ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS: Leslie Ekker on VFX for ‘2010’ – the Movie, Not the Year

Originally published on IDesignYourEyes on 1/12/2010.


Well, it’s finally 2010. As you know, Pan Am currently offers commercial flights to all the major space stations; every family has pet dolphins in their specially-converted cetacean-friendly homes; computer graphics have finally hit 16-bits, displayed on futuristic CRT monitors; and the United States and the Soviet Union are on the brink of war.

Okay, so maybe the film 2010, Peter Hyams’ 1984 sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, got a few details wrong. And it’s not really on the same level as its classic predecessor. But it’s still a fun, smart, great-looking sci-fi adventure that deserves a second look.

Roger Ebert said it better:

Once we’ve drawn our lines, once we’ve made it absolutely clear that 2001 continues to stand absolutely alone as one of the greatest movies ever made, once we have freed 2010 of the comparisons with Kubrick’s masterpiece, what we are left with is a good-looking, sharp-edged, entertaining, exciting space opera…

Just as the year 1984 spurred interest in the novel 1984, so 2010 has created renewed interest in the film – Google searches for “2010 movie” have spiked sharply in the last two months, and the film is up 413% in popularity this week on IMDb.

To satisfy those succumbing to the current 2010 mania, I spoke to Zoic Studios commercial creative director Leslie Ekker, who was a member of the miniatures crew for the film.


“The first thing we had to do on 2010 was to build the spaceship Discovery from 2001. Unfortunately, in England, where the ship was built and shot and stored, an accountant had decided years before not to pay for the storage of the ship anymore; drew a line through a number on a list; and all the models were destroyed. There was literally nothing surviving. But we had to reproduce the ship as exactly as possible so that people would recognize it. And the only way we could do it – none of the drawings existed, no information, no photographs—was to rent a laserdisc of the film; freeze-frame it; take photographs of those frames; enlarge them to the point where they were useful for me; and do overlays, tracing the edges of all the details onto a drawing. Then I did a perspective analysis, and created six orthographic views that could be used as construction drawings. I had to do that with the entire Discovery, front-to-back, in order to be able to reproduce it.

“The production was in touch with the original people. In fact, all the visual effects were being produced by Doug Trumbull, who was one the principle people on the team for 2001. He knew all the people involved, and got in touch with the right folks — but nobody had anything left. Pretty sad, considering what a classic 2001 was.


“So first I had to do these construction drawings, and it was challenging, because the shots [in the original 2001] are actually fairly scarce. There aren’t a lot of things from different angles, and of course the image quality was pretty poor. So there was a lot of interpretation. Ultimately, we got it pretty close.

“We made two different scale models of the Discovery, and one large-scale model of the front end of the ship. One model was about 10 feet long, much smaller than the original ones they built in England. They built huge miniatures due to the shorter depth of field of lenses in those days! Ours was designed to rotate, as well. In the scenes where they come upon the Discovery still orbiting, it’s tumbling end-over-end because of precession, the physical force on a rotating body (its gravity carousel) that is 90 degrees to any other forced applied to it.

“The Discovery is dusted down with sulfur, because it’s orbiting around [Jupiter’s moon] Io, which has sulfur volcanoes that erupt into space. So that got stuck to the body of Discovery, it’s all sulfur yellow — so naturally our models were painted yellow, unlike the original.

“The Boss Film model shop supervisor was Mark Stetson, an Oscar-winning feature film VFX supervisor now. In his model shop in Marina Del Rey, we built a lot of different miniatures for the movie. Some were of the Leonov, the Russian ship, and the Discovery; but also of the moons’ surfaces. We built a few models that were pretty interesting.


“One of the ideas they explored in 2010, that actually had a lot of controversy surrounding it, was the concept of life under the ice on Jupiter’s moon Europa. They have since found there is most likely liquid water under that ice, and it possibly could have enough warmth to support life; and it may actually harbor life, maybe in bacterial form. It’s hard to say. That was kind of interesting. One of my jobs on the movie was to help make that life.

“We built the surface of Europa, a small section of it, and filled it with some water, sections of ice, and strange looking plants. We used Madagascar palms for some of the plants, because they’re so strange looking already; they look quite alien. In the shallow water of the pond, built into the tabletop of the model, we had some invisible rigging that could move some very fine feathery plants in an intelligent way, as if they were motivated, under the surface of the water. That’s what you see in the film when you see something moving under the water — it’s actually a very fine dried plant getting pulled around by an invisible rig.”


