September 5th, 2017

Looking beyond the edge – interview with Khairul “Keko” Ahmed

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces, it gives me great pleasure to welcome Khairul “Keko” Ahmed whose work spanned, so far, the worlds of video games, feature film and automotive interfaces. In this interview we talk about what goes into creating video game cinematic sequences, how it compares to working on hero and background screens in the feature world, designing with purpose and supporting the main story, creating design systems that span dozens of screens, and the challenges of car dashboard interfaces, from longer development times to making them informative and immersive. Khairul’s work in feature film was part of “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, and as we got through the topics, we dive deeper into his work on “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”.

LexOS screen graphics on “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”. Courtesy of Khairul Ahmed.

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

Khairul (Keko): I am a designer, art director and photographer, gravitationally driven by the need to explore the unknown. I guess that’s what drove me to where I am today!

Believe it or not I was actually on the path of the sciences which I failed completely. Till this day I reflect on that as the best thing that could have happened to me, as this ignited my passion for the things I love doing now.

Within this moment I discovered “Data Flow”, a graphic design book on visualizing informational data, and fascinated by its contents I was lead onto studying traditional Graphic Design at the University of the Arts London. It’s known for its exceptional Graphic Design degree course, and I felt I was at the heart of pursuing my dreams.

On the path of discovering my passion, it was actually the periodic table sequence from the film Iron Man 2 which hit the mark completely. In a full state of visual brainfreeze I was ultimately taken away by the whole FUI experience. This was the first time I fully felt immersed by the use of visual graphics on that level. I think for me this became the pinnacle of understanding FUI, as my obsession for the graphics itself and the need to know the process led me down the rabbit hole.

I kid you not – I spent uncountable hours revising the footage, tracing elements trying to imitate the designs and even looking up the artists involved to find some way to reach out to them. Pretty psycho right? Though I’d like to think I was simply super passionate! Funny enough, this hunger led me onto emailing Prologue, the studio behind it all.

Simon Clowes one of the Creative Directors at Prologue at the time was kind enough to reply to my fanboy email which resulted in a dream come true moment! a phone call that changed everything. Completely speechless I was asked if I’d be interested in joining the team as a design intern.

Within my first week of being at Prologue I broke all the rules of being an intern. I was on a mission by the end of the day, to learn everything I dreamt of knowing when revising those Iron Man 2 sequence and to ask all the questions I could possibly ask! Frankly, I wasn’t discreet about it either.

Straight off the bat I introduced myself to the creatives involved with the Iron Man 2 sequence, literally telling them I loved what they do. This sudden exchange allowed me to connect to the artists beyond the level of just looking at their work. I must say it was a great pleasure and privilege to have been able to connect to such amazing creatives such as Simon Clowes, Alasdair Wilson, Ilya Abulhanov, Taka Sato, Paul Mitchell, Manija Emran and Danny Yount. Having spoken to them directly, not only was I able to get a deeper insight into their thoughts, processes and ideas, I was actually being taught by some of the best in the industry.

Besides learning from the best in the industry of FUI, it was actually a car ride with Simon Clowes which rooted me as a core designer today! He asked me right then and there “what do you love doing and what would you want?” Till this day I am so grateful for that question, as what happened after made me pursue the next stages of my life very differently.

It’s moments like this that I feel are so important in life, as it takes you a step back and makes you think about how far you’ve come and where you see yourself going, as you can remind yourself of your goals.

So Mr Simon Clowes if you’re reading this – Thank you!

Prologue pretty much grounded my career! I adopted and developed my aesthetic into a distinctive style that combines my love of title designs / typography and cinematography. Using all the knowledge I had gained, I graduated from University of the Arts London with an Honours in Graphic and Media Design. Shortly after joined the design team at Spov via the recommendation of Alasdair Wilson.

I was immediately immersed into the world of creating high level, advanced screen graphics for featured games such as the Call of Duty series. Designing at such an advanced level with a sharp eye for intricate detail, I am proud to say I’ve crashed a few Ae files in my time. Within this time frame I was inspired by the works of GMUNK, Yugen Blake, Ash Thorp and Jayse Hansen. Seeing their exceptional level of work displayed in the film realm reminded me of my passion for working within films. This was a turning point at which I decided it was time I focused on working on a feature film.

