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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October 8th, 2015

Designer of holograms – interview with Anna Fraser

The last decade has seen a surge of interest in exploring holographic interfaces in major sci-fi movie productions. Anna Fraser is at the forefront of this wave, and you can see her work in “Ironman 3”, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and “Insurgent”. In this interview she talks about what goes into creating holographic interfaces, from the initial exploration to subsequent collaboration with multiple departments, working within the post-production constraints of existing actor movements and eye-lines, her love of a strong grid and minimalistic, retro-futuristic interfaces, how people see and perceive color, and how the screen graphics work fits into the much larger flow of story-telling on the big screen. In the last part of the interview Anna talks about the evolution of technology on-screen as well as in real life, advances in virtual reality hardware and software, their possible implications on the fabric of our social interactions, and how, despite all the changes in the world of digital tools, the art of story-telling transcends technology boundaries.

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

Anna: My name is Anna Fraser and I live in Sydney, Australia, which is a long way away from America where these things are made.

If we’re talking about screen graphics and holograms, I ended up doing them kind of by accident. I originally studied visual arts, and I had a child when I was quite young. I was making art and having small exhibitions of bronze-cast sculptures and other things, but I couldn’t make any money. I had always liked movies so I decided to become a director [laughs]. Somehow I thought it was going to make me money; I’m not sure what I was thinking.

I went back to university and I did a communications degree in film, media and writing. A sort of a broad postgraduate, and then I started making short films. I then went to the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, which is one of Australia’s best film school. Everybody knew that once you got into the Film School, they would give you money to make films. You also didn’t have to pay money to go there, so I thought it was a great idea. I wanted to do directing, and that was hard to get into.  It was very competitive, so the back door into it was to do another subject. I did digital media back then, around 2000, when it was starting to take off. I studied titles design, because I always loved graphics and text, and I was working doing part-time jobs in outdoor advertising and billboard art, which was very boring but functional in earning money. I still thought that I’d earn money being a director. I made some short films and they all had titles and graphics in them but they weren’t straight visual effects and they weren’t straight live action, but rather a combination of live action and titles.

I kept making short films and when I graduated I started working as a motion graphic designer as a day job. I thought it would be my day job and I would continue to make films.

Kirill: And that was around time when computers got reasonably powerful and cheap to be able to afford having them as your own personal tool.

Anna: The first films that I’ve made were made on 16mm or 35mm film, but by then you could buy reasonable cameras that weren’t too expensive. I also had a lot of friends that were in the film industry, and you could always beg or borrow some ridiculous gear that you couldn’t afford.

Kirill: Back then you didn’t have the variety of digital cameras and tools available these days. It must have been more expensive to be an indie filmmaker 10-15 years ago.

Anna: I was working as a motion graphics designer and trying to make films and also being a parent. It was very expensive. You could often get good deals, but I spent an awful lot of money on films, which is silly really. Something had to give. So I decided, and I found it quite hard at the time, to not be a Director anymore, and just be a Designer. The Designer road is a hard enough in itself, and since I didn’t come from a traditional design background, I did a lot of learning on the job. I had all the formal qualifications of creating ideas and images, balance, shape, form etc. but it took me quite a while to understand the communication aspect of design. I made a lot of mistakes [laughs].

Kirill: Lucky for you there’s a lot of people on the production around you.

Anna: At that stage I was working in television, print and advertising, and I made quite big mistakes but I had good friends who, in one instance, did work out jobs for me and literally saved me. But I learned from them, and I learned from all the people around me.

I started doing a lot of freelance work for a company called Fuel VFX in Sydney. I worked for them on and off for quite a long time and I was getting better at being a Designer. I love film and the storytelling side of it, and fortunately for me Fuel was working on VFX [visual effects] and design for films.   I mostly worked with Paul Butterworth who was one of the Founders & Directors at Fuel. He comes from a solid art and film training background as well and I found that it was good to work with him.  I still work with him on all my film projects; he’s my main VFX supervisor and my main team member that I work with or for.

