May 4th, 2017

The art and craft of screen graphics – interview with Peter Eszenyi of Territory Studio

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces, it gives me great pleasure to welcome Peter Eszenyi. Since joining Territory Studio in 2011, he has worked on movies such as “Zero Dark Thirty”, “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation”, “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Ex Machina”. In the first part of the interview Peter talks about his earlier work on screen graphics for film, what makes for a compelling experience that supports the story and doesn’t distract the viewer’s eye, the unexpected facets of working in the movie industry and what people think when he talks about what he does for a living.

The second part of the interview focuses on Peter’s role as the creative lead for Territory’s work on the recently released “Ghost in the Shell”. We talk about abandoning the traditional rectangular flat screens, going into curved and holographic spaces, exploring a society that is embracing the potential of cybernetic implants and how that affects the interaction between humans and technology, the evolution of information presentation, and what the urban landscape depicted in the movie tells us about the technology of today.

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

Peter: My name is Peter Eszenyi. I was born in Budapest, Hungary, and that’s where I studied television and communication. I started to draw from a very early age, and after graduating, I started as an art director in advertising. I spent quite a few years in that field, working on various projects as creative lead.

As the advertising world was changing, and my real passion is design, I started doing freelance design and art direction work, and I was really keen to get into the 3D world. I was learning about various methods, workflows and software, and my take on that was always to use them as tools. The first package that I used in those early days was 3Ds Max, and from there I moved to LightWave and Cinema 4D. For me, it’s never been super important to stick with one tool – if there is something better or faster, I’d definitely want to use that.

I started to work with advertising agencies on 3D designs, concepts and motion graphics pieces, as the whole motion graphic world was really taking off then. And then around 10 years ago I started to work with agencies outside of Hungary – in places such as Germany and Scandinavia. As I started to travel more, I moved to London with my family. That’s where I got a phone call from David [Sheldon-Hicks], and in 2011 I joined the studio as Head of 3D. I’ve been at Territory since then – I’m basically the oldest employee here!

Screen graphics for Guardians of the Galaxy. Courtesy of Territory Studio

Kirill: Don’t say “the oldest”. Say “the most experienced”.

Peter: That’s true [laughs]. Territory has quite an extensive field of work, but my passion is mostly about films and telling the story to create something that supports the director’s vision. In the past couple of years it started to really happen here.

One of the things I’ve learned about my work is that content is always king. No matter how pretty it is, it needs to sell the thing. And it’s very similar in terms of film. No matter how pretty your UI design or hologram is, it needs to tell the story and support the vision that the director wants to see on the screen. I always try to keep that in mind, which is not easy.

Kirill: And you [motion graphics / vfx] usually don’t have a lot of screen time. Not only you’re “competing” against all the highly paid actors and actresses to get into the frame, but as a viewer I wouldn’t want to stare at some complicated screen while somebody explains exactly what each piece of that UI is for. There are the hero graphics that get a few seconds here and there, and then the rest of the screens are more or less part of the set decoration in the background such as on “The Martian”.

Peter: Marti Romances or David probably have told you this already, but we always try to design our screens to tell the story on its own. Even though most of the stuff that you see on “The Martian” is in the background and seems to be some random data, I’m absolutely sure that 99% of those screens are showing relevant stuff. If you look at the screens in HAB, that shows information on oxygen levels or timezones.

When we do screens at Territory, it’s very important for us to try and keep the “fluff effect” to a minimum – if it’s possible within the constraints. We do not have resources to do a thousand bespoke screens with a thousand pieces of bespoke data. But we try to avoid generating random numbers to put in the background, hoping that the camera is never going too close to that. We try to keep it real, as much as possible.

Screen graphics for The Martian. Courtesy of Territory Studio

That relates mostly to real-world stuff, and we can say that “The Martian” was real-world to a certain extent. However, on films like “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Ghost in the Shell” you have a fantasy world. There we try to establish the world and the UI language in which the technology exists, and as part of that we define both the potential and limitations of what the technology can do. This process helps us create something that is credible within the context of that film and that story.

The successful examples of screen graphics that I see in film and television are those that, for me, have some sense of reality to them. I think that the viewer immediately recognizes when something is just numbers, or scrolls randomly in the background. I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen. It does, because of various factors. But let’s say you have a spaceship and a screen that shows speeds or distances. I want to try and keep those numbers within a fairly possible limit. That’s how I try to approach it. Maybe that’s not necessary, but I really like to think that most of the designers who work in film do the same.

