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Jan 8th 2019

The Adventures of an Aerospace Technology Consultant in Hollywood

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Have you ever wondered how concepts for the futuristic technology shown in science fiction movies are developed? Usually, technology consultants get involved to help the film producers make it more believable. I’m an aerospace engineer with a broad career spanning over 35 years. I’m also an artist, futurist and concept designer. As a technology consultant to the entertainment industry, I’ve had the opportunity to work on the production of acclaimed technology-based Hollywood movies such as “Apollo 13” and “Iron Man.”

Living a Dream

Early in my engineering career at Northrop Grumman, I decided to get involved in the entertainment industry. I was interested in using my expertise and experience to work on technology-based Hollywood movies that specifically featured future aerospace concepts. I felt I could improve upon the designs of air and spacecraft depicted in movies and do a better job at showing how they worked. I figured out ways to communicate the fundamentals of aerospace system design to make it more accessible and understandable to film producers, and managed to find some Hollywood work.

Making it Cool

So, what’s it like working in the world of Hollywood as a technology consultant? How does it compare to working as an aerospace engineer? The engineering world usually develops concepts to solve a particular problem or need. If you can quantitatively define the problem, you can then come up with a set of requirements and refine them as necessary. Requirements drive the design process.

In my experience, the world of entertainment typically doesn’t think in those terms. Hollywood’s primary goal is to come up with something that simply looks cool. The script is generally the only document they have for direction, which somewhat describes the film’s visual content in addition to the dialogue. If the filmmakers are lucky, they might have a written backstory, or the movie may be based on a hard science fiction novel they can use as a guide.

Just like an aerospace project, a movie production has distinct phases. There are technology consultants who participate in all of these phases. Concept designers are usually involved up front in the development or pre-production phases, before they’ve even hired any actors or started filming. The goal is to brainstorm ideas and figure out what the technology in the film will look like. This can include assets such as aircraft, spacecraft, spacesuits, habitats, controls, displays and so on.

But it’s not always about designing vehicles and hardware. For “Iron Man,” the producers wanted to know more about what engineers do, what their workspaces and tools look like, what kind of books and models they had on their desks and so forth. I hosted a visit to Northrop Grumman for the Iron Man production crew to give them a glimpse of what it’s like to be an aerospace engineer. They used this information to create the world of Tony Stark, and I even got to visit some of the sets.

Reality Check

As a concept designer, you usually work with the production designer, who is responsible for the overall look of the film. Sometimes you work with the writers to make sure the dialogue sounds authentic and incorporates the appropriate technical jargon. Once the preliminary design of assets, like spacecrafts, has been completed, you might find yourself working with the visual effects team. They are responsible for creating the fully detailed 3-D CAD models as well as traditional physical models for use in the film, which can include both exteriors and interiors.

The technology consultant’s role then shifts to helping the production team work out the details, figure out how the technology should function and how the actors will interact with these assets. For example, how does an aerospace vehicle move through and maneuver in space? How do its various subsystems function? This is frequently accomplished by reviewing the storyboards and making appropriate recommendations.

Meetings in Hollywood can be a bit different. I recall showing up to a movie pre-production meeting armed with PowerPoint slides, ready to give an aerospace-style presentation. I knew something was not quite right when I saw that the meeting room looked like a lounge with comfy couches surrounding a bunch of coffee tables. The flow of discussion was much more of an informal freewheeling back-and-forth get-together. But once I got in the groove, it became easier and fun to work with the production team.

Simply having a technical consultant is not a guarantee that technology-based Hollywood movies will be scientifically and technically accurate. You have to accept the fact that you’re not there to make things perfect. The filmmakers generally have a pretty good idea of what they want before they bring you in. They want you to help work out the details and make their ideas more believable to the audience, not to change everything they’ve already come up with. When writers, producers and directors recognize that incorporating realistic science and technology can enhance their storytelling, the results can be truly entertaining and compelling — and can even help educate the public.

Interested in finding ways to intersect your passions with a career path? Check out careers at Northrop Grumman.

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