With my goal in sight, I literally was on a mission and nothing could stop me. Without any hesitation (crazy to say) I booked a flight out to New York in the search of reaching my goals.

Honestly, I can’t thank the guys at Perception enough for taking that interview. I met with the infamous John Lepore and Danny Gonzalez, who both instantaneously inspired me about the work I wanted to do and was dreaming of once again!

To give a little background, Perception was doing everything I wanted in terms of FUI for films, whilst also applying their knowledge into creating real world UI. This was a very unique and new direction for me, as I was yet to experience that realm. Landing an opportunity with Perception was literally a life changing experience as this was my breaking point.

Having the talents of John Lepore, Russ Gautier and Doug Appleton mentoring me really changed my perspective in the UI world. They basically taught me one of the most important factors behind Ui design which was “ask yourself why each elements needs to be in frame”. As you know this is very important as a lot of UI tends to get dismissed as beautiful background blur. Perception really focused on giving elements importances to their roles. Story first!

Honestly I could tell you endless amounts of stories about how John Lepore would come behind my screen and fire a million questions with regards to the roles and my choices of UI elements. Moments like that have shaped me into clarifying my design choices, plus adding hierarchy in accordance to the level of importance to the narrative. Johnny was teaching me the rules of graphic design once again, re-rooting me back to my backbone. I feel we all need that from time to time to understand why we are making things in the first place.

Screen graphics on “Call of Duty”. Courtesy of Khairul Ahmed.

Kirill: Back at Spov when you worked on video games, did you do in-game graphics or the cinematic sequences between stages?

Khairul (Keko): It was a mixture of both, depending on the particular project. For instance, on the Call of Duty series nine times out of ten it would mostly likely be cinematic sequences. They are all carefully scripted with a narrative possibly following a chain of events, needing some level of graphic UI to suggest what lies ahead.

Thus my role would be designing elements for mission briefings, highlighting key objectives, schematics of buildings etc. At times I also took part in the early stages of enhancing the multiplayer experience for the Call of Duty series. This role required me to challenge the realm of current gaming experiences and push the boundaries of elements such as simple HUDs, weapon loadouts, maps and so forth.

It would even go down to creating a style guide that could be implemented into the game itself. This was actually the case for Batman: Arkham Knight. The original piece that is on my site is actually part of a pitch, which then allowed Spov to continue their work on the actual game. What we submitted was in fact a teaser suggesting Bruce Wayne booting up the batcave. Rocksteady Studios fell in love with the visual language and aesthetics so much that they felt each element was tailored to the look and feel of Batman. Thus they went full steam ahead to implementing the same stylistic approach in the game.

Screen graphics on “Batman Arkham Knight”. Courtesy of Khairul Ahmed.

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August 15th, 2017

Production design of “Safelight” – interview with Tom Lisowski

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Tom Lisowski. In this interview he talks about what production design is, when it needs to stay invisible and the misconceptions viewers have about the field, how the transition from film to digital affected what happens on set, balancing artistic and financial aspects of a production, shifts in the world of story telling between features, episodic TV and streaming services, as well as his work on music videos and commercials. The second half of the interview is about Tom’s work on the recently released “Safelight”, a journey of two troubled teenagers that takes them from a highway truck stop to a road trip down the California coast to photograph lighthouses.

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

Tom: I went to art school where I studied painting, and after that I started doing art for video games. My forte was environments – basically the same thing that I do for movies now. Because I was doing games I was hired to do a mural for a city cafe set on a TV show. The mural had some videogame-style characters in it. The production designer of the show asked me if I could also draw pictures of the sets. I ended up becoming her art director for a few different projects, TV and features. I discovered production design through her. I did go to art school, but at the time I wasn’t aware the field of production design existed. I love how through your interviews you’re bringing awareness to a field that most people are unaware of.

People know that there’s a director, a cinematographer, and actors, but they don’t know there’s a production designer. A lot of times that’s a good sign. They are in an environment and they don’t know that it was created by someone. If you do a good job, they believe it’s a real place.

Kirill: When people ask you what you do for a living, is it hard to make people understand, especially when we’re talking about productions set in the modern day? After all, we all are surrounded by these environments every single day.