Kirill: If I can bring you back to when you started at Territory on your first feature film production, is there any particular thing that you remember that was the most unexpected in what needs to be done for movie interfaces?

Peter: The first feature film that I worked on at Territory was “Zero Dark Thirty”. The designs that I did were intended to be utilitarian and reference military screens, and in that sense they were very pared back, minimal and constrained. It was challenging because we were trying to create an authentic version of something that most people, including us, knows nothing about. We researched what information was public, such as drone and satellite footage and military grade HUD and weapons references and designed drone screens and other military screens based on that information. I’m not saying that it was undesigned. We were just really strict with what we allowed ourselves to do on those screens.

“Fast & Furious 6” was my second film, and going back to your question, I was surprised by how most of the UI screen concepts were grid-based – heavily structured, sticking to certain predesigned grids and ideas. I always tried to bring a little bit more free-flowing stuff into my work, so this was an interesting contrast. David, Marti and others were doing strict grid-based designs, and I was fascinated by that.

I never worked with that rigid aesthetic before, and I realised that it was very important to learn. What I’ve learned in the last couple of years is that no matter what you think is a good style, you have to learn all the techniques and have all the tools. Most UI was grid-based for quite a while, and that was the biggest difference in approach for me as a designer. I come from a more traditional background, and I love the broad strokes of the paint brush. But when you design UI, especially for sci-fi and fantasy, you need to be very strict. Quite often, that’s what the story, the aesthetic and the production designer need.

Screen graphics for The Martian. Courtesy of Territory Studio

Kirill: Perhaps on both “The Martian” and “Avengers”, and to a lesser extent on “Guardians of the Galaxy”, you do have a military-style organization that imposes the formality of the structure on all those screens. And on your side, a modular structure would let you define templates and then populate dozens and dozens of screens in a more rapid fashion. So that’s a win-win where the production gets the right ambience of consistency and you don’t need to work on each screen as a separate entity.

Peter: It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg – which comes first? Is it creating a library of widgets that you can shuffle around, or does it come from the other side? I’m fascinated by the amount of care and sheer work that Marti, David, Nik and Ryan and the fabulous designers put into it.

When I work with them, I try to be the person that does the free-flowing stuff. If I design a widget, or a hero 3D asset that is going to be featured, I try to be the one that breaks the rules – which is a nice contrast. But as you said, it’s an absolute must that you establish a structure that you can use to your advantage to churn out an insane amount of screens with a consistent look and feel.

It’s a good observation that some of the grid-based designs are dictating a more widget-based approach. It’s a shortcut, if you will, to designing a huge amount of stuff.

Screen graphics for Guardians of the Galaxy. Courtesy of Territory Studio

Kirill: Are people surprised to hear that these screens have to be explicitly designed? When you talk about what you do for a living, what do people expect and what do they ask?

Peter: I’ve never thought about it that deeply. Quite a lot of people accept things as a given when they walk on the streets. The street furniture, the road designs, the design of plumbing in houses and similar stuff – people just don’t think about it. They know that it’s there and that someone did it. To a certain extent, screens are like that. “We know that it’s there, but it’s just a screen, right?”

What I like to think is that most of the designers who work in the field like to pride themselves on doing things that are more than just a bright rectangle on the screen. We try to accommodate the designs to be a part of the set and the production. You can design the most beautiful or the most functional UI or screen for a film, but if it goes against the production design or the environment it’s in, nobody is going to like it. The viewers might not know exactly what’s wrong, but they will know that something is off. And no matter how beautiful that screen is, they are not going to think about that. They’ll just say that there’s something jarring going on in there.

When we build the actual design of the screens, we always try to think in terms of set design. How is the set that has those screens going to look like? What sort of colors are they going to use? What sort of materials are in there? What sort of a graphic language is already established? What is the DOP planning? If you do great design, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the screen pops out on the set. It just blends in there.

You are part of a much bigger crew. I always try to explain that our work is part of a bigger design idea. We do stuff that is bright and moving, that brings technology to life on set, tells information and sometimes supports action and plot points. But we have to work in tandem with all these other factors.

Kirill: You wouldn’t want one of the screens to draw too much attention, to spill too much light and to distract the viewer from the main action.

