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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August 28th, 2016

The screens of “Black Mirror” – interview with Gemma Kingsley

It’s a rare thing to see a television show that dares to challenge the status quo of how stories are told and to explore new ways to bring stories to our lives. While “Black Mirror” has only given us seven episodes in its two seasons so far, each episode was an unbelievably bright star that shone light on how the evolution of technology can change our lives as individuals and as a society, in excitingly positive and terrifyingly negative ways at once.

It brings me great pleasure to have an opportunity to speak with Gemma Kingsley who was in charge of defining and creating the screens that exposed the technology of “Black Mirror” in episodes such as “15 Million Merits”, “Be Right Back”, “The Entire History of You” and “White Christmas”. In this interview she talks about her career as a graphics designer and art director, the variety of productions she works on, and the ways to describe how technology can evolve in our lives without having that depiction overtaking the main story line. Gemma also dives deeper into the details of what went into creating the screens for each particular episode, as well as her thoughts on the pervasiveness of social media in our daily lives.


The screens of “White Christmas” episode of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Gemma Kingsley.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your path so far.

Gemma: I do motion graphics, as well as art department graphics and art direction. I used to work at a TV news station doing motion graphics, and then I completed master of art in production design for film and television. After that one of my teachers offered me some work in the feature film world. I took that job, and from there continued working on various drama productions.

Kirill: What do you do as a graphic artist on a feature production?

Gemma: Sometimes I do motion graphics, especially if it’s a smaller production. On larger productions I usually do props, anything from designing tents and ship sails on a film like “Pan” to things like parchment letters for “Dracula”. On that movie they wanted the set to be a part of the story, with old wall murals from Romania. The production designer has asked me to design the wall murals into the sets of the monastery and the chapel and castle. If you look at the backgrounds of those sets, you can see the wall paintings and murals, and that’s what I did there.


The screens of “White Christmas” episode of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Gemma Kingsley.

Kirill: When you talk with people and they ask you what you do for a living, are they surprised to hear that everything needs to be designed?

Gemma: I find they are surprised at how much work goes into it. A lot of the time, especially with features, they don’t realize that copyright is a major issue. You can’t just take products and use them, especially if you’re talking about famous brands. You might approach a company to use a brand of theirs, but if the storyline doesn’t reflect well on it, the brand will simply say “No” because it puts their brand in a slightly negative light. So even though they would get marketing from having been seen in a big film, they usually say “No” unless it’s being shown in a very positive light. You usually have to make up a new brand that is similar, but is not actually that brand.

Kirill: As you work on these productions, who do you work with in your immediate professional vicinity?

Gemma: If I’m working there as a graphic artist doing props, it’s with the art director or the set decorator. They contact me and ask me to come and work for them on that particular production. And if it’s something like “Black Mirror”, I work as a separate entity and not through the art department. There it’s more about post-production work, even though I start before the production starts filming. I usually work with the writer, director and production designer. You work through it into the post-production, even after the art department has wrapped.


The screens of “Be Right Back” episode of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Gemma Kingsley.

Kirill: Do you do anything professionally outside the world of feature film and episodic television?

Gemma: I work at Sky Sports which is a major sports channel in the UK and Ireland. I do motion graphics for them. Working from production to production takes a lot of hours, and you have a lot of responsibility. I like to take a bit of time out, and work for Sky Sports where I don’t have to work six days a week. I’m finishing a job right now, and then going back to Sky Sports. It allows me to still earn the money while I don’t have to work very long weeks. They allow me to be flexible with my schedule.

It allows me to refresh myself until the next big job that comes along. The hours are very long, and it’s a lot of hard work. It’s very rewarding, but very tiring as well. When you finish, you kind of want to rest for a little bit.

Kirill: Where do those hours go when you’re working on one of those bigger productions?

Gemma: It depends on the job. If I work as a graphic artist in the art department, most of my time is spent in the office. I also go out to the printers to make sure that the prints are exactly the way I wanted them, on the correct paper and with the right look. Sometimes I’ll be on the set, measuring and looking with the set decorator or the production designer. We’ll talk about what it is that they want to put in certain areas, so that I can see what I’m filling. Sometimes, when you’re there, you see what they may not see immediately in my field.

