The craft of screen graphics and movie user interfaces – interview with Andrew Booth of BLIND LTD

February 23rd, 2015

At the intersection of art and technology, the ever-increasing importance of screen graphics in feature film reflects the expanding arc of human-computer interaction in our everyday lives and the pervasive presence of glass screens around us. It gives me great pleasure to welcome Andrew Booth of BLIND LTD to the ongoing series of interviews with designers and artists that bring user interfaces and graphics to the big screens. In the last few years you’ve seen their work on the “The Dark Knight” trilogy, “Hellboy”, “Skyfall”, “Jack Ryan” and the recently released “Kingsman: The Secret Service”, as well as in the cinematic trailers for the CRYSIS game franchise. In this interview Andrew talks about what drew him into the industry, the overall collaboration process within the feature production environment, approaching the technology world of Bond and Batman franchises to define the look and feel of the interfaces, constructing the visual language of the two competing factions in “Kingsman”, the primary goal of supporting the story and the effect it has on all aspects of the craft of screen graphics, and the two-way flow of ideas between the worlds of “fantasy” and “real” screens.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and how you got into the field of screen graphics for film.

Andrew: I love film and I love design, and it seemed a natural fit. I come from art and design background, and I like making things. It was good expressive way of doing something that was innovative and thought provoking.

Kirill: It would be a rather boring movie if all the technology it showed you would already be present in your life.

Andrew: I figure with screen graphics you want to see something that has a bit of escapism, excitement and drama about it.

Kirill: Does that get pushed by the director, the production designer and by yourself?

Andrew: Generally it’s all about the story, and within that you will have the graphical element that’s written on the page. Part of your work is reading the script, getting some ideas and then developing them.

As far as who we collaborate with? Generally speaking I deal directly with the director. We also work in conjunction and in collaboration with the art department and the visual effects supervisor.

One of the things that we do at BLIND, which is quite different from other agencies, is that we deal with graphics on set and in post.

The first film I ever worked on was “Die Another Day”. I wanted to get into films and ended up almost breaking into Pinewood Studios to visit the VFX supervisor at the time. I showed the work that I produced including a number of film specific test shots. I think the VFX supervisor was surprised that I got through the gates. Two weeks later I got a phone call and told that they had some post graphics work for me to do. That was my “in” to the industry.

Post is a very different animal compared to on set. You’re working to a specific cut length, and you might only have 12 frames to tell your story graphically.

My second job was for Guillermo Del Toro’s “Hellboy” where everything was live and on set. We had to be very diligent in the way we told the story.

Back to your question, at BLIND we collaborate with the production designer, the VFX supervisor and the director.

UI Screen graphics from Hellboy /  / Courtesy of BLIND LTD

Kirill: And that’s where the decision between doing things on set or in post production is made? Some directors would want to see more stuff directly in camera.

Andrew: It is cyclical.

On “Hellboy” “Sahara” “Batman Begins” “Doom” “Casino Royale” “The Dark Knight” our work had predominantly been on set. Then there was a step change where everyone moved away from doing it practically. I wondered if this part of the industry was dying away. Obviously it is easy to green everything up and then think about it afterwards, however with “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Skyfall” there was a return to the practicality of doing as much as you possibly can on set.

As we speak we’re doing an on set project with the VFX supervisor who got us involved in the post-production screen graphics for “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”. We both know that we’re going to do things in post, but we’re trying to achieve as much as possible live.

It’s an interesting hybrid in terms of where we sit.

UI Screen graphics from Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit / / Courtesy of BLIND LTD

Kirill: And some things just can’t be done on set, like the holographic interface projections in Prometheus, Avatar or Iron Man.

Andrew: Yes, these things have to be done in post. That’s a given.

Kirill: Is there a different sense of urgency between the two? On set you have actors and crew, and you don’t want to waste anybody’s time, and in post you still have the time limitations of when the work needs to be finished for the theatrical cut.

Andrew: There are time pressures both ways. I think it’s all about preparation and doing your homework. It has everything to do with planning. The idea of doing an on set graphic is absolutely fine as long as you have enough time to prepare for it, and it has to be a collaborative process.

We just finished “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and Matthew Vaughn [the director] shot no screen graphics live on set. It was all totally green or blue. We got into the plot points and how the screen graphics would work within the scenes in post. That decision depends on the production, it depends on how quickly they want to get through things. And sometimes the assets are not available at the time of on set playback.

I buy doing it practically, you’re harking back to the interface graphics of great films like “2001” “Star Wars” “ALIEN” where that stuff couldn’t be done any other way. It was an analog effect shot within the frame. They had to think hard about it beforehand. I still think that doing it for real is the best way if you can.

Kirill: For your specific productions, might that be related that the technology of Batman or James Bond is not supposed to be that far ahead of what we have around us?