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August 24th, 2015

The art and craft of production design – interview with Adriana Serrano

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 Adriana Serrano. Her work spans the worlds of feature film, television, theater, commercials, music videos and short film, and in the last few years she worked as the production designer on “Arcadia”, “August”, “California Winter” and “Afternoon Delight”. In this interview Adriana talks about splitting her time between her various projects, the smaller scale of independent feature film productions, approaching the script and translating it into environments that live and breath around the cast, the changes we’re seeing in how storytellers bring their worlds to large and small screens around us and how the world of indie films is evolving in the last few years, and a deeper dive into the particulars of “Afternoon Delight”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and how you got into the industry.

Adriana: My name is Adriana Serrano and I’m from Colombia. Originally I’ve studied fine arts in Bogota and in 2000 I’ve moved to New York. I was very interested in installation art and drawing and at that moment I was looking to learn something else, but I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t think it was film, it just didn’t occur to me, i was looking at the time to learn a technical skill. And then I saw a sign in La Mama Theater that a theater designer named Watoko Ueno was looking for interns, I met him and started working with him. I thought that set design was very similar in a lot of aspects to what I was doing in my installation work – working with the space and the colors and the space. I was fascinated with the stage

I decided to study set design, did a lot of theater in NY and then I transitioned to film design. My first short movie was in New York in 2003, a film thesis for Columbia University, and then I went back to Colombia, got offered a job teaching and started working on episodic TV. I learned a lot from my experience on television, and since then I’ve just been working on movies. I did move again in 2009 to Los Angeles where i continued working as a production designer.

Kirill: And it’s not only movies, as your work spans music videos, theater and commercials.

Adriana: I do enjoy designing anything that works with a 3d space. I like the challenge, and It’s very different working on a feature than working on a music video than working on a commercial, they have different needs. I would like to do other things as well outside of the film world. I think that production design is working with the space, working with the concept and working with a team of people. There’s plenty of things that I would like to do like concert design, events, and anything that involves creating an experience for an audience.

Phychiatrist’s office set, courtesy of Adriana Serrano.

Kirill: When do you usually start the production cycle of a feature film?

Adriana: Production designers are one of the key elements and are hired early on. Everything happens very fast. I get a call for an interview, I have to read the script and I have usually two or three days to prep for the interview. I meet the director and the producer, and pitch them my vision of the story. When I go into a job interview and i have to sell a world that is not visual yet and invisible, a world that only exists yet on paper.

In most cases the director has been working on that idea for a long time even years if he or she is the writer. That first encounter is always interesting to me. The perception of the script changes so much after meeting the director, feeling the direction that the story can take.

Kirill: Are you expected to bring some sketches?

Adriana: I don’t think necessarily I am expected to bring any, but I usually bring visual research and references that inspire me. It might be a color palette, photos, art work, references for the characters. Its easier for me to establish a conversation based of some references, I believe an image can explain so much than words can.

Kirill: How do you know that clicks?

Adriana: [laughs] It’s really strange. My background is very conceptual and for me production design it’s much more than aesthetics, it’s a key element part of the storytelling. Sometimes the connection is unbelievable. I would start showing photos and they’d say that this was exactly what they had in their head. And sometimes they’d say that they didn’t think about that and it may be interesting. And sometimes you think that the connection is great and then nothing happens. Or simply the language its different and there is not much in common. Very much like chemistry in a relationship.

It’s always different and it also depends on many different factors. Getting a production designer hired is like casting an actor, i think. Sometimes they think it’s a good fit based on the personality, or the story, or the other movies they have done. And sometimes we talk about other things like life in general or other movies.

Kids’ bedroom, courtesy of Adriana Serrano.