On “Black Mirror” I was in my office the majority of time, and then I went on sets to show the actors what it was they were supposed to be doing. They don’t see the final graphics, so they don’t know what it is that they are supposed to be doing. If I’m not there to do that, the raw material ends up costing too much money to fix. The animations that I’m doing on those screens needs to match what the actors are doing, and it makes my job easier and more cost-effective for me to be on set rather than trying to match motions the actors are doing after the fact. We are both on the same page then and it’s choreographed correctly.


The screens of “The Entire History of You” episode of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Gemma Kingsley.

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August 16th, 2016

The art and craft of screen graphics – interview with John Hill

His first production was the original “Tomb Raider”. Since then, he contributed screen graphics and fantasy UIs to productions such as “The Bourne Supremacy”, “Spy Game”, “Terminator 3”, “Thunderbirds”, “Quantum of Solace”, “Prometheus” and the last season of “24”. And for his latest project, he was the creative supervisor overseeing hundreds of screens in multiple locations on the latest installment in the Bond universe, “Spectre”. It gives me great pleasure to welcome John Hill of Vincent Studio to the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces.


Screen graphics for Q’s workshop in “Spectre”. Courtesy of John Hill and Vincent studio.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your path so far

John: I initially studied fine art and painting, focusing more towards graphic art during my foundation art course (the course tutor highlighted the long term plights of becoming a fine artist). I did a degree in Graphic Arts and then started to freelance in central London. I then worked at a small company designing club & venue visuals, where I learnt 2D animation.

I then was asked to work at a company in Pinewood Studios designing computer graphics for film sets. My first feature was the first “Tomb Raider” film where I was asked to design the POV shots for the robot fight scenes in the opening of the film and then the title sequence, which was really exciting for me back then. I remember waiting 15 minutes for my G4 to update each frame in AE. I stayed on working full time in Pinewood for the following 2/3 years at Useful Companies working on most of the action films that came into Pinewood and Shepperton studios like “The Bourne Supremacy”, “Spy Games”, “Thunderbirds”, “Terminator 3” and others, designing UI graphics, shooting onset video and doing live playback.

I then worried about becoming too focused on UI graphics and wanted to broaden my horizons a little, so I decided to go freelance and started working at various studios around London before setting up Vincent. I continued working on films like “GeForce”, “Quantum of Solace”, “Prometheus” and “Spectre” whilst doing motion graphics and VFX projects.

Kirill: What can you tell us about Vincent studio?

John: We creatively direct, design, animate for film, gaming, commercials, broadcast and live events. We also do on-set supervision for playback and VFX post production work. We called ourselves Vincent simply because we quite liked the name and its ambiguity. I run the studio and co-direct projects with Rheea Aranha.

Kirill: What drew you into the field of designing for feature films, and how has that changed since you’ve started working professionally in it?

John: I stumbled across it to be honest… I was’t getting much out the job I was in at the time working, so a friend working on a Bond film introduced me to Useful Companies who offered me a job as their art director, so I moved. Back then UI GX and video playback for films was not particularly well respected or deemed very important in the film making process… even though we were often relied on to bridge storylines in scripts and make key story telling moments. It was still a relatively new department in film… especially UI and computer GX. Most directors and productions designers were getting their heads around using computer GX for set design and story telling as it inevitably became part of current technology and everyday life.

Kirill: Your work spans a wide diversity of projects. When you meet a new person and they ask you what you do for a living, how do you describe it?

John: This is always a bit of a weird moment for me. I never really know how to sum up what I do in a singular job role and tend to waffle on about various projects and films I’ve worked on… I usually end up saying I’m a creative director, but I’m really a visual artist looking at any form/medium to tell a story in the most clear and interesting way. I’ve found over the years I can learn most new programs or disciplines like live action shooting/directing and post production/VFX fairly quickly… although it’s not getting any easier, I must say! I’m very hands on.


Screen graphics for “Terminator 3”. Courtesy of John Hill and Vincent studio.

Kirill: If you look back at the work you did for Terminator 3, how much has your field has changed in the last decade? Do you expect the scope and intricacy of your work to continue evolving at a similar pace in the next decade?

John: I think the world of UI GX has changed considerably in the past 15 years. It is now an intricate part of many sci-fi and current day films, providing unique storytelling moments and is a great fabric to dress and light film sets, as well as a great asset to play with in post-production.

Way more time is invested by film directors and productions to create beautiful graphics and UI VFX as they not only look great but are fantastic at telling complicated stories cost effectively. It will continue to evolve at an exponential pace, I think.


Screen graphics for “24”. Courtesy of John Hill and Vincent studio.

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