How do film production designers create the future?

CR speaks with High Life production designers Jagna Dobesz and Mela Melak on the challenges of imagining and creating a sci-fi future, and what it takes to bring alternate realities to life

“When you hear that Claire Denis is making a sci-fi film, you know it’s going to be challenging,” says production designer Mela Melak. Her first contact with the director was to receiving reproduction of a Francis Bacon painting, prompting her to travel the length and breadth of Poland in search of a metal grate that matched the one in the image.

“The whole film’s highly synthetic,” says the designer. “Staying true to that simplicity and restraining yourself when you’d like to do more, now that was tough.”

High Life, which is Denis’ first English language feature, follows central character Monte, who’s incarcerated on a space ship along with a group of other criminals, all of whom are on an ultimately fatal mission to explore black holes.

The film joins an especially rich visual heritage, with predecessors like Alien, Blade Runner and The Matrix all feeding into our visions of the future. Production design for sci-fi movies is instrumental when it comes to creating a believable story, and over the years has given rise to some much-loved visual tropes – for example the brightly lit metal-clad corridors that are a staple of the genre. But futuristic films also pose a challenge when it comes to avoiding cliché or going over old ground – all while creating a realistic alternate world. Melak says that it’s becoming harder to portray the future as our present rapidly overtakes what we once imagined for it.