17.11.2021 — environments

Why Sci-Fi Needs More Architects

Our art director explains how his architectural background gives him an edge designing evocative digital spaces.

Victor Bonafonte, Art Director

Before I built the brutalist hideaway in Iceland, the gleaming Crystal City and the first human basecamp on Mars, I was working on something a little more pedestrian—an office building in Madrid. 

I was fresh out of architecture school and trying to get some real-world experience, but building Spanish hotels and residential blocks just didn’t fire my imagination like the fictional worlds I had absorbed in sci-fi and fantasy growing up—the gritty metropolis of Bladerunner or the icy wastelands of Hoth in the original Star Wars. I realised that my architectural training would be just as useful for constructing virtual worlds as it was physical ones. Digital creators need to have a mind halfway between an engineer and an artist: they need to be architects.

The 2008 financial crash put myself and many other architects out of a job, but it also gave me the opportunity to try something different. I launched my own architectural communication company in Madrid, Beauty And The Bit, where I could explore digital worlds adjacent to architecture such as 3D modelling, visual effects and animation—the disciplines which had brought the worlds of my favourite games and movies to life. 

A brutalist building is rendered in an icy tundra.
The brutalist computer server in Bonafonte’s Landmark

Over ten years we worked with some of the world’s biggest architectural offices including Zaha Hadid, BIG, OMA and Gensler, alongside artist James Turrell. We assisted with projects ranging from huge libraries to churches, airports and even football stadiums. Working in digital space helped me understand the value of architectural training in virtual art direction—and the important qualities that many of today’s most popular games and films were sorely lacking.

One common issue is that designers take the term “sci-fi” as a blank cheque to create crazy buildings or cities that are not governed by logic. Of course you can have floating buildings and flying cars, but these elements have to relate to each other coherently. In the neon-streaked cityscape of Bladerunner every architectural element seems to serve a function, unlike the wild excesses of Marvel creations such as Wakanda or their many other pompous environments.

In Star Wars or anime classic Akira, we see considered world design which is not just an easter egg for architecture geeks—it subconsciously makes every viewer feel more grounded and emotionally implicated in the story. It means audiences are not simply watching a fantasy from a distant world, they are actually inhabiting that space. This is why even fictional worlds need to create and follow their own rules.

“Our work showed how cinematic language could infuse a digital structure with elegance and emotion”

The other issue is when artists sacrifice good taste on the altar of maximalism. This results in over-sexualised female fighters in bikinis or warriors wearing suits of armour that they would never be able to even lift. Such jarring design choices break the illusion of reality, which is a cardinal sin when designing a fictional space. This is why the subdued horror of Silent Hill always frightened me more than the exaggerations of Resident Evil. In brilliant games like The Last of Us or Control, every object, outfit and design choice feels like it belongs in the world, which helps players invest more in the fiction and the experience. They remember being part of those worlds.

The first milestone in my career as an artistic and cinematic director was Landmark, a short film intended as an architectural promo. I wanted to show how digital animation could infuse a structure with elegance and emotion by employing cinematic language. I brought many skills from my architectural training to its creation, including my foundations in form, function, shape and colour, as well as the fundamentals of composition—arranging elements so they have an inherent harmony. The film shows a brutalist computer server in an Icelandic tundra, staffed by a lonely I.T. guy who tells his story. Though there is a human narrative, the emotions are expressed through the lighting, architecture and camerawork as much as the voiceover. Landmark catapulted out of the small world of architecture into international festivals and competitions. I was overjoyed by its success.

We’ve worked on various digital worlds since then, including my time as art director on Quixel´s Rebirth which used real-time rendering on the Unreal Engine to portray an abandoned megacity on a distant planet. I hope that each one of the spaces we create fills viewers with a sense of wanderlust, while having enough specificity to make people feel rooted in these imagined worlds.

Since I started working with Stage11, I’ve become particularly enthusiastic about what the added ingredient of music can add to my architectural and artistic direction. The freeform nature of song moves away from concrete narratives, meaning I can take a lesson from jazz and be more abstract in my environments. We’re building worlds for our artists, meaning each show can travel through wildly different realms, from futuristic cities to theme parks to soothing abstract scenery. The job of architecture in our work is to make even the most fantastical worlds feel so real that you imagine, just for a second, that you could reach out and touch them.

Victor Bonafonte is our art director. He is an acclaimed creative director and architecture visualization specialist with an incredible client list including Epic Games.

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