Hi folks – please enjoy the spontaneous Q & A we held on Teamspeak on October 22, 2015, with Timothy Earls, lead set designer of the movie Serenity and the creator of the Kepler:
Bella: Tim, if you would like go ahead and start and give us a little background on yourself?
Tim Earls: Well, when I got involved in it (Firefly IP), I was on the Fox (studio) lot, when was that?
Andy Gore: 2002.
Tim Earls: I was working on a series there, I’d only been there probably about a month, and the name of the show was (verified: Judging Amy), but somebody told me they were doing a Sci-Fi show on the lot, and if I was interested in doing some artwork. And I said “YEAHHHH” and so I quit the show I was on, and went over there and met Carey Meyer and Joss briefly, and I started doing ship illustrations. What I didn’t know, well, I didn’t really know that much about the show, and I was expecting that I’d be on for the whole run of the series, but I was only on there for the pilot.
Bella: Oh, okay.
Tim Earls: But they did call me back on the last episode they shot, the 13th episode, they called me back to do a couple more designs for the show.
Andy Gore: I should point out that I think Tim’s being a little modest because being on the pilot means that he designed most of the spaceships you see in the show.
Tim Earls: *chuckles* Kinda, yeah.
Andy Gore: Including the big Reaver ship, I actually have some of Tim’s ink drawings of those, they are pretty amazing.
Bella: Oh, we’d love to see those.
Tim Earls: Well, I’ll try to make those available. Okay, well, and then, of course I heard that the series got cancelled, and I wasn’t too pleased to hear about that, after I had started getting into the show, watching it on television, and then a couple of years later I heard they were going to do the feature, and so I got in touch with the art department on that, and when they found out I worked on the series, they hired me right away (chuckles). So I think I was the only one in the art department that worked on both the series and the feature.
Bella: The first question I really wanted to ask was, well…. You designed our bird. You designed Serenity. And I kind of wanted to where that (concept) originated from, did it all come from what you felt like you would live in (in the ‘Verse), or did anybody give you direction, like ‘I need the cargo bay here and the crew quarters here’. I would like you to talk about how this just germinated.
Tim Earls: Well, a lot of the basic structure of the ship was actually thought up before I was brought on board. Carey Meyer was working with Joss, and they did a rough sketch of the ship, and they kind of did a rough cross-section, trying to determine where all these spaces were located, so they could try to get a handle on how to do their “walk and talks”, and things like that, and Carey also had made a papier mache model kind of thing. And I was brought in to clean all that stuff up and make it a little more cohesive and have something more substantial to pass on to Zoic (Studios) who was building the CG model.
Bella: That’s great. Oh, I know I’m going to forget this so I’m just going to ask it right now: The Kepler was your design as well, correct?
Tim Earls: Oh the Kepler, from the game! I just well, Andy Gore wanted something sleek and fast, and so I just started putting some shapes together that looked pretty aggressive, and kind of went from there.
Bella: Yeah, that boat is a favorite of the SVSA and there are a lot of members here that would have been very unhappy with me if I didn’t ask about it.
Tim Earls: I’ve designed a lot of ships over the years, and that’s one of my favorites, I have to say.
Bella: I did get a chance to read your imdb and you’re very prolific, you’re obviously very good at what you do.
Tim Earls: Well thank you very much.
Bella: Well, Tin Can is asking here, did you also do the interior designs for Serenity and Kepler, I’m assuming?
Tim Earls: I did most of the interiors of Serenity when I did the feature, if that is what he’s alluding to. I didn’t have much input on the interior designs; I mainly did the exteriors and some of the other ships for the series. But when I was hired on to the feature, that was what I was put in charge of; the interior of Serenity, and one of the main things I wanted to was not just bring up the level of detail that you would see on a wide screen, but I wanted to make it even more believable than you could see on your television. I tried to, I did a lot of research on aerospace design, and I tried to apply a lot of that to the sets. And I think we really did a really good job. I’m not even sure, even in the feature, I don’t think you got to see a lot of the detail that we actually put into those sets.
Bella: Not as much in the movie as we saw in the series itself, as far as enjoying, well not only the crew quarters, but the lounge area, you see that more in the series than you do in the feature. The thing that I did really did enjoy in the feature about Serenity was the… way it felt. The lived in aspect of that. Was that your doing, was that something you were trying to achieve for the feature?
