Designing with purpose – interview with Russ Gautier and John LePore

September 2nd, 2016

In my first interview with John LePore of Perception a few weeks ago, we talked about his studio’s earlier work on “Iron Man 2”, “Avengers” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”. In this second part on Perception’s work, John is joined by the art director Russ Gautier to talk about their work on the recently released “Batman v Superman”.

We start with the beginning of Russ’s career as a motion designer in the late ’90s and his early explorations of Flash, and talk about the role of an art director in charge of a unified visual language of all the screens on a particular feature film. Then John and Russ talk about the cyclical nature of designing for screens in real world and in feature films, the importance of communicating the story through screens and imbuing each one with a precise purpose, comparing and contrasting the screens of Batman and Lex Luthor and how each one reflects the traits of those two characters, and the particular details of the post-production work that Perception did on “Batman v Superman”. Finally, we close with their thoughts on VR interfaces and general progress of technology in our daily lives.

Interfaces for Batman vehicles. Courtesy of Perception.

Kirill: As we’ve already introduced John in the first part, let’s talk about Russ and his path so far.

Russ: My name is Russ Gautier, and I’m the art director at Perception. I grew up in Northern Virginia and went to VCU in Richmond to get my graphic design degree. At the time at least, it was a very theory-based program which worked really well for me, because I tend to pick up the technical side quite easily on my own. So it was great to spend a lot of my education focusing on the “why” of graphic design.

While I was in school I was really interested in interactive design. I picked up Flash in the late 90’s, which I thought was the coolest thing – it was mind-blowing at the time. I saw sites like 2advanced and the early version of GMUNK’s portfolio (the one with the guy dancing in the onesy and all the animated elements), and decided that’s what I wanted to do: crazy animated interfaces. So I dug deep into Flash while in school.

It was a pretty experimental time back then. There were no standards really. UX was not really a thing. There wasn’t as much concern for usability, at least in what I was being exposed to. People were doing crazy things with interface design, and in hindsight many of them were awful, but they did offer a great playground for ideas.

By the time I graduated I had enough knowledge and experience that I got hired to teach a web design class at VCU while working as an interactive designer at a local design shop. Around that time I discovered motion graphics, got myself copies of Maya and After Effects and started playing with more 3D and VFX. After a couple years I quit my interactive design job and shortly after got picked by the Martin Agency. I spent three years there doing motion design and animation, and with lots of support from the Executive Producers and many other fine people, started what would eventually become Hue & Cry. It was just a small internal design and animation department within the agency back then, and now it’s a proper motion design and animation studio. It was a great experience for me to help build the team there.

In 2012 I moved to New York City. I was doing freelance work here, and in early 2014 Johnny contacted me after seeing my reel. We talked about me coming to work at Perception, and I started a couple months later. It’s been a fun couple years!

Kirill: What is the role of the art director on these productions?

Russ: My job is primarily to establish and keep a consistent style and design language throughout the course of a project, to provide team leadership, help present and sell the ideas to our client and, of course, get my hands dirty designing, animating and compositing. Sometimes I play the role of TD as well. It’s a small shop so I wear a lot of hats around here.

Interfaces for Batman vehicles. Courtesy of Perception.

Kirill: It feels like every new generation of designers rediscovers things that were already known, sometimes decided ago. We’ve had this phase of heavily textured skeuomorphic design, and now it’s all about precise grids, white space and typographical rhythms, where the world of digital design is rediscovering what has been established in print over hundreds of years.

Russ: You’re right, each generation seems to discover similar things, but they bring a bit of their own history and perspective along with them. The next ten years are going to be very interesting, as we’ll have the generation of kids that grew up with the Internet. I didn’t have the internet until I was 14, but kids coming up now have never known a world without it. We’re going to see the younger generations of designers come with such a different perspective on the world. It’ll be interesting to see what they bring to the table creatively.

In a way we are going in circles, but each cycle brings with it a perspective that wasn’t necessarily there before. It’s always evolving.

John: Steering it towards interface design, I think that every designer has to be weary when these waves of trends come. The biggest one recently was the anti-skeuomorphic push two or three years ago. It’s good to be aware of these things and to monitor the waves that are taking place. But any time somebody uses them as a strict bible, it’s a recipe for failure. You overcommit to it. When iOS made its jump to anti-skeuomorphic, it seemed that it lost a lot of little nuances that really helped with the usability. People had difficult time understanding which elements were tappable.