Andrew: Yes they are rooted in contemporary world technology, but as much as possible we are trying to think one step ahead. However, we always start by thinking about how we best communicate the story.

Funnily enough, the screen graphics in all the Batman films have a slightly retro feel to them; our original designs were too futuristic. We took some DOS text and ran it on a display; it looked great this became the basis of the look. The graphics have an almost timeless quality to them, which I’m really proud of.

Tumbler (Batmobile) out of Lego, in the model you can see all the screens that BLIND LTD designed for the interior.

Bond, on the other hand, is more about the here and the now. If you look at the Bond franchise in its entirety, it’s almost the historic record of its time. You see the changes in fashion, cars, and production design. I think that Bond constantly evolves as time passes. And so should the screen graphics.

Kirill: Is there any kind of temporal inconsistency where “Casino Royale” was supposed to be the prequel to his story that is happening back in 1960s?

Andrew: I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. The reboot or the reimagining of Bond had more to do with going back to the essence of what the character was about in the first place. I think that the reboot was the chance to explore the previous 40 years and extract the best parts out of it, which was essentially based around Ian Fleming’s character. “Casino Royale” is a reboot in the true sense.

Going back to “Kingsman: The Secret Service” this movie has a nostalgic spy feel to it in a ultra-violent way.

Kirill: When you get the script and start thinking about translating it into the interfaces, how much do you know about the overall visual language of the production? You don’t want to be too futuristic in the gritty atmosphere of the last few Bond movies, for instance.

Andrew: How the interface looks is a by-product of the content that you’re trying to communicate to the audience. However, I’m very aware of the current thinking in terms of interfaces. I’m actually drawn much more to functional industrial interfaces.

If you talk about fantasy UIs, I want to make it believable. Whatever we do, it’s always integral to the storyline.

Some call it fantasy UIs, and I call it fashionable UIs. It’s very much a fashionable thing at the moment. I think that particular work is very seductive and it’s very much about the animation.

I think that one of the key strengths of what we do is making sure that our work blends seamlessly with the overall production and integrates with the rest of the image within the final frame.

Kirill: Was there any consistency that you wanted to maintain across the multiple movies you did in the Bond and Batman universes?

Andrew: We definitely kept consistency in the “Dark Knight.” With Bond we’ve always looked to do something innovative there.

One of the things that we felt strongly about in “Skyfall” was that we were re-defining a character – Q – his screen graphics UI was in keeping with his personality. His data flow is representing information in an expansive way.

UI Screen graphics from Skyfall /  / Courtesy of BLIND LTD

Kirill: So what happened on “Dark Knight?” You didn’t necessarily want to be too repetitive.

Andrew: We didn’t want to be repetitive at all. I think one of the reasons we were asked back on “The Dark Knight” after “Batman Begins” was that we established a very clear look and style of graphics, which suited the production. However, the stuff that you see in “Batman Begins” is more industrial than the graphics that you see in the bat bunker in “The Dark Knight.” We were doing some pretty cool stuff there.

UI Screen graphics from Batman Begins /  / Courtesy of BLIND LTD

UI Screen graphics from The Dark Knight /  / Courtesy of BLIND LTD

Kirill: Is your upcoming work on “Kingsman: The Secret Service” in the same real-world vein?

Andrew: Absolutely not [laughs]. In fact, the reason I wanted to do it was because it gave us an opportunity to do something different and it required a very different energy. We were thrilled to work on it.

Early on we established two factions – the good guys are rather Civil Service in terms of their Britishness, and they would have very military spec-looking UIs, which is why all of the graphics for the Kingsmen are green-accented.

UI Screen graphics from Kingsman: The Secret Service / / Courtesy of BLIND LTD

Valentine, a megalomaniac bad guy who eats at McDonald’s and wears loud colours – pinks and purples – we used similar bright colours for his interface. He has this great big table – a huge touch screen – and we gave him slick-looking graphics, probably in the same vein as fantasy UIs. It was a little bit crazy with things flying all over the place.

UI Screen graphics from Kingsman: The Secret Service / / Courtesy of BLIND LTD

Kirill: So that allowed you to explore a different facet of film user interfaces.

Andrew: Absolutely, because this was all in post we could have some real fun.

For Valentine it was about him looking cool, and having cool things happening on his screens. And for the Kingsmen it was a more pragmatic thing. If we’re experimenting with more fantasy UIs, then we were certainly dipping our toes in with Valentine’s table – I’m cool with this approach as long as it serves function of the story.

Kirill: You mentioned the feel of timelessness to the work from “Dark Knight” interfaces. As you work on a specific production, do you have concerns about how that work will be viewed through the lens of time, 15-20 years down the line?

Andrew: [Laughs] I like the idea of someone seeing one of our graphics – or being interested in the things we do.

One of the more interesting pieces I saw recently was the interface work for “Her”. Did you see that movie?