Tim Earls: Oh yeah, absolutely. we wanted it to look like it was a surplus spacecraft that somebody bought on the cheap and pretty much used up and put out to pasture.
Bella: Absolutely. It doesn’t have that “sterile” quality that, like, Star Trek Enterprise had or something like that. You could actually feel like this was somebody’s home.
Tim Earls: Right, and you wouldn’t have the level of maintenance that you would have on something that was on Star Trek, which is pretty much government-owned. You kind of lapse in the safety features (on a ship like this), things like that too.
Bella: Mutton wants to know *chuckle* if you are the reason the gorram primary buffer panel wouldn’t stay on.
Tim Earls: *big laugh* Yeah, I didn’t use enough super glue on that.
Bella: Wait, is there super glue in space?
Tim Earls: *laughing* Well, I’m sure Serenity is held together with super glue.
Bella: Okay, Shanghai Spaceman, who by the way is the guy who has broken the Cortex (companion app) right now, so if you hear about these guys that are Firefly Online Cortex millionaires, Shang Hai is the guy that broke the curve for everybody. He said you ‘shoulda used more duct tape”.
Tim Earls: Hahaha, that’s true, especially after seeing “The Martian”.
Bella: Right? Yeah, Shang Hai right there is the King of the Cortex.
Bella: Tin Can also wanted to know if you do the 3D modelling, or if it’s something that you design the concept and then pass that on. I know Sean Kennedy has done a lot of the computer graphics work for QMx and Firefly. To our great satisfaction, by the way. But, do you do anything as far as the 3D modelling, CAD concept stuff?
Tin Can: Or scratch, like old school.
**break in recording**
Bella: Okay I think the question we were on was ‘Do you do any 3D modelling?’
Tim Earls: I do! I started out when I became a visual effects art director on Babylon 5, I started wanting to do prototyping and kind of streamline the work flow between what I was assigning and what the animators were using. So, I’ve actually been using LightWave for about 14 years now. I started using Rhino(3D) a couple years ago, because a lot of the set designs I’ve been doing on most of the features I’ve been working on for the past couple of years have required Rhino. So I’ve been building Rhino models, and now I’m starting to put a couple of other software pieces into the workflow. I just acquired Maxwell Render, and I think T-Splines for Rhino. So I’m hoping to do a lot more of the 3D modelling and rendering. Rhino is a 3D modelling program, that uses curves instead of polygons.
Andy Gore: Rhino is ultimately designed for creating a physical version of what you’re digitally modelling, because you know most special effects use, sometimes it’s referred to as “chicken wire”, that is not watertight, so you have to re-engineer it in a program like Rhino to make it printable.
Tim Earls: Right, you want to make it a ‘virtual solid’, rather than *unintelligible*
Tin Cup: Yeah it does a lot of skinning issues.
Andy Gore: Tim I actually had a question for you. You got a chance to take a tour of the game, and you made an interesting comment to me about wear and tear on ships, because you got to see how that worked in the game.
Tim Earls: Yeah, and I love that idea, because that’s what would happen in real life. You keep using something, it’s going to degrade and that’s just another layer of playability (in the game). You have to be conscious of it. I used to play a lot of WW2 flight simulators, and that was one of the great things about flying realistic Spitfires and (Messerschmitt) ME 262s, is that you can only push the hardware so far, and it’s going to start degrading and affecting what you do.
Bella: Absolutely. I think the best thing about wear and tear (in Firefly Online), is that it follows the canon. It’s not so much just fuel that you’re using out there, you are also degrading everything that’s working. I think it was just this great concept and it just adds this added depth to this game.
Andy Gore: Well the interesting thing is that in all the episodes of the show, you never really hear them talking about the fuel, but you ALWAYS hear them talking about fixing the ship.
Tim Earls: Right.
Andy Gore: And all the credit for that goes to Adam (Cogan) and John (O’Neill), that’s all their stuff, but I think that’s where they got the idea.
Tim Earls: I think it’s great, because you’ve got a ship, and it’s vibrating, and it’s wearing on fasteners and things like that, something is eventually going to break loose if you keep pushing it.
Bella: Yeah…. catalyzers, compression coils.
Mutton: Primary buffer panels.
Tim Earls: Yeah exactly *chuckling*
Bella: Mutton, you had a question.
Mutton: I was going to ask about his other ships, I noticed you that you did a lot of sci-fi series. I was just wondering if you would talk about your favorite ships.
