Production design is one of the most underrated aspects of filmmaking and fictional consoles and interfaces can have an actual impact on those we're sitting in front of in the real world. Over the last decade or so, Minority Report's gesture-based virtual swiping screens have been credited with having the biggest impact on what we think a good interface should be. Two years ago, WIRED magazine declared the age of Minority Report to be over and decided that the future of design would be more like the cuddly girlfriend gadgets of Her.
The digital age moves fast and there are many beautiful consoles from the "analog" era that probably won't be influencing your smart watch anytime soon. For your perusal, we break down some of the coolest consoles and control panels from film history.
release date: 1977 DIRECTOR: George Lucas budget: $13 million
Like many computer panel displays in the 1980s, the most prominent features of the X-wing’s interior are its simple computer graphics. We get a really good look at this aiming display in A New Hope when the rebel squadron is engaged in its climactic assault against the Death Star.
While there are many people to credit for the look of Star Wars (especially Ralph Mcquarrie’s early concept art) the fact is real world circumstances and compromises were one of the biggest factors involved. The film had a relatively small budget and these were the days before CGI, so the legendary aesthetics were dependent on the set dresser, Roger Christian, being able to improvise.
Christian told Esquire that while working on the film he discovered that “if I bought airplane scrap and broke it down, I could stick it in the sets in specific ways — because there's an order to doing it, it's not just random. And that's the art of it. I understood how to do that — engineering and all that stuff. So George said, 'Yes, go do it.' And airplane scrap at that time, nobody wanted it. There were junkyards full of it, because they sold it by weight. I could buy almost an entire plane for 50 pounds.”
release date: 1966 diRectorS: Various budget: Varies
The bridge of Star Trek's U.S.S. Enterprise is probably the most recognizable control room for any spacecraft in the history of cinema. The control panels in the original television series are especially memorable for their variety of black decks filled with colorful, illuminated buttons and switches. They had that Day-Glo pop that only the 1960's could really get away with.
The Enterprise’s designer Matt Jefferies was a skilled aviator who flew B-17s in World War II. That experience influenced his decision to use real aircraft switches and lights on many of the Enterprise's control panels. Another key decision by Jefferies was to place the crew in a circle around Captain Kirk, which allowed the film crew to have greater maneuverability when getting dramatic shots. That circular layout was reportedly studied by defense and aerospace organizations a model for more efficient control rooms. But as io9 pointed out earlier this year, the ship has some serious design flaws. Case in point, all the control panels seem to randomly explode whenever the Enterprise is hit by an enemy’s weapon.
release date: 1979 diRector: Ridley Scott budget: $11 million
The Nostromo ship from the original Alien is basically the space version of an oil rig. It travels to different planets for excavation and mining. While its design is very much beholden to 80s computer technology, it’s less than futuristic control panels don’t necessarily feel dated. They feel advanced, yet used up and dirty. The look old for their era without feeling obsolete or anachronistic.
All the control panels in Alien are part of a single enclosed set rather than the traditional film production method of breaking it up and having movable walls. If an actor was on one end of the set, they would have to walk all the way through it to get out. Of all our control panel selections, Alien might have the most functional looking one. That’s because the production designer, Ron Cobb, constantly worked from the idea that everything should have a legitimate purpose. Cobb went as far as making legitimate real world safety signs for fixtures and airlocks.
Back to the Future
release date: 1985 diRector: Robert Zemekis budget: $19 million
The time machine panel looks like something built out of a garage emphasizing the film's premise that it was, in fact, built out of a garage by Doc Brown. It’s janky and funky-looking and not totally professional, as if someone who knows how to build this kind of thing had very limited resources and used whatever he could get his hands on.
The original time machines built by the production team only had numeric time circuit displays. But the director, Robert Zemeckis, decided to change them to alpha-numeric displays in the middle of filming. Due to the time and expense involved, only one of the three Deloreans actually had the alpha-numeric modification. Reportedly, there are shots in the film that got by the editors in which you can see the displays with only numbers.
release date: 1987 diRector: John McTiernan budget: $18 million
Predator’s arm panel is basically his toolbox. It controls all of his weapons, makes him invisible and even self-destructs when he has been defeated. The design has an impenetrable, alien language touchscreen display encased in a bulky metal box fixed to the Predator’s arm.
While most of the team working on Predator were part of the macho man action world of the eighties that Schwarzenegger typifies, there was at least one certifiable genius involved: Stan Winston. The man that built the Terminator. He brought Edward Scissorhands to life and made dinosaurs walk the earth in Jurassic Park. He also designed the Predator and it remains one of his most iconic creations.
release date: 1999 diRector: David Cronenberg budget: $31 million
The controllers in eXisTenZ are pure Cronenberg: fleshy, organic and sexual in design but entirely mechanical. It's basically an X-box controller made up of human flesh with an umbilical cord wire.
