October 19th, 2016

Screen graphics of “Independence Day: Resurgence” – interview with Derek Frederickson

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces, it gives me great pleasure to welcome Derek Frederickson of Twisted Media. In this interview Derek talks about his early days in mid-1990s experimenting with Flash on the web, the screen graphics work his company has been doing on numerous episodic cable shows in the last ten years, and the software tools he’s using and how he would like them see evolve in the future. In between and around, we talk about his work on the recently released “Independence Day: Resurgence” that bridges the world of 2016 with the alien technology left “behind” in the first installment in the franchise, as well as glimpses of Twisted Media’s work on the upcoming “The Space Between Us”.

“Independence Day: Resurgence” Area 51 monitor test. Courtesy of Twisted Media.

Kirill: Please tell us yourself and how you started in the field.

Derek: I’ve been doing the things that I do today pretty much my whole life. I’ve always been interested in design, programming and animation…and that’s exactly what you need to able to do work in this field. Back in the early ’80s when I was in my single digits, I had a TI-99/4A. I went to school to study video production, and that helped with certain aspects of shooting, and understanding the whole flow of writing, capturing an image and editing. I was also a musician, so I have a lot of audio experience.

These three things combined helped me ever since. In the early ’90s I was doing CD-ROMs, designing interfaces, interactions, movements – a combination of all of those elements. And that’s still what I do now. If we do a command center or some sequence on a phone, it’s an interactive thing.

Derek and Tony on the red carpet premiere

There’s an interesting thing about me deciding to name my company Twisted Media. It was just me, doing freelancing from time to time. And I got a random email from the assistant to Mark Franco who was the VFX producer that worked with Dean Devlin a lot. They were doing a show called “Leverage” and they were coming to Chicago, which is where I was living at the time, to do the show. And they literally saw the listing for my company in a creative directory and liked the name.

They asked me if I could do graphics for a TV show, and I was so excited after looking up the list of productions they’ve worked on, that included Independence Day and Stargate. So I wrote back “Yes, I can” [laughs]. That’s how it started. When Dean interviewed me, he knew that I was new to that field. But he also knew that the stuff that I showed him was very close to it. He recognized that I could do what was needed. And when he asked me if I could do that, I told him that I had waited my entire life to do it. I’ve worked on a lot of productions since then, and I’m now back to working with Dean on “The Librarians”.

Screen graphics for TV show “Powers”. Courtesy of Twisted Media.

Kirill: If you look back at 2007 when you started working on “Leverage” and your work since then, do you see any big changes in what productions expect from what you do?

Derek: It depends on what kind of a show it is. If it’s a show that takes place today, there’s been such a huge shift in our everyday lives. You look around, and no matter where you are, people are looking at their devices. So for these shows, art is imitating life.

There’s an interesting difference between the shows back then and the shows that are made now. A lot of these shows deal with the world of social media, where you can track somebody’s activity based on what they posted on Facebook. These things are mature and established, so there’s not much creative design or inventing how it looks. There’s still work to be done, but it’s such a mature playground now.

Everyone sort of knows what it looks like. We know the interfaces of Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. They are well-established. You are asked to show a character being on a social media, but it can’t be the actual thing. It is limiting, because we all know how that “looks like”. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but rather coming up with a creative way to do it. And oftentimes it looks a little weird. It’s just text on the white background [laughs].

We grew up with this in the last decade or so. This affects everyone’s lives. Consequently, when you design for it, you can’t take the viewer out of the moment and you have to take those well-established elements. You have to work with the parameters of what has come before and has been accepted.

Screen graphics for TV show “Scorpion”. Courtesy of Twisted Media.

Kirill: Is that due to production restrictions of not being able to use those branding elements without explicit permission from that company?

Derek: The clearance department is always the bane of our existence. They have to look at everything. You can’t use real usernames, for example. Everything that we make is fake. Oftentimes we call it Fakebook, because it can’t really be Facebook. We do work for “Empire” that has a lot of music gear. There’s a program that they use, and it looks a lot like ProTools, but it’s not. It’s FauxTools [laughs]. Everything has to be vetted. The design of it is copyrighted and owned property.

In a sense, working on something like “Independence Day” is so liberating. It’s not in a real world, and you can explore and make something, and it has nothing to do with today. You’re really creating a new world, and that’s where you can stretch your wings and do some neat stuff.

“Independence Day: Resurgence” alien biology research, head, interface. Courtesy of Twisted Media.

