November 19th, 2015

The art and craft of screen graphics – interview with Alan Torres

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews on screen graphics and user interfaces in movie and television productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Alan Torres. Just in the last few years you’ve seen his work on “Iron Man 3”, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, “Guardians of the Galaxy”, “Hunger Games Mocking Jay”, “Furious 7” and, most recently, “Avengers: Age of Ultron”. In this interview Alan talks about the proliferation of screens around us and how that propagates into the make-believe worlds of movies, the collaboration within the studio that works on the interfaces and with other key people in the larger film production, joining the Marvel universe and to evolve and redefine the visual language established on the franchise, his work on the screens of “Fast & Furious 7”, keeping up with interface trends in the realm of real-life software, and his thoughts on holographic, augmented and virtual interfaces for our everyday interaction with information around us.


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

Alan: I grew up in Oxnard, CA, just a little more than an hour north of Los Angeles. I’ve always been drawn to creativity and art. I spent most of my childhood and high school years playing sports, watching movies and doodling in sketchbooks/textbooks. So after high school I decided to pursue a career of creativity at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. I majored in Digital Media and was completely fascinated with 3D/character animation.

After Otis I freelanced as a CG Artist for about 7 years before my creative focus began to segue into design. I loved the idea of dictating the aesthetics of any giving job from the start. In 2012, I teamed up with the talented crew at Cantina Creative in Culver City for about 8 months on the Avengers. This job was my introduction to film and the start of a relationship that continues today. Since the Avengers, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with Cantina on several productions including Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Need For Speed, Guardians of the Galaxy, Hunger Games Mocking Jay, Furious 7 and Avengers: Age of Ultron. In 2014, Cantina brought me on full-time as a designer.


Monitors in “Captain America: Winter Soldier“. Courtesy of Alan Torres and Cantina Creative.

Kirill: What drew you into the movie industry? If you go back to the time when you just started on your first feature film productions and some of the expectations that you had, how close (or far) has the reality of working in the industry turned out to be?

Alan: It’s always been dream of mine to get the opportunity to work on a feature film. But I can say early on in my career I didn’t think my chance would come via UI design, let alone being a part of the team responsible for bringing Ironman’s HUD to life for the Avengers. Going into it I thought how great it would be to work on something so high profile, how satisfying it would be to have your work seen on such a big stage.

I was excited, and eager to experience the process of working on a feature. I learned quickly that this was going to be a very different process from working on commercials. It was a much slower burn, but I found that to be quite refreshing, especially after the sometimes impossible demands of commercials. Overall, I came to find the process extremely inspiring. And with so much left to learn, every day brings new challenges. Oh yeah, and getting to see you and your team’s hard work on the big screen is pretty cool.


Screen graphics in “Captain America: Winter Soldier“. Courtesy of Alan Torres and Cantina Creative.

Kirill: When do you usually get involved with a production and what is the initial exploration process on your side of things? How much of that exploration makes it through to the final cut and how much is discarded behind?

Alan: We are post production. Conversations start between us and production around the time they are wrapping up shooting. Our exploration starts with an introductory/creative dialogue between us (Cantina Creative) and the VFX Supervisor on the film. The early meetings are all about gathering information and creative direction from the client.

From there we assemble our team and start developing various ideas and concepts that can help push the story. The initial concepts aren’t entirely what sticks, but to offer up a variety of directions that that client can pick from. Many ideas and designs get dropped in the process…which sucks to see as an artist, but you have to be able to see the bigger picture and understand that if your work isn’t explaining or enhancing the story, than there’s no logic in it being included.


Early UI visuals for “Guardians of the Galaxy“. Courtesy of Alan Torres and Cantina Creative.

Kirill: It feels that with so many screens around us in our daily lives, it’s hard to imagine a film set in the present or near future without screens. How do you push the envelope of portraying the technology on the big screen when there are so many advances that people see in their everyday lives?

Alan: That’s an interesting idea to think about actually. What’s interesting is that most film UI is beautifully dense by nature to help visually exaggerate the story being told on the screen. So we consume it as “wow, look at how hi tech that is.” I wouldn’t says this goes for all…but most – when in reality, having mass amounts of data or imagery say..on our phone would be extremely distracting.

So the trends in real world applications are taking on a more minimalistic and intuitive aesthetic. However, I do believe that some of the tech and UI concepts that have been developed in film have had great influence in real world tech. But it’s not every feature gives you the chance to create something so advanced. What the film requires is a huge influence on how far to stretch the technological language. So conceptually speaking, we keep in mind what’s been done and how can we make it better. Or… just plain cooler.


MK44 HUD interface for Ironman on “Avengers: Age of Ultron“. Courtesy of Alan Torres and Cantina Creative.

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November 9th, 2015

Screen graphics in episodic TV – interview with Seth Molson

Continuing the exploration of the world of episodic television in the ongoing series of interviews on screen graphics and fantasy user interfaces, it is my delight to welcome Seth Molson. In the last few years he has worked on “Sanctuary”, “Stargate Universe”, “Continuum”, “Intelligence”, “The Lottery”, “The Tomorrow People” and, most recently, “Dark Matter”. In this interview Seth invites us into the frenetic universe of episodic television, talking about different phases of the productions, keeping up with the pace of interface evolution on the screens around us, the difference between on-set and post-production work, his take on the term “fantasy UIs” and his thoughts on the real-world software tools.