It’s good to be aware of these things, but you have to take it all in moderation. Some of the most beautiful interface design that I’m seeing nowadays embraces certain aspects of flat design standards, but is also comfortable letting in a bit of lighting and depth. You seem them blended at the right ratio, and it can create beautiful nuances and satisfying results.

Screen graphics for “Batman v Superman”. Courtesy of Perception.

Russ: I think that the design style machine is very reactionary, but there’s a degree to which those ebbs and flows even out over time. I think of design trends like plucking a string: it starts changing dramatically at first, swinging one way and then back again. But over time we come to an equilibrium where people aren’t as reactionary – at least until the next pluck happens. It doesn’t have to be strictly skeuomorphic or strictly anti-skeuomorphic. It can be something that toes the line and makes something appropriate for your client and their audience/users.

Kirill: Do you see similar cycles in what feature productions ask you to do?

John: It’s a really interesting area as far as trends are concerned. There is a distinct cottage industry of FUI artists, and we all are very closely very aware of each other’s work. It’s a great and positive community, and everybody is excited to see where everything is being pushed.

I would say that the majority of our clients, particularly in film, are almost unaware of that community and that cycle. Some reference the existing vocabulary of film user interface, going back in history to Star Wars or even before that. Why would futuristic interfaces ever be anything other than glowing blue shit?

We’re starting to see more deviations away from that, and it’s relieving for us. But you always see it as a conscious hazard when you’re working on these projects.

Interfaces for Lex Luthor screens. Courtesy of Perception.

Kirill: But a production wouldn’t want to repeat what was done before, even if it’s a new movie in an established franchise.

John: Absolutely. It depends on the importance that these elements have in the story. And it also depends on the filmmaker’s sensitivity and awareness about technology in general. You will find some filmmakers that are willing to push the envelope, especially in sequels of franchises, to make things more complex and sophisticated.

But there are definitely some unfortunate instances where they want to rely on having glowing blue shit on the wall “if it’s not the same glowing blue shit that I’ve seen in ten other movies, then people won’t understand that it’s the future”.

Russ: It’s all down to how invested the people making the movie want to be. Are they interested in technology, or do they not care that much?

John: We’ve been really fortunate to have great experiences with very positive clients. It was fantastic to work with the Warner and DC teams. We have a long-standing relationship with Marvel, and they’re always very invested in concepts that we’re putting together. They always appreciate the added value in those concepts, while other clients might say that we’re overthinking it.

Interfaces for Batman vehicles. Courtesy of Perception.

Kirill: If you’re talking about Marvel or DC, are they looking to have continuity? It feels that Marvel has a more consistent look across their cinematic universe, while DC movies had a bit more visual variety, at least up until now. If I’m looking at “Batman v Superman”, Superman doesn’t have any UI, and Batman’s UI is always in the background, being operated by Alfred. I do notice that it stays consistently dense, clean and very informational.

Russ:  Batman’s OS feels very utilitarian, tactical, and kind of raw and dangerous. You get the feeling that he has so much control in that console.

John: Architecturally, the bat cave itself is not beautiful, pretty or even elegant. It’s brutal and purpose-driven to the extreme. Which ends up feeling impressive, and it demands a certain respect because you can see how serious every single component of the space is. And I think that extends really nicely into the UI.

Kirill: Another difference might be that in Marvel universe you have many more people interacting with those interfaces, while in bat cave it’s only Alfred.

Russ: Exactly, it’s just Bruce Wayne and Alfred. And those are the only people that are ever going to be in there. You can see that just in the design of the space itself.

John: It’s presumed that they themselves developed the UI for their own needs. It didn’t need to be accessible to anyone else. A person might have a very messy desktop and it looks like chaos to anybody else, but they know where every single individual piece is.

Interfaces for Batman vehicles. Courtesy of Perception.

Kirill: When you do the designs for this grid of ten, twelve, twenty or however many screens, how do you know that what you see on your single desktop monitor will look good across many more screens?

Russ: We’ll design something in Photoshop or Illustrator, and while you see that one screen, we immediately move to roughly compositing it into the shot.

