How To Build a Universe From Scratch

How To Build a Universe From Scratch

How To Build a Universe From Scratch

Tennyson Stead
Tennyson Stead
2 years ago

Because I’ve been knee deep in projects of my own and tied up with more script doctor work than I’ve even had the chance to reflect on, it’s been longer than usual since my last blog for Stage 32… so before I start telling everybody how to do their jobs, let me say this:

I hope you’re keeping yourself healthy. I hope you’re keeping yourself sane. No matter what happens with our nation’s politics, I want you to know that your stories matter. Telling rich, powerful stories - and telling them well - is how we teach our audience to value one another, to rely on one another, and to use one another’s strengths to build a better future. If the voice in your head that tells you that “it’s not like you’re curing cancer, here” is getting loud, check out my blog post on what culture is, how it works, and why content creators like us absolutely need to take personal responsibility for it: “How We Screwed the Showbiz Culture Up”.

Ok. Enough sap. Let’s talk about worldbuilding.

How To Build a Universe From Scratch

A LITTLE ABOUT MYSELF

Science-fiction and modern fantasy have always been the genres I commit myself to most readily. Most of you don’t know this about me, but I was writing table-top roleplaying games (games like “Dungeons & Dragons”) before I committed myself to writing and directing films. Way back when, my theater education was very heavily focused on design and dramaturgy. My favorite movies were always the films that demonstrated a specific eye for worldbuilding - not just Star Wars, but the Alien films. 2001. Peter Hyams movies like Outland and 2010. Millennium is still a movie that captures my imagination, and the first game I wrote was my answer to that film’s aesthetic hooks, it’s fascinatingly specific approach to time travel, and it’s painful litany of squandered opportunities.

Worldbuilding is a skill that I’ve been honing since I was old enough to write, and I learned to write very early on. Over the last several months, my clients have been bringing me stories and screenplays that lean very heavily on this particular toolbox… so today, I wanted to cover some of the basics, and hopefully to empower writers to be more creative and more articulate in their approach to genre cinema.

Before we do this, I want to mention that my whole approach to filmmaking builds on the classical principles of scenework and dramatic structure. If any of you haven’t heard my rants on the importance of active writing, I’ll ask you to check out my article on “Why I Passed On That Screenplay.” In cinema, everything is action. When it comes to worldbuilding, believing otherwise will only get you into trouble… but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning:

WHAT IS WORLDBUILDING?

When people talk about the cleverness of films like Star Wars, the Avengers movies, Lord of the Rings, or the filmographies of directors like Tim Burton, Guillermo Del Toro, and Neill Blomkamp, what these people are noticing is the level of detail and attention that goes into making the worlds these characters inhabit feel real, “lived in,” and believable. While a good amount of the credit for these achievements very rightly goes to the production designers and visual effects artists who craft the imagery of these worlds, the reality of these universes extends into the language these characters use, to the lighting, to the costume designers and props artists, to the casting itself, and to the manner in which the actors accept the reality with which their characters are presented. Worldbuilding is a team effort, and it falls on the director to make sure that everyone working on the project is building on the logic of one another’s creative efforts - rather than breaking that logic and undermining the credibility of the film.

When we talk about films occupying a “universe,” worldbuilding is the work that goes into actually creating that universe for the audience. In the case of licensed content, we can look to the source material to help us with worldbuilding. If you ever make a Marvel movie, you’ll have decades of content informing your work. Much of your job will involve finding the details that make your film indelibly a piece of that universe, and then adapting those details to film. If you make a movie like Star Wars or Avatar, on the other hand, then a big part of your job will be wrapped up in making your universe look just as rich and developed as the comic book content that people have been working on for decades.

How To Build a Universe From Scratch

CINEMA IS NOT LITERATURE

Probably the single most common mistake that directors make when building worlds for their films is to hinge their creative choices on the themes they want to see reflected in the story. Say a director wants to make a movie about the dangers of corporate overreach. Say they make a movie with a big, evil corporation. Working in that corporation, people face a simple (if difficult) choice: either they fall in line with the evils their company is perpetuating, or they start looking for ways to rebel. Along the way, inevitably, that company starts feeling too silly, cheezy, and manufactured for the audience to ever take the plight of these characters very seriously.

When we see movies based on Ray Bradbury books, for example, they usually seem pretty goofy. But why, though? Ray Bradbury is one of the most respected authors in the history of science-fiction literature! His books are taught in schools, for crying out loud!

