The craft of screen graphics and movie user interfaces – interview with Corey Bramall

December 13th, 2014

Continuing the series of interviews with designers and artists that bring user interfaces and graphics to the big screens, today’s I’m excited to welcome Corey Bramall. His work spans multiple films and TV shows, from Caprica and Human Target on the small screen to Thor, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Safe House, the first two G.I. Joe and the last three Transformers movies on the big screen – just to name a few. In this interview Corey talks about the changes his field has undergone in the last 15 years, differences between TV and feature productions, working on multiple movies in the Marvel and the Transformers franchises and striking the balance between the technical nature of real-world computers and making appealing visuals for the aesthetic purposes of the overall production.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and what you do.

Corey: My name is Corey Bramall, I design and animate the graphics that are on computer screens in movies and tv shows known now as FUI (fictional or fantasy user interfaces). I have been doing this kind of work for around 15 years. I try to balance my life between family, work and play. When I’m not working I’m usually hanging out with my family or going to see live music.

Kirill: What drew you into the field of screen graphics, and how has that changed in the last 15 years or so of doing it?

Corey: I always had an interest in graphics, photography and computers so in high school I got on the yearbook design committee and was playing around with Photoshop 3… “now with layers!” and I remember thinking to myself “this is something.. I’m not sure what, but it’s something”. After high school I was working odd jobs and trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life but I could never shake how fun and creative this program called Photoshop was so eventually I found a two year multimedia program here in Vancouver that offered a variety of classes like ‘Interactive Authoring’, ‘Video Production’, ‘3D Animation’ and… ‘Photoshop’. After graduating the two year program in 1999 I was trained to make CD-Rom titles which of course had gone completely obsolete. I had no industry but I had this odd array of skills that made me sort of a ‘jack of all trades’.

I had found a job at a company that produced terrible course ware for educational training and was about to call it a career at 21 when I got a call from a studio asking if I was available immediately to come and work with them to make graphics for a tv show. I took the job and the rest is sort of history. I worked at that studio for a few years and eventually started Decca Digital. One of the biggest changes in the last 15 years I would say is what’s capable technically. When I started everything was 640×480 pixels and I could backup an entire months work on a single CD. Today most of the stuff I design is full HD (1920×1080 pixels) and can be almost 2GB for just one screen. The other biggest change is just the sheer number of people designing FUI screens.

Kirill: Who do you work for during the various stages of a production, from the initial explorations during the pre-productions all the way to the post-production?

Corey: A lot of my work happens during production where I’ll create graphics to be shot in a scene so they actually have to function in a rudimentary way. I’ll build them so the onset operators can turn widows on and off, move the widows around, change backgrounds and so on. This is an interesting process because as you’re designing you have to think about how the screen will function as well. It can provide some interesting design limitations that I have to overcome and sometimes re-think. Because replacing what’s on a screen in post-production has become much easier, quicker and cheaper, a lot of times directors want graphics on the screen that they know will be replaced later just so the actor has something to interact with instead of a giant green square. I’ve work on projects were I’ve just done the production graphics, just done post-production graphics for burn-in and I’ve done both.

Kirill: Do you prefer having a full artistic freedom for a project, or a more well-defined direction?

Corey: I don’t think I’ve ever had full artistic freedom on any project, that would be amazing to have that freedom one day. Given a choice, I’d obviously prefer full artistic freedom but a lot of my work in the last few years has been for sequels or for films that take place in a universe that was created prior to me being involved so my challenge has been to stay true to that while perhaps adding some of my own style. I tend to work with a lot of the same people who have a style that they’re accustomed to so I’m often bound to that aesthetic but I’ll always find somewhere to add some personal flare.

Kirill: What are your thoughts on the term “Fantasy UIs”? How well does it capture the essence of what you do?

Corey: I think it’s a good term for this type of work. Before Mark Coleran coined the term FUI we called it all sorts of things: computer playback, screen graphics, screen design and so on. But is it Fictional User Interfaces, Fantasy User Interfaces, Faux User Interfaces? Let’s just say it’s Fantasy, once and for all ok?