John: It’s important to mention that on this particular project we came in during the post-production. The film has been shot, and the edit is almost locked. So we have the advantage of knowing the angles and the positions from which these displays will be seen, knowing where people will be standing. It’s a non-interface design driven challenge, as we’re able to take advantage to art-direct and compose the screens to fit elegantly within the canvas of the overall film.

Kirill: What is driving the decision to do it in post as opposed to on-set playback? When you’re doing it on set, it plays well as a light-source with close-by elements, and you don’t need to worry about rotoscoping out whatever is between the screen and the camera.

Russ: The other thing about on-set playback is that it gives the actors something to act to. They’re not just pushing buttons mindlessly. They have a mouse in their hand, or a touchscreen in front of them that gives them a target, even if it’s not reacting.

John: It gives everybody on set something to react to. The director of photography knows where elements are going to illuminate to focus the camera, for example. Our experience is that there’s typically an effort to capture at least some degree of this content on set. But if these displays are carrying any weight in terms of storytelling, doing it in post gives the editor a tremendous amount of freedom with how they want to restructure a sequence of events or a narrative. Being able to adjust those things in post-production opens up a lot of new possibilities.

On “Batman v Superman” there was a lot of work done by another studio for on-set playback. And from what we saw, around 60-70% of that was replaced by content that we had created in post-production. Replacing it in post gave them the opportunity revise the content on the screens as the edit naturally evolves.

Interfaces for Batman vehicles. Courtesy of Perception.

Kirill: How does that work on the technical level? Do you track the position of every screen surface as the camera moves around the scene?

Russ: On “Batman v Superman” most of the screens already had on-set content on them. So it was about tracking and compositing the newly designed screens the director wanted on top of that, rotoscoping anything that was obstructing, then adding back any reflections, glints or glares from the environment.

There was also the big red wall with nothing on it but racks and tools and panels in front of it. It was a big workshop wall that we had to design for, with only a few gaps where you could see what was going on. We were very mindful to put very key elements there, and put elements that were more detailed or distracting behind the racks of tools and monitors. You pick and choose where the key elements live.

Kirill: Does this mean that what you do in post-production is almost always used? It sounds like you’re working on an almost-final cut and you know exactly what the sequences are.

John: Yes, we’re working on nearly-final cut. We do approach projects like this with a lot of exploration. We like to start with giving our clients a lot of difference choices and elements that can open up possibilities in terms of interactions and ways that they might not have considered previously.

We watch the scenes to see what’s in and out of focus, and that allows us to be mindful of the details for the more visually striking elements in clearer areas.

Kirill: Do you sometimes feel constrained by the colors at your disposal, working with predominantly blues and greens?

Russ: It depends. We try to move away from that when appropriate, to splash in some other colors.

John: And it might not be negotiable, as it is part the overall production design. And we also had some very interesting challenges in terms of the color palette. When Bruce Wayne is using his bespoke computer system to hack into Lex Luthor’s interface, there was a very distinct contrast between two operating systems.

The concern was that if we used two very similar OSes, you might not even understand what was happening on the screen. So we have the dark tactical Bruce Wayne UI, and he opens up LexOS which is very bright, almost stark white in a complete contrast. It has colorful oranges, the shapes move around in a more fluid manner, it’s more playful and more consumer-friendly. If anything else, it serves the purpose of making sure that everyone can understand that they are looking at one interface with a whole another interface inside of it. It is easy to explain in words, but you want to make sure that people in the last row of the theater understand it visually and are not confused.

Interfaces for Lex Luthor screens. Courtesy of Perception.

Kirill: For me it felt like LexOS is almost a home-grown Linux distribution. There were all these shapes, and windows, and the system itself felt undesigned.

Russ: From the aesthetic perspective, we tried to come up with something that was visually in contrast with Bruce Wayne’s interface. LexOS is Lex Luthor’s personal operating system, and in a way it’s a reflection of him as a person. He’s frenetic and all over the place. He’s scatterbrained, ADHD. But it’s also very fluid, freeform, and organic, and it allows him to riff off the cuff, if you will. Batman’s OS is rigid, tactical and all about control, and LexOS is the exact opposite.

John: When Bruce Wayne is in public, he’s very restrained and soft-spoken, and Lex Luthor is a spaz. He’s shouting at everybody, his shirt is half untucked and he doesn’t care. It was about finding a way to match the personalities of these contrasting characters.

Interfaces for Lex Luthor screens. Courtesy of Perception.