Tim Earls: Well, I’m really biased, because I’m talking about ships that I’ve done, my favorite ship, let see, I’ve done a couple ships in Star Trek: Voyager; I’ve done some in Firefly, Babylon 5… I’d have to say my favorite ship was the Warlock Cruiser from Babylon 5. My second would probably be Serenity, and my third would probably be… it’s a ship that I worked with Rick Sternbach on Voyager, which I think was the Endeavor class. So those are my top three.
Mutton: And now, just because you offered, now I’m curious as to a favorite one that you didn’t design.
Tim Earls: Hmm, favorite one I didn’t design.
Andy Gore: That should be easier *chuckles* That gives you more to choose from.
Tim Earls: Wow, let me think.
Bella: I mean, we’re all Firefly fans here, but we’re all sci-fi geeks as well, so this is gold for us.
Andy Gore: Okay, he’s trying to think of his favorite because he loves them all.
Tim Earls: Yeah, there are several that I really like, but I have to say I’m partial to the refit Enterprise.
Bella: Oh the “D” series or the new one?
Tim Earls: No, the refit, for Wrath of Khan.
Mutton: Was that the 45-minute fly-around at the beginning of the movie?
Andy Gore: Yeah, that was the motion picture, but yeah. That motion picture was the world’s longest car ad.
Bella: Looks like Frey has a question here (text chat): If you could customize a ‘Verse-style ship, what would you do to put your own stamp on it to make it shiny?
Andy Gore: Just to clarify, is the question ‘what does Tim think makes a ‘Verse ship a ‘Verse ship’, or is it ‘what would he specifically do to make it his’?
Bella: I think the question is ‘what would he specifically do, low tech initially, to put his personal stamp on it?’ What do you want to fly out there in the Black?
Tim Earls: Something fast and lean.
Bella: Like the Kepler?
Tim Earls: Like the Kepler, keep ahead of the authorities, keep the cargo amount low but valuable, and just keep my head down and fly as fast as I can.
Bella: So Frey says that you want to boost the core, and you know, what I just heard right there…. You’re already a Smuggler. So right now, you are right where you belong! Oh, and I got Vic(tor Scampton) going “FENRIS! FENRIS! FENRIS!” *( text chat)
*asking for more questions from members*
Bella: So I have to ask a question, kind of not Firefly-related. How was it working on the Marvel projects?
Tim Earls: Oh like Iron Man?
Bella: Oh, yes sir!
Tim Earls: Yeah Iron Man 3 was awesome, I really loved working on that film, and not only did that have a lot to do with the subject, but the actual art department crew were some of the best people I’ve worked with since I started working in entertainment. And I have to say that was probably the best part of the film, was the production design and the art director pretty much handed me the requirements and let me go.
Bella: Well, as a creative genius, ‘here, free license. Okay!’
Tim Earls: Yeah, and I also worked on Furious 7 with them as well.
Bella: Oh wow, nice.
Andy Gore: Tim is literally the hardest working guy in Hollywood. I don’t know a time…. you sort of have to be in Hollywood to understand what high praise this is, but I cannot remember a time since Tim and I first met in 2008 when he hasn’t had a job. That’s extremely unusual in this business.
Bella: Well that also speaks to your diversity, how well you adapt to different projects. I mean, Furious 7 is slightly different than say, Babylon 5. It just shows how creative you are.
Tim Earls: Oh yeah, thanks. It’s funny, it seems like I do a lot of similar things in the films that I’ve done, and I tend to do a lot of aircraft, I did aircraft on Mission: Impossible 3, on Furious 7 I did an aircraft, Iron Man 3 I did an aircraft, so I do tend to get a lot of things that I think I do well at, so I’m not complaining. Peter Pan (from text comments), I didn’t do an aircraft on that! *chuckles
Bella: So you’re not a ‘kiss the dirt’ kind of guy.
Tim Earls: Right.
Mutton: Was there an aircraft you did on Soul Plane?
Tim Earls: Well, I basically did the cargo area and the bathroom at the beginning of the film. We had to do this bathroom on the plane that had no corners, so there was nothing to grab hold of.
Andy Gore: Actually, Tim, you should tell them about the cargo door on Serenity. Because I think that’s a real good example of how big an aeronautical geek Tim is.