Kirill: On movies such as “This Means War” and “Safe House”, would you say that screen graphics play a more distant role in the overall structure? If so, how does that affect your process?

Corey: For both those movies the screen graphics were secondary to the plot but added texture and context. These are actually my favorite types of movies to work on. In these situations I’m designing screens to add to the look and feel of the movie but not necessarily solving plot problems. This Means War and Safe House were really fun movies to work on because I was allowed to go a bit non-real world with the CIA graphics and creatively flex.

Kirill: You’ve worked on three “Transformers” movies. Do you aim to create something new every time, or are there any elements that remain consistent throughout your interfaces there? How do you find the balance between these two?

Corey: For the Transformers movies there is a consistent look and feel about them that was developed on the very first movie (which I did not work on). What I try is do is maybe updated the look slightly or add something new or interesting that wasn’t seen in previous films. For movies with multiple sequels like Transformers or Iron Man the design box gets a bit small just because naturally they want consistency though out the movies.

Kirill: On a related note, you also did three movies in the Marvel universe (Iron Man, Captain America and Thor). How do you get into that universe?

Corey: Huh, I’m not even really sure how I got to do those movies. For the record, those movies are massive and I did a very small part on them. The first Marvel movie I did was Iron Man 2 were I designed a couple screens for Hammer Industries set and I assume they liked the screens so then came Agent Coulson’s trailer in Thor and then Marvel started making several movies a year and now it’s five years later. So far I’ve only designed screens for production on the Marvel movies but I’d love to get to do some of the sexy post-production stuff one day.

Kirill: Speaking of these two franchises, the plots happen to be rooted in the world of the modern technology, with perhaps half a step ahead as far as Tony Stark is involved. Do you try to model your interfaces based on what you see in the real world?

Corey: When I’m designing for something like Transformers or the Marvel universe I try and make it look like something that doesn’t exist but could exist, if that makes any sense. Meters and buttons will have a real function but maybe animate in a more futuristic way or display data that the real world doesn’t have access to, maps will look like maps but will also display data that next-gen software might detect or display graphic resolutions incapable today. Maybe the best way to describe it is design today’s tech but on steroids.

Kirill: And as a follow up, how do you stay a step ahead of all the advancements in consumer-grade devices and sensor-based gadgets these days?

Corey: I wouldn’t say I consciously try and stay a step ahead because it can be so overwhelming but I always have the latest smart phone, I download apps, watch video game trailers to see new tech and see how it’s being used and then try to apply those ideas to my designs. Comic books are another great resource for gadgetry and tech. I remember thinking when Minority Report came out in theaters and Tom Cruise was swiping and manipulating the holo-screen that it was such a unique and sexy way of interacting with tech but now we do that everyday on our smart phone, tablets and video game consoles as if it’s no big deal.

Kirill: You’ve worked on “Caprica”, “Human Target” and “King & Maxwell”. How would you compare working on episodic TV to feature films, in terms of budget, scope, technology at your disposal on-set and in post-production, and your overall place in the production?

Corey: Television has really changed a lot on the last few years. The gap in quality, budget and time for film and television used to be quite big, they were almost two completely different entities but now the quality of screen graphics for film and tv is getting very close. The time given in the tv world is much shorter as well. On larger films, for security reasons, I’ll often just get a few pages of the script to work with and maybe a general outline of the set I’m designing for. I’m also much further down the ‘food chain’ when working on large films so getting specific information can be a bit tricky. One of the things I like about working on a television show is you get a script for an episode, you build the graphics, they shoot the scenes, then it’s done, all in about two weeks. However in film I can be working on a movie for months and months with large gaps of time in-between sets. I wouldn’t say I have a preference for television or film because they really are quite different processes but film work tends to be a bit more visually interesting whereas television work can get a bit repetitive.

Kirill: Do you first outline your sketches on paper, or go straight to modeling software?

