The art and craft of screen graphics – interview with Alan Torres

November 19th, 2015

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.

Kirill: How is the work that you’re doing split between on-set and post-production? From your perspective, what are the strong and weak sides of these two phases?

Alan: My contributions are mostly on the post-production side of things. With on-set graphics you have the flexibility to adjust on the fly. Successful on-set graphics have the ability to enhance the performances of the actors and visual aesthetics of the scene. Assuming the design language sticks, on-set graphics sometimes also serve as the foundations of design in post. However, with on-set graphics you don’t always get to fully flush out the design or even the opportunity to sell other options. Also, often times on-set graphics get replaced in post. In post, there’s time. Time to develop and R&D. Usually there’s already a rough edit in place, so when we have those creative conversations with the client, they have a much stronger vision or handle on what story we need to tell. We also have the ability to create more options for the client and pitch ideas that will help to move the story forward.

MK45 HUD interface for Ironman on “Avengers: Age of Ultron“. Courtesy of Alan Torres and Cantina Creative.

MK45 HUD interface for Ironman on “Avengers: Age of Ultron“. Courtesy of Alan Torres and Cantina Creative.

Kirill: You’ve joined the Marvel universe after first few Ironman and Captain America movies. What’s your approach to bringing a fresh take on the UI devices in that universe? How do you portray the evolution of technology that is happening in Tony Stark and SHIELD’s research labs? How do you imagine improving existing and creating new technology in that evolving world?

Alan: Luckily for me, I get to work with the guys that have been a part of creating the Marvel visual language from the beginning (Cantina Creative founders Sean Cushing and Stephen Lawes). Learning from them, I got a good understanding of the foundation and ideas behind the work that had been done on previous films.

So when I’m working in the Marvel universe I always keep those fundamental ideas in mind when creating the next generation of Stark tech UI. The storylines themselves are a huge design inspiration, especially with Tony Stark. His character always brings something new to the table that requires a fresh or different identity, which spawns evolution. I’ve recently started reading the actual comics to draw inspiration from.

All of Tony’s suits are so iconic in shape/design. I like to study what makes them so successful and implement that into my HUD/UI design. Now that I’ve been a part of several Marvel films, it’s been great to just keep building on what we did on the film before. Different directors of course have their own ideas on how things should look, but I feel Marvel and Cantina have developed a strong relationship and they trust us with continuing to upgrade their films’ UI language.

Kirill: Staying in the Marvel universe, each film brings major new sets, each requiring to define and develop its own visual language. What’s the process on your side, what are the phases and who do you work with internally within your studio and externally within the larger production?

Alan: Sure, it’s important to develop unique languages for each character and or set. A nice contrast within the same world is the difference between Stark’s UI language and Alexander Pierce’s boardroom graphics in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Tony is flashy, sleek and rock n’ roll, while Pierce’s were very clean, sharp and clear.

Alexander Pierce’s boardroom graphics in “Captain America: Winter Soldier“. Courtesy of Alan Torres and Cantina Creative.

The process is to understand the character/set, its motivation to the story, where it sits in the Marvel universe and design from there. Internally, the development of these designs starts with our Creative Director Stephen Lawes and whoever the VFX Supervisor is. We come up with style frames and different looks that the client can review, pick or mix and match. There’s usually a lot of creative back and forth trying to find the best way to layout the UI language and clearly tell the given story point.

Kirill: If you could choose one piece of technology from the Marvel universe to make “your own” so to speak, to make it available in your everyday life, would Ironman’s HUD be close to the top of the list? There’s so much depth and so much thought invested into the portrayal of this technology and how it evolves through the various movies.

Alan: Wow, that’s a tough one…the HUD would definitely be at the top. Selfishly speaking though…I would have to go with J.A.R.V.I.S. I would just kick back and have J.A.R.V.I.S design and animate all of my work. And blame him if something goes wrong.

Monitors on “Fast & Furious 7“. Courtesy of Alan Torres and Cantina Creative.

Desk interface on “Fast & Furious 7“. Courtesy of Alan Torres and Cantina Creative.

Monitors on “Fast & Furious 7“. Courtesy of Alan Torres and Cantina Creative.

Kirill: On your site you mention that you’ve worked a whole year on the screen graphics for Fast & Furious 7. I have to admit that I’ve watched the movie and completely missed all those intricate details that you highlight in the reel. What are your thoughts on seeing your work blend in so much into the story that it becomes essentially invisible?

Alan: Furious 7 was one of the most rewarding films I’ve worked on – exactly for that reason. In every film we work on, it’s our job to create content that enhances the story and doesn’t distract from it. Sometimes our work doesn’t always get the attention we’d like, but in Furious 7, the “gods eye” device became such a critical part of the story.

The fact that you missed some of the details isn’t such a bad thing. It means the “gods eye” did its job and integrated nicely into the story, helping to reinforce the suspended disbelief. But for me, it was honestly so awesome and rewarding to see all of our team’s work highlighted in such a big way.

Gods Eye interface on “Fast & Furious 7“. Courtesy of Alan Torres and Cantina Creative.

Gods Eye interface on “Fast & Furious 7“. Courtesy of Alan Torres and Cantina Creative.

Gods Eye interface on “Fast & Furious 7“. Courtesy of Alan Torres and Cantina Creative.

Kirill: As the visual effects supervisor, you get to stay into the post-production phase. What is your involvement there?

Alan: It’s my job to oversee the concept and execution of our work. I get to do a lot of the designing alongside a very talented team. But more importantly, I have to make sure all that work is not only looking great, but being created in an efficient and production ready order. We work very closely with any given show’s VFX Supervisor to make sure we are helping to realize their creative direction. From there it’s all about hitting our story points and finishing shots.