The design of the Russian spaceship, the Leonov, had to differ from the “American” design of the Discovery. “The common wisdom was that Russian technology looks heavier, and feels clunkier, and has more exposed detail, kind of a brutal design style. [Legendary industrial designer] Syd Mead was employed to design the Leonov, and did some beautiful drawings.

“Peter Hyams, the director of the film, scrutinized the drawings very closely to make sure every single line from the drawing was on our model; to the point where, in a perspective construction drawing, if a sketched line ran off the corner of an object, he wanted a little wire glued onto the object to represent that line. It was kind of strange, but we did it.

“I spent about six weeks just building plumbing in the hub of the rotating section. If you look carefully at the Leonov, there’s this really intricate rat’s nest of pipes of all different sizes, weaving in and out and going off in different directions. And there was one on each side, so they had to match. I had to make matching sets of this very intricate piping, melting and bending pieces of plastic model piping by hand. It took weeks and weeks to do. Then I had to make a miniature version, half that size, for the smaller scale Leonov. It was a lot of fun, but it was also really challenging.

“One of the other things I did was to create the Cyrillic typeface you see on the side of the Leonov, and the other graphics that go on the ship. We had a translator create all the different words we needed, and then went to a type house and had wax transfers made — these were rub-downs we used to use in the graphic days before computers. I had sets and sets of them made in both the different scales, applied them to the ship, and then we painted them into the overall paint scheme of the ship. It’s the only time I’ve had to work in Russian!


“There’s a sequence in the film where the Leonov has to execute an aerobraking maneuver. That’s when a spacecraft just grazes the outer atmosphere of a planet, using aerodynamic friction to slow itself down, rather than burning fuel. It does this with a device called a ballute, which is a half-balloon half-parachute. We were had to make ballutes that were deployed from the core of the aft-end of the Leonov, and they were big inflatable airbags — gas bags, really. I had to develop a way to create airtight bags that were of a very specific shape. The surface pattern on them looked like some kind of fiber-reinforced textile. We had to be able to stow them in a very small volume, from which they would inflate very quickly to a certain size on camera. And then we made a separate set of those same ballutes that were fully inflated to a rigid shape.

“We also needed to make another set of ballutes, coated with pyrotechnic powder, and light them on fire, send them down a wire and film them, to be composited with the rest of the spacecraft for the actual moments of high friction and heat. So it was quite a project, and I was assigned the task of designing and producing these things.

“I had to learn pretty fast how to make airtight structural bags out of very tough, heat-resistant materials. I used very thin Mylar, like space-blanket material; and thin double stick tape to make the seams. I made screen prints of the graphic pattern on the surface. And we ended up using a leaf blower to inflate them. Leaf blowers are great, because they pump huge volumes of air at low pressure. You can inflate something very large without a lot of force behind it, so when it reaches the end of its inflation capacity it doesn’t burst a seam. After about five weeks of effort, that actually worked.

“Then we set about sculpting the rigid versions, which were just foam sculptures that were hard-coated, and painted and stenciled with the same graphic pattern as the airbags. Then we made copies in fire-resistant epoxies, in order to pyro-coat them and do the actual burning sequences. All this work was done at Boss Films’ Glencoe model-making facility, where there’s nothing but condos now. In those days Glencoe was all shipyards and industrial facilities; that’s all gone now.”


Ekker remembers 2010 as a fun, if challenging, experience. He also related an anecdote on how his work on the film helped him in another way:

“When you’re in the union, you have a card in a file that tells what your specialties are. And in the union system, if a model shop is putting together a union crew, they have to just call the union and say ‘send me five model makers,’ and hope they get good people. A lot of people, who say they’re model makers, really are not model makers.

“The workaround was, you would go and request someone who had a skill that was very specific to that person. A lot of us had skills that were very unique-sounding, but they were legitimate, because we had to be able to do the skill. After 2010, my skill card said, “pneumatic inflatable structures,” and “foreign language typesetting for model making” — skills so esoteric, it could only be me. So if, say, someone wanted to hire me, they could call up the union hall, and say “I need a guy who can make an airbag,” and they’d send me up!

For more info: 2010 on Wikipedia, IMDb, Amazon; Roger Ebert’s review.

The 50 Laws of Science Fiction Physics


Inspired by such mainstays of geek humor as The Laws of Cartoon Physics and The Laws of Anime Physics, I have assembled the following 50 Laws of Science Fiction Physics.

This list was in part inspired by my previous post, Tired Sci-Fi Tropes That Must Be Retired.