Tim Earls: Now, I’m not slagging on the art department of Firefly, but I did… well, the cargo door on the series always gave me a little bit of a problem, but it even became a bigger problem on (the film) Serenity because Joss wanted this scene where Wash is flying along and he scoops up the mule. Well, having a big drawbridge door hanging out there, flapping around in the breeze, wasn’t very elegant. So the production designer came to me and asked me to see what I could do to streamline that thing. So I went through several iterations of trying to figure out a way to minimize the profile of the door as it went down but also still make it functional on the ground. And after a week, trying different things, and finally, I came up with the idea, by moving the pivot point, I was able to make the door kind of slide into the hull of the cargo pod, under the floor.
Bella: You know I know exactly the scene you’re talking about, the Barn Swallow scene. You know, it never occurred to me where that door went!
Tim Earls: Yeah, it went into the hull, and that was probably one of my biggest disappointments, is all the time I spent on trying to figure out how that thing worked, and you never actually see it work.
Andy Gore: Although when we were working on the Serenity blueprints, I remember that was a point; we’re going to draw how that works for people. Because dammit, somebody’s gonna know what it did.
Tim Earls: I came across those drawings, all those sketches I did, a couple months ago, and I was thinking about building a 3D model of just that door. Just so I could show people how it worked.
Andy Gore: Which is very cool, actually.
Bella: Well you have to post them on facebook now, because I just followed you and I want to see them.
Tim Earls: *chuckles* okay. I will try to make those sketches available.
Bella: Welcome, Blackrock, I already asked him about your Kepler but you can ask him again.
Blackrock: Okay, hello everyone, hello Andy, hello Mr. Earls.
Tim Earls: Well hi!
Bella: Blackrock is one of of our seconds-in-command. And our resident ‘in lust with the Kepler right now’ guy.
Blackrock: Yeah, I’m kind of in love with that ship, and it’s hard to keep my love in place.
Tim Earls: Okay, hey thanks. That’s awesome.
Bella: Basically, Blackrock, I asked him before I forgot because I knew that you would kill me, how it came to be, what the origination story was, how he came up with the idea, why it’s a Science Vessel and not, per se, like a perfunctory ASREV, like Frey is asking (text chat).
Tim Earls: *chuckles* Yeah, if there are hard points, I’d love it too.
Bella: Tim, if you don’t mind reiterating, who came up with the idea of the Kepler, and why is it a Science Vessel?
Andy Gore: Tim and I kind of collaborated on that one, but I don’t remember who came up with what. I mean the design is totally Tim but I remember saying that it needed to be a light-bulk because I wanted it to be a starter ship. Did you do the design and then I said, ‘oh that looks like a…’ or did you decide, or… I think we actually said, ‘let’s make this like a repurposed survey vessel’ or something like that.
Tim Earls: Yes, exactly. So I didn’t want it to look like a Firefly class vessel, I wanted to make it distinctly different, but be able to be adaptable like a Firefly.
Bella: If you were flying that ship (the Kepler) in the ‘Verse, what would you see it doing?
Tim Earls: *deadpan* Barrel rolls.
Andy Gore: *laughing*
Dean White: Yeah baby!
Blackrock: So it kind of goes to something I was thinking about as well: yes, it’s a “survey” ship, a science vessel, but it’s also this light, smaller ship, what kind of range does this thing have? Is this the kind of thing that’s going to bouncing from one end of the ‘Verse to the next? Because that’s how it strikes me, actually.
Tim Earls: No, I don’t think so, because it is a smaller ship, and you would actually have a smaller fuel reserve.
Andy Gore: Yeah, I think in terms of game design, it’s a light-bulk, which means it’s a shorter-range ship. Smaller ships just wear quicker in the game. Now, you can do things to offset that, but when it was a survey vessel, it was was a short-range ship. It’s a little bit like the Overlander, which got retrofitted for long hauls, but was really meant as an in-system ship. The survey vessels were a little bit more about planetary operation, which is why they’re a little bit more aerodynamic, right, Tim?
Tim Earls: Yeah, a little more agile.
Blackrock: So, if it were to be doing exploration in an un-terraformed system, it would probably be attached to some larger ship.
Tim Earls: Yeah that sounds about right. It would be like a small fleet, I would think.
Bella: Like a recon ship, like Adam Neal asked (text chat).
Andy Gore: Well, you know, Tim designed the Dortmunder (Alliance cruiser class).