Peter: Every artist has a part of themselves that really wants to put stuff out there. Please make the highly-paid actor move away, because that’s my screen behind them! But you pare that back after a while.

I’m really proud of what we do, even when no one picks it up. “Your screens are absolutely fantastic and I couldn’t watch the film because I was watching the screens” – that’s what you want to hear, but it’s much better to hear that the screens actually supported the story, blending in to the whole design of the film. That’s the best.

Schematics for Ex Machina. Courtesy of Territory Studio

Kirill: My last question on your earlier work in about “Ex Machina”. As you’ve worked on the schematics for the humanoid robots, how did it feel to explore something somewhat different from the screen rectangles?

Peter: What I loved about that project was that it was one of the first productions where we as a studio ventured into other areas. We did the screens, and then we were asked to do those schematics, and it was fascinating.

We got the model of AVA, the robot, from Double Negative, and the task was to create a visual that would look good on set and would support the idea of this genius guy. The rationale was that this was a one-off design, but if he wants to put it into mass production, he can. We wanted to create a schematic that would convey the complexity of the robot, as well as the idea that these were production ready blueprints and not just scribbled sketches. And I think that supported the possibility of robotics, which is embedded in the story of the film.

As a designer, it was a fantastic opportunity to come up with solutions to how to do that. I referred back to my primary school experiences when we had classes on how to do technical drawings. Everyone hated those classes, but I really loved them. The sea of numbers that you see on those drawings is fascinating.

Schematics for Ex Machina. Courtesy of Territory Studio

The model that we got from Double Negative was a brilliant piece of work. And when we started to pick it apart, we saw that it had to be more intricate. When you see the exploded drawings of engines or airplanes, there are thousands of little pieces there. We wanted to sell the idea of this complex machine, and we started to add little nuts and bolts and other things which were not part of the original model. But when you put them in, it gives you that complex visual reference to a complex machine. I really loved it. It was a learning curve for me to see that even the most insanely beautiful CG model still needs more detail when you try to mimic reality.

It was a lovely opportunity to do something besides screens, and to explore how far we can take design and tell the story in a slightly different way.

Kirill: Moving on to talk about your work on “Ghost in the Shell”, when did it start for you and when did you discover how different it was from other productions that Territory has worked on so far?

Peter: The first contact I had on that project was around April 2016. We had phone calls with Fiona Campbell Westgate the VFX producer and Guillaume Rocheron the VFX supervisor to talk about it, and the first briefings came in the summer.

I’m a huge fan of the original anime and manga, having watched all the episodes of the animated TV series. I felt that I already knew a lot about that world, and when we got the first brief, it was quite obvious that it was going to go down a different route. The biggest challenge initially was how to maintain some of that aesthetic from the originals, and how to elevate it into this new volumetric world that director Rupert Sanders and Guillaume wanted.

Scarlett Johansson plays Major in Ghost in the Shell from Paramount Pictures and Dreamworks Pictures.

It became apparent quite early on that we had to think differently from the original, and the tasks that we were given were all about visualising holographic technologies. We knew that we were not going to do flat screens on this show, instead we needed to take ideas into the 3rd dimension. That didn’t mean that we started to think differently in terms of approach. I think you’re a good designer if it’s not important whether it’s a screen or a hologram or a prop. If it’s designed well, it should work. That was important from the beginning.

We started to work on the concepts in the middle of the summer. Andrew Popplestone the creative director, with Sam Munnings, Anthony De Coninck and myself did the concepts for the conference room and the piece of technology called the hologlobe which is meant to be the communication device.

Kirill: What kinds of discussions do you have when you abandon the well-trodden concept of a rectangular flat screen, going into curved spaces with no hard boundaries and an extra dimension enabled by the holograms?

Peter: We always try to start with exploring the idea behind the concept, the limitations of the concept and the possible technology of that concept. We had long discussions about the hologlobe and how it could work as a product. Is it creating pixels? Is it printing into the air? Is it charging particles?

We started exploring fictional technologies, including one that we called ‘digital sand’. The idea behind the hologlobe was that it was a roughly spherical thing that is capable of illuminating particles in the air. The particles might be suspended in the air, or they are floating and the illumination creates a voxel space – these are the ideas we were exploring. If there’s a stray particle which is further away from the source, is it flying upwards or falling down? How it changes and what happens when one piece of information transitions into another one? Does it need to go away, or does it float away into the periphery and stays there, and when it’s needed, it floats back?