Tom: There’s definitely a misconception about movies set in the modern day. Everything is recognizable, and you’re not in a cave or a castle. The misconception is that someone just showed up with the camera and shot everything. But it’s the same as when you’re writing a novel and choosing what part of an experience to describe. In a movie you’re very careful to choose what the audience sees.

Also, certain things generally look bad on camera, for example white walls. And there are certain elements and props that you use to tell your story. If a character is cold, you want your set dressing to communicate that. You tell the story through the environments, and everything in that whole movie is supporting that story. Everything you do is based on telling the story, whereas in real life everything is totally random [laughs].

Kirill: I like that you mentioned that if you do your job well, it is unseen in a certain sense. As a viewer, I want to follow the story and not look at that wall. You want to send that subliminal message, but not be explicit about it.

Tom: Exactly. We always talk about whether the production design should be invisible or visible. It depends. If you’re going to an alien planet, you’re showing an environment that nobody has ever seen before. A big part of the experience is seeing something amazing, and the audience is definitely noticing it. You’re looking at that environment, and it becomes a huge part of the experience. Some people say that the set becomes a character.

But at the same time, you don’t want the audience to be thinking about it. If somebody is designing the costumes for the characters, you want the viewer to believe that they just woke up that morning and put those clothes on. If you start thinking about what goes on behind the scenes, it takes you out of the story. But there are movies where our work is center stage.

Kirill: Does it help to have the digital pipeline on the set, where you together with the director and the cinematographer can see on the monitor how the sets are captured by the camera?

Tom: That’s especially important for the on-set dresser. They are making sure that everything that needs to be in the frame is in there. I try to be on the set as much as possible. I’m always there when we open the set and start shooting. As much as I can be I’m there to see the set through to completion.

However, a lot of the time I’m also hard at work on the next set. Often the next location isn’t available until the very last minute, so we have to be building and dressing while we’re shooting something else. So I’ll be there, looking at the monitors to make sure everything looks good, and then I have to be off to the next set. I’ll have my on-set team continue to check the monitor constantly.

Nowadays you can see the edits as you’re working on the movie. Not long after you shoot it you can see a rough cut of the scene you just did, and the director will know if something’s missing. Back in the day you had to wait forever for the film to be developed, and then for somebody to cut it together.

Kirill: Do you remember a sense of things going unnecessary slow back then?

Tom: You had to trust your gut and use your imagination a lot more when you couldn’t see it. And all the amazing film-makers didn’t see any of it back in the day when everything was done on film. They would go with their gut and hope that everything was great. Now you can see it sooner, and that makes you become a better production designer, faster.

Kirill: Bringing you back to the beginning of your career on set, what was the most surprising thing you saw around how movies are made?

Tom: I was always blown away to see the really big sets. The mechanics of it is amazing. You see a big cave, and you think that somebody brought in all these big rocks. But it’s all carved out of foam, and painted amazingly well. Or you’re looking at the walls of this mansion, and they are just a very thin piece of lauan plywood. It was eye-opening to see a lot of that stuff.

When I went from video games to the world of movies, I loved the physical aspect of everything. I loved that you can stand in front of it, look at it and walk around it. Before that I had textured polygons on a computer screen. But seeing everything in real life was a big part of the magic of it.

There are also sets where you use forced perspective, with smaller things in the back and bigger things in the front. That tripped me out early on, and I try to use that in my sets sometimes when we want to make the set seem bigger. We had this graveyard set, and we built it all on a stage. We wanted to make it feel like it went on forever, so the trees in the back are smaller so that they look like they’re further away.

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July 7th, 2017

Production design of Mr Robot – interview with Anastasia White

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my delight to welcome Anastasia White. After doing art direction on the pilot episode of “Mr Robot”, she joined the second season as the show’s production designer. In this interview Anastasia talks about her first memories of working on movies, her journey through the various roles in the art department, the arc of a production from initial explorations to watching sets being torn down at the end, and evolving and extending the Mr Robot’s universe (including the delightful trip down the memory lane back to the ’90s for an especially wonderful twist).

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

Anastasia: Throughout college I was in the music business as a side job. While I was there, I realized that I wanted to do something a little bit more creative, and I left music industry when I graduated college and went to a graduate architecture school. I wanted to create more and be more artistic, but I eventually left that as well [laughs] as I didn’t like the structure of everything.

