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Michael Sheens Airlock – Creating a Space Capsule

In 2007, Nimba Creations was hired to build a small set piece for a short film with an actor called Michael Sheen. At the time we didn’t know the name but in recent years we have seen him in iconic roles playing Tony Blair and Kenneth Williams (although we prefer to think of him as Liz Lemons ‘future husband’ in 30 Rock or the guy who dates Sarah Silverman).

Michael Sheen in Airlock
Michael Sheen starred in the 2007 short

Although the set piece was small, it was still a huge challenge; we had to recreate the inside of a space capsule from the 1970s on a shoestring budget. We brought in an old friend and set designer Lee Taylor to help with construction, found a model of the Gemini space capsule to use as reference and started building the structure from plywood and 1″ x 2″ inch planks of pine.

The biggest hurdle was the most obvious – how do you replicate millions of dollars worth of space exploration vehicle on a short film budget and time frame? The only choice was to go old skool and build as we went along – there simply wasn’t the time for excessive planning or pre visualisation models to be made.

Airlock Short Film
A still from Airlock (or How to Say Goodbye in Space)

The overall structure was by far the most tricky, as the whole set had to be conical shaped made with tapering triangles of wood which would, in theory, come to a point at the actors feet. Not easy with no plans or measurements. We started by placing two chairs where the actors would sit, close enough together that the space felt claustrophobic but far enough apart to give them room to move and play out the script. We then built from the chairs outwards, constructing a centre console and dashboard at sizes and distances that felt comfortable but close enough to the actors to demonstrate the confined space, a little like building a race car around a driver.

Space Capsule Set Piece
The set piece had to fit the actors like a glove

As we started to build the set piece out, we needed to bear in mind one very important element – lighting. The cockpit roof, dashboard and every switch and key we added would need to be illuminated if it was going to be convincing as a solid space craft. Once again, time wasn’t on our side; if it was, we would have wired a series of LED lights throughout the set assigning one to each switch in the set. As it was, we had to go for the quicker option of having large lights outside the set and leaving apertures where we wanted that light to shine through, creating hundreds of light points from a single bulb. To make sure the lights weren’t all the same tone, we added coloured gels behind different clusters of holes in the set so some appeared white while others appeared red, orange and green.

Capsule set
Switches and lights were needed throughout the craft

The set piece was completed in a very short period of time and a lorry was sent for collection on the morning of the shoot. However when it arrived, we discovered that it didn’t fit. As small as the inside of a space capsule is, it turned out it was still too large to fit on the back of a truck. Thankfully, we had designed the set with ‘flying’ sections of removable wall so that cameras could film the actors inside the set (although all we see in the film are two small porthole sized windows as a view to the outside world). When these sections were taken away the set just about fit on the lorry with around 3 inches of clearance to spare.

When the set arrived at the studio in London later that day, we could finally relax. The hard work was done and the fruits of our labour arrived on time and intact. The film that was shot was the poignant true life story of Major Adam Banton and Major Carl Ackland who died on a space mission in 1976. Watch the 15 movie below and let us know what you think in the comments section.

Ackland and Banton
The dedication to the men the film was based on

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