SF directors have already long understood how to use artificial lighting, in unusual and unnatural ways, to place their movies in a futuristic realm, slightly abnormal, at the edge of reality.
As Frank Lloyd Wright who, “ […] preached a “gospel of light [with] glass as its apostle”, may be not as fundamental as light itself, glass complete the symbolic of light which prevails in Sci-FI movies. Light is everywhere, as the natural medium for the unknown, supernatural energy, ultimate power or purification force. Combined with glass, it reinforces the utopic vision of the future.
 Margaret bw Graham and Alec T Shuldiner, In Corning and the craft of innovation p115, oxford university press ISBN 0 19 514097 4
Fig: 2001/ Tron 2/Cypher/Welcom to Gattaca/Cypher/ 2001
The most common combination of glass and light is the back lighting of glazed surfaces: full surfaces such as floor or ceiling, but also linear or punctual patches. Light tables are typical in spaces ships, may be because they provide this odd lighting from below, without shadows or with the shadows upward.
This “unnatural lighting”, as Henry Alekan would call it, is immediately perceived by the viewer, as in contradiction with the usual sun lighting from above. Being unusual, strange, this lighting sets the movie in a futuristic realm.
Fig: Supernova/Moon44/the Island/Welcome to Gattaca
In most case, the backlight is white certainly because whiteness participates also to the same narrative, to an utopic description of a perfect future, with immaculate white fields of purity. Countless sets are mostly or just white.
But this representation of utopia, through this trilogy, glass, the color white and light, is a bit simplistic and certainly made with too much emphasis to be trustworthy. Utopia is never far from dystopia. The line between the two is fine and it should this absolute purity of whiteness is certainly also an unspoken warning or as least we could hope that it is …
Fig: Freejack/Moon 44/Starwars-clone war/Aeonflux/Alphaville/ Minority Report
Concerning glass, it is shown clear, pure and transparent, therefore true, with no hidden agenda, the puritan material by definition, “control” is at its maximum, constantly under surveillance (for one’s safety). A material, so clean and without asperity that it is aseptic and sterile. If you add the so called, coldness, all these preconceived ideas about glass, make it the perfect material for SF, to the point of becoming as light a fetish.
Fig: I robot/Island
Perfect for the representation of medical advanced technologies. The latter being one of great field of anticipation, genetic manipulation, cryogenisation, bodies reconstruction, cloning, and any pretext to strap somebody on an operation table, and apply him some strange medication or helmet…
Fig: Things to come/Prometheus/Tron Legacy/ Xmen
Glass is everywhere in this world of “perfection”, in furniture, any kind of display, structural element, floors, columns. The movie “Things to come”, holds true its anticipation uses of glass. It is such a precursor on so many aspects. SF directors will copy or reinvent many of its features, but as boring as the first part is, it is still amazing to see some these early representations of what would become a television set, a cell phone or smart watch, large screen, transparent display, a feat for structural engineer interested in glass, all this in 1946….
Fig: Buckminster Fuller -Nyc / Starwars/Metabarons
The future controls the properties of glass in such an extent that its brittleness isn’t a subject anymore, neither its size, it opens up to dimension unthinkable before, with some window which are not just large but humongous, and while at it, everything is out of glass, the entire buildings, the bridges, large walkable plaza, swimming pool in the sky.
Exposing its confidence in technology is also part of the SF genre. As a structural element, it is used for even wider application, even covering entire cities as a, protective shield, making Buckminster Fuller dreams come true.
Fig: Island/Tron Legacy/ Xmen/ Abyss
The control over glass or its counterpart water is so great that it can be shaped in any form, showing these great concept of liquid wall, relaying information or turning them into interactive displays which compose some spaces where it is not clear what is in or out, floor or roof, as everything is an apparently continuous strand of glass and light.