Kirill: There were also a couple of sequences for Wonder Woman’s screen. Was that another different environment for you?

John: I’d say that the design process for that was a little less exciting and challenging. It was to create a very traditional and generic system that would effectively become transparent. We don’t want to imply that Wonder Woman herself is a hacker or has customized her own build of Linux. We want to say that she cracks open a machine that is straight off the shelf of some store to browse through email and see what’s going on in the news.

Kirill: Both Marvel and DC universes are set in present day, and their technology might be just a half step ahead of us. And what we have around is evolving pretty fast, with so many screens in our daily lives. Is it becoming harder for you to compete with that?

John: It’s always an interesting challenge. There’s a degree to which it can be deceptively easy to make something look more advanced. And there is an existing style guide on how to make a computer screen look like it’s from the future – you tint it blue and you make it glow a little more intensely. Or you add diagonal lines and circuitboard shapes. And there’s place for that, a place where it can add beauty to the aesthetic of the interfaces.

Interfaces for Batman vehicles. Courtesy of Perception.

But we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to try and go beyond that. Everyone is now better at critiquing a UI, and what makes a UI better is not just the aesthetic features. It needs to work and interact with the user in a way that is unexpected and surprising, but also deceptively simple and particularly elegant in how it’s executed.

That’s the challenge that we take on when we try to develop it when we’re working on film, and that translates into projects that we do on real-world UI as well.

Kirill: Talking about the critique that you’ve mentioned, do you find that some of it misses the primary objective of supporting the story and instead focuses on how realistic the interactions in the film is?

John: Filmmakers – directors, editors, cinematographers – are not doing their job right if they’re not communicating the story. That’s your first and foremost job when you’re making a film. People talk about “Access Denied” in huge letters on the screen, but that is motivated by the storytelling. You don’t want the realism of technology to come at the expense of storytelling.

Russ: If you’re talking about the director as a filmmaker, the UI is usually not the hero of the movie for them. The UI is just a storytelling device, just a vehicle to help get the point across. You don’t usually get long stretches of time to show the detailed UI stuff and let it all sink in. It’s on the screen for half a second, and it has to read super-fast. That’s where “Access Denied” comes from. Yes, it’s kind of goofy, but it gets the point across and reads very quickly.

Interfaces for Batman vehicles. Courtesy of Perception.

John: Everybody here is a geek and we want to show accurate and functional UIs that have cool features. But our goal, and part of our job, is working with all of our artists to support the story. Because if we don’t, we’ll get stuck with miserable requests to make the type three times larger. The idea is to make something that moves the narrative along where it needs to go.

Russ: Part of our job is to make something like “Access Denied” in a way that is interesting and appropriate to the film and the story, while still reading clearly.

Kirill: Do you worry about how your work will be seen in 20-25 years, what the next generation watching these films will think about the screen graphics and interfaces?

Russ: Absolutely. I grew up on Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, and those shaped my understanding of what technology in the future will look like when I was a kid. They look dated now, but there seemed to be purpose in what they did with the buttons and knobs. In contrast you look at some of the cartoons of the day, Voltron, Thundercats, etc. and their screens are literally flashing circles and lines just meant to add texture.

John: For me the goal is that you don’t want something that you look back upon in the same way you look upon Lost In Space where you just have panels of blinking Christmas lights. And the best way to make sure of that is to make a design that is utilitarian, purpose-driven and free from decorative elements. I want to create things that, even years from now, will be easily identified.

Russ: We don’t want to design things that seem purposeless.

John: You look at content in certain films, and it holds up when it’s purpose-driven. Look at Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey or Alien.

Russ: Alien is a fantastic example. You watch it and it’s very clearly a 1979 version of what the future is going to look like. I love what Ron Cobb did on it – the look of it, the thoughtful details that went into designing every single icon, button, and screen. You don’t need to know what these crazy shapes mean or do, but you get the sense that they all have purpose.

That is something that we really try to bring to every project. Hopefully it will hold up 20 or 30 years into the future, at least in terms of feeling purpose-driven and thoughtful.

Interfaces for Lex Luthor screens. Courtesy of Perception.

Kirill: I already asked John about this, so this is only for Russ this time. What do you tell people when they ask you what you do for a living?