For the film’s production design, Cronenberg worked with his longtime collaborator Carol Spier. When asked about the design of the game pod, she gave all credit to Cronenberg himself, saying that he personally worked with the effects team to realize the entirely unique controller/body mod. But Spier is such as standout in the field of production design that it's difficult to say she had no influence on the visionary director. She was essential to Cronenberg's films. (There's a fascinating hour-long documentary about her and her collaborations with the director.)
Biotech is growing, so as far as "analog" interfaces go, this one has the most potential for coming back up in the future.
to the Galaxy
release date: 2005 diRector: Garth Jennings budget: $50 million
The humorous design of the Heart of Gold spaceship would be more at home as the interior of a sports car. It combines the familiar with the futuristic and the result is something that looks like less a spacecraft.
While the film divided fans of the original novel, one thing that it got right was its visual design. Director Garth Jennings came from the music video world and brought on some great talent including fellow music video veterans Shynola to handle special animated sequences. All around, the film took sci-fi conventions and made them their own.
release date: 1983 diRector: John Badham budget: $12 million
In WarGames, a teenage hacker played by Matthew Broderick finds himself at the government facility NORAD trying to prevent World War III. The giant set filled with computers has become as iconic as the war room in Dr. Strangelove. The control panels that used to square off against the computer at the end of the movie are an actual computer from the real world. These are known as SAGE panels and they appeared in many film that required big, room-sized computers. NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) is also a real command center located in a nuclear bunker in Cheyenne Mountain. The director, John Badham, has said that the film's set (the most expensive ever built at the time) looked nothing like the actual military complex and was more like "NORAD's wet dream of itself."
WarGames was released in 1983, the year that Apple introduced Lisa (the first personal computer with a GUI) as well as the year that the New York Times acquired its first newsroom computer. While the design of the gadgets in WarGames may seem quaint or silly to us today, its vision of computing and the internet had a huge impact on the geeky culture that runs the world today. In 2008, Google held a 25th-anniversary screening at its headquarters with the founder Sergey Brin handling introduction duties. Brin called the film, “a key movie of a generation, especially for those of us who got into computing.”
WarGames computer graphics consultant Colin Cantwell also worked as a model designer for the original Star Wars, so he gets the Hopes&Fears award for control panel Jedi of the century.
release date: 1992 diRector: Tim Burton budget: $80 million
In Tim Burton's Batman Returns, the Batmobile is remotely controlled by the Penguin in a scheme by Oswald Cobblepot aimed to make Batman seem like a destructive criminal. The Penguin's face shows up on a screen in the command center as he directs the vehicle to wreak havoc on the streets of Gotham. The interior of looks more like the cockpit of an aircraft than the interior of a car and its gizmo-laden dashboard is maximal in the best way.
During the production of Batman Returns, Burton kept the production design by Bo Welch secretive. It was primarily inspired by fascist architecture and the World's Fair. Security guards kept a tight watch on who was let on set and required cast and crew to have photo ID badges with the movie's original working title, Dictel. Art directors were asked to keep the blinds in their offices pulled down.
The Batmobile, designed by Anton Furst for the 1989 Batman, was inspired by the designs of the 1930s Salt Flat Racers and the Sting Ray's of the 1950s. All gadgets on the Batmobile on both Batman and Batman Returns were fully functional, thought the exhaust after-burner consumed so much fuel it could only run for 15 seconds at a time. Originally the car's roof was a few inches lower but had to be raised to accommodate for Batman's ears.
release date: 1982 diRector: Ridley Scott budget: $28 million
The controls in the hovercraft in Blade Runner are a series of multiple screens distributed throughout the length of the cockpit. There are two screens: a sort of a keyboard and one specifically for navigation.
The sets of Ridley Scott's futuristic opus were inspired, in part, by the aesthetics of the French Comic, Métal Hurlant (Screaming Metal). In the Blade Runner version of the future, cars called Spinners can hover and accelerate through the air using jet propulsion, and computer consoles control them. The cars, mostly used by police as surveillance over the public, were designed by Syd Mead and have been replicated in films like The Fifth Element and Star Wars prequel trilogy. A repainted spinner can be seen parked in a driveway in Back to the Future Part II as an homage to the car.
To create the cars, the auto fabricator Gene Winfield had 50 people in three shops working 18 hours a day, seven days a week for 5 1/2 months to complete the 27 vehicles for the film. Luckily for Winfield and the art department, an actor's strike extended pre-production by nine months, giving them the extra time they needed to complete the futuristic set and props.
Dylan Schenker is a writer interested in a wide variety of subjects including but not limited to art, pop culture and technology.
Rhett Jones has written for numerous publications and is the culture editor of Hopes&Fears.