Territory Studio’s concept art for “Ghost in the Shell” from Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures.

We also asked Why do we need this at all? It would be easier to have nothing there. If it’s a brain-computer interface, why would we see that? That’s when you step back and say that we need to see it visualised, because we have an audience that needs to understand what’s going on. As much as the idea of a brain-computer interface is beautiful, it’s hard to show what is happening on the screen. There’s the visual element of all the thoughts that happen in that scene.

Is it voxellated? Is it crude? Is it pixels? Is it spherical little dots? As we explored these areas, we cut a lot of concepts in various parts. Is it possible to have everything in high resolution all the time? Perhaps when some information is not relevant, we can do a much cruder version to implicate that it’s not important. It can be pixellated or blurred.

And when you bring it into the third dimension, it makes things somewhat more challenging. If you’re in 2D and you put things on the sides, no one cares about them. But in 3D you have to think of whether that’s closer to the camera or to the person. And there are other variables that are fascinating to think about.

We always tried to come up with something that would be accepted as an alternative technology. When you design a sci-fi device or a UI for it, you try to come up with something that is vaguely possible. We all remember the beautiful spatial interfaces in “Minority Report”, but we all know that it’s not really practical. It can be done in real life, but your arms are going be very tired in five minutes. That’s what you think about. If it’s a hologlobe, how big is it? Is it small so that you can see everything, or do you need to move things around?

Territory Studio’s concept art for “Ghost in the Shell” from Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures.

Kirill: That’s the presentational aspect of it. What about interacting with the information? There was a very short sequence where they are in the car just before the garbage truck hits them, and the humanoid girl is typing on a keyboard using all her augmented fingers. There’s the sequence in the lab where they flick through layers in the hologlobe by tapping fingers on the flat unmarked desk surface. And then there’s the CEO of that company controlling the tank with some kind of a hand-held cylinder. What did you discuss around these interaction aspects?

Peter: That was quite intentional on part of Rupert, Guillaume and John Dykstra, assisting VFX supervisor. The whole film is about what makes us human. Where does the humanity end and what makes us a machine? That was the big philosophical question of “Ghost in the Shell”. They wanted to convey that idea through the use of technology.

The magical thing about the story that they wanted to tell was that there are different levels in society. The richest people have all the flashiest implants, and they can do much more with technology compared to the poor. But even the less wealthy are embracing the potential of cybernetic implants. When we were designing the 3D elements of the film, we were looking at the concept art, and they designed an insane amount of implants.

For example, if you have problems with your voice, you just buy a device that plugs into your voice box and you’re able to speak languages immediately. If you’re really rich, it’s just a small chip that’s nicely hidden in your face, and if you’re poor, that’s a big device that is around your neck. And if you need a new pair of eyes or ears, you can have that. The world that they’ve tried to show was all about technology augmenting human capability and how different pieces and devices interact with one another.

Think about the traditional Japanese geishas. The presumption is that they are always silent and very polite. I think the film had a really nice nod. Are those humans or are those robots? Are they silent because they are robots? These little bits are really interesting.

Territory Studio’s concept art for “Ghost in the Shell” from Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures.

Everything in “Ghost in the Shell” is about technology. That’s what we had to consider as we were designing. The interaction is not going to be on a superficial level. It’s going to be everywhere. The sequence in the zen garden when he’s controlling the spider tank was more to illustrate the level of control. I think it conveys a more powerful image that way, as he’s using hand gestures to control a remote device, compared to him just sitting there and thinking about it.

Some of the interactions spring from the necessities of the film and the fact that we had to retro fit interactions to existing gestures in post, but if it was a real, most likely you’d just plug it into your brain and control it via a neural interface. You wouldn’t need all the movements. If I implant a chip in my finger so that I don’t have to use my Oyster card, you would just use that as an everyday thing. You wouldn’t put it on the reader as a thing. I think this is where the technology is heading with everything that we see nowadays. The possibility to merge genetic engineering and other technologies is fascinating. We’ll see in a couple of years whether the world depicted by “Ghost in the Shell” is the world we’re heading towards.

Territory Studio’s concept art for “Ghost in the Shell” from Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures.

