Alpha-bet soup is the story of a struggling physics grad student in the early 60's about to wash out, Richard, who becomes the unwitting pawn of a bet between two spies. What starts as a summer job to get him back on track finds Richard pretending to be a scientific bigwig at a secret government lab. While there he will learn that his knack for invention is the key to understand the secrets of the UFOs they study, and the only way to maintain his cover until he can figure out what games the alphabet soup of government agencies are playing with him.
Below is a collection of development artwork and sketches. Read through some of the descriptions to get an idea of the development process.
Reference and Style
I've been fascinated with the architecture and design of the late 50's and early 60's lately, especially that retro-future. Given the time period and the content of my story I thought it might be a good place to begin gather visual reference. You can see some of what I collected over the course of the project on my Pinterest Board.
I also started to look for some artistic styles that might be fun to work with. I put together a style board of some of the material I found, looking for an aesthetic that felt like it fit.
This is a technique I picked up as a product designer. Before starting a new line of SKUs we would create a style board from found images. Everyone on the design team would get a copy of the board so that as we worked on our individual assignments we could all be drawing on the same visual language. That way a room full of designers can make dozens of products that all feel like they go together.
This board was a good starting point and got me thinking a lot about the tone I wanted for the project. But locking down a board like this is really a final stage in the visual development project rather than a first. The point is to keep evolving the style as you do more development, and that's what happened here too.
You'll see in the work below that I ended up branching out from the style of this board as I did more research and sketching.
This is the kind of sketching I mean. These are studies I did from images of mid-century furniture and graphic design I found. I'm asking myself here "What does a circle look like in this style? A Square? An Angle? Are things tall and skinny, or short and squat? Are shapes complex? Simple?"
The idea is to analyze the kinds of design choices the original designers made that make something look "mid-century". To make for myself a list of "mid-century shapes" that I can use when I go to design the objects in my story. I've found that just drawing the items is the easiest way.
Richard is a physics grad student struggling to find his place. Practical, hands on, with a working-class tinkerer's mind, Richard has a very different background to the other grad students for whom the theoretical work comes more easily. Now nearing the end of his grant he is far behind on his work and about to be kicked out of the program.
An initial inspiration for Richard's design was Richard Feynman, a well known 20th century physicist. As a young man Feynman worked on the Manhattan project to develop the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos. He later won the Nobel Prize in 1965 for his work in quantum physics, and was a lead investigator into the Challenger space shuttle disaster. Feynman is known for his puckish nature, penchant for practical jokes, and his disarmingly humble personality.
His thick Brooklyn accent and casual look was a departure from the academic image of physicist like Einstein or Hawking. Feynman's personality seemed like a good fit, so I started with some studies trying to break down his visual characteristics.
Once I had Feynman's influence, I looked around for some other visual inspiration - actors who might have a similar look or personality, or just general scientist / engineer stereotypes.
One of Richard's strengths is his inventive mind, though he doesn't know it as a strength. One great reference was Colm Meaney's Chief O'Brian from Start Trek TNG and DS9. A technical genius, the chief was essentially the fix-it-man on the show, in charge of repairing systems and keeping things running, often using unorthodox means. This ability to get the job done with what is at hand is a quality I wanted to reflect in Richard.
I began to settle on a lanky proportion to give Richard that awkward feeling of youth. I paired this with a fairly large boxy head, made even taller by his hair, to emphasize the mental focus of Richard's world.
Another reference I found to be visually useful was J J Abrams. His curly pompadour hairstyle seemed to fit with Richard's shape language. I took me a few studies to figure out how it worked.
Mr. Able and Mr. Baker
Someone needs to draw poor Richard into this adventure, and Able and Baker are the men for the job. CIA agents posing as administrators at the University, Able and Baker are looking for talent to recruit.
Although A+B are CIA types, I pretty quickly decided I wanted to avoid the "man in black" sort of faceless fed look. These two have a lot of ulterior motives but I want the audience to think they are playing with Richard. The two brothers from Trading Places came to mind as a good reference point.
I also liked the idea that one they might look nearly identical, but one is more friendly, one more curmudgeonly. As I was sketching out ideas I thought through a few actors that I thought might have a similar feeling to what I was picturing. You can see reference images there from Wallace Shawn (a good feeling for the overall shape and demeanor), Stanely Kubrick (for the eyes, mostly), and Ed Asner for that sort of avuncular grumpyness.
When Richard leave the university on his way to a mysterious new job at the government lab, the feeling of his world changes from the older turn-of-the-century wood and stone look of the university, to a modern mid-century world of rockets, computers, plastics and the atomic age.
His passage is on a bus ride, but I wanted that voyage to feel something like an immigrants journey on a great ship from the old world to the new. I started by exploring designs for the bus itself referencing that retro-future look and the look of old steam ships.
The government lab is a land of scientific wonders, everything new, sleek, and state of the art. I drew heavily on mid-century design from architects like Eero Saarinen and designers like Charles and Ray Eames, and artists like El Gato Gomez.
A major feature of the lab is a large glass enclosed conference room on an unused floor of the building. This conference room is home to an Alien, nicknamed Harold because he spends his days drawing with crayons and posting them to the walls of the conference room.
No one has yet worked out what Harold is trying to say with his drawings, but Richard thinks unlocking this mystery will help them to understand how his UFO works.
Because the conference room is Harold's safe space, I designed it's shape to resemble a bird's nest, but expressed in that sleek 60's googie style.
I did a lot of research to find the right kinds of furnishings for the conference room. I wanted elements that would look like the fit in, but could also underscore how alien Harold is.
For Harold's crayon drawings I wanted to evoak the look of crop circles to suggest that perhaps these aliens had been trying to communicate this information in other ways as well. I took the geometric ideas of those circles and tried to combine them with the look of math and physics diagrams to indicate what they might be trying to say.
I needed some crayons for my alien to draw with, and it got me thinking, “What kind of crayons would you find on a secret base?” Civil defense ration crayons, that’s what!
My initial instinct was to make them utilitarian, but my research turned up so many fun and quirky graphic styles from the period that I just had to find something more interesting. I figure the government suppliers would want to give the kids something fun and expansive to think about while they are cooped up, so I came up with this space theme.
Everything at the lab needed to be sleek and modern, and this included the decorative plants. I spent some time exploring how to work some of the mid-century shapes into organic forms. You can see here directly where all those shape analysis studies above came in handy.
One feature I settled on was a large spiral staircase, echoing similar designs found in many of Eero Saarinen's buildings. The staircase would lead from the upper floors of the lab down to Harold's abandoned floor. At it's base is a planter with plants that have started to overgrow.
The lab's mission is to understand alien technology, and to help them they have their very own crashed spaceship to take apart. The scientists are racing to develop their own prototype, but they are still struggling to understand how the original works.
So what does a spaceship's guts look like anyway? Below are some sketcvhes exploring this idea.
Starting to think of how the drive might work visually, I wanted to play up something organic as a contrast to the highly sleek and manufactured human technology.
I hit on the idea of a swarm of glowing particles, something naturally existing, that push the ship. The ship's engine is more like the light in a bug zapper, attracting the particles.