Honestly, I can’t draw, I’m terrible at it. If I’m creating a longer sequence I’ll hash out the steps on paper with crude drawings to stay focused on the task at hand but for the most part I’ll just get into Photoshop or Illustrator and just start building stuff. I wouldn’t recommend this way of working but it works for me. Learn to draw and learn a bit of coding kids!

Kirill: Between on-set shoots that are tied to presence of actors and post-production that is tied to release schedules, what’s more hectic?

Corey: I find designing graphics for on-set work much more hectic that post-production. The quality bar (for television FUI especially) has been raised so high while the time to design it has diminished so it seems like I’m always up against a deadline. When designing for on-set there’s the added stress of making sure everything technically functions, everything is spelled right, the graphics loop seamlessly and doesn’t the graphics don’t over tax the hardware. In Post-production file size can be as big as I want, looping elements can be as long and large and I want. I find Post-production is far more creatively satisfying.

Kirill: How do you strike the right balance between staying true to the technical nature of computer interfaces and making appealing visuals for the aesthetic purposes of the overall production?

Corey: It’s a constant battle. There are websites dedicated to poking holes in the legitimacy of FUI screens. On one end of the spectrum I’ve been told that my 6×6 pixel icon on a blurry map that’s 100 feet from camera was wrong but in other occasions I’ve also been told it doesn’t matter what I make as long as it looks cool. When designing UI elements I try and stay with something recognizable as a user interface but I’m guilty of most of the common FUI tropes. I use really tiny text because I think it looks nice as a design element but it’s totally useless for actual UI design. One of the best examples of this that I worked on was the CERN set in Angels & Demons. In reality CERN computers are for analyzing and displaying data and monitoring systems, they’re pretty boring and utilitarian. The set I helped designed looked nothing like that and would be basically useless for any real science, but it looked sexy.

Kirill: What are your thoughts on the increasing number of stereo sci-fi productions, and how is that affecting the type of projects that you’ll be working on in the next few years?

Corey: I’ve been lucky, I haven’t had to change the way I work or build anything specifically for stereo films yet, although I think I will eventually. I don’t mind the trend towards 3D movies as long as it’s for a reason. When 3D movies first started coming out they all had the obligatory flying scene whether the plot called for it or not, it seems to have found it place a bit more now. Given a choice to watch a 3D movie or not I’d probably choose not to but I can already hear my kids saying in 20 years “I can’t believe you watched movie in 2D dad!”.

Kirill: Going back to the real software that you’re working with on the daily basis, what are the main pain points you’re seeing there?

Corey: I really don’t have too many complaints about the software I use. I’ve been around a while so I come from a place where software and hardware were extremely expensive and there was no training or community dedicated to a a specific piece of software so I’m loving the way things are now. Software is accessible and reasonably priced, hardware is cheap and you can learn almost any software package for free. Designers are limited only by their ability and imagination instead of practical things like software and hardware availability.

Kirill: And on a related note, where do you you like to see the field of human-computer interaction going in the next 10-15 years?

Corey: Oculus Rift is really cool. People have been trying to make virtual realty headsets for as long a I can remember without much success but the people that make Oculus Rift seems like they’re onto something special. My job is basically to create a visually interesting barrier between the user and the computer. I see a trend where this actually goes away, or appears to go away and the human-computer experience is more symbiotic and intuitive. Lucky for me that would look terrible in a movie so hopefully my job is secure for the time being.

Kirill: What can you tell us about your latest work?

Corey: The next think you can see some of my work in is The Interview which comes out at the end of the year. I did a bunch of broadcast graphics and some CIA stuff for that movie. I’ve recently finished doing some production work on a couple films that won’t be out until the summer so I can’t say too much about those yet. Also in the last year I did a couple new television shows both are a bit sci-fi but based in the real world.

And here I’d like to thank Corey Bramall for graciously agreeing to answer a few question I had about the craft of craft of screen graphics and movie user interfaces, and for sharing background materials. You can find more of his work at his main site and on Behance, as well as on Twitter. Stay tuned for more screen graphics interviews in 2015!