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October 10th, 2016

Cinematography of “The Neon Demon” – interview with Natasha Braier

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my absolute delight to welcome Natasha Braier. In this interview we talk about the art and craft of cinematography, the hierarchical structure of feature film productions and how that structure still lends itself to predominantly male voices, and the pleasure and pain of working long hours over months at a time. The second half of the interview is on Natasha’s work on the meticulously crafted “The Neon Demon”, an engrossing story of a young girl taking her first steps as a fashion model in the wild urban jungle of Los Angeles.

Natasha Braier on the set of “The Neon Demon”. Courtesy of Natasha Braier.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and how you started in the field.

Natasha: I was doing still photography when I was a teenager. It was mostly black-and-white, developing them in my own dark room. The first time I looked at the end credits of a movie and saw the title of director of photography was when I was nineteen. I was immediately interested in that, and some of my older friends who I studied photography with had chosen to go to film school. It was through them that I discovered that world and the role of a cinematographer. That’s when I decided to go to film school myself.

Kirill: Do you remember being surprised at anything in particular when you started there, when you saw how things worked behind the camera?

Natasha: I wouldn’t say that I had big surprises. There were a lot of things to learn that were different from the world of still photography. If there’s anything that I didn’t know at the time I made the decision to go to the school and go down this career path, I’d say that I didn’t know that it would be such an intense commitment. You barely have time to have a life, and I didn’t know that I was going to spend so much time traveling and working away from home.

Also, I didn’t know that you could make so much money as a cinematographer. That was a nice surprise. I thought that I was going to be a humble artist doing what I love, much like other artists that I saw in my life. It was a good surprise that I get to travel the world and see all the exotic places, and make money. And the other surprise was that if you want to be home for a few months, that’s difficult.

Kirill: Looking back to when you were in school, what happened to people that went to that school with you? Are most of them still in the field, or do some leave it as years pass by?

Natasha: I went to a couple of film schools because I was moving with my family. I only stayed a few months in Argentina and another few months in Spain, and then I spent three years getting a master’s degree in cinematography in England. That’s the only education that I completed end to end.

That program was very selective, accepting only six people every year for each field. The other five that started studying cinematography with me that year were older than me, in their late twenties and thirties. Some had been camera assistants before, and they were really committed to this work. It was difficult to get into that school, and once you got in, you continued afterwards in the industry. Some had more success than others, but all of them are still working in the field.

Kirill: As you said, your job is quite intense, and you spend long months away from your family and friends, and long hours on set once the shooting starts. If we’re talking about you, what makes you stay in your field?

Natasha: It’s a great job and I love doing it. It comes with a cost, and otherwise it would have been a paradise. You pay a price. You have your freedom – you don’t go to the same job every day, you don’t have a boss, you get to choose your projects, you get to travel and meet different people. And the price you’re paying for that freedom and flexibility is that you don’t always know what you’re doing next month.

I think the world is divided into people that can live with that and people who need a stable life and a stable job. If you’re not the former, you will probably not stay in film industry. If you talk about people in the industry, we are not very normal [laughs]. We need the adrenaline and the highs. It’s like being on a rollercoaster. You have your ups and downs. That’s the challenging part of the work.

Over the years I’ve learned to deal with that in better ways, to not get so anxious about what I was going to do next, and to trust that there’s always something coming. I started enjoying the moments when I’m working a lot more, and to stop worrying about what’s next. It’s also a big spiritual test where you need to learn a lot about patience and not having control over what’s next.

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September 19th, 2016

DragonCon 2016 parade highlights

As usual, DragonCon comes to Atlanta over the Labor Day weekend. These are my personal highlights from the opening parade this year.

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September 2nd, 2016

Designing with purpose – interview with Russ Gautier and John LePore

In my first interview with John LePore of Perception a few weeks ago, we talked about his studio’s earlier work on “Iron Man 2”, “Avengers” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”. In this second part on Perception’s work, John is joined by the art director Russ Gautier to talk about their work on the recently released “Batman v Superman”.

We start with the beginning of Russ’s career as a motion designer in the late ’90s and his early explorations of Flash, and talk about the role of an art director in charge of a unified visual language of all the screens on a particular feature film. Then John and Russ talk about the cyclical nature of designing for screens in real world and in feature films, the importance of communicating the story through screens and imbuing each one with a precise purpose, comparing and contrasting the screens of Batman and Lex Luthor and how each one reflects the traits of those two characters, and the particular details of the post-production work that Perception did on “Batman v Superman”. Finally, we close with their thoughts on VR interfaces and general progress of technology in our daily lives.

Interfaces for Batman vehicles. Courtesy of Perception.

Kirill: As we’ve already introduced John in the first part, let’s talk about Russ and his path so far.

Russ: My name is Russ Gautier, and I’m the art director at Perception. I grew up in Northern Virginia and went to VCU in Richmond to get my graphic design degree. At the time at least, it was a very theory-based program which worked really well for me, because I tend to pick up the technical side quite easily on my own. So it was great to spend a lot of my education focusing on the “why” of graphic design.