What works in literature doesn’t work on film. On the page, theme is what holds a story together. Stringing a bunch of observations, ideas, and events together on a strong, load-bearing theme, provided it’s well-written, is exactly how you write enduring literature. On screen or on stage, a story is defined by the efforts of a protagonist to achieve a goal that’s personal, urgent, and so overwhelmingly challenging that it forces that protagonist to reinvent themselves. On screen, the themes are a product of the action. In fact, everything is a product of the action.

THE ACTIONS OF THOSE WHO CAME BEFORE

Going back to the aforementioned evil corporation for a moment, we need to remember that a corporation is a tool used by people to achieve a goal. Why was the corporation founded? Who is running that corporation now, and who hired this person? What was this CEO hired to do, specifically? What is this leader trying to achieve with the company they’ve inherited?

In turn, what kind of people is this leader hiring? Even if this person is doing despicable things, there’s a good chance this person doesn’t see themselves as a villain. Instead, they’re taking a tool that was designed to accomplish specific goals and they’re either trying to advance that mission or they’re trying to adapt it to a changing world. All these details and all these actions are, essentially, what will determine the corporate culture inside this company. How are the employees expected to feel about their work? What kind of training do they receive? All these things depend on what the people who run this company are trying to accomplish.

Don’t build the company out of themes. Build it out of actions. That’s what I’m saying.

How To Build a Universe From Scratch

WORLDS ARE MADE OF ACTION

Political systems, economic systems, law enforcement, technology, and even things like magic and superpowers are ultimately just tools that people use to achieve their goals. How a superpower works will probably depend very heavily on how the person in question has trained themselves to use it… and in turn, that’s going to depend on what it is they’re trying to do. Speaking broadly, one person might use electrical powers to spew lightning while another might use it to manipulate or hack machines. What that person can do is going to be determined, more than anything, by what they actually try to do in the first place. What they want to accomplish - their actions and motivations, in other words - will determine how these tools get used.

Looking at the bigger picture, a government is just a tool for organizing people, for providing for them, or for controlling them. If a film takes place in the far future, then governments have probably changed over time… but how? Don’t look at this question in terms of thematic trends in government, or in terms of what concepts might be cool to explore. Instead, look at the problems the people in your world have had to solve. What systems would they have built to solve them?

Our system of government was built because a bunch of colonists needed to get organized enough to break free from their homeland. In turn, subsequent generations of leadership and citizenry have taken that structure and modified it to suit their own ambitions and needs. Today, what we have is essentially a hodgepodge of solutions to problems other people used to have. Some of these problems still exist today. Some of these problems involve protecting the power of the ruling class, and others involve protecting the citizens the government theoretically serves. Still other problems are obsolete, and don’t even exist anymore. (I’m looking at you, 2nd Amendment.)

Our whole government is made up of actions that people in the past have taken to achieve their goals, whether they succeeded in doing so or not. That’s my point, here.

How To Build a Universe From Scratch

ON STAR WARS

Why do we love the production design of Star Wars so much? Because an X-Wing looks like it was built by some maniac in a garage who’s helping his friend blow up star destroyers, while a TIE Fighter looks like it came off an assembly line where they’re making space fighters fast and dirty in order to put as much firepower in the sky as possible. In both cases, you can see the bolts holding these spaceships together. You can see that people built these things, and you can see how they did it.

If the Death Star is impressive, it’s because we can see that people actually built this monstrosity. Imagine the terrible motivation driving the Empire to marshall all those people, all those materials… all so they can blow up people’s homeworlds. To build something like that takes a lot of people. In the Empire, nobody is innocent. How can they be? In some way, everybody had to be in on this thing. Building this frigging thing makes everyone in the Empire a villain.

In this way, the production design of Star Wars is showing us the actions and the efforts of the people in this universe… and guess what? These people have been doing some terrible things! Somebody needs to stop them! In this way, the theme comes from the action and not the other way around.

In Avengers, why is the shield helicarrier so cool to look at? Why is seeing this thing take to the skies such a gratifying payoff? Because in a world with superheroes running around every which way, the United States government is going to have to come up with something pretty big and pretty stupid in order to keep up. Seeing the helicarrier for the first time, we realize that the government wasn’t just letting all this craziness slip past them. Instead, they’ve been developing a response… and while it’s not enough to stop someone like Thor, it’s a pretty impressive display of effort. We’re not just seeing the design, here. We’re seeing the work that SHIELD put into building this stupid thing. That’s what gives it the “wow” factor.

How To Build a Universe From Scratch

MAKE THE DELIBERATE CHOICE

Treat everything in your world as the product of deliberate work, unless it’s the product of nature. Even then, consider how and why these things have come to be. Whimsy is a fantastic thing to have, but you can’t just start making “out of this world” choices just for the sake of it. Consider that nature and history both have a strong relationship with inexplicability, and add just enough absurdity to bring out an appropriate sense of “truth is stranger than fiction.”

