despite its age, and the fact it might not hold up to the intricate CG creations of today’s TV shows and movies, The Starfury is a hidden gem in the annals of CG starship design, and is a worthy addition in our list.

04. C-21 (Dragon Assault Ship)

Avatar's Dragon Assault Ship was created by Weta Digital

Avatar's Dragon Assault Ship was created by Weta Digital

There’s some serious fury dished out in 2009’s 3D blockbuster Avatar, and most of it comes courtesy of one of cinema’s baddest spacecraft - the Dragon Assault Ship.

Colonel Miles Quaritch is the ship’s commander, and he essentially flies around Pandora looking seriously pissed off, and shooting anything he sees (can anyone actually remember the plot; did it actually matter?).

The ship was created by Weta Digital, and there was some staggering computing power behind the movie’s creation (no Amigas were used in the making of Avatar). To render Avatar Weta created a 10,000 sq ft server farm, making use of 4,000 Hewlett-Packard servers (and for the really geeky amongst you, that’s 35,000 processor cores, 104 terabytes of RAM and three petabytes of NAS).

03. District 9 mothership

District 9's alien craft hovered menacingly over Johannesburg

District 9's alien craft hovered menacingly over Johannesburg

The next spacecraft in our rundown is the mothership from Neill Blomkamp’s directorial debut District 9. And with Blomkamp originally pursuing a career in 3D animation and design before becoming a director, it’s not surprise to see District 9 make our list.

Initially starting out in the industry as a VFX artist in his native South Africa, Blomkamp’s directing style developed into a combination of lo-fi cinéma vérité, coupled with high-end CG production. And in District 9 this combination led to some of the most authentic sci-fi shots we’ve seen on the big screen.

Via a collaboration with Peter Jackson, Blomkamp was able to realise his vision for a large chunk of the film’s VFX shots through Weta Digital, which Jackson co-founded.

Halo on hold

The pair had originally planned to work on a Halo-franchise, but when this had to be put on hold they started work on District 9, a project that Blomkamp co-wrote with Terri Tatchell.

Weta Digital designed the massive mothership (which weighs in at a colossal 2.5km in diameter), which is the standout spacecraft in the movie, and all this whilst putting the finishing touches to James Cameron’s Avatar.

02. Serenity

There's a beaten up feel to Firefly's ship Serenity

There's a beaten up feel to Firefly's ship Serenity

With just 14 episodes and a movie under its belt, Joss Whedon’s Firefly has attained a massive cult following since it first aired in 2002, and Whedon describes the ship featured in the show - which he also designed - as the "tenth character" in the show.

Serenity was created in partnership with production designer Carey Meyer, and visual effects supervisor Loni Peristere from Zoic Studios. The ship’s design appears to be inspired in equal parts by insect and avian characteristics, and there’s a beaten up feel that fits perfectly with the space western genre, to which Firefly belongs.

From a technical perspective, most ship scenes were rendered in LightWave 3D, and other apps used in the ship’s creation included Maya and mental ray for rendering, Adobe Photoshop and Body Paint for texture, with compositing completed using Combustion and Adobe After Effects.

01. Prometheus

The Prometheus was built up in Maya

The Prometheus was built up in Maya

Alien has a strong legacy in the field of spacecraft design. From Nostromo to the U.S.S Sulaco to the abandoned Engineer ship, Ridley Scott - along with designers such as Ron Cobb, Arthur Max and Chris Foss - has brought some of cinema’s most iconic ships to the big screen. However, for a CG ship, we need look no further than the eponymous space vessel Prometheus, which appeared in the last installment of the Alien saga.

Having been designed by Arthur Max, the ship then went into CG production under the guidance of MPC’s visual effects supervisor Charley Henley. The Prometheus was built up in Maya, with one of the most challenging features of the ship being its thrusters.

“It had four giant thrusters that could pivot on two arms,” Henley explains. “In space flight they’re swung back to use ion thrusters. Down on the planet they could be more of a Harrier jump jet style. Coming into land they could swing forwards to give them a braking action.”

  • See all the articles in this series here.

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Dan Oliver

Over the last 20 years, Dan has edited a number of print magazines and websites, including Computer Arts, 3D World and ImagineFX, and has written for publications including the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Manchester Evening News, Manchester United Magazine, T3, and many more. He is currently the digital editor of Creative Bloq's sister magazine, Wallpaper*.