Welcome to a Galaxy Where Nothing Is Ever Quite as It Seems: Design Highlights From H2G2
"Is there any tea on this space ship?"
With the casting for THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY completed, the ensemble found themselves on a set featuring other-worldly props, intergalactic design features and 7-foot-tall Vogons, among other inspiring creations. The actors soon found that Garth Jennings' decision to create much of the film's universe lovingly by hand was a boon for their performances. Says Zooey Deschanel: "It's hard enough as an actor to have to pretend you're riding on a spaceship or talking to a gigantic, poetry-reading alien--it makes it all even more remote if you're doing it on a green screen, trying to imagine all this stuff! But in THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, we had much of the film's funniest, weirdest stuff right in front of us, all feeling extremely real. It made a great difference--and I think audiences will react to that as well."
Though many of the effects are physical, there are plenty of computer-generated images as well, including Zaphod Beeblebrox's second head, the annihilation of Planet Earth, and especially the character of Humma Kavula, who morphs into various incarnations as it is revealed that he's not quite what he appears to be upon first sight.
Included among the film's many visual design highlights are:
The Guide: the Electronic Book
The gadget at the very heart of THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY is The Guide itself, the electronic book that contains just about every factoid and rumor on every possible subject, and a few impossible subjects, in the known universe.
For many of the book's fans, The Guide was one of Douglas Adams' most prophetic creations--one that predated cell phones, the Internet and especially online PDAs, like the Blackberry. It can be hard to remember that, when Adams first wrote about The Guide, nothing even remotely like it was in existence.
Though Garth Jennings wanted The Guide to be technologically dazzling, he always felt its main appeal would always be its ever-irreverent attitude in presenting information. "I think The Guide becomes a fantastic device for the audience because it's got such a unique personality and hilarious view of the universe," he says. "We thought the book's ideas would always be more exciting than its buttons or its interface. It's very much a character in the film."
Thus it was that Douglas Adams' good friend and acclaimed comic wit Stephen Fry was recruited to take on the voice of The Guide, providing it with just the amusing touch that makes it so unique. Says Robbie Stamp: "I always thought getting Stephen Fry was absolutely critical--he just has that precise mixture of high intelligence, acerbic wit and wry sense of authority that you expect from The Guide."
The physical look of The Guide was designed to be the kind of everyday, utilitarian tool you would stick in your backpack for a trek across the cosmos. The Guide's interface--filled with bold, bright, eye-popping graphics--was designed by the highly regarded British animation company Shynola.
"Shynola had a lot to live up to in designing The Guide entries, but they did an absolutely amazing job," says Garth Jennings.
These bureaucrats of the universe, armed with awful poetry, were one of the most vital and challenging designs of the film. Though they are major characters in Douglas Adams' novel, no one was ever quite sure what they might look like in the flesh. The main description of them from Adams was that they were not "actually evil, but bad-tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous." He went on to say: "They wouldn't even lift a finger to save their mother from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal without a form signed in triplicate." So, from the beginning, Garth Jennings wondered: how does one translate that into a visually compelling outer-space creature?
Jennings worked closely with Jamie Courtier, creative director of Jim Henson's Creature Shop, to come up with a design that would turn Douglas Adams' ideas into something quite real. Courtier immediately latched on to how familiar Vogons are, even to 21st Century earthlings. "Vogons are basically useless, horrible creatures, who are good at absolutely nothing except that they happen to be running the universe," says Courtier, "and that's the underlying humor of the Vogons. They are very much like people that we know from our own world who are in charge but aren't exactly competent. We wanted to bring out that humor as well as make them a lot of fun and almost loveable, in their own horrifying Vogon way."
Ultimately, the filmmakers were inspired not by any previous monsters or extraterrestrials they had seen on screen but rather by the 18th Century cartoonist James Gillray--known in the art world as the "father of the political cartoon"--whose sharp, satirical drawings of fat-cat politicians, corrupted judges and often gruesome-looking members of the King's Court brought to the fore their human foibles and failings.
