Three years since I last attempted a science fiction project (see Rebellion), I once again tried my hand in my favourite genre, albeit this time on a much smaller scale.

Originally intended as the practical element to accompany my dissertation about the use of sound in sci-fi cinema, Aurora was to be an experimental short film to show how sound design can up the production value of a low budget short. And with low budget I mean no budget. The key scenes were all shot on green screen, with the found footage nature of the film allowing me to cut a many corners and tell the story almost entirely through graphics.

As is usually the case with uni deadlines, what I handed in as the final submission was a very rough cut, passable but in need of polishing. While this rough cut quite an unexpectedly positive review, I still felt I could polish it more. This is what I have been doing for the past few months in my free time until I ended up with something I felt more confident putting out into the world as a flagship project to show off what my company can offer in terms of motion design.

In this post I will briefly touch on each of the scenes, showing the development of each of the shots and highlighting the differences between the rough cut I handed in and the polished version you can see below.

First off, the intro (and also closing). The film starts with a deep space communications satellite receiving a message from an unknown source, and ends with the source being identified and downloading a stream of data. Originally the satellite interface was a very basic design, with nothing but the necessary information appearing on screen. The one element I added to make it seem a bit more like a satellite readout is lines of code scrolling past on one side of the screen. The code I used for this is actually a save file from the game Kerbal Space Program, a game which partially served as inspiration for the project.

With the luxury of time I rebuilt this design from the ground up, paying more attention to detail and drawing inspiration from films such as The Martian as well as actual NASA tech to create something that more resembles what a near future satellite readout might actually look like.

Additionally, out of copyright concerns I replaced the Kerbal code with some text pulled from a random string generator. I was also thrilled to discover that the NASA logo is public domain and that I was free to use it in my designs to give them a touch of ‘authenticity’.

As stated above, the key scenes with the actress were all shot on green screen. Originally I created a very rough and industrial looking backdrop which I used in the rough cut, and a very basic overlay. The only luxury I gave the overlay was an animated ECG, which didn’t end up making it into the final film.

Upon reviewing these shots, I decided that the background was a little too industrial-looking for crew quarters. On a long voyage such as this, I figured, the crew would be allowed a few creature comforts. As such I set about designing and building a 3D backdrop of her quarters from scratch, which I could then light and place a virtual camera in to give the shot more depth. I also refined the overlay, again paying more attention to detail.

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Next up is the flight recorder scene. As with the satellite readout shots, this was originally very minimal with only the necessary information on screen as well an event log, some copy-pasted ECGs and the same code scrawl from the intro as details.

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For the final film, this design was again rebuilt entirely from the ground up. Using an actual airline flight recorder readout as reference, it soon became clear that the flight recorder logs just about everything and when accessed displays it in various panels. As such, this panelled approach was also taken for the flight recorder of the Aurora, with separate sections for navigation, environment, etc. I had a lot of fun building and rigging these for animation and further cemented the fact that interface design is the direction I want to go in future.

 

The other design I probably had the most fun with is the drone HUD, again interface design. For the original draft this was again very basic, but I find it interesting to see how the elements of the final polished design were already present in the rough cut.

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Lastly, the credits sequence is in keeping with the found footage nature of the project, taking the form of the view from one of the Aurora’s external cameras with science data from the planet (and cast/crew) superimposed over it. I shared a picture of this view in my post about Rebellion, and this hasn’t changed much since then.

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What did change is the look of the science data. In the rough draft I just used some randomly generated code, but when polishing it this felt no where near ‘sciency’ enough. As such, I built a ‘science report’ out of various randomly generated strings and some public domain images of molecules and graphs. I was quite surprised at how ‘scientific’ this made it look, considering that to an actual scientist it’s probably a load of rubbish.

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On the whole I thoroughly enjoyed working on this project, mainly as it meant I could play around with interface design some more. I love doing sci fi, and hopefully it’ll be less than 3 years before I try my hand in this genre again.

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