If you talk with someone about his or her work, it usually does not take long to figure out whether or not they like whatever it is they do. When it comes to Stephen Geaghan, he loves his job. Having earned two university degrees in theatrical scenic design, Geaghan spent several months last year working as production designer on the Canadian-made Science Fiction TV drama Defying Gravity. A fan of Sci-fi since childhood, he could not resist the chance to design the earthbound elements along with the deep space environment that the crew of the spaceship Antares would be living as well as working in.
“I had done six years as principal designer on The Outer Limits, and in that time I’d become quite familiar with the idiom,” explains Geaghan, during an interview at the Defying Gravity offices last June. “I went on to do other Science Fiction shows, and then one day I got a phone call to come to Omni Films here in Vancouver to interview for Defying Gravity. I checked out the guys who wanted to see me [series creator/executive producer] Jim Parriott and [executive producer] Michael Edelstein, both of whom have pretty significant Hollywood TV credentials. They had sent me the [pilot] script, which was only a first draft, but it was excellent and a compelling as well as moving statement of intent.
“So I went in for the interview and brought along my portfolio as well as [demo] reel, quite a bit of which features the Science Fiction work I did not only on The Outer Limits but also other shows like Babylon 5, Sliders and Jeremiah. I ended up getting the job on Defying Gravity, and I think I got it, not because of any particular confidence, but because I was just so darn enthusiastic,” says the production designer smiling. “I was like, ‘I want to do this! I want to work with you guys!’ You can’t ignore that kind of childlike enthusiasm for the genre, and lo and behold they gave me the job.”
A week after booking Defying Gravity, Geaghan was in his new office at Bridge Studios in Vancouver and raring to go. “After my initial meetings with Jim and Michael, I sat down to come up with a floor plan of the basic environments that would be necessary and how they would work,” he says. “We knew that the ship itself was going to be linear. The Antares started off as a mile in length, but when I began doing my calculations it was, on a human scale as well as TV scale, too big of an environment to comprehend.
“So we cut it back to half-a-mile, and still, a human being on the surface looks like an ant compared to the size of the ship. It’s a gigantic ship with a sun shield on the front that measures 600 meters. Each compartment is a cylinder that is 28 feet wide and 50 feet long. We calculated the look of the ship on what we believed NASA could lift in the year 2030, given the Aries heavy lifters that they’re coming up with now. We advanced it though Aries A, B and C, and we figured that the diameter of the cylinder that they could lift would likely increase, say, a couple of feet every generation. So we decided that by 2050 [the decade in which Defying Gravity is set], they could lift a cylinder 48 to 50 feet long and 26 to 28 feet wide, and each component would be two levels. So the entire ship is constructed on that basis.
“There are rotating arms on the outside of the Antares, and these cylinders, which are where the crew lives, are the gravity environments. In some areas of the ship there’s artificial gravity, and in other places there’s what’s called nano-teched gravity. In those areas, the suits worn by our characters pull to an arbitrary north or south, so it allows them to walk normally even though it’s a non-gravity environment. Organics will float, but anything that is engineered for the ship will have an arbitrary up or down.
“This was actually Jim Parriott’s idea, which I thought was terribly clever. He’s the creator of this entire world; all I do is interpret his visions. As I said, though, we started off with a very powerful, well thought out script that he produced, and that carried on with the rest of the scripts. Jim’s overview of the show is spectacular. It encompasses a five- to six-year span, and, again, my job is to basically create the environments that elucidate what he has in mind, as well as keep the technology, not so much Science Fiction, but closer to Science Fact. And that’s been tough. We’ve had a lot of interaction with NASA as well as NASA technology and we try not to stray too far from that, even though we’re dealing with the discovery of other life forms in the show, which we have to in this genre.”
Sitting in one of the chairs on the Antares flight deck, you cannot help but fiddle with the various controls and “play” astronaut. Connected to the flight deck is the ship’s observation deck, a retro-like domed area where the characters can enjoy a little downtime. Both these sets were among the most challenging for the production designer to come up with.
“They were the last two sets we designed before going into production, and there were a lot of changes that occurred with them,” recalls Geaghan. “Originally, the observation deck was small, and Michael looked at it and said, ‘It has to be bigger.’ So that’s one instance where we departed from NASA technology. By that I mean eight-by-eight foot sheets of glass don’t work in the reality of space, but this was something that we had to do and say we could do in 2052.