Once you’ve introduced that whimsy, you have to take it seriously as a part of the world you’ve built. If you point out your own cleverness or your sense of fun, then you rob the audience of the opportunity to enjoy those elements on their own terms. Don’t pat yourself on the back. Just take your whimsy for granted as a natural part of the world you’ve built, and move along with your story.

Likewise, introducing a satirical or self-deprecating beat that pokes fun at the absurdity of what you’re creating will only work if you do it quickly and never call it back. Giving people a peek behind the curtain of your worldbuilding invites them to start quarterbacking your plays. Pushed too far, it can even tell the audience that you think they’re dumb for enjoying your creative choices. Pull back the curtain just long enough for your joke to land, and then pretend it never happened. Do it fast, and walk away.

INFLATING THE SCOPE

When we create a world around theme instead of action, we have a tendency to send our characters on a journey that shows off as much of our world as possible. In the end, an active character is one who defines the story through their efforts to achieve their mission. Passive characters are defined by the story, and by their reactions to it. When we start showing off our world, we force our characters into a passive role. Our characters become glorified tour guides.

Quite frankly, it sucks. Please don’t do it.

Allow the actions of your characters in the pursuit of their mission to tell you where the story needs to go, and focus your worldbuilding efforts on making the most of the opportunities that story provides. Don’t bend the story to send your characters to a “more central” part of the world you’ve built. Don’t create some crazy reactor core that exists at the center of everything, just so your characters have to go there and let you show off all your visual ideas. Let your characters go where they need to go to accomplish their goals, and fill in the space around them.

Trust the mission to provide the stakes, and don’t try to squeeze those stakes into the worldbuilding. That’s what I’m saying, here. If a character is a freedom-fighter, it’s certainly ok to use the worldbuilding to create a more oppressive environment. Don’t use it to create some centralized threat to freedom that winds up defining their story and their arc. Don’t build around the theme. Build around the action. Don’t inflate the scope of the action, or use your worldbuilding to make the mission more epic than it is. In fact…

How To Build a Universe From Scratch

JUSTIFY THE ACTOR

...our job in building this world, really, is simply to justify the actions of our actors. When Spielberg pulls out for a wide angle on Tom Cruise jumping from car to car in Minority Report, it’s only to show us exactly how important it is for Tom Cruise not to fall. Suddenly, the intensity with which Tom Cruise is watching those cars and timing his jumps makes all the sense in the world. Those wide shots last only long enough to establish that urgency, and that’s it.

When we see the Iron Man armor soaring up into the sky for the very first time, it’s to justify the big, stupid grin on Robert Downey Jr.’s face as he’s manipulating the controls and arguing with Jarvis. In that scene, we’re watching Tony test pilot the suit. That’s his action, and that’s what we’re there to watch. All those iconic special effects shots sit on the screen just long enough to let us believe the work that Robert Downey Jr. is doing, and not a moment longer. That’s what makes the movie feel so efficient.

Don’t make the worldbuilding a showcase for ego. Don’t look for opportunities to flex your artistic muscles. Trust that the story you’re telling and the missions of your characters will afford you plenty of opportunity for rich visual display, and solve those problems as they come up. Trust your production team to find and harness those moments. Don’t go fishing for them, because people can see the lapse in your creative intention and focus. Lean into the action. All the cool stuff you need will be right there, waiting for you.

Did the Matrix open with a sweeping shot of the battery fields? Of course not! Morpheus showed those fields to Neo - in fact, he had to - in order to make Neo take up the fight and start his training in earnest. Until that became necessary for Morpheus to do, we didn’t even know what the Matrix was. Morpheus showed Neo just enough to make him puke his guts out, and then we moved on to the martial arts training. Morpheus’ action of finding and training his messiah was the single determining factor in how much he showed to Neo, as well as the order in which all these things were taught. Everything was action. No exposition was necessary.

Our job is to build a world that gives the actor as much justification as possible for doing the things they’re doing. Start with the action of the story, and build a world that showcases all the actions taking place around the missions of your characters. Don’t go looking for artistic accolades. Don’t build a world to make yourself look good. Make sure your actors look credible and supported in what they’re doing, be sure to have fun doing it, and everything will fall into place.

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About the Author

Tennyson Stead

Tennyson Stead

Director, Producer, Screenwriter

Tennyson E. Stead is a master screenwriter, a director, a worldbuilder, and an emerging leader in New Hollywood. Supported by a lifetime of stagework, a successful film development and finance career, and a body of screenwriting encompassing more than 50 projects, Stead is best known for writing an...

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