About a month before getting the call to pitch for the show open for Syfy’s operatic space thriller The Expanse, the team at Brisbane-based motion graphics company Breeder found themselves indulging in a “three-hour conversation on black holes, “ said the company’s creative director, Joyce Ho. “That’s how much a bunch of space nerds we were.”
Thus Breeder’s winning of the pitch might have been written in the stars. And when they did get the job, they responded accordingly, conducting extensive research into NASA and the cosmos, and applying their findings to a beautiful design conceit that personifies a series in which “we are wanderers, explorers and survivors,” said Sharon Hall, executive producer for The Expanse. “Breeder mapped the universe while adding specific texture and touch points that makes this journey very accessible.”
The open’s mapping process begins on Earth, where topographical overhead shots tell a powerful and symbolic story of global warming, as the glaciers melt and the sea rises up and around the Statue of Liberty.
“The one shot that stayed completely through our process was that top-down glacier shot,” said Ho. “I really wanted a shot in there that alluded to global warming and how humanity had to explore outer space because the world was going to shit basically. That shot was unchanged through the whole process.”
The changing landscape of Earth is told through time-lapsed images, establishing an artfully stuttering visual theme that continues throughout the open. In space, the planets rotate as spacecraft soar past, human settlements appear on Mars, and one of the show’s “Belters” floats in his astronaut’s suit amidst asteroids. It’s elegant and haunting, and yet the mechanism behind its creation was relatively simple.
“For the Mars stuff, nearly all the pixels come from 3D, then the textures are derived from NASA sources,” said Chris Morris, technical director for Breeder. “You can get away with heaps of stuff just using NASA’s pixels.” A small amount of live-action was employed to capture the floating astronaut, but “everything else is animated still photography in a sense,” he continued. “All the planets are just spheres, layering textures and all that sort of stuff.”
The only shot that is fully 3D, added Ho, “Is the shot where we’re on the surface of Mars. Everything else is a composite of still images and a bit of 3D.”
“It’s curious how just by doing a two-pixel wiggle on a sphere and then flickering the lighting and being a little bit clever as to the perspective shift, you can totally sell a 100-year time lapse on a planet,” said Morris. “It all comes down to the inaccuracies in the render.”
The staccato, off-kilter feel that time-lapse creates was not part of the original concept. Breeder’s initial approach was to have space “look exactly how it was meant to look,” said Ho, but decided “to take a more stylistic approach when the client came back and had feedback on how they wanted more urgency and more chaos… more conflict.”
One of Syfy’s major reference points in that regard was the filmmaker Danny Boyle (28 Days Later, Steve Jobs), who “uses a lot of time-lapse shots and fast-paced people walking to show the vibrancy of humanity,” said Ho.
For Syfy’s part, the network loved “the way Danny Boyle finds humanity in chaos,” added Hall. “Our show is not dystopic. The fact that we are a few centuries out and we are still pushing our human limits, keeping the peace and fighting for income equality, is optimistic.”
The emotional gravity time-lapse added to the proceedings was heightened further by the show’s theme song by Clinton Shorter, a choral swoon that feels somehow sorrowful and uplifting at the same time.
“It just slid right in perfectly,” said Morris. “I’d never had audio delivered on a project that just straightaway was perfection.”
According to Hall, even the percussive elements of the theme lined up serendipitously with Breeder’s click track, before any effort had been made to create such alignment.
“We high-fived when we got that audio,” said Ho. “It was exactly how we imagined it would be.”
As Breeder dug deep into the science and visuals of NASA and the cosmos, it kept a process journal of its findings. One of the first and most influential images it came across was of a contraption known as a Multiple Axis Space Test Inertia Facility, “this sphere thing that they put an astronaut in and spin him so he can get to know what kind of forces space exploration will bring,” said Ho. “I just loved it, and it’s long-exposure. I had never seen anything like that before.”
Another element among many in Breeder’s findings involved German artist Carsten Nicolai’s visualization of magnetic fields (normally invisible to humans) using cathode ray TVs and pendulums. These images manifest in the open by way of illuminated rays depicting the routes of space vessels around the planets. The pathways accumulate – again through time-lapse – into interwoven light collages that mine elegant symbolism from the mundane reality of space travel in this brave new world – and all without breaking the bank.
“There are so many amazing photos of the universe curving around on itself and arcing and stuff, and visually it looks amazing, having all that directionality,” said Morris. “And so we figured we could animate star trails and space travel. It’s just lines, the work overhead, and the imagery isn’t a big deal. We didn’t have to cull hundreds of spaceships. Going that way was very economical for us.”
Ultimately, said Syfy’s Hall, “We are still trying to figure it out. We are still trying to bring light into the darkness. Breeder captured that with the horror and beauty of future New York, with the sea wall, the marred surface of asteroids where we eek out existence, and the loneliness and solitude of our Belter who turns to the sun – the eternal light.”
CREDITSDirected by Breeder
Creative Direction & Design: Joyce N. Ho
Producer: Candace Marshall
Lead Animation & Compositing: Chris Morris
Compositing: Alex Gee & Joyce N. Ho
2D Animation: Joyce N. Ho, Alex Gee & Ryan McShane
3D Animation Lead: Brad Coomber
3D Animation: Alex Gee & Chris Morris
Edit & Colour: Alex Gee
Additional Design: Ryan McShane