Mechanical Design – The Overlooked Key to Science Fiction (Part 1b – Mecha Part II, or Why Does a Laser Need a Silencer?)

 In the first part of this series I provided a brief introduction to semiotics and connotative meaning in images, and how this relates to science fiction designs; I touched on how the futuristic and unrealistic can be made identifiable by visually relating it to recognisable things. However, relying too much on visual shorthands is by no means a good thing since if overdone, the resulting design can seem anachronistic and simply unworkable.

This is the Jesta, a design based on the GM I talked about in Part I. It is from the 2011 animated short Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn, a film set in the same setting (the Universal Century) as the original 1979 series but supposedly far in the future of it. The act of creating a coherent science fiction chronology, and through a franchise of films and TV series building up a detailed history is almost Tolkein-like in its dedication; the problem is that franchise has tried to follow an audience and change demographic to suit. Fans of the original series would have been children in 1979, and will be looking for a different sort of science fiction serial come 2011.

At its heart, MS Gundam (1979) was an attempt by director Yoshiyuki Tomino to combine golden-age science fiction (Heinlein, Haldeman et al) with popular children’s “mecha” anime; a subgenre of superhero media focused on the pilots of giant robots which became popular in 1963 with Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s Tetsujin 28-go. Gundam had to appeal to families who were used to watching colourful, simplistic serials with charismatic heroes and villains, and iconic designs which were instantly recognisable and easily converted into merchandise. As a result, the 1979 series had its heroes in primary-coloured machines fighting literally faceless enemies with designs and iconography redolent in the shorthands of fascism. To keep the tone similar to that of the genre’s roots in superhero stories, the enemies were often organic-looking and often quite ridiculous. The GM is introduced towards the end of the series as the tone shifts from a standard hero-versus-recurring-villain storyline to focus on a larger scale conflict, introducing an army of generic “good guys” to help fight the enemies. The difference in designs between the human-like machines of the heroes and the more inhuman and abstract villains is as clear a way of keeping track of who’s who as the black and white hats and horses of good and bad cowboys.

By the time the next installment of the franchise, the direct sequel Zeta Gundam, came about in 1985, tastes had changed and the audience had grown up; the designers and animators were now faced with how to take the simplistic “us and them” aesthetic of a 1979 superhero derivative and tell a more mature story about the fear of terrorism and the ease with which totalitarian states can rise from well-intentioned beginnings. The solution was to take the GM and rework the design from a simple pulp sci-fi spaceman with a ray gun and turn it into a more obviously military design. A lot of the designs were given this treatment; by changing the designs of weapons and the proportions of the machines, they became more militaristic.

The franchise continued until in 2010, a series of short films, collectively called Gundam Unicorn, were commissioned. The target audience were adults who had grown up with the franchise, and the intention was to mix nostalgia with a more mature and serious spin on the subject. The intent behind the Jesta’s design was therefore to create something both visually related to the GM back in 1979, but also clearly modern, militaristic and dangerous – something suitable for a SF film that adults would watch.

The result is overreliant on visual cues. The designers have looked to modern special forces to convert the simple space-suit aesthetics of the GM into a design more like the armoured suits from the Halo series. While this works fine in itself, the decision to include this weapon in the design is a ridiculous one. Throughout the franchise, weapons have remained largely the same; all the machines use laser-like guns which work in a clearly-defined way. This makes the Jesta’s gun seem entirely out of character with the franchise; it has a silencer, holographic sight and foregrip as if it were a bullet-firing weapon wielded by a human, not an energy weapon wielded by a machine. The visual cues are contradictory to the connotations that have been built up by the rest of the setting and so the design stands out as trying too hard to use visual elements related to “special forces” (as a viewer may have seen in a video game like Call of Duty, or an action film). In trying to appeal to certain visual associations, the design is no longer logical within the setting it inhabits; the way the machine acts and fights is immediately obvious thanks to these shorthands, but in so doing the design is distanced from what it is supposed to be based on.

Many of the designs in Unicorn fall into the same problem; knowing what they have been derived from and having the setting knowledge that the films require to understand the plot makes the designs themselves weaker because they are too reliant on simply taking a simple design from elsewhere in the franchise and trying to make it “mature” using simplistic imagery of modern militaries. Rather than simply and instantly evoking “science fiction” the design awkwardly mixes realism with fantasy.

In short, while the design of the Jesta is clearly intended to combine the pulp-SF roots of the franchise it is a part of with easily-understood shorthands of modern military equipment, this whole intent is contradictory to the setting in being too reliant on recognisable imagery. Instantly comprehendable visual shorthands can work against a science-fiction setting since they can tie it down to modern, “realistic” technology which is incongruous with other, more advanced setting elements.

In the next part, I will explore how alienating designs can be effective, and how moving away from instantly recognisable visual cues can be done well.

(Source of images:



  1. ghostlightning

    The Jesta’s gun really is funny. Why would anyone use a silencer on what effectively is an automatic cannon bigger than an automobile and half the length of a train car?

    It’s lazy design work that produces the opposite effect of engaging mature viewers to take the science fiction more seriously.

    • r042

      I think what makes it worse is that in the film it’s quite clearly an energy weapon and so a suppressor like that wouldn’t even work.

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