Kirill: There was a fascinating aspect of the outside world in the film for me. There’s a screen showing me ads in the elevator in my office building. There’s a screen showing me ads at the gas station. And another one in my doctor’s office. And another one in the back of the taxi cab when I go to the airport. You take all of that to the extreme, and that’s the urban world shown in “Ghost in the Shell” where the entire city is a sea of ads constantly screaming for your attention. And then Major goes underwater and says that she does that to detach from all the data streams. So that’s the darker side of technology in that it makes us that much more unwillingly accessible to corporation agendas.

Peter: For me it’s especially fascinating as my career started in advertising. That was years ago, before the digital revolution. I vividly remember the first digital opportunities that came about, and everyone felt that while it was nice, it wasn’t going to take off. And au contraire, everything is about digital and mobile now. That’s how the world works.

As you said, it’s a really challenging thing to try to isolate yourself from, especially if you have kids. How do you give them a healthy sense of reality? Not everything is about computers and screens. I just read an article about how companies are trying to come up with technologies that make holographic advertising possible. There is serious research and money going into trying to create something that resembles the world of “Ghost in the Shell”.

I think that it’s inevitable that when somebody comes up with that kind of technology, as much as society would want to regulate it, Times Square and Piccadilly Circus will be smothered in holographic ads. That’s probably the same as the change that happened around a 100 years ago. Some people didn’t have radios, and some still used candles. Parts of a city were blooming and had massive lights. I think that’s going to happen. It’s not going to be very different.

Territory Studio’s concept art for “Ghost in the Shell” from Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures.

Kirill: Sometimes I think how much of a shock it would be to take myself from thirty years ago and just drop me into the present. There’s so much information available at your fingertips from so many screens in your life, and so many advances in technology in our daily lives that have significantly changed the way we interact with people in your social circles. But as we live through these shifts, you don’t continue marveling at every single thing, and it just becomes a natural part of your life. This is what I like about how technology is shown in “Ghost in the Shell”. It’s a given, and people don’t “stop” to admire it. I love these little glimpses into a world where, for example, a hooker can advertise herself by putting some kind of holographic ad right above her head.

Peter: We already do that to a certain extent now. People update their Facebook status on a minute-by-minute basis, telling the world about their beautiful holiday, or being depressed, etc. So we are already in the habit of posting and advertising our status. It’s the channel that we choose that may be very different in the future.

I’m almost 100% sure that if people were able to put their Facebook updates around them on the street, they would do that. They would proudly walk around with little thumbs-up or hearts or grumpy faces. Can you imagine getting on a bus and seeing a cloud of emojis around you? You put a sad face above you and everybody sees that you’re not happy. That’s what we do with meta-communicational memes. That’s very human. And if you’re able to extend it with technology, I think that it will happen. No doubt about that.

Kirill: It felt to me that most of the information that was floating in the hologlobes and elsewhere in the lab looked to be a fancier version of the terminal windows. There was a lot of text and a few diagrams, but not much “graphical” in a certain sense of that UI. Was that the intent?

Peter: I think that it definitely was. It was quite intentional, because they wanted to keep that part of the film minimal and stripped back, without any fancy stuff. They tried to keep everything in the lab to a minimal design aesthetic. If you look back thirty years in time, MS-DOS and Commodore 64 come up as references. So, projecting 1980’s technology it into the future along this path, that’s how data screens could look.

Territory Studio’s concept art for “Ghost in the Shell” from Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures.

Kirill: I had a conversation with Derek Spears about the visual effects in “Game of Thrones” and one of the things he said stood out to me – how the suspension of disbelief is so high these days for the stories that we see on our screens, and how it keeps on climbing. Without diminishing what was done of the first “Star Wars” for example, nobody would be happy to accept the level of effects that were made back in 1977. So that brings me back to how much was needed to be done for “Ghost in the Shell” to make me as a viewer believe that this is a possible evolution of our current world.

Peter: That’s a very true observation. Part of it comes from the fact that the world we are living in is a different place. My parents didn’t even have a phone, and I remember vividly that when you got a girl’s phone number when I was young, chances were that one of her parents would be picking up the phone when you called that number. You’d have to do a bit of explaining and be polite. Right now you just send a text message and it reaches the other side wherever they are.

