Cinematography of spacecraft in “The Expanse”

Cinematography of spacecraft in "The Expanse"

If you haven’t seen it yet, “The Expanse” is a recent science fiction television series based on the series of book with the same name by James S A Corey (actually the alias for two authors working together). The first in the series is “Leviathan Wakes”. I really love this series of books and was lucky enough to stumble on them almost as soon as the first one was published. Anyway, when I heard that they were making a television series I was torn. On one hand it could be awesome. On the other hand it would be a mish-mash that hardly resembled the books. At the end of series one (which takes us about two thirds of the way down the first book) I am pretty damn well stoked. Yes – it is indeed awesome. And I think that one of the things that really impresses me is the cinematography. Today’s post is focusing upon it in respect to the representation of spacecraft. Please forgive the rough photos, they were taken of my television using my phone. All copyright is naturally that of the brilliant creators on SyFy.

First: what are my expectations?

I think of space as dark, cold, and lonely. I think of spacecraft as being practical objects that have to operate in an unfriendly environment, suffering wear and tear, and not easily repainted. Hence bright, clean, fresh-looking spaceships do not really do it for me. I mean, sure craft such as the Enterprise and Liberator and so on had lovely designs, but the cinematography that brought them to the screen did very little to evoke the nature of space. Alternatively the Nostromo in Alien was great.

Now I suppose you want to say that my examples so far a pretty old. But even Dark Matter (which I love albeit I am only up to the first season) has spacecraft cinematography that does not capture the harshness of the space environment (at least in my opinion).

This is all well and good, I hear you say, but how does a cinematographer achieve this?

Well, the darkness bit is easy.  But darkness in of itself is nothing visually unless you have some strong highlights. I guess it is something that I do in a lot of my own art, have spotlights striking one side of an object while the rest remains in deep shadow. I do thins because it feels dramatic to me. If you look at the ships in The Expanse they have done the same thing – lots of deep shadows with either spotlights striking one part or light sources erupting from the dark. And the colour of the light tends to be mostly blue, which suggests cold, or a stark white. One exception to this is the Canterbury, where the inner part of the craft has warm lights suggesting a human working environment while the outer colours are blue based.




If you look at the picture of the Donnager below, you cannot actually see any details of the actual body of the ship. It is entirely suggested by patterns of lights and grades of shadow.


Even the space station in the picture below, which is fairly well lit, has huge areas of shadow.


I have not striven to prove it (cannot be bothered) but it also feels that the space scenes are slightly longer than in other series. You know, in Star Trek or Dark Matter or whatever, they do a quick visual grab of the spaceship so as to set the scene and then switch straight to the people. But it feels in this series that the audience spends a bit more time looking at the ships before switching. I think that this adds to the feeling of being isolated in deep space.


Overall I have really enjoyed the production of The Expanse. It “feels” convincing. I may or may not later write an article about the spacecraft interiors which have also impressed me no end. But yes, if you are into science fiction then read the books and watch the series. Both are very compelling.

Thanks for reading






  1. Not really my cup of tea these days. However, I’ll chance the TV series and see how I go. Thanks for the great images.


    1. Thanks for visiting The first episode may be a bit of a struggle but I genuinely enjoyed the entire first season


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