How I Mapped the Galaxy for After Earth

It’s always fun to try something new, but in this case the something new was a sci-fi galaxy map. The client was Overbrook Entertainment, for After Earth. The brief was to create 4 maps for the expanded universe around the movie. There are a bunch of books and graphic novels associated with the film. Those stories had been written in parallel with the movie development and each had added something to the geography of the universe.

One of the writers on the expanded universe material was an old RPG hand, and noticed that what the worldbuilding needed was reference maps — of the universe, solar system, world, and key city. And so I got a call.

The biggest early challenge was the galaxy map. Though I’ve spent a lot of my life working with galaxies (I have a background as a research astrophysicist), I’d never illustrated one. And when the defining feature is stars without number, the level of detail was a little intimidating. First off — lots of reference imagery.

I knew I wanted a galaxy with a side on view so that I could focus on the area where the action takes place, but still see the majority of the galaxy. So I started taking galaxies with the right perspective and building a set of reference imagery:

Source: Hubble (of course)

With this in hand — I sketched out the scales. After Earth takes place in our own galaxy, and the map was to be the map of the travels of the settlers that left earth to their new home. So I had real scales to work with.

That pinned down the composition, so I could start on the image.

1. Layout the Structure

First of all, we live in a spiral galaxy, which means the dominant features are a central cluster of bright stars (the galactic center) and a set of spiral arms. I took a large textured brush, and laid out the underlying shapes:

The key at this stage was really composition. There’s a lot of yellow light in our galaxy, and I’d decided to begin with that I was going to base the colour scheme on a mixture of blue and yellow. The grungy spattered brush meant that ever as I was creating the large scale structures, the brush would add a lot of smaller scale detail.

2. Add some blue

Having decided the layout and colour scheme, the next step was to lay in some dark blues in the same spiral pattern. Also, some darker shadows between the spiral arms.

3. Adding the first layer of detail

Stars aren’t uniform. As galaxies form, there are clusters of dust and gas that clump together and form huge numbers of stars. To capture this non-uniformity I created a brush which lays down dense scattered points (effectively dense streams of stars), took a light blue, and laid in groups of dense colour. I allowed these to clump up in the brighter parts of the spiral arms, but left some dark spots and voids too. The clusters string out along the spiral arms to help with the sense of movement.

4. Tone Balance

The whole image was feeling very flat, when I wanted it to have some depth to it, so at this stage I threw in a linear gradient to darken the distant part of the galaxy.

5. Going bright

The galaxy now looked very dark, and given the volume of stars — that clearly doesn’t work. So I added an overlay layer, and focused on brightening up the foreground, and the galactic center — that huge cluster of stars that surrounds the black hole at the heart of our galaxy.

6. Detailed Stars

Stars come in almost all colours. At this stage I took a more scattered brush than before (for less dense stars), set the colours to a range, with a reasonable amount of red, and started laying in some detail — again focusing around the brighter areas.

7. Dust Shadows

Stars aren’t the only thing visible in galaxies — there’s also a lot of dust. Now dust is visible because it blocks the starlight — so it shows up as shadows. It also clusters. To show this I took a low opacity dark brush and started drawing in clumped shadows. This allowed for a lot of manipulation of the feel of the galaxy, reducing the emphasis on some areas over others.

8. All the Stars

By this stage we have a solid structural underpinning of a galaxy. But galaxies are spectacular because of all the stars. So, once again with a scattered circular brush — now set to almost pure white, with a little colour jitter — I went in and created all the stars. This took a while, and I built up layers of stars slowly. There are very dense clusters — that follow the clusters built up on all the layers below — but there are also whisps of stars in the middle of the void. Closer to the Galactic Center the density goes way up to give the sense of the powerhouse at the heart of the galaxy.

9. More coloured stars and final details

The last step was to add contrast (the shadows here have got deeper), an to add back in some more colour. I threw some blue and red stars into the spirals. I also added a few individual highlighted stars to break up the image a little.

Here’s the full set of steps all in one — it was very satisfying to see an entire map pull together like this:

You can see the final image — with all the text and detailing — at the top of the post. It was a lot of fun to create. I’ll run through the solar system and planet maps later — and the process behind creating them.

Originally published at on January 24, 2015.

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