Right now we have Snapchat on our phones, and my kids are putting these faces on, and having great time with the real-time facial tracking on a mobile phone. Indeed visual effects need to do more than what your phone is capable of doing. It’s possible because there are very talented people working in the area, and there’s an insane amount of artists, time and money put into it. It’s much more complex these days.

By the way, it’s really cool that you mention the first “Star Wars”. The other VFX supervisor on the film was the legendary John Dykstra, and he worked on and got an Oscar for his work on that “Star Wars” as well. It’s a nice little bookend to that kind of thing [laughs]. And I must say that everyone who we worked with on “Ghost in the Shell” was fantastic. It was a really nice experience.

Technology is insane if you just think about it. I remember my first computer which was ZX Spectrum in 1982. It had 48KB of memory, and these days it’s nothing. Forget about MP3. It’s a half of a very crushed JPEG. And we were completely happy with it.

On one hand, technology dictates how the world changes, and it also changes how the world evolves as well. It’s very hard to tell which is driving what. It happens in tandem.

Territory Studio’s concept art for “Ghost in the Shell” from Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures.

Kirill: Do you worry about how the work you’re doing right now will be seen by the next generation in how it stood the test of time on the technical level, as well as whether it went into a “wrong”, so to speak, direction.

Peter: I’m going to be completely honest with you. We would like to say that we are driving something or that we are providing glimpses into what is possible with technology. On the level of storytelling it’s indeed what we are trying to do. But I don’t think that anyone who works in this field thinks of themselves as somebody who knows what the world is going to look like.

It’s more about the storytelling. We’re trying to show a glimpse into a fantasy world. Sometimes when the real world goes into that direction, you can say that it’s pretty much how you imagined it. But I would have to be delusional to think that I have the powers to see how the world will be. That’s not possible, and it’s a nice coincidence when it happens. Every now and then there’s a design in film that transcends and stands the test of time, and becomes a classic.

Territory Studio’s concept art for “Ghost in the Shell” from Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures.

The art direction on the first “Star Wars” film was done by the same person who worked on a James Bond film, and you can see very similar patterns. But it never took off, and there’s no such thing that everything looks like “Star Wars” now.

It’s a tricky question. Research is a factor. Graphic design can be a factor. Product design can be a factor. If you factor that into what we do, maybe to a certain extent it helps to trigger other ideas. If you do something that was received extraordinarily well and it looks fantastic, maybe that idea can find its way into real-world product, car or UX design. In film the frustrations of real world constraints don’t apply once suspension of disbelief is in play. Nobody thought that the UI in “Minority Report” wouldn’t work. They just accepted it as a fantastic idea, and that’s the best that you can do in film. But reality is different – Minority Report’s gesture interface ideas have never really come to anything despite attempts to develop it into commercial technology, proving that sometimes real world applications are so far behind the ideas we see presented in film that even if we can make them work, we’re just not ready for them.

Territory Studio’s concept art for “Ghost in the Shell” from Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures.

Kirill: You come from the world of more traditional design, even though the word traditional is so overloaded these days. As you look at the work Territory does in particular, and what these big productions require in general, do you see that people need to have background in multiple areas to be able to meaningfully contribute to these productions? There are so many intersecting disciplines of production design, art direction, visual effects and screen graphics that create that one cohesive world in the frame.

Peter: The way I see it, the world is much more complex than it was even ten or twenty years ago. On the one hand, there’s a demand for everybody to be multi-faceted and have talents in different areas. But  on the other, I think that in a healthy work environment everyone needs to be curious and interested in the world around them. That doesn’t mean that everyone has to be able to do everything.

If people have certain areas of talent, and some are really good at designing very rigid beautifully engineered interfaces, and some are excellent at designing free-flowing stuff, and some are really good at designing color schemes, you can combine them and it’s really good. It’s almost like a hive mind. You sit down and start to share an idea. You bounce back and forth, and everyone adds their little touch on it.

We did a very interesting experiment in our studio. We had a design and we passed it around. Everyone did something to it, and it was interesting to see. The image itself at the end looked nothing like what any of us would have done. But you were able to pick out individual little parts that were definitely contributed by specific people. And as a whole, it worked excellently. I think that’s the best that we can do.