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May 18th, 2015

Charging ahead – interview with David Sheldon-Hicks of Territory Studio

What a year has it been for Territory Studio and its founder David Sheldon-Hicks. It’s only been nine months since our interview about the studio’s screen graphics work on “Prometheus” and “Guardians of the Galaxy”, and in the meantime Territory’s work has graced the big screens on three major motion pictures! In this interview David talks about exploring the technical and human aspects of advances in the field of artificial intelligence in “Ex Machina“, the futuristic interfaces of the alien universe of “Jupiter Ascending” and the vast screen graphics canvas of “Avengers: Age of Ultron“. He touches on the collaboration with directors and production designers to distill and refine the visual language of the interfaces, the process of rapid prototyping in the pre-production phase and the tight back-and-forth adjustments of on-set playback sequences, and the technical aspects of projecting interface sequences on translucent glass screens. In the last part of the interview David takes a deep dive into the world of virtual reality interfaces, ranging from enhancing cinematic experiences to better leverage of content in our everyday work and leisure scenarios.

Kirill: Last time we spoke about your studio and its earlier work. And in the meantime you’ve had Jupiter Ascending, Ex Machina and Avengers: Age of Ultron come out, with a lot of work that you’ve contributed to these productions. And on top of that, you’ve started exploring the world of virtual reality.

David: We actually worked on Jupiter Ascending a year prior to that interview. The project took a while to come out (6 Feb 2015) so we haven’t been able to talk about it up until more recently.

Kirill: How does it feel that you have this pile of work that you’re sitting on and can’t tell anybody about?

David: In some ways it’s really frustrating, especially for the people in the studio who have worked on it. But, we’ve all signed NDAs, and don’t want to ruin it for the fans by saying something that might spoil the story.

Yet, it is quite nice to have a bit of time to prepare our portfolio and showcase, to fully do it justice in terms of the story behind all the work. When you’ve just finished a film, you’re so exhausted and still in that space. Sometimes it’s hard to look at the project objectively and fully appreciate all of the thinking and the ideas that went into it. When you have space and time – around six months or so ideally – you get enough distance to join up the dots between the deliberate and intuitive.

This gets really interesting when it comes to our approach to technology in a film like Avengers. By reflecting on how the script and story points influenced our research, we can sometimes see how quickly perceptions and expectations around innovations evolve.

Looking back we can see how public opinion regarded a piece of technology at the moment we were making the film, and how it changed over the 6 or 12 months leading up to it’s release – and hopefully we’re not behind technology!

Kirill: Does it worry you that the world of consumer technology is evolving so rapidly around us in that regard? Can your work quickly become outdated?

David: As a user, yes, because it’s hard to keep up sometimes. But as far as the work being outdated, in some ways we have to celebrate that. We play on the fact that it’s a film of the moment that reflects the cultural experiences of that point in time. It’s not just about the technology, but also about what the technology says about us as a culture. And I’ve always loved that about unashamedly 80s movies. For example, the idea of hoverboards in “Back to the Future” reflected our cultural expectations that skateboarding, so huge at the time, would exist in the future.

So the idea of a date stamp is not such a bad thing. If a film does date because of its views on technology, it can be quite enjoyable. And there’s an element of nostalgia in that, perhaps ten years into the future. You look back on it with fondness the same way you’ll look back at your current iPhone 5/6 when you’re holding your new iPhone 20 or whatever it might be.

Of course, there are other ways to explore technology and different films date in different ways.

In Ex Machina, Alex Garland [writer and director] was more interested in near-future thinking rather than techno-fantasy. He had done a lot of research around AI for the film to keep the story grounded, and we also undertook a lot of research into UI and UX in terms of where the technology is going. So our work in that film reflects the evolution of user experience towards simplicity, personalisation and ease of access, while it also reflects the narrative layers in the story.

Embedded just underneath the lovely uncluttered UI is access to programming code: we wanted it to feel that Nathan had created this OS for the benefit of the public, yet always kept close to the code, and could easily access and manipulate it.

BlueBook office browser software in Ex Machina. Courtesy of Territory Studio.

So, while the work that we delivered made a loose statement on where UI and UX are going, it was also a technological window into narratives playing out around the film – a narrative device for the characters to monitor the activities around the building, for example.

I’m sure Ex Machina will date in a slightly different way other films of that genre because its focus is not to comment on future technology and it’s not tying itself into the cultural zeitgeist in terms of style. As a film about the thinking around AI and our relationship to technology at this time, it’s less a statement about aesthetics and more of a timeless piece.

Ex Machina screens still. Courtesy of Territory Studio.

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