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

Seth: My name is Seth Molson and I’m a full time FUI designer / Motion Graphics artist working in Vancouver BC. Two of the last six years in the industry have been at SIM Digital in the playback division with a handful of other technical people, and I’m currently the only in house designer at the company. I guess you could say I also play pretty big creative role since I share my ideas directly with production designers and directors, and get a big say in what the content looks like. I grew up in the small ski town of Nelson BC where I studied Multimedia production and design. After receiving a BA in fine arts, I moved to Vancouver with hopes of joining a VFX team.

Kirill: What drew you into the industry? If you go back to the time when you just started on your first production (Stargate Universe) and some of the expectations that you had, how close or far has the reality of working in the industry turned out to be?

Seth: I originally wanted to be a VFX artist and after graduating university I had the opportunity to intern on Stargate Universe . I mostly spent my internship as a PA, putting up tracking markers and taking camera information from the camera operators. I didn’t really fit into the VFX pipeline because my knowledge was limited and it was a solid team already. I eventually found the playback department where I met Justin Kohse and Lisa Nolan. Justin was a motion designer at the time and Lisa was a 3d generalist who was transitioning out of playback. I think it was a mixture of luck and persistence, but I ended up joining the team full time for Season 2. The expectations were nearly impossible, but that’s what makes these environments so incredible; the teamwork and talent allows for anything to be created. There was a steep learning curve which I’m thankful for.


Ultra-map for “The Tomorrow People”. Courtesy of Seth Molson.

Kirill: When do you usually get involved with a production and what is the initial exploration process on your side of things? How much of that exploration makes it through to the final cut and how much is discarded behind?

Seth: When I worked freelance I would jump from production to production and pitch ideas in the pre-production/prep phase. It all depends on  what is being asked for. A lot of what I create has to look realistic and simulate a real environment in the film/tv world. I would say that 70% of my job is a real world UI look and the other 30% is science fiction. When I get to work on science fiction content, I sit down with the directors and Production designers and hash out a look based on references and drawings of the sets and artistic look of the production. In most cases (knock on wood) my ideas make it through to the final cut but the frustrating part is that not everything makes it in front of the camera. I can spend a week working on a set and only 5/10 screens actually get seen in the shots. I usually concept in Illustrator because it’s faster for me than sketching on paper. The only time I will sketch is if I’m in a meeting with a director and he/she has many ideas of how a potentially big build is going to go. I will frantically scribble it all in to try and get their thoughts out on paper.


Screens for demo “SIM Shuttle” ship created for an open day at the studio. Courtesy of Seth Molson.

Kirill: It feels that with so many screens around us in our daily lives, it’s hard to imagine a story set in the present or near future without screens. How do you push the envelope of portraying the technology on the screen when there are so many advances that people see in their everyday lives?

Seth: This is a tough one, especially with all the current movies out right now where the UI is really pushing the envelop. I try and make something unique or use colors that aren’t normally seen in FUI / UI . Sometimes it goes and sometimes it doesn’t. Last year on “The lottery” I decided to use bright orange as the basis for desktop folders and icons and they loved it. Technology is advancing at an incredible rate and I recently looked back at my work from 2 years ago and thought it looked horrible. Styles keep changing and there will always be a dynamic flow to design.


Anti-matter warning screen for “Continuum”. Courtesy of Seth Molson.

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November 8th, 2015

Art direction in episodic television – interview with Alison Ford

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it gives me great pleasure to welcome Alison Ford. Her portfolio spans the worlds of theater, corporate marketing, architecture, illustration, interior design and museum exhibits, as well as extensive work on episodic TV productions including “The Americans”, “White Collar” and, most recently, the first season of “Mr Robot”. In this interview Alison talks about splitting her time between her various projects, the frenetic pace of episodic television productions, a typical week in the life of an art director on one of her shows, and a deeper dive into the particulars of “Mr Robot”.

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

Alison: In college I was a fine arts major, wanting to be the world’s greatest painter. In graduate school, I studied stage design; I was going to be a Broadway star. After school, I started designing sets in a variety of theaters around the country. Life interrupted. In my late twenties, eight months pregnant, I started teaching theatre design. First at Plymouth State College in New Hampshire, then later at the University of Iowa where I led the undergraduate and graduate design program for the theatre department.

In the middle of my life (three children and one marriage later), after I’d been tenured at two Universities, I spent a year walking around the block in my bucolic Iowa City neighborhood. I arrived at the conclusion that I wanted to return to New York, the home of my heart, and practice what I had been teaching for so many years. That was just after 9-11.

Kirill: Your career so far took you into theater, corporate marketing, architecture, illustration, interior design, museum exhibits and extensive work on episodic TV productions. Is there any creative overlap between these fields, and how work in one affects your work in others?