Fig: Aliens/ Matrix/ Prometheus/Logan run/Natural city/Judge Dredd
Glass is also timeless, it is a good candidate for immortality, time traveling plot, the material for the ultimate container with countless scenes showing bodies floating in what is no more than a human scale test tube or a womb, used for cloning or long term storage; a deep sleep for the worst criminal or to travel outerspace
Fig: Renaissance/ Minority report/ Fortress/ GI joe
The symbolic is so crude that I always wonder why does it work so well that we see it so often in the movies of this genre. How does this influence our perception of glass in contemporary architecture and culture? I can’t help thinking that this is strongly linked and that the use of glass can be so much more subtle and elegant than this pile of preconceived ideas about it.
It is interesting to see that theses preconceptions of glass being timeless pure clean aseptic…., serve the plot of the sci-fi movie, but corners its use as an “avant-garde” material, (actually it has been avant garde for the last 2000 years) In return, if one uses glass and want to be forward looking, it should be used accordingly to these preconceived ideas… which are in part true but also very reductive and caricatural….
But let’s continue our survey, as described in another post, about Smart glass, it is difficult to find a SF movie without at least shot where the characters don’t appear behind a plane of glass field with graphics. Glass is the perfect surface to carry information, well before tactile display appears or cell phones appear in real life. Used in layers mixing transparency and reflection and project complex graphic, and its does wonder. It introduces cheaply a dose of virtuality, where one doesn’t exactly know what is in front or behind, a great way to dematerialize a space, where several representation of the same scene can be seen, giving a new twist to Olafur Eliasson quotes about” the idea of Glass being a soft boundary between reality and Representation”
Fig: Outland/Oblivion/Things to come/Event Horizon/Total Rekall/Minority report
The Museum of Glass designed by Sanaa in Toledo is a great example of this dematerialized perception though the use of transparency and multi-layering of glass. The idea of doing a building with only transparent walls most of them being bent glass creates some very interesting optical artifacts.
Fig: Sanaa Toledo Museum
I don’t know if they fall into the unattended side effects, but when one looks through the fully transparent building, the vision goes through several layers of bent glass, slightly distorted. This superimposed distorted reflection and transparency, creates an almost virtual representation of the architecture of building itself which interplays with its surrounding. “Virtuality is field of not used potential” says Olafur Eliasson.
Fig: Ghost in the shell/City of lost children/Avalon/Fifth Element
In fact, the use of glass or of its key property, transparency resonates far beyond than the material itself. Transparency, as seeing through takes a much broader sense. Since the discovery of xray vision or the use of more powerful microscopes, opaque material and hidden world to the naked eye became transparent to the equiped one. A wide field of play for sci-fi writer and film makers, many invisible worlds are open now to them.
To be fair, it is difficult to not be fascinated by the xray, infrared or night vision. As much as glass and light, vision is a science fiction marker, essential to it, to see through (not only glass) but more beyond the mundane world we live in, a symbol of SciFi itself, taking its roots in reality to anticipate the near future. This Hyper vision, turns into a hyper transparency, if one wears the proper google, everything is possible from detecting aliens in Carpenter’s Los angeles, to read your mind or see through matter, space and time
Very soon after, the 2d transparent glass graphical interface of the 80ies was replaced into 3d holographic interactive environment where glass has disappeared. As the computer graphics got more and more present, reality and virtuality are merged seamlessly into the scenes.
Fig: Total recall/Prometheus/Tron legacy
Fig: Tron Legacy/ Encounter of the 3rd kind/ Tron/Island/ Blade runner/Prometheus/Johnny Memonic/Matrix
This rise of computer graphics, has just reinforced an existing trend, and when CG comes into play, the notion of boundary can be questioned even more. It becomes switchable, either of intensity of light transmission or to vision, but as a boundary itself, it might as well dissolves as the body goes though.
Glass is not even necessary anymore just light is used to let appear an entirely virtual world. This extended notion of transparency goes way beyond glass, which has actually been lost in the process, too much of a materialistic reference of the real world, too real to represent the hyper reality of the new age. Light has taken over its favorite medium, the final frontier of glass is to disappear.