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.