Kirill: There was almost no visual interface in there.

Andrew: Exactly. Maybe to answer your question, we won’t have any visual interface! I think there were some really beautiful things in Her.

Kirill: That brings me to the explorations of human-computer interaction that we see in the commercial market, especially around wearables, sensors and augmented reality. Do you try to keep in sync with those, and see how they can apply to telling new stories on the screen? Some of them are very personal screens, and some don’t necessarily have any UI components.

Andrew: It’s interesting to track the consumer advancements vs. what we do on film. Whatever we see in the real world we would take notice of. We did our version of Google Glass for Valentine. There was zero interface. It was more about manipulating the image for the audience, and also for Valentine the character, rather than it being a technical view like a HUD.

Kirill: That goes back to the primary goal of supporting the story.

Andrew: It’s always about propelling the story.

As you said, who’s interested in watching someone working away at a computer? Part of going to the cinema is to escape and have some fun and see things in a different way. Maybe the trick for consumer-driven computers and interfaces is to take what they are and spin them out into something more gadget-driven, into something that advances the story in a more fun, stylistic way.

Kirill: And to beat my favorite dead horse, which is “Minority Report”, some movies go so far that they push the technology exploration in the real world. The experiences they show are so compelling that people want to have them available “for real.”

Andrew: “Minority Report” was based on Philip K. Dick’s novel. He was a great prophet in terms of predicting some of the things that would happen, all the way back in 1950s. I love the way books and films drive people to make things.

Kirill: Touching a bit on your work for game cinematics, are you interested in exploring user interface aspects beyond screen graphics for film?

Andrew: Absolutely. From my perspective, we love to be involved in all kinds of UI work. Our work for the CRYSIS game franchise was an incredibly enjoyable experience. There seems to be a need for our current expertise, and I hope that continues.

UI cinematic from Crysis 2 / / Courtesy of BLIND LTD

UI cinematic from Crysis 3 / / Courtesy of BLIND LTD

Kirill: You’ve been doing this for the last twelve years, and you have quite a few productions under your belt. Now that you’re inside the proverbial sausage factory, how different it is from what you thought it would be looking from the outside?

Andrew: It doesn’t feel like a sausage factory. It’s incredibly exciting. Each film is unique – there are always challenges. I feel very lucky that I’m involved in doing something that I love. If you go back ten or fifteen years, it wasn’t recognized as a discipline. I’m really pleased that people are interested and really buy into the experience that we and other people provide.

Kirill: Would you say that it coincided with the rather unprecedented surge in importance attached to the design of consumer electronic products around us? People seem to be more aware that our interactions with computers should be more human.

Andrew: That’s a very good question. I think those interactions should be more human. As a civilization I think we’re much more receptive to what an interface does. We use it much more. I wonder if it makes it harder for us [laughs].

Kirill: What’s your elevator pitch to describe what you do?

Andrew: At BLIND we specialise in reviewing the core essence of a scene and then creating screen graphics that augment and help to communicate the story. There is always a purpose within all our designs.  We have been very fortunate to work with some of the industry’s finest artists.

Kirill: Even though, as you say, it may only appear for half a second on the screen. Does that make you sad to see that the last 18 months of your life ended up as three seconds on the screen?

Andrew: Not at all, I like the idea of 18 months of work distilled into a couple of frames. That’s the nature of the business we’re in. There’s so much thought, so much work done in all departments for something that might only be on screen for a moment. And I hope that ultimately the couple of frames or seconds that you see of our work hits home and people really enjoy it. In fact, I like that you have to concentrate very hard and focus to deliver something that is world-class, something that people want to go and see.

Kirill: Going into the world of real-life software for the closing part of the interview. You talked about interfaces that should be more human. If you look at the software that you’re using, what is the main pain points for you? When do you find yourself cursing at the screen?

Andrew: I don’t curse the screen; I use a computer to conceptualize the thought process. I’m lucky [laughs]. I come from the school that says that if you can think it verbalise it, draw it, then you can make it work. A lot of my work is based on analysing the purpose of the UI.

Kirill: But I’d imagine that you use computers for email, browsing and whatnot. Is there something that bothers you in those interactions, as we seem to be stuck with the same mouse for the last 40 years?

Andrew:  Nope. Apple seems to have cornered the market where everything they do has great functionality to it… In terms of where we’ll go from here – can we escape sitting in a seat and looking at a screen?

Kirill: And circling back to your work, that won’t necessarily film well.

Andrew: I think that could film quite nicely. Maybe that’s where the future of screen graphics will develop.  It’s a much freer way of operating.

And here I’d like to thank Andrew Booth for the fantastic work BLIND LTD is doing on screen graphics and movie user interfaces, and for sharing the background materials for the interview. I’d also like to thank Helen Baker for helping to make this interview happen. “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is playing in theaters now.