On Tuesday 1st March, we examined the ways in which scientific concepts are visually brought to life with the Wellcome Trust and CG graphics studio Framestore.
Science has never failed to amaze and delight. In recent years its cultural profile has been raised by creatives reinventing and reimagining facts, data and concepts through imagery, print and collaborative projects. On Tuesday 1st March, we heard from two very different design outfits that are creatively bringing science to life. Joined by Neil Weatherley, of Framestore – a pioneering studio in moving image and CGI – along with Liam Relph and Malcolm Chivers, lead designers in the dedicated team at the Wellcome Collection, we explored the idea of visualising scientific concepts and data, as part of a fact-filled evening.
Neil Weatherley, CG Supervisor at Framestore, led the team on The Martian, last year's critically acclaimed film directed by Ridley Scott and based on the novel by Andy Weir. The film follows the perilous plight of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who is presumed dead by his crew after a fierce storm tears apart their manned mission to Mars. Neil and his team were primarily responsible for designing and animating Hermes – the fictional ship that housed the Mars mission – as well as all the shots of planet Mars seen from space.
The starting point for any mammoth design task such as this is reference imagery. Luckily for Neil and his team at Framestore, Ridley Scott had very clear ideas for the aesthetic of Hermes and was 'able to draw sketches for every shot'. Borrowing heavily from the slick, minimalist look of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and adhering to NASA's brand guidelines defined the cosmic style of the interiors, space ships and costumes throughout the film. A scale model of part of the Hermes ship was built, so that the actors could be filmed moving around on wires against a green screen, with the background of outer space to be painted in at a later stage. Hermes was designed so it could be built in reality, with actual blueprints. It was very important to Ridley Scott, NASA and everyone involved in the film that there be a sense of reality and so nothing was added without a practical reason for it being there.
The 'building' of the planets proved a little more challenging. Both Earth and Mars feature heavily in the film at varying distances in outer space, requiring different levels of detail. Framestore were able to have access to all kinds of NASA data, plus high resolution thermal and image mapping of the planets. As you would imagine, Earth was easier to replicate in CGI – due to the vast amounts of geological data already gathered. Neil and his team had also pioneered new techniques to create CG imagery of planet Earth for Gravity, 2013's award-winning science fiction film by Alfonso Cuarón. To start with the team split the globe into tiles and each was recreated to the exact scale and contours of our planet. Clouds were added afterwards, and the different shapes became known in the production team as either 'sheep' (referring to fluffy clouds) or 'smoke' (wispy clouds). The final result was so accurate that you could impose an true image of Earth over Framestore's computer generated version and it would be identical.
Mars was another matter. NASA photography and the data collected from previous space missions both revealed the fact that Mars is actually rather a boring planet. There is also no definitive look to Mars, in comparison to Earth, and everyone has their own ideas of what it might be like. To start with, Neil and his team tried to keep to scientific fact and faithfully reproduce the colours, the topography and the large expanses of reddish orange landscape. They even tried adding in ice caps (yes – Mars has ice caps!). But Ridley Scott demanded more drama and so craters, shadows and more spectacular landscapes were added in. This was a bone of contention for Framestore, as usually it is good practice to stick to the truth. But they quantify their creative decisions by acknowledging that they're making a film, not a documentary.
Next to present were Malcolm Chivers and Liam Relph, lead designers within the dedicated design team at the Wellcome Trust. As well as funding global scientific research, the Wellcome Trust also houses the Wellcome Collection — a destination for the 'incurably curious'. This public space consists of the permanent collection of medical artefacts and works of art amassed by the Trust's founder, Sir Henry Wellcome, as well as a calendar of engaging temporary exhibitions rooted in science or medicine. Liam and Malc lead on the design, taking the exhibition concepts as starting points to produce stunning visuals that excite and entice cultural customers. The duo work closely with the exhibition curators, builders and marketing teams to ensure a consistent look and feel runs through the entire show. Notable examples include The Institute of Sexology and, most recently, Tibet's Secret Temple. Often commissioning new talent and frequently collaborating with illustrators and experimental set designers, Liam and Malc have ensured their design approach reflects the eclecticism that has become synonymous with the Wellcome Collection.
By their own admission, art and science is a 'weird mash-up' and Liam and Malc are often asked to breathe creativity into dry subject matter, making science more accessible to the masses. When presented with a fresh brief they are often faced with the option of going down either the art or science route. They pride themselves on taking a more daring approach to exhibition design in comparison to some of the other major museums in London, which simply show the art or artefacts contained within the show.
Liam started by taking us through some of their prior designs, each one seeming more creative and cohesive than the last. He explained the myriad of contributors to the exhibitions — from the curators through to the marketing teams — and how difficult it is to realise your creative visions with so many stakeholders to please. Malcolm and Liam seem to be encouraging positive changes within the in-house teams at Wellcome, proving that a holistic approach to exhibition design achieves a better overall experience for the exhibition goer.
Their most recent example of this way of working has been the successful Tibet's Secret Temple exhibition that closed just last week. Inspired by an exquisite series of 17th century murals from a private meditation chamber for Tibet’s Dalai Lamas in Lhasa’s Lukhang Temple, the exhibition featured over 120 objects including scroll paintings, statues, manuscripts, archival and contemporary film, together with a wide range of ethnographic and ritual artefacts. Three of the murals from the temple were recreated, by photographer Thomas Laird, as life-sized digital artworks that form the centrepiece of the exhibition. Liam and Malc took colours and shapes from these murals as their reference points, using them to inform the brief that they gave to paper-cut artist, Petra Börner. Her hand-cut paper layers were physically arranged (using high-tech equipment such as blu-tack and cocktail sticks) and photographed to convey the sense of peering into a secretive place.
Collaboration is a major part of Liam and Malc's design work, and something they intend to push much further for coming exhibitions. To end, they showed a short film of specially commissioned murals around London, made to mark the opening of the show. With each one, they gave only typographic assets and an open brief to the artists, relinquishing control over the final outcomes.
We would like to thank our speakers for their contributions to the event, and to Sam Bush for taking photographs.
Location:72 Rivington St,
London, EC2A 3AY,
Start:1st March, 2016 at 6:30pm
End:1st March, 2016 at 8:00pm