Alison: Indeed there is. I came to New York with a job at a large firm, designing corporate marketing environments. After a year of selling football and aspirin, I started working for a theatre design consultant and an interior design firm, and occasionally designing museum exhibits. In all those tasks my job was to design and render evocative environments. I learned a good deal from my colleagues in these jobs: how to build a drafting template, how to render quickly in Photoshop, and how sometimes a color palette can be more about texture and value than hue. I was granted access in all these fields because I had the passport of strong studio skills (something I emphasized to my students when I was teaching).

Kirill: How different was the change of pace going from the world of theater to episodic TV? Were there any unexpected surprises during your first couple of TV shows?

Alison: Luckily on my first few TV shows I worked as an Assistant Art Director, designing and drafting sets for other, experienced Art Directors. I learned to draw/draft/model pretty quickly.

I would describe the different rhythms of designing for theatre vs designing for television in this way: designing for theatre is like doing a contour drawing, lovingly tracing the shape of a negative space for five or ten minutes. Designing for television is like gesture drawing, capturing the essence of a walking figure in thirty seconds.

Now working as an Art Director, sometimes I find myself saying to my set designers “Draft it in Magic Marker!” Meaning, that I want them to draft gesturally, schematically for that particular set in that moment in time.

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October 28th, 2015

Screen graphics in episodic TV – interview with Robyn Haddow

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews on screen graphics and user interfaces in movie and television productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Robyn Haddow. While most of the recent interviews have focused on the work that goes into creating fantasy user interfaces for major sci-fi motion pictures, in this interview Robyn invites us into the frenetic world of episodic television. In the last few years she has worked on “The Flash” and “Arrow”, defining and evolving the world of screen graphics that follow characters through various major and minor sets across seasons that span 23 episodes each.

In this interview Robyn talks about the proliferation of screens around us and how that propagates into the make-believe worlds of movies and TV shows, the flow of work in episodic TV from fleshing out the initial brand to working on individual episode-specific sets with different directors and cinematographers, keeping up with interface trends in the realm of real-life software, her thoughts on the current generation of software tools she works with and how they can evolve, and the growing interest in human-computer interactions in augmented and virtual reality.


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

Robyn: I am a fantasy user interface designer and motion graphics artist for playback in production and post production in Vancouver, BC. I work at Scarab Digital, which is a content creation house, as well as freelance doing screen graphics and gadgetry for film, video game trailers and in game cinematics. I love imagination, collaboration and storytelling. I completed my University degree with a double-major in film and theater. After that I received a scholarship to go to the Vancouver Film School where I completed a diploma in the digital design program. There I gravitated towards motion graphics and stumbled upon the work of Mark Coleran. I was so intrigued and fascinated by some of the work Coleran had created for films such as “The Island”, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”, and “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” I loved the detail and technical aesthetic. In doing more research in the field, I discovered work that Jayse Hansen had done in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and work that Corey Bramall was doing on features that was very inspiring to me. I was curious about screen graphics and wanted to pursue fantasy user interface design. I really love technology, and understanding how things work. I feel that UI design is a good arena for me because it is a vessel for both creativity and logic.

Kirill: It would also appear to me that the proliferation of screens around us in our daily work and personal lives has to be reflected in those movie and TV productions set in either present days or some variant of future. You have to have those screens that support the story and extend the “cyber” abilities of the characters.

Robyn: Exactly. Screens can also serve as a conduit for telling a story in a way that you can’t do otherwise. Sometimes showing a screen with a high-tech system serves as an outlet to provide an explanation of what happens, it’s a convenient way to get a story point across.

Kirill: And as we experience assistive screen based systems on our phones, tablets, cars and even in our homes, viewers come to expect to have those capabilities taken advantage of in the movie and TV productions.

Robyn: I think it also helps support the environments and the worlds set in films. It is an extension of believability of the story. If it’s set in the future, set in some sci-fi universe, as an audience you want to buy into their reality more. The technology in that world only helps to enforce that.


Screen graphics for Palmer Technologies in Arrow. Courtesy of Robyn Haddow.

Kirill: When did you switch to doing more work on screen graphics?

Robyn: Danny Ho, the Creative Director of Scarab Digital, reached out to me. He saw some of the work that I was doing, and thought I might be a good fit. He hired me to develop a lot of the screen graphics for the pilot of “The Flash” and I continued on with the success of that and the other shows at the time, season two of “Arrow” and “Tomorrow People.”

Kirill: What do you work off of when you work on a TV show? Do you get some kind of an initial brief that outlines the universe, and how much freedom you get to explore that universe within a certain set of story constraints?

Robyn: I get briefed from the concept and playback meetings where specifics from the production designer and director get flushed out, I read the script, go over any concept drawings and have a creative session with our team about how best to telegraph the script and make sure we are supporting the story the best way possible. We have earned a lot of trust and creative freedom of the course of the shows, and I feel very lucky for that. Our team is very collaborative and we work very closely on everything. Danny works very hard to maintain a positive energy and supportive environment in our team. It is so important as production moves so quickly.


Screen graphics for Palmer Technologies in Arrow. Courtesy of Robyn Haddow.

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