I worked for a couple of years for an architecture firm that did interior design. When the economy went bad, I was laid off along with more than half of my office. The day I was laid off I had a trip planned to New York. I always wanted to live in New York, and I thought it would be my chance to get a job there [laughs]. When I came back, I spent two-three months researching what types of careers I could move towards with the skills that I had from the architecture school.

I never went to a film school, but it sort of presented itself as something interesting that I thought I could do. I researched the production designers that were based in New York City, hoping to get an apprenticeship. Mark Friedberg was the one I wanted to work for, and luckily when I reached out to him, he got me a PA job within about a month. I did a few projects with him as a PA over the next two years, and I thought that art department coordinator was the next logical step. I wanted to learn about what everybody does, how to work with the budget, etc, and that’s what I did for about a year. While I was doing that, I started drafting and doing graphics as an assistant art director, and continued working my way up really.

Kirill: If I can bring you back to those few months in this field, do you remember what was the biggest surprise for you as you saw how productions work from the inside?

Anastasia: I think it was seeing how many people are involved in each department, and how much detail goes into everything. I thought that since it’s on camera, and the audience is so far removed from everything, that these tiny details wouldn’t be noticed. And then pretty quickly I realized that they do matter, even more than a lot of other things.

Kirill: Has working in the industry ruined, in some way, the enjoyment of going out and seeing a movie in the theaters, as you know that what we see on that screen is not real, in a sense?

Anastasia: Definitely. I try to keep myself removed from all that. But if I love a set, I will keep my attention on the way it is framed, or the color palette. I will also start thinking if it was built on stage, or shot on location. I do that all the time, no matter what. It’s hard for me not to think about it. If there’s a tense moment or a very fast moving sequence, I’ll be taken out of it. But I always go back to think about the sets, unfortunately [laughs].

Kirill: When you look back at your earlier productions that are a few years into the past, what stays with you? Are those the good parts that you remember, or the stressful ones?

Anastasia: I remember both. The stressful parts end up fading. I know that I was stressed on every job that I’ve done so far, during certain moments of it. If it’s a big stress, it stays with me, but if it’s the general stress, my memories are just that I worked a lot. I also remember the rewarding moments, and things that were fun to work on.

I learn from everything. If I was stressed about something in particular, I don’t think I’ll be stressed about that particular thing again in the future. I learned from it. I learned how to not create stress around it.

Kirill: Is there such a think as a production with no stress?

Anastasia: There are productions that have, perhaps, a couple of stressful days. I don’t think there’s a production that is stressful every single day from the very beginning. I think there are certain anxieties that go away with experience.

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July 7th, 2017

The art and craft of screen graphics – interview with Andrea Braga

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces, it gives me great pleasure to welcome Andrea Braga. In this interview we talk about the beginning of his career working on military / futuristic UI graphics for four installments in the Call of Duty franchise, the transition to the world of screen graphics in feature films, differences in working in pre and post production, the importance of clarity and structure in design, exploring the futuristic technology and making it work to support the story, and the time that goes into creating graphics for dozens of screens that we see in contemporary sci-fi productions. As we discuss all this and more, we dive deeper into Andrea’s work on “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation”, “Passengers”, “Life” and “Ghost in the Shell”.

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

Andrea: Going back to the beginning, I studied aerospace engineering in Italy. Then I moved to product design, and finally communication design when I was at the University of Milan. In EU we have the Erasmus program where you can go and study abroad for a few months. I went to Porto in Portugal, and that was the first time I worked with video – filming, graphics, animation. I loved it.

When I finished my studies, I bought a ticket to London. When I got here, I was very lucky that I met Allen Leitch who founded Spov. We both started in product design, and perhaps because of that he was interested. He gave me the chance to work with them, back when the studio was really small. I worked with them for a month, and then I found an internship in Copenhagen with Frame studio. That was a great experience thanks to the amazing people and super talented designers I had the opportunity to work with. A small studio at the time but fully international with full timers and freelancers from all over the world.