Russ: If I don’t have a lot of time, I just tell them I work in visual effects. But if you’re talking about Perception and what we do here, it’s not something that can be summed up quite so succinctly. It’s the intersection of future tech, real-world forward-thinking futurism with the complete fantasy of film. It’s the middle of that Venn diagram. That’s where we live.

John: I usually ramble for about four minutes straight. And then I get to say that if you’re a movie geek and a technology geek, and you care about design, it’s the best job in the world.

Kirill: Do you find that people are surprised at hearing that these screens in movies and real world need to be designed?

John: Everyone is amazed that it’s a thing and that it’s your job. Then it settles in, and I think I had the same realization the first time I saw the Mark Coleman reel. There’s somebody that does nothing but this? Of course there is!

Kirill: Going to the world of real technology, there’s a lot of interest in augmented / virtual / mixed reality these days. It feels like people are still looking to define the vocabulary of interacting with that technology. Is this something that you are tracking to see how it can work for film storytelling?

John: We’ve been doing a lot of work in this space. There are a lot of things that we’re still learning about the space of AR and VR. There’s a certain amount that we can carry over from film in terms of directing the user’s attention across a larger 360-degree canvas. But you also have a lot of unique challenges there.

Luckily we are set up for that, because we don’t only do user interface design. We have background in 3D, of working with depth in physical space that fits well with these emerging technologies.

Russ: There are great challenges and great opportunities that come with designing interfaces for VR. When you are in the real world you can reach out in space to grab something, it’s very different from putting a button into a 2D screen and making it look appropriate.

Now with VR, especially with controller tracking, we have the potential of a fully spatial interface. It’s going to be really interesting to see where it ends up and how that will change the future of interface design. If VR really takes off it could be a big game-changer. Either way we as a community will come out on the other side with some good UI knowledge.

Interfaces for Lex Luthor screens. Courtesy of Perception.

Kirill: Are you excited about the progress of technology? Are we moving too fast and leaving too many people behind?

Russ: I can talk for hours about that and I have some mixed feelings about it. Technology is growing at such an accelerated rate – it’s so fascinating. But it is a double-edged sword. We’re likely going to see more change in the next ten years than we’ve seen in the last hundred years. And that’s fantastic and terrifying at the same time.

We’re just now starting to scratch the surface of what it means to be part of the global community. The internet has completely transformed the world in just a couple decades, and it’s just getting started. We’re talking Isaac Asimov sci-fi stuff happening in our lifetimes, and I don’t know how to feel about that.

John: My daughter is 2.5 years old, and I’m wildly excited for the things she’s going to see unfold in her lifetime. But I’m also absolutely terrified for the implications of some of these things and what is that going to mean for our world. We’ve had enough contact with some massive entities in the tech world that you can see ways it could get scary.

It’s great to see the progress and the speed with which things are moving forward right now. But it can also be scary to see the motivations behind it, the bureaucracy that they can get caught up in and the reason that certain technologies flourish for the sake of profit above all else. What does that mean for the rest of us who have to adopt that as our new normal?

Russ: And the new normal changes so fast these days.

John: Some days it looks like it’s going to be really cool Tony Stark, and some days it looks like it’s going to be nightmare Black Mirror.

Kirill: To me it felt like Black Mirror takes great technology and pushes the societal implications of it to the darker limits for a more dramatic effect.

John: And those things that can be horrifying, can also have positive ramifications. Some people say that Vietnam war began to come to a close when the photograph of the little Vietnamese girl covered with napalm running naked in a street was released. It was such a horrifying image that no one had to face before, and it made everybody rethink the reality of what was going on at that moment.

We’re now moving into a position where we’re seeing people’s deaths broadcast live on Facebook, and reeling from the impact of that. We’re literally months away from any tragedy or any impactful moment being broadcast live to everyone wherever they are. You don’t even have to be sitting in front of your TV and watching the news. You can be anywhere and it will be brought to your attention, from anywhere on the globe. You will watch the injustices on the other side of the globe, and it will make you rethink the decisions in your life in the context of that.

Screen graphics on “Batman v Superman”. Courtesy of Perception.

And here I’d like to thank both Russ Gautier and John LePore for finding time in their busy schedule to talk with me about their work. This is the second of two parts on the screen graphics / FUI work that Perception has been doing in the last few years – you can find the first part right here. And if you’re interested to read additional interviews about the wonderful world of screen graphics and user interfaces for film and TV, click here for more.