Law of Selective Gravitation: All artificial bodies in space generate an internal gravitational field, equal to one gee, with “down” defined as the “bottom” of the body; this gravitational field somehow terminates exactly at the outer hull of the body, even if it is irregularly shaped.

First Law of Gravitational Irrelevance: a spacecraft may travel from a planet’s surface into space in the same manner in which an airplane gains altitude, ignoring the need to achieve escape velocity.

Second Law of Gravitational Irrelevance: a spacecraft may fly directly towards or away from a planet or other large celestial body, ignoring the fact that objects in space must describe elliptical orbits about each other.

Law of Inertial Dampening: No matter how much kinetic energy is directed at an inhabited body (in space or on a planet), the resulting disruption will be enough to jostle the inhabitants and cause minor structural damage – nothing more or less.

Law of User Interface Equivalence: When a spacecraft or space station takes damage to any structural component, the computer screen or workstation used to monitor that structure from the bridge or engineering center will explode.

Law of Ethical Xenopolymorphism: While malevolent aliens come in many forms, beneficent aliens are always humanoid.

Law of Sexual Xenopolymorphism: Humanoid alien females will always have mammalian secondary sexual characteristics (breasts, wide hips, full sensual lips), even if they are non-mammalian (lizard, avian, piscine, insectoid, etc.).

Newton’s Fourth Law of Motion: In space, constant thrust equals constant velocity.

Kubrick’s Law of Motion in Microgravity: all motion in a “zero gravity” or microgravity environment will take place at 22% of the speed it would occur at sea level; this applies to animate persons as well as inanimate objects.

Exception to Kubrick’s Law of Motion in Microgravity: persons in a “zero gravity” or microgravity environment may speak at normal speed.

Allen’s Law of Motion in Microgravity: objects freely floating in a “zero gravity” or microgravity environment will behave as if suspended from a transparent thread within a full gravity environment.

Law of Sound in a Vacuum: Despite the lack of a medium for transmission, sound will travel in a vacuum, with precisely the same properties as in the Earth’s atmosphere at sea level.

First Law of Combustibility: Anything important – spaceships, planets, robots – explodes when it is critically damaged, whether any combustible material is present or not.

Second Law of Combustibility: When anything explodes, the mass of the resulting ejecta will be less than 2% of the object’s original mass; the remainder of the mass ceases to exist.

Third Law of Combustibility: When objects explode in space, all matter that makes up the object comes to a complete stop relative to the observer, whatever its previous velocity. The explosion will then expand in an equal sphere away from the point where the object stopped.

Fourth Law of Combustibility: All objects that explode in space produce a discrete ring that expands ahead of the main shock wave; this is a fundamental principle of Aesthetic Physics.

Fifth Law of Combustibility: The shock wave of an explosion is confined to the visible fiery ball of the explosion; and both will move at 98% of the speed of anyone attempting to fly, drive or run from the explosion. After a certain distance, the speed of the shock wave will quickly drop off for no apparent reason.

Sixth Law of Combustibility: The destructive force of a nuclear warhead, and the resulting deadly radiation, cannot penetrate the skin of a typical 1950s consumer-grade kitchen refrigerator.

First Law of Practical Stellar Physics: as an observer approaches a star, the brightness of the visible light it gives off diminishes proportionally.

Second Law of Practical Stellar Physics: a star will produce no radiation except for (1) visible light and (2) a variety of heat that behaves identically to heat convection in an atmosphere, despite the lack of a transmission medium.

Third Law of Practical Stellar Physics: the dangerous or destructive region of a stellar body ends abruptly at the outer termination of its photosphere, except for the heat and light described in the Second Law.

Law of Teleportation: the amount of energy produced when converting matter to energy for the purpose of teleporting that matter to a distant location is an insignificant fraction of the amount predicted by Einstein’s mass–energy equivalence equation; this is a fundamental principle of Convenience Physics.

Law of Technological Complexity: No matter how advanced a technology, anyone who needs to use it will be able to deduce its basic functioning within a few minutes – even if the person belongs to an alien or less-developed culture, or comes from the distant past.

First Law of Aerodynamic Irrelevance: Objects designed to travel solely in space may nonetheless be designed with aerodynamic properties.

Second Law of Aerodynamic Irrelevance: objects designed to travel in solely in space, and which therefore are highly non-aerodynamic, may still travel in an atmosphere as if they were perfectly aerodynamic.

Corollary to the Laws of Aerodynamic Irrelevance (The O’Brien Rule): any object in space that is not designed to alter its velocity, vector or location, such as a space station, may alter its velocity, vector or location through a minor, previously unrealized engineering trick.

