For nine months, George Clooney’s go-to production designer, James Bissell, was immersed in the end of the world for their apocalyptic film, “The Midnight Sky.” And Clooney — who knows a thing or two about sci-fi with “Gravity” and “Solaris” — wanted the visual language of their spacecraft (The Aether) to be unique yet plausible. So Bissell did his NASA research and studied where they’re headed with future designs for spacecraft.
“It was that interesting design problem of getting things that felt like they could fit in the next 30 years, but, at the same time, contained dramatic imagery that reflected the characters,” said Bissell (Oscar-nominated for Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck”). Clooney plays a scientist who isolates himself at The Barbeau Arctic observatory to warn active crewed space missions returning home of the global disaster on earth. He makes contact with Felicity Jones, the pregnant mission specialist of The Aether, which has just finished exploring Jupiter’s habitable moon K-23.
“The visual language of space movies always mimics airplanes, but I wanted our spacecraft to be different, shaped more like a baton,” Bissell added. “It’s a central hub with storage pods, fuel tanks, three greenhouses, various docking vehicles. And then we tried to confront the fact that most space movies — with the exception of ‘Gravity’ — ignore gravity. Looking at what we’re now developing, how do we address it?”
Deep space exploration does a lot of harm to the human body, and to solve the centrifugal force factor, Bissell took the idea of an inflatable habitat currently being deployed by the ISS and extended it to the design of The Aether. “What happens, if in the future, we can shield astronauts from radiation by use of several layers of different fabrics?,” he said. The production designer wrapped the craft around a light-weight ectoskeleton for protection and a similarly organic endoskeleton to support the platforms the astronauts live in. The engineering was based on the concept of topological optimization, a form and function dynamic similar to the way a tree works. “It responds by building material where it needs it and it responds to its environment,” he added. “It’s a really great look and it contributed dramatically.”
Indeed, the claustrophobia of the four crew members living together for two and a half years needed to be addressed with a warm and comfortable environment. “We were trying to capture the need to be alone and reflective in the sleeping pods,” Bissell said. “They’re almost womb-like. That was part of the consideration for the design of the craft. The use of screens were added for visual variety instead of architecture. That’s how you’re engaged and don’t feel like you’re in this confined space all the time. You have this holographic area that you can go and relive touchstones of your life on earth, and you can go back and re-ground yourself when you start to feel a little nutty.”
Meanwhile, the design of the cold and sterile-looking observatory resembles a giant brain as a metaphor for the isolated Clooney. A pop-up version of Industrial Light & Magic’s innovative StageCraft LED wall tech (from “The Mandalorian”) was used on set at Shepperton to project the exterior backgrounds shot in Iceland. “It’s got a lot of glass and it’s very reflective — and that’s the metaphor,” said Bissell.
And there’s another important aspect to the architecture: the support structures are suggestive of neurological pathways, which makes the imagery evocative of Clooney’s troubled state of mind. “He spends most of his time in the control room, and you can see through a window that looks into the observatory,” added Bissell. “The cafeteria was designed to be small and contained but deep in space, as he wrestles with who he is and what his legacy is going to be.”
Then when COVID hit, life began imitating art for Bissell, who had to halt work after three weeks on Disney’s “Shrunk,” the sequel to “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” starring Josh Gad and directed by Joe Johnston. “I have to say, it was a little bit hard for me because I spent nine months on the film thinking about the end of the world, and about how hard it is to achieve contact with people to understand yourself and your legacy,” he said. “I was back to all the stuff I was thinking about. It was coming alive.”