"The question came up--where do you go for aliens in the 21st century?--and the answer turned out to be the 18th century," laughs Robbie Stamp. "Gillray had drawn these huge, fat, beaknosed politicians with endless chins, and you just couldn't help but see the Vogon in them."
Garth Jennings continues: "So we took these really ugly portraits of judges and lords with fallen faces and added to them the greenish, walrusy description from the book to create a very unusual hybrid!"
Courtier's team then began sculpting early models. "We kept making them more decrepit and crooked-looking, and then one day, Garth finally said, quite simply: 'This is a Vogon.'"
Henson's Creature Shop went on to build a bevy of 7' 6" tall animatronic Vogons out of clay, foam and rubber. The heads of the Vogons that had the most "acting to do" contained 35 individual motors to drive their highly expressive faces. "We had a fantastic team of engineers who mapped out and installed the incredibly complex matrix of mechanisms concealed inside each Vogon head. Dozens of tiny electric motors are attached to the inside surface of the skin, and they become the muscles that create expression in the Vogon face," explains Courtier. "Bringing the faces to life with our computerized operating system is equally complicated. Each of the two hand controllers has more buttons than a cell phone, but we have amazing puppeteers who can play the controls like musical instruments and create extraordinary nuance and character."
Courtier continues: "We auditioned extensively for the cast who wear the Vogon suits, and they worked with choreographer Peter Elliot to learn how to move in the lumbering, old, gout-ridden Vogon way. The performers described being in the suits as like being inside giant baked potatoes--and about as hot!"
When the freshly minted Vogons walked onto the set, the cast and crew were speechless. "I tell you, when you see one of those seven-foot Vogons coming at you, you can't help but react," says Robbie Stamp. "They really were a triumph because they looked so much like actual beasts. It made for an incredibly rich experience for the actors, as I think it will for the audience."
For Garth Jennings, the puppets had their own strange beauty, despite their intentional ugliness. "I thought they were lovely because they're just so full of character," he says. "There's something almost tragic about the Vogons the way we've depicted them--they're deeply flawed and it shows. They aren't just these big, weird creatures we have no feelings for. I think we have managed to make them beautifully pathetic."
Meanwhile, for the Vogon ships, Jennings had another very Vogon vision: spacecraft built like concrete blocks. "There was a lovely description of them in the book that said the ships float in the air the way that bricks don't, so we thought, 'right, that's pretty simple then.' We knew that the Vogons would have a severe lack of imagination, so we just took that idea visually and went with it."
The Heart of Gold
The spaceship that improbably rescues Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect from certain demise in the vacuum of space--known as the Heart of Gold--soon becomes their pathway to extraordinary adventures. Although Douglas Adams briefly mentioned that the spacecraft was sculpted in the form of a giant tennis shoe, the filmmakers all agreed that, as a visual joke, this just wasn't going to work.
So they set about trying to come up with something that would be equally unusual but, at the same time, visually exciting in a modern way. Production designer Joel Collins was handed the imagination-testing task of coming up with the initial drawings. "What's difficult is that we've all seen so many spaceships in so many movies over the years that audiences have basically grown bored with the whole idea," he says. "The challenge then was to come up with a design that would look nothing like any of the spaceships everyone already knows but still could be filmed flying through intergalactic space as if it were a real craft!"
Ultimately, Collins, in conjunction with Jennings and Goldsmith, would design nearly 80 different ships, hoping for just the right design to emerge. "Some were very fantasy-oriented, some were quirky, some were sleek and hot-roddy, and some were very simple," he recalls. "We even had tried some in the shape of sneakers, just to give it a go. But ultimately, we took the best ideas and narrowed them down to what has become our Heart of Gold: a kind of flying porcelain teapot with a Ming-vase blue design around it. It's a very muted and calming sort of spaceship--so it's as if Arthur Dent has arrived at a very nice space hotel."
With the design completed, it took nearly four and a half months to build life-size sets of the ship and all its accoutrements, from the Nutramatic machine that creates the food of anyone's desires to the bar where Pangalactic Gargle Blasters are served. Then there were the 3,000 light bulbs that had to each be screwed in individually. The effect, however, was worth the effort.