Kirill: What are your thoughts on holographic screens and environments? Is this more of a great cinematic tool to convey the complexity of the interfaces? Putting aside the technical aspects of making such interfaces a reality, do you see real-world applications for our work and home environments?

Alan: I can definitely see holograms being used for real world application. I can see the medical industry using that tech to visualize and run through a procedure before actually doing it. Or imagine Google Maps as a hologram…I don’t know, seems cool.

Video games are already headed into the VR world. Imagine if you didn’t need a headset and you were just surrounded by holograms. All of entertainment for that matter – being truly immersed in an augmented world. Side note, I just don’t get the logic of glass monitors in all of today’s films; let’s at least put a tint on them, people. Imagine having to work on a see though monitor…would drive me crazy. But i guess it looks cool. Artificial Intelligence would be pretty scary, but again…if I could get a J.A.R.V.I.S to do all my heavy lifting, might be worth it haha.

MK45 HUD interface for Ironman on “Avengers: Age of Ultron“. Courtesy of Alan Torres and Cantina Creative.

Kirill: How do you manage to strike a balance between conveying that interface or information complexity and not overloading the frame with too many details during those few seconds that we as viewers get to see your work?

Alan: Yeah, a depth of complexity can be really beautiful, or distracting. It’s all about the layering of transparencies and arranging the graphics to focus on the given story point or performance. It’s really as basic as assessing the shot, then determining the balance of what’s important to be visible and what’s not. Most of the time that means pushing back on all the beautiful complexity.

Kirill: Do you worry about how your work will be seen and judged in 20-25 years, how it will date and diverge from what whatever will actually happen in the tech landscape?

Alan: No, I’m not to worried about that. Art and design is a very subjective medium. Trends come and go. I’m just humbled to be a part of where it is now. But the cool thing about design is if it’s done well, it can be timeless. Not at all saying what I do is timeless but that idea of creating something that can inspire innovation is amazing to think about – much like the film Minority Report.

At least for me that was the first movie that really opened my eyes to the world of UI. Seeing that human to computer relationship executed so well was so cool and inspiring for me. Or even the very first Iron Man HUD – I’d never seen anything like that. I like to think that those two movies were a big influence in successfully introducing UI tech into the mainstream. If I could be a part of something as inspiring as that…that would be so cool.

Monitors on “Avengers: Age of Ultron“. Courtesy of Alan Torres and Cantina Creative.

Kirill: You go to the movie theater, and you’ve worked for months on a certain scene and then it flashes by in a few seconds before you have a chance to point to the screen and say “That’s mine”. How does that feel?

Alan: It’s still cool. It does go by quickly but it’s all good. I love art and I love what I do, so seeing it up on the big screen is a bonus in my eyes. The most impressive thing to me about watching a good film is the collaboration that went into it. In our little UI world alone it takes a great effort by a lot of artists and individuals to get a job done. Just imagine the vision, coordination and balance its take to execute an entire film! That’s pretty beautiful.

Kirill: Stepping back into the world of real life software for the last few questions, what are the tools that you’re using? What are your main pain points? What can be made better in the way we communicate and interact with computers and screens around us?

Alan: Well, I spend most of my working hours on a Mac and the tools I use most are AfterEffects, Illustrator and Photoshop. As far as the interaction with computers and screens? Speed can always get better, right haha. As the ability to work from virtually anywhere without limitations gets better, that could be a game changer in the way we collaborate.

Monitors on “Avengers: Age of Ultron“. Courtesy of Alan Torres and Cantina Creative.

Kirill: What are your thoughts on the deep academic and commercial research that is going into augmented and virtual reality hardware and interfaces in the last couple of years? Can this be the next frontier in the field of human-computer interaction?

Alan: The tech landscape is moving so fast. There are literally updates for things daily. I think AR/VR have some very promising applications. For some reason I see more logical application for AR.

I was reading some article on I think VW and how they have an AR app for technicians when working on vehicles. The app displays information on the car to guide them through service…it sounded pretty insane but I can see a real consumer use for something like that. Who knows, that has the potential for everyone to have their own J.A.R.V.I.S.. To be able to learn and explorer instantly as we walk through life – that sounds powerful.

Screen graphics for “Fast & Furious 7“. Courtesy of Alan Torres and Cantina Creative.

We’re so much connected to the digital grid now, I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like 10 years down the road. But I think the next big frontier will be us walking through a world where the tech is on us, is around us, is monitoring us and is transforming right before us. It’s kinda scary to think about, but imagine yourself being anywhere and able to customize your environment based on your “preferences.” Maybe that’s kinda out there but you already see trends like this in some people’s homes and automobiles, right?

We’re living in a world surrounded by algorithms. Sometimes thinking about where the tech landscape is headed only makes me want to spend more time with the pencil on paper or write letters instead of emails, but I appreciate progress.

Kirill: What’s next for Alan Torres?

Alan: Right now I’m enjoying where I am. I love being in a creative environment where I can voice my visual ideas. Professionally speaking I can’t help but be fascinated about the next frontier of tech design and UI language. I’d love to be a part of it someday.

Screen graphics for “Fast & Furious 7“. Courtesy of Alan Torres and Cantina Creative.

And here I’d like to thank Alan Torres for graciously agreeing to answer a few question I had about the art and craft of screen graphics and user interfaces for film, and for sharing background materials. You can see more of Alan’s work at his main site and on Vimeo. You can also find him on Twitter. Stay tuned for more screen graphics interviews in 2016!