Unfortunately I wasn’t hired at the end so I went back to London and Spov offered me a job as a freelancer. My first project was Call of Duty: Black Ops. When I told them I’ve never heard of Call of Duty, everybody was laughing at me. But that probably was a good thing. I had a fresh mind, since I didn’t know anything about it. I spent around ten months out of a year freelancing on these big projects for Spov being part of their design team. The big titles have big budgets, so you can spend more time on designing motion graphics. You can dig into it, and do multiple rounds with the client.

I worked on four installments in the Call of Duty franchise, and it was during that time that I was exploring the military / futuristic UI graphics. The design director at the time, Yugen Blake, was my mentor. He saw that I was doing well in that area, and he gave me more responsibility. As I got into it, I started doing a lot more of it, and I got the chance to lead the screen graphics section of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. It was a very good experience, designing as well as managing the process of making screen graphics.

And from there, without really knowing it, I jumped into working on movies. It was really exciting. Games are great and the quality is growing so much, but I have never been into them, while movies for me are more fascinating on a personal level.

Screen graphics for “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation“. Courtesy of Andrea Braga.

Kirill: Would you say that screen graphics in movies are mainly there for the camera, with most of it serving as set dressing on all those background screens? It’s not that I as a viewer can interact with those graphics or even spend more than a few seconds looking at them in detail.

Andrea: The screen graphics that I was working on for Call of Duty were mainly cinematic cuts that are shown between levels. It is for the final consumer, but there is no interaction like the UI you find inside the actual game play.

I know what you mean when you’re talking about screen graphics in movies, because you have a lot of background screens. It’s noise that embellishes the shot. But the most important UI in a movie is the one that helps telling the story. Those hero screens are there for the actors to look at, but in the end it’s mainly for the audience to read, as people need to understand what is going on. Especially as sometimes actors have to the deal with “green” monitors filled with graphics only in post production.

The main bulk of the work though is in the background, especially for sci-fi. If you have a spaceship, you have to fill it with loads of screens. That’s more like set design.

Screen graphics for “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation“. Courtesy of Andrea Braga.

Kirill: That’s a relatively recent thing as the hardware is so cheap these days. If I look at something like the original Alien, or 2001: Space Odyssey or even the more recent Fifth Element, they didn’t have as many screens aboard the ships as we see these days.

Andrea: That’s true. Everything is more accessible now. But it’s also how you imagine the future. Back in those days, computers were not as present in our daily lives. Maybe when people were imagining the future, they were thinking about having computers, but not as many as we’re thinking of now where everything is interactive.

What we do is based on technology. Every now and then I freeze for a moment. I think about all the applications that I have on my phone, and how I would never have expected certain functionality a couple of years ago. I’m working with technology every day, and I’m still impressed with the progress that we’re making on the daily basis. It’s not about the massive technology, but just the everyday things. And there’s going to be something a year from now we can’t even imagine today that will be a part of our everyday routine.

That might have been the thinking back in 1979 when they were working on the original Alien. The idea wasn’t to have dozens or hundreds of screens on that spaceship. And now when you’re thinking about the future, it’s all screens and holograms. It depends on the context of the time, and what they are pushing.

Screen graphics for “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation“. Courtesy of Andrea Braga.

Kirill: As you started working on Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation as your first movie production, do you remember what was the most surprising or unexpected thing for you in doing screen graphics for feature films?

Andrea: I’ll have to go back to those hero screens that we were talking about earlier. It’s those screens that have to tell the story, and of course I knew that such a screen would have to be done properly. But I think that I was shocked by how important it was for that screen to be 100% clear. Sometimes it’s better to make such a screen extra clear so that the audience understands it immediately. It’s not that the audience is stupid, but you can’t risk them not to follow the story.

Clarity is the main thing in any design. You’re not just doing something for the sake of it. We have to solve a problem, which in this particular case is telling a story. There must be a reason why you’re doing graphics in a certain way. When I was working on MI5 – Rogue Nation both the director and the editor were very insistent on making everything bold and prominent.

It was a bit frustrating in a way. When you’re designing, you have your creative process, and you want to do what you think is right. But I had to compromise that with clarity.

Kirill: What kind of clarity are you referring to?

Andrea: Sometimes when you are happy with your design it still might not be considered clear enough for the audience to understand the message.

And so they keep referencing back to the usual red is bad, green is good. Make it bigger. Make it louder. Make it brighter. In my opinion though sometimes you can achieve the same level of clarity without becoming so obvious.

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