I can do quite a few things, but there are people who are much better than me in certain areas. That’s how it should work. You can’t be a jack of all trades, as much as you want to be. Teamwork is very important, and the idea is the king. You have an idea that you share with everybody, and everyone buys into it and can contribute. If that needs to be a very detailed particle simulation running Houdini, there are fantastic people out there who are able to translate your idea into that specific output. That’s how I see it. I enjoy doing quite a lot of different things, but when it comes to execution, you are only as strong as the crew that you have.

Ghost in the Shell from Paramount Pictures and Dreamworks Pictures.

Kirill: From what you’re saying it’s by necessity that these productions have to have hundreds if not thousands of names scrolling by in the end credits.

Peter: Ten or fifteen years ago we had ten big VFX films per year, and they had 200 shots each. Now it’s easily in thousands of shots each, and there are, let’s say 50 such films per year. The demand is there for big shows that need more people, and you only have 24 hours per day. You need to add more people and better technology that helps you to create these things.

That’s quite important to us as well, even though we are not a VFX house. We try to stay on the edge of technology and see what is going on. If there’s a new innovation out there that helps big VFX houses to do something, you try to take a look at that and see how that can help us. I really enjoy that we have quite a few pieces of technology in-house already that allow us to work with bigger houses and stream the workflows. But we are still at a manageable size in terms of being able to change direction on a specific production, or the methods that we use. We are still fairly flexible, and I like that.

If you commit to a certain technology beyond a certain size, you stick with that. You can’t change your software every two years if something didn’t work out. You can’t afford to lose 5,000 licenses.

Ghost in the Shell from Paramount Pictures and Dreamworks Pictures.

Kirill: Speaking of the world of real-life technology, if you look back at the last twenty years of your professional life and at the technology that you use today, are you happy with it? You said at the beginning that you view the software that you’re using as a tool. Perhaps it’s a necessary evil of a sort where you have to live with its limitations because you need it to get your work done.

Peter: I’m quite happy with the design tools that I have in my professional life. I enjoy when there’s a new piece of technology that comes out, or when the software that we use gets updated and can do more.

But there is a thing that I am not happy about, and it’s probably controversial. It would be awesome to be able to work on the fly. When I’m spending two hours on the train, it would be awesome to be able to do something there. We have apps on our mobile phones and you can use a laptop, but that’s not enough. When I work, I love being immersed in work. I surround myself with big screens and the technology that I’m working with. It’s almost like an exoskeleton. The computer, the screens, the Wacom pen – I feel like Ripley in “Aliens” when she puts on the exoskeleton to complete a task.

When I’m on the train with the mobile phone, it’s not as immersive. I might be able to sketch on it, but if I want to sketch, I’d rather get a piece of paper out and sketch on that. A mobile phone is a small thing, and paper doesn’t limit me as much as that screen does.

I embrace technology, and I really love when something new comes out. My kids are a mirror to how we do things. They love programming and technology, and they use it in a very different way. What is natural for them wasn’t even possible to imagine 30 years ago. My 4-year old daughter swipes things on the phone naturally, and that’s a fascinating thing. Good design helps you to do that. We need technology and technology needs us.

Adwoah Aboah plays Lia in Ghost in the Shell from Paramount Pictures and Dreamworks Pictures.

Kirill: I was just reminded of a scene in “Ghost in the Shell” where Major and Batou walk on a street, and there’s somebody passing in the background for a second or two. So this person is walking behind them, and there’s some kind of a floating holographic screen around their face. You don’t see any details on what’s happening there, but this is what I thought about when you were talking about the exoskeleton. Perhaps that’s their exoskeleton in those augmented reality layers. Maybe the next-next generation after ours will be similarly immersed in the virtual worlds.

Peter: Absolutely. I remember that around 15-20 years ago one of the first Internet sensations was the avatars of online gamers. It was fascinating to see this huge dragon-like creature was a young guy in a wheelchair, or a blonde very game-like woman being a 60-year old man. To a certain extent, that’s already there. Back in the day, Second Life was a very interesting experiment.

This is the same idea as “Ghost in the Shell”. What makes you human? You explore that world, and it’s a fascinating place to be. It’s going to be interesting to see what will happen.

Screen graphics for Guardians of the Galaxy. Courtesy of Territory Studio

And here I’d like to thank Peter Eszenyi for finding time in his busy schedule to talk with me about his work. “Ghost in the Shell” is playing in theaters now. And if you’re interested to read additional interviews about the wonderful world of screen graphics and user interfaces for film and TV, click here for more.