"When I walked into the Heart of Gold for the first time, I felt like I was on P. Diddy's yacht," laughs Garth Jennings. "It really amazed us all. There was always this idea that it should feel like a palace, with a sweeping staircase and a grand balcony, and Joel created that feeling."
Jennings continues: "One of the most important things to us was that Arthur look completely out of place in the Heart of Gold, so we created this white, immaculate, space-age interior filled with ridiculous twists that makes him look completely wrong. Part of the visual concept of the film was that all the characters should look as if they've fallen into the wrong movie. It's only really at the end when Arthur is back on his own planet that he seems to fit--because he's finally grown up a bit and woken up to this new identity as an adventurer and a hitchhiker."
The Deep Thought Computer
Another iconic character in THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY is Deep Thought--the mega-gigantic supercomputer that has spent 7 1/2 million years attempting to figure out the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything-- which turns out to be, quite simply, 42. Though many fans have debated the cosmic significance of this number, the answer is not all that helpful until one knows the question!
In creating a new portrait of Deep Thought for the film, the filmmakers were inspired by another famously deep thinker--the bronze sculpture known as "The Thinker," created by the French master Auguste Rodin in 1880 as a heroic figure who sits with his head resting on his hand, dreaming, creating and coming up with answers. The other idea was to create a machine that would be "very, very large indeed," says Garth Jennings.
Adds Robbie Stamp: "Obviously Deep Thought has unfathomable computing power so the focus was largely on it being a massive creation. Of course, it was also built millions of years ago, so we added a kind of retro feeling to it. And it resides in this overgrown primordial jungle that provides an amusing contrast to Deep Thought's authoritative wisdom and powers of creation."
Zaphod's 2nd Head
In order to facilitate his run at the presidency, Zaphod Beeblebrox decided to split his brain into two heads. To make things even more unusual, in the screen version of THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, Zaphod's second cerebellum is hidden. This was an early decision made by screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick and one that Garth Jennings felt worked. "We knew we didn't want a straightforward two-headed man," he says. "I thought the screenplay solved the problem brilliantly--by having Zaphod's second head hidden inside his first, and only popping up when things just can't be dealt with by the smooth-talking head. I love the idea and always thought it would be cool if his head was almost like a Pez dispenser."
Zaphod's second head was created through a carefully integrated mix of CGI and prosthetics. Explains Sam Rockwell, who plays Zaphod: "In a very odd twist, I sometimes had to wear a prosthetic mold of my own head on top of my head for the scenes where the second head pops out! Other times, when they were going to add in the second head with CGI, I had to act with my eyes looking up at the ceiling. It was all very odd, but the final effect is just so much fun."
If one scene from THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY had the production holding its breath, it was one of the most famous sequences from the novel, in which a nuclear missile is suddenly transformed by the Improbability Drive into an existentially burdened whale who plummets to the surface of the planet below. Explains Robbie Stamp: "I always saw this particular scene as a litmus test for the entire movie. I knew if we could pull this one off, we could do the whole thing. There are those who actually thought we shouldn't even try to film it because it would never work. But I always felt that everything that is genius about Douglas Adams is going on all at once in this sequence: it's surreal, it's funny, it's philosophical, it's filled with the wonders of the natural world, and it's entirely unexpected. And now I think it has become many people's favorite moment in the movie."
Although this scene could have been accomplished with CGI, Jennings instead opted to create it by shooting a highly detailed model sperm whale in free fall. Jim Henson's Creature Shop built an 11-foot-long model of the typically 50-foot-long marine mammal that was dripping with character.
"The whale that the Creature Shop created was truly beautiful," says Jennings. "We shot it with an in-camera effect so it looks like it's falling through the sky, and later we added just a couple of effects shots. But essentially the whole whale sequence was shot in camera. It looks so realistic--to me it's as if we had a skydiver trying to film the whale as he was plummeting with it!"
It was moments like these that seemed to capture why so many people--from the fans who clamored for a movie to be made, to the producers who stuck by the project even in the wake of death; from the actors who took a risk on playing unconventional characters, to the artists and puppeteers who devoted their every waking creative moment to forging a galaxy--had worked so passionately to bring THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE to the screen.
