How ‘Avenue 5’ Set Designer Used 3D Tech to Create Spaceship Locales

Simon Bowles designed the massive set of the Judd spaceship on HBO’s “Avenue 5” with one central thought in mind: It doesn’t matter how beautiful an environment is when you realize you might be trapped in it forever.

“I’ve designed these types of enclosed spaces before,” says the production designer, who collaborated with series creator and pilot director Armando Iannucci for the first time but had worked on projects in which characters were physically isolated. “[I’ve done] caves for ‘The Descent,’ a lighthouse for [1999 horror film] ‘Lighthouse,’ a submarine for [2010 BBC miniseries] ‘The Deep.’ For ‘Avenue 5,’ I’m doing this all in the way that good genre films trap everybody. I wanted it to feel contained but inside this enormous spaceship. I designed the environment to have a very strong, linear feel, a wide horizon, so that there’s nothing pushing in; you can see it’s just them in the vast outer space, trapped.”

Built on the stages at Warner Bros. in London, the set has the appearance of opulence: Huge curvaceous white-marble and gold ceilings, floors, and walls in the common spaces are juxtaposed with top-to-bottom deep-wood-warmed rooms and teal-clad crew members. Most of the rooms were built directly off the main room of the ship in order to film walking and talking seamlessly, a favorite filming style of Iannucci’s. The giant window looking out into the galaxy is a black cloth with metal “stars” sewn in, eliminating the need for VFX additions. In fact, nearly the entire set design exists organically. 

“I designed my futuristic sets in a 3D computer-generated environment using the most up-to-date 3D design technology I could lay my hands on,” says Bowles. Then, with 2D visual printouts including all his chosen colors, textures, lighting and people added in for scale, he went one step further. “I have an amazing team. We took those 3D computer models and put them into a VR headset so that I could actually walk through the sets at an early stage of the design process.”

About 18 months before anything was built, Bowles took Iannucci onto the virtual sets, allowing him to explore the complex spaces so he could consider blocking and camera angles long before that’s usually possible. Bowles says this even influenced some of the writing, as Iannucci was able to envision exactly where a character might be able to go in the world of “Avenue 5.”

With all his designs input into 3D, Bowles was able to take the next step — building physical-scale tabletop models using 3D printers. “We had up to eight printers working at any time with a team of model makers building scale maquettes of all the sets and even the outside of the ship,” he says. From there, the 3D files were sent to three of the U.K.’s largest computerconversion CNC companies, which carved massive blocks of polystyrene into connect-by-numbers set-pieces delivered to the stages, where they were assembled and made ready for filming. 

The result: the luxurious Judd spaceship — a state-of-the-art floating prison. 

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