“That was difficult to justify, and also very difficult to engineer within that environment. These are large sheets of heavy, tempered glass that don’t move easily or well. So we had to redesign the set several times, including getting the panels at the proper angle so they reflected the floor and not one another or the crew, since the entire set is virtually 360 degrees of glass. There were sound problems, too, because this set is very ‘live’ inside; you get into the center and it forms a beautiful echo. So when shooting scenes we have to keep the actors out of the center of the set. There was also the fact that we had to incorporate both green screen and black [screens] – green screen when the actor walks in front of elements, and black when we’re showing a star field through the windows.
“So this was the toughest set to actually get a handle on, and then at the last minute when we were building it in another section of the soundstage, it was determined that it had to connect to the flight deck. In retrospect, it was a terrific idea that, again, Jim Parriott came up with. He’s visualizing down the line how we’re going to use these sets, and we are in service to the script. When Jim looks at something and says, ‘Nah, we won’t be doing that, we’ll be doing this,’ you listen closely because it’s going to happen that way, and he doesn’t change his mind. Jim is extremely clear about what he needs and wants.”
When the Antares and its crew departs for their six-year exploration of the solar system, their mission is being watched back home by the ISO (International Space Organization) and the men and women in charge of Mission Control. That locale was another one created under Geaghan’s watchful eye. “The Mission Control set had a really interesting development because when I first walked onto the set it was in its final days of being used for Stargate Atlantis and a bit of a dog’s breakfast,” notes the production designer. “I remembered vaguely what it looked like in [the feature film] Blade, but at this point, it didn’t look anything like that.
“I went rummaging around for the original drawings, which were very difficult to locate, in order to find where the steelwork was. When we eventually got control of the stage, my construction coordinator, Henry Griffin-Beale, asked me what I wanted him to do, and I told him to gut the set and strip it all down. So we threw out everything – ceilings, walls, we took the floors right down to the concrete along with every piece of scenery that was attached to the steel – and then I knew what we were dealing with.
“At that point we built a complete staircase, put in a conference room on the second floor, and added offices as well as a corridor where there were none. I also decided to use glass and open up the set up to make it much more transparent for cameras in order to create depth. We re-clad all the beams and pillars as well to give the set a more contemporary feel so it didn’t look like a turn of the century, or turn of the 20th century, industrial environment. We brought in new lighting and carpeted the floor as well as added acoustic materials in ways that look decorative, but are actually very functional and deaden sound because it’s an extremely ‘live’ environment. So all of this was a huge development and a very expensive set.”
The production designer chuckles when asked about the bathrooms on the Antares set. “We have two working bathrooms in the crew quarters as well as one functional shower, and all these things are used in the show,” says Geaghan. “We see the characters going in and out of them. In one episode, the toilet gets plugged up and our lead actor, Ron Livingston, who plays Maddox Donner, has to unplug it. It’s a very intrinsic part of the episode, where he pulls out the seat, followed by the next piece, and reveals all these tubes, plugs and pressure chambers.
“There was a great deal of research done to try to find out how a zero-G toilet works and we duplicated it rather closely, right down to the seat belts and stirrups. We literally detailed things right down to that level. I think we did a calculation of exactly how much toilet paper our characters would actually need to take with them on the ship for a six-year voyage. And it’s a lot of toilet paper,” jokes the production designer. “We even have a whole water recycling area as well that’s shown in one of the episodes.
“We tend to be very thoughtful about how we come up with and design things for this show, and I think each and every person in this art department has a love of outer space. We’re all children of the 60s and 70s – I’m actually a child of the 50s, but we’ll leave that alone,” he says with a laugh. “I remember things like Sputnik and Telstar, so I grew up with space and Science Fiction, and when I got this show I was like, ‘I can do this. I can render this.’
“The other thing is we’ve all been influenced by the classics. Everyone here has in the back of their minds that marvelous quality of design that was in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even though we don’t have a feature film budget here on Defying Gravity, we can get pretty darn close.”
For Geaghan, working on Defying Gravity has been like being a kid in a candy store, and he has high praise for the creative people in his department who have helped bring this story to life.
“It’s an amazing crew,” he says. “There’s Suki Parker, our art director; John Gallagher, our principal illustrator, who has been with us right from the very beginning; Clyde Klotz, our secondary illustrator, who’s another talented man; Tim Joyce, our draftsman, and Krista Strofe, graphics. There’s also our set decorator Jonathan Lancaster and his crew, who have done a terrific job in maintaining the visual integrity and detail that this show needs and requires.
“This band of little merry men and women come in here every day and bust their guts to give the program the visual reality that it has, and we all love doing it,” he enthuses.
All photos courtesy of and copyright of Stephen Geaghan, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!