Perhaps Robbie Stamp sums up the feeling best of all: "Often, when I was on the set, looking at all these remarkable creations come to life and hearing the cameras rolling, I couldn't help but think that my friend Douglas would have loved nothing more than to be there. He always said that this story should be a movie, and everybody involved seemed determined not only to prove him right but to do him proud."
The Guide to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Some Basic H2G2 Terms: The Characters
Ah, this is obviously some strange use of the word "safe" that I wasn't previously aware of.
In order to travel safely through the unhinged universe revealed in THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, it can help to have a glossary handy. So herewith, a few terms you'll encounter on the journey:
Planet of Origin: Earth
Arthur Dent is having a bad day--his house is being demolished to make way for a new freeway, he's learned that his best friend is from a different planet, and the girl of his dreams just hooked up with a total idiot. Still, it's not exactly the end of the world--that's not for at least another six minutes. It turns out (thanks to his alien best friend) that the end of the world is just the beginning…
Planet of Origin: Vicinity of Betelgeuse
Ford Prefect, best friend of Arthur Dent, is actually an alien posing as an out-of-work actor. His real job involves compiling research for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Stranded on Earth for 15 years, he finally gets the opportunity to leave when a most unpleasant alien race announces their plans to destroy the primitive planet. And because Arthur once saved his life (a long, slightly embarrassing story), Ford decides to return the favor and plucks his friend off Earth before its annihilation. Fortunately for Arthur, Ford is the perfect companion to have on a galactic adventure.
Planet of Origin: Earth
Trillian's tale is a simple one of girl meets boy, girl immediately ditches boy for alien president of the galaxy, girl meets boy again after Earth is destroyed (under very improbable circumstances), boy professes feelings for girl, girl plays hard to get, boy gives up, girl discovers she made a mistake with alien president of the galaxy.
Planet of Origin: Betelgeuse Five
Species: Yes, Please
Cool, adventurous, arrogant, and dim-witted, Zaphod Beeblebrox is also the President of the galaxy. He became President for the sole purpose of stealing the Heart of Gold spaceship--the most remarkable and unique ship in the history of the galaxy. Zaphod recently popped in to Earth to pick up a female companion (Tricia McMillan, a.k.a. Trillian), luring her away with that tried and tested line--"I'm from a different planet. Would you like to see my spaceship?"
Manufacturer: Sirius Cybernetics Corporation
Make: GPP (Genuine People Personalities)
Marvin is a new generation of robot, infused with GPP (Genuine People Personalities). Chronically depressed, Marvin finds little job satisfaction in his menial tasks, and he's quick to remind others that he won't enjoy them. To be fair, opening doors and fetching things can be a little dreary when you have a brain that can compute your personality problems to thirty decimal places, while predicting the weather of an entire planet. As a result of his gloomy disposition, he often worries that he is making those around him miserable as well.
PROSTETNIC VOGON JELTZ
Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz is the commander of the Vogon Constructor Fleet and is not a pleasant sight, even for other Vogons. His dark green rubbery skin is thick enough for him to play the game of Vogon Civil Service politics, and play it well, and waterproof enough for him to survive indefinitely at sea depths of up to a thousand feet with no ill effects.
Planet of Origin: Unknown
Humma Kavula is an intergalactic missionary with only the slightest grasp of sanity, which is, perhaps, the only pre-requisite necessary for becoming a megalomaniacal, religious cult leader. He can be found preaching to Jatravartid people of Viltvodle VI as they await the arrival of the big Handkerchief.
Planet of Origin: Magrathea
Slartibartfast is a planetary construction engineer from the legendary world of Magrathea. Magrathea provided a luxury planet-building service for the most refined and--let's face it--richest clientele in the galaxy. Magrathea catered to every taste. Slartibartfast is a real craftsman and sometimes views with dismay the newer, flashier planets. If truth be told, Slartibartfast would rather be left alone to build beautiful coastlines with intricate fjords. After all, he's won awards for them.
The Guide to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Some Basic H2G2 Terms: The Universe
About Douglas Adams