Blackrock and Bella: Ahhhhhhh.
Andy Gore: See, I keep telling him he doesn’t take enough credit.
Tim Earls: *chuckles*
Bella: That thing is amazing. What was the concept of the Dortmunder? It’s a floating city, sorta, brickish thing.
Tim Earls: That is exactly what Joss wanted. He wanted a city block, floating in space.
Blackrock: That’s how I see it (in the series). Whenever that thing comes around, it’s like “Wow! Look! An entire mini part of a city is just heading right towards me – ughhhh!”
Bella: Yeah, it’s like the whole Navy base is coming to you.
Tim Earls: Well, there was another aspect. I don’t know if it ever got shown in the series, but it’s whole underbelly was supposed to be covered with this small ships that were docked to it.
Blackrock: They do show that very briefly in one of the episodes, when they go to find medical help for Shepherd Book.
Bella: (The episode) Safe.
Blackrock: Yeah, Safe.
Tim Earls: Okay.
Blackrock: And you also see it in the (pilot) Serenity, when he says to send ships out, then you see the underside and all these ships suddenly start lighting up because they’re about to be released.
Tim Earls: Okay. Yeah I just came across that sketch (Dortmunder) a couple months ago too. I think I actually did put that on my facebook page.
Bella: Alright, well you’re going to have a stalker for a while (on facebook), just sayin’. I’m harmless though, I promise.
Bella: Shanghai Spaceman is asking (text chat), would you call it more a Star Destroyer or a Death Star?
Tim Earls: Oh boy, I don’t think it’s as big as the Death Star.
Andy Gore: It’s more like the “flying DMV”. (Dept. of Motor Vehicles)
Tim Earls: *laughing* Yeah, that’s a good description. It’s one (ship) that you don’t want to get in to, because you’re going to be there a while.
Andy Gore: It’s bringing your bureaucracy to the stars.
Tim Earls: Exactly.
Bella: That’s exactly what it is – mobile red tape. That’s correct.
Bella: Someone else had a question (text chat)…. oh Mutton and your Sandfly! Good Lord. Did Tim have anything to do with the Sandfly design? I know it was based on what they created in the Bellflower (movie), did you work on it at all?
Tim Earls: No, I didn’t have anything to do with that.
Andy Gore: Except to such a degree that it’s a little bit of homage to Serenity.
Bella: Of course, right.
Andy Gore: But no, that’s all MJ and those guys in Australia… Sean Kennedy could tell you exactly who designed that ship. I can’t tell you, but it’s a wonderful design. It’s one of my favorites.
Tim Earls: Yeah, I like it.
Bella: Mutton calls it his ‘Firefly coupe’. Like a little two-door instead of a sedan.
Tim Earls: *chuckling* Right.
Andy Gore: Hey guys, if we can just one last question, I have to let Tim get back to doing productive stuff.
Bella: Sure. Okay one question: What in your life, do you draw inspiration from, to come up with these amazing designs?
Tim Earls: I think I draw my inspiration from a lot of places. I’ve always been super interested in aeronautical design, and I remember watching Apollo 11 land on the moon, so I’ve always had (that interest). I was probably one of the youngest people to ever call Cape Kennedy on the phone directly. That didn’t please my parents when they got the bill, but yeah, I draw my inspiration from a lot of places. Real life vehicles, and I have a few of my favorite designers, Sid Reed, Rick Sternbach, Jay Johnson, but yeah, and I doodle a lot, so I’m always coming up with something that I think looks cool, and I’ll put it aside, and wait until I actually have a chance to use it on something.
Bella: Oh that’s very cool. The last thing Frey wanted me to say (text chat) was that he wants to see what you would design for a terraforming vehicle on these planets and moons that ain’t been populated yet out there in the ‘Verse.
Tim Earls: Oh that sounds like fun.
Bella: Wouldn’t that be a good time. But then we’d have to have it in the game. But then well, Shanghai Spaceman would own it, never mind.
Tin Cup: It’s only for a cut scene.
Bella: Well, thank you gentlemen, I’m so glad you took the time to join us today. Andy, thank you so much for even having the idea, we are so grateful for your continued support.
Andy Gore: Well, you guys are awesome, and we all really appreciate your continued support.
Bella: Keep flyin’, gentlemen!
Andy Gore: Thanks everybody.
Tim Earls: Thank you, I really enjoyed this talk.