Movies played a big role in defining the distinctive steampunk look. One of the earliest is the Jules-Verne adaption "A trip to the Moon" from 1902 (here is a german dubbed version).
The 1950s and 1960s saw a number of big film productions which picked up the now retrofuturistic theme and made it accessible for a whole new generation, even if the invention of the term steampunk was some 30 years away still.
These films were mainly (more or less close) film adaptations of the stories of the "godfathers of steampunk" Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Movies like "20,000 Leagues under the Sea" (1954), "The Time Machine" (1960, my first contact to something steampunk!), "First Men in the Moon" (1964, turned into a hilarious comedy about the space-race) and "Captain Nemo and the Underwater City" (1969, not a purebred, but quite the fun to watch nevertheless) featured a lovely whimsical setting, which became a blueprint for what we know today as steampunk.
Things became quiet after the 1960s however and it took until 1990 that people saw something notably steampunky on the big screen again. I think many will remember the final scene of "Back To The Future III" where Doc Brown flies off in his steam train time-machine (together with his wife and his sons Jules and Verne - quite the insider-joke, isn't it!).
"Edward Scissorhands" from the same year showed us some steampunk-elements too. Together with a modern variant of the good ol' Frankenstein-theme (Edward's creator was none other than Vincent Price in his last role!), which is actually much more in the spirit of Mary Shelley's original story than the millions boo!-scary-monster!-movies usually adapting the story.
The french film "The City of Lost Children" (1995) also features strong steampunk visuals, together with a lovely oddness, which made already "Delicatessen" (1991, both by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro) a deliciously weird classic.
After the 90s were getting ahead pretty promising with innovative and fun movies, Hollywood decided to make a big big steampunk production with a big big budget. Luckily "Wild Wild West" (1999, yes - that movie) didn't do lasting damage to the genre.
"The League of The Extraordinary Gentlemen" from 2003 was some kind of best-of-19th-century-adventure-literature-mixtape, featuring well known and lesser known characters like Count Dracula, Captain Nemo, Allan Quartermain, Dorian Gray, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide and many, many, many more. And it was quite fun, as long as you didn't took it too seriously.
Also notable is the Japanese anime "Steamboy". A very ambitious project which was 10 (!) years in the making (never a good sign btw.) and failed to reach its audience when it was finally released in 2004.
Visually much stronger (and also much cheaper in the production) are "The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello" from 2005. A series of short GC-animated films which really shows some potential. The first part of Jaspers Expeditions (which have quite the Lovecraft/Poe lacing) has been released on Youtube, to get its viewers addicted and wanting to buy all episodes.
More recent live-action productions with steampunk-elements are "The Golden Compass" (2007 also including cheesy Narnia-like fantasy) and Martin Scorsese's amazing "Hugo" (2011), featuring lots of gears and automations and a really touching and fun story.
Yes, there is a number of films I didn't cover - but just might not have credited them with enough importance to be mentioned here ;-)
N is for Nemo
|The world's most famous submarine - the Nautilus!|
Captain Nemo, commander of the submarine Nautilus in Jules Vernes famous "20,000 Leagues under the Sea", is one of the strongest and most interest characters in steampunk literature and perhaps in the literature of the 19th century as a whole. He is somewhat time-less. And thats the virtue of his character: His past is an enigma (if we ignore the dispensable and anachronistic 1874 sequel "The Mysterious Island"), his actions are driven by revenge and the deep feeling of being an outcast from mankind and his crew is willing to follow him and his goals till death.
Nemo and the aura of mystery and darkness which surrounds him are a strong contrast to the otherwise quite lighthearted "20,000 Leagues...". He appears as a man who's dark past has driven him to the absolute limits of his existence. He is a victim of great injustice - losing his family by the hands of a suppressive regime. A broken and grim antagonist and quite a modern character still, but not a villain. Nemo doesn't seeks power or wealth. To the contrary: money wont give him peace and the sea supplies him with all he needs in abundance.
And thats the key to his personality: being commander of the Nautilus gives him and his crew the absolute autonomy. No law, no government - nobody can put hands on him. Captain Nemo is the absolute free individual; living after his rules and following his values. Yet of course Nemo is at the same time a slave too. His thirst for revenge, pushes him into a war against the world - a war not even he can win.
Nemo is a doomed character. He is struggling with his past, with dark moods leading him closer and closer to his own downfall.
Facing the truth that his crusade for revenge only brought death to his faithful companions he steers his Nautilus into the Maelstrom, a giant whirlpool to seal his end.
The iconic character of Captain Nemo is inspiration for countless characters - often plain villains who want to overtake the world with futuristic machines. But that won't do him justice. He is terrorist, explorer, freedom fighter and sensitive philosopher. A character with real depth and an impressive statement of its creator Jules Verne.
O is for Overenginieering
|This is not overengineered!|
A: Overengineering doesn't exists! Everyone who claims Steampunk is over-engineered is just a ignorant moderner!
B: As you (hopefully) know by now, steampunk loves complex machines with lots of gears, valves, pipes, drive-belts and vacuum tubes which are all happily turning, pumping, rattleing, steaming, buzzing etc. etc. When constructing a steampunk engine you best follow this simple rule: If you have two mechanical parts you need to connect with each other, don't choose the most obvious solution. Just add a random number of parts in-between to make it look interesting! If its inefficient - who cares? If it looks messy and chaotic - who cares? If its noisy and perhaps randomly emitting steam - even better!
Our friend Wikipedia says about overengineering that it "(...)is the designing of a product to be more robust or complicated than what is necessary for its application (...)". I admit this may sound quite reasonable, but in a steampunk context you better forget that definition quickly!
Fact is: Steampunks expect their products to be strange, whimsical and extraordinary. Don't be shy to make them look the part!