While I was in school I was really interested in interactive design. I picked up Flash in the late 90’s, which I thought was the coolest thing – it was mind-blowing at the time. I saw sites like 2advanced and the early version of GMUNK’s portfolio (the one with the guy dancing in the onesy and all the animated elements), and decided that’s what I wanted to do: crazy animated interfaces. So I dug deep into Flash while in school.

It was a pretty experimental time back then. There were no standards really. UX was not really a thing. There wasn’t as much concern for usability, at least in what I was being exposed to. People were doing crazy things with interface design, and in hindsight many of them were awful, but they did offer a great playground for ideas.

By the time I graduated I had enough knowledge and experience that I got hired to teach a web design class at VCU while working as an interactive designer at a local design shop. Around that time I discovered motion graphics, got myself copies of Maya and After Effects and started playing with more 3D and VFX. After a couple years I quit my interactive design job and shortly after got picked by the Martin Agency. I spent three years there doing motion design and animation, and with lots of support from the Executive Producers and many other fine people, started what would eventually become Hue & Cry. It was just a small internal design and animation department within the agency back then, and now it’s a proper motion design and animation studio. It was a great experience for me to help build the team there.

In 2012 I moved to New York City. I was doing freelance work here, and in early 2014 Johnny contacted me after seeing my reel. We talked about me coming to work at Perception, and I started a couple months later. It’s been a fun couple years!

Kirill: What is the role of the art director on these productions?

Russ: My job is primarily to establish and keep a consistent style and design language throughout the course of a project, to provide team leadership, help present and sell the ideas to our client and, of course, get my hands dirty designing, animating and compositing. Sometimes I play the role of TD as well. It’s a small shop so I wear a lot of hats around here.

Interfaces for Batman vehicles. Courtesy of Perception.

Kirill: It feels like every new generation of designers rediscovers things that were already known, sometimes decided ago. We’ve had this phase of heavily textured skeuomorphic design, and now it’s all about precise grids, white space and typographical rhythms, where the world of digital design is rediscovering what has been established in print over hundreds of years.

Russ: You’re right, each generation seems to discover similar things, but they bring a bit of their own history and perspective along with them. The next ten years are going to be very interesting, as we’ll have the generation of kids that grew up with the Internet. I didn’t have the internet until I was 14, but kids coming up now have never known a world without it. We’re going to see the younger generations of designers come with such a different perspective on the world. It’ll be interesting to see what they bring to the table creatively.

In a way we are going in circles, but each cycle brings with it a perspective that wasn’t necessarily there before. It’s always evolving.

John: Steering it towards interface design, I think that every designer has to be weary when these waves of trends come. The biggest one recently was the anti-skeuomorphic push two or three years ago. It’s good to be aware of these things and to monitor the waves that are taking place. But any time somebody uses them as a strict bible, it’s a recipe for failure. You overcommit to it. When iOS made its jump to anti-skeuomorphic, it seemed that it lost a lot of little nuances that really helped with the usability. People had difficult time understanding which elements were tappable.

It’s good to be aware of these things, but you have to take it all in moderation. Some of the most beautiful interface design that I’m seeing nowadays embraces certain aspects of flat design standards, but is also comfortable letting in a bit of lighting and depth. You seem them blended at the right ratio, and it can create beautiful nuances and satisfying results.

Screen graphics for “Batman v Superman”. Courtesy of Perception.

Russ: I think that the design style machine is very reactionary, but there’s a degree to which those ebbs and flows even out over time. I think of design trends like plucking a string: it starts changing dramatically at first, swinging one way and then back again. But over time we come to an equilibrium where people aren’t as reactionary – at least until the next pluck happens. It doesn’t have to be strictly skeuomorphic or strictly anti-skeuomorphic. It can be something that toes the line and makes something appropriate for your client and their audience/users.

Kirill: Do you see similar cycles in what feature productions ask you to do?

John: It’s a really interesting area as far as trends are concerned. There is a distinct cottage industry of FUI artists, and we all are very closely very aware of each other’s work. It’s a great and positive community, and everybody is excited to see where everything is being pushed.

I would say that the majority of our clients, particularly in film, are almost unaware of that community and that cycle. Some reference the existing vocabulary of film user interface, going back in history to Star Wars or even before that. Why would futuristic interfaces ever be anything other than glowing blue shit?

We’re starting to see more deviations away from that, and it’s relieving for us. But you always see it as a conscious hazard when you’re working on these projects.

Interfaces for Lex Luthor screens. Courtesy of Perception.

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