November 25th, 2015

The art and craft of set decoration – interview with Niamh Coulter

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 Niamh Coulter. In the last few years she worked as the set decorator on feature films such as “Easy Virtue” (read interview with the film’s art director), “Inkheart”, “Dorian Grey”, “Good People” and, most recently, “Before I Go To Sleep” and “Far From The Madding Crowd”. In this interview Niamh talks about the art and craft of set decoration and its interaction with the rest of the art department, the importance of surrounding actors with physical objects on set, what happens for her during the various production phases, and what stays with her after a production is done. In addition, Niamh takes us on a deeper dive into the details of her two most recent feature productions, “Before I Go To Sleep” and “Far From The Madding Crowd”.

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

Niamh: My name is Niamh Coulter and I am a set decorator, based in London and working in feature film and commercials. I have been in the industry now for over 20 years. It was a very fortunate set of circumstances that brought me here though really it seems like the path was preordained.

I studied History of Art and English at university and followed that for a time working as a fine art journalist.  I ended up traveling extensively in the far east and ultimately living in Indonesia where I worked for an English newspaper in Jakarta for a time. During my time in Jakarta I helped out a photographer friend and started styling shoots for him during the day and working the paper at night.

When I eventually returned to the UK an old school friend got me into the commercials end of the industry and introduced me to a designer and decorator whom I very quickly began working for full time. Commercials is an excellent ‘in’ into film I think, or it certainly was, as we worked with very high production values and very extreme deadlines so the art of making the impossible happen is what we lived and breathed. As it turns out History of Art is an excellent foundation for set decorating – it gives you a great knowledge of period, color and composition and an excellent visual recall.

A few years in I met the designer John Beard, with whom I have now collaborated for over 18 years, and he took me into my first feature which was a Chris Menges film called ‘The Lost Son’. Everything since then I have learned on the shop floor and every job teaches me something new. It’s one of the things I love most about the film industry.

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November 20th, 2015

Screen graphics for animated films – interview with Justin Kohse

As the last few entries in the ongoing series of interviews on screen graphics and fantasy user interfaces have expanded to cover the world of episodic television, I wanted to explore yet another part of the field – animated movies targeting younger audiences. Justin Kohse is the perfect person for the task, as he was responsible for all screen graphics in “Escape from Planet Earth” that was released in 2013. In the last few years he also worked on the TV show “Stargate Universe”, as well as on feature films “Transformers 4” and “The Interview”. In this interview Justin talks about splitting his time between various creative fields, the relentless pace of production work in episodic television, joining an existing visual universe of “Transformers” and working within it, the various aspects of working on an animated feature film where the limitations of physical sets are lifted and what effect that has on the creative freedom to dream up the screens that support the story, and his overall thoughts on the world of fantasy UIs and the transformation that world is undergoing as our everyday lives are inundated with ever-more powerful screens.


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

Justin: I grew up on Vancouver Island and got into video editing at an early age. Eventually I wanted to figure out how to make title sequences, build graphics, and animate. That’s what sent me to the Vancouver Film School [VFS] back in 2008 to study digital design. After graduating I worked a couple of part-time jobs and freelanced until I found a full-time gig on Stargate Universe as a Motion Design and Playback Artist. After that I continued in the FUI direction and found myself at Rainmaker Entertainment working on Escape from Planet Earth designing and animating for a 3D animated feature. Wanting to change gears I applied for a job with Gloo studios as a VFX generalist where I worked with a team of VFX artists and Motion Designers on something different almost every week (Screen replacement, compositing, explainer videos, 2D and 3D animation, etc..), Later on I moved to West Media Film and Post which allowed me to jump back into the FUI pool to continue working in television and on features and for the past year I’ve been working as a freelance motion designer.

Kirill: It feels to me that there was so much available in the digital world, from powerful and inexpensive cameras, to ubiquitous desktop and laptop hardware, to very versatile suites of software tools. Was that a good time to be getting into the field?

Justin: There seemed to always be an old computer hanging around the house. I could always find a way to get my hands on video editing software, my mother is an artist and a graphic designer as well and with that it gave me access to the earlier versions of the Creative Suite which I would say is what largely led me to where I am today. I wasn’t sure if it was a good time to be getting into the field but it felt like something that could push me further with skills I already had.


Screen graphics for “Stargate Universe“. Courtesy of Justin Kohse.

Kirill: I never went to a film school, so I might be stabbing in the dark here. Was it more on the theoretical side of things, or on a more practical side?

Justin: The digital design program at VFS I would say was more on the practical side. It was largely an overview of web/print design and multi-media. They taught you a scripting, how to shoot on green screen, advanced photoshop, illustrator, after effects, with a bit of art theory and history sprinkled in. Three-quarters of the way through you pick a direction and I moved towards motion graphics.

Kirill: When I went into university to study computer sciences back in mid 1990s, there was all of a sudden a lot of money getting into the software industry as the World Wide Web was becoming a thing. I remember there were quite a few people in my classes being there because of that promise of money and not because they wanted to be programmers. And a lot of those people fell away after a while. Did something like that happen in your class as people got to see what it actually takes to do digital design as a profession?

Justin: At VFS we were thirty when we started, and when graduation day came around it was down to twenty one or twenty two? So a lot of people kind of realized early that maybe it wasn’t for them. It was also a one year intensive and it was an intense experience but i’d say it was definitely an accurate look at the pace of working in the industry. I was 19 and wanting to expand on my skills more where there were many students advancing themselves that had already been working for years as professionals.


Screen graphics for “Stargate Universe“. Courtesy of Justin Kohse.

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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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