First Corollary to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: Einstein’s Theory of Relativity may be ignored at any time, for any reason; this is a fundamental principle of Convenience Physics.

Second Corollary to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: when light, or any form of electromagnetic radiation, is employed as a weapon (such as with a laser or blaster), its speed is reduced to approximately 35 miles per hour.

Personal Equivalency Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: alternate universes and timelines do not follow the standard laws of contingency – rather, the same individuals will be born in the alternate universe as are born in ours, although their life paths may diverge; this is irrespective of any other changes, major or minor, to historical outcomes.

Ethical Determinism Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: alternate universes and timelines do not follow the standard laws of contingency – rather, historical outcomes are determined by the moral choices of the identical version of the visitor from our universe.

Abrams’ Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: in an alternate universe or timeline, events will conspire to place equivalent persons into the same social groups they occupy in our universe.

The McFly Rule: If a time traveler prevents a key historical event from occurring, he or she has one week to arrange an equivalent event that will restore the timeline.

First Law of Convergent Evolution: any alien species, regardless of the environment in which it evolved, will morphologically resemble an extant Earth species, albeit with changes in size, color, bodily features and level of intelligence; aliens may also resemble chimera of multiple Earth morphologies.

Second Law of Convergent Evolution: despite the fact that closely-related species from the same planet cannot produce viable offspring, any two humanoid species from different worlds may produce viable offspring that will bear blended traits from both species.

Law of Convergent Visemes: when a technological device is used to translate the speech of a humanoid alien, that alien’s lips and mouth movements will nonetheless appear to match the English speech of the translation.

Omegan Law of Convergent Social Evolution: a humanoid species on a distant planet is likely to pass through exactly the same historical eras, and evolve precisely the same social institutions, as the human civilizations of Earth.

Law of Extraterrestrial Euhemerism: any primitive human superstition is the result of contact with advanced alien technology; this includes psychic powers, magicians, ghosts, angels, fairies, vampires, werewolves, demons, dragons, messiahs and gods.

Law of Technological Trajectory: the more hyper-advanced an alien or future technological artifact, the more likely that it will resemble a large, illuminated crystal.

Law of Irradiated Macrofauna: due to mutations triggered by artificial radiation, animals may grow to enormous sizes normally ruled out by the surface-area-to-volume ratio.

Corollary to the Law of Irradiated Macrofauna: irradiated macrofauna will invariably seek out large human population centers and battle each other.

Influence/Malevolence Relationship in Science: the greater a scientific or technological achievement, the greater the probability that the scientist responsible for it suffers from a mental illness and/or ethical deficit.

Diamond’s Law: an advanced spacefaring species will always oppress, absorb or destroy any less advanced, non-spacefaring species with which it makes contact.

Anthropocentric Exception to Diamond’s Law: an advanced spacefaring species will always oppress, absorb or destroy any less advanced, non-spacefaring species with which it makes contact, unless that species is humanity.

Roddenberry’s Law of Cybernetic Omniscience: any sufficiently advanced computer system will contain the sum all of human knowledge down to the most inconsequential detail, even if the computer was constructed by and for aliens.

Gill’s Law of Alien Impressionability: any humanoid alien species will, upon being introduced to some detail of human history or culture, reconfigure its entire society based solely upon the human example; also known as the Iotian Law.

Law of Atmospheric Inexhaustibility: on a spacecraft, space station or other artificial habitat in a vacuum or near-vacuum, no matter how much air is lost when an airlock is opened or the hull is breached, after the air loss is terminated there will still be sufficient atmosphere to comfortably support the survivors.

Doctrine of Human Psychological Infortitude: any human gifted with transhuman abilities by an alien or future intelligence will initially attempt to perform good works with his or her new-found powers, but will be eventually driven insane and commit destructive acts; also known as the Mitchell Effect.

Doctrine of Hostile Alien Tourism: when technologically advanced spacefaring aliens initiate a war or invasion against the Earth, their first strategic maneuver will be to destroy a number of famous human landmarks, usually ones with no strategic or defensive value.

The ForbinCameronWachowski Corollary to Turing’s Test of Machine Intelligence: it is possible to demonstrate that a machine has achieved genuine intelligence or sentience, as its first act upon gaining self-awareness will be to attempt the annihilation of humanity.

The Lucas-Asimov-Herbert Model of Human Galactic Societal Development: any vast, galaxy-spanning interstellar human civilization will resemble in many or all respects the empires of the species’ ancient pre-technological past.

And… number 51:

Even’s Revision to Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from lazy writing.

Feel free to add your own Laws of Sci-Fi Physics in the comments below.