The art and craft of screen graphics – interview with Kristoffer Brady

February 22nd, 2018

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces, it’s my pleasure to welcome Kristoffer Brady. In this interview he talks about the relationship between tools and ideas, the what’s and the why’s of unsolicited redesigns, working within the constraints of project requirements and creating screen graphics that support the main story on feature film productions. We go back to Kristoffer’s earlier concept work on “Terminator: Genisys” and then dive deep into the screens and interaction surfaces of the recently released dystopian sci-fi “What Happened To Monday”.

Screens of “What Happened to Monday”, courtesy of Kristoffer Brady.

Kirill: Tell us about yourself and your path so far.

Kristoffer: It’s a path that takes a lot of different turns along the way. I’ve been an incessant doodler since day one, and among other things, originally I wanted to be a comic book artist. I grew up on 80’s and 90’s anime and movies, AD&D and Image comics and admired a lot of concept artists and sci-fi illustrators. All these things in my life affected my want to produce art and hopefully make a living at it.

After school, I sort of fell into the world of web design and Flash, which was really taking off at the time. It was such an interesting story telling medium and felt like an anything goes type of creative platform. At the time I was making fliers for raves and club nights, teaching myself 3D and Photoshop. Eventually, I got my foot in the door at an agency and in the beginning I was doing pretty boring run-of-the-mill websites.

Once I got legit work doing interactive jobs, and began paying attention to all the shops out there, I knew that this was where I needed to be at the time. There was some really inventive stuff coming out. I remember seeing an interactive site for “Donnie Darko” by a company called Hi-res, that just blew my mind. It was really like moving through a piece of art, but participating in how the story unfolded. It was the first time I had experienced interactive storytelling in that way, and it left a big impression on me. I remember sitting in my room with the lights off and my headphones on, fixated. For me, it was more powerful than watching any movie or playing any game.

I guess I started my official “career” in 2005, and I spent the next ten years working for various interactive digital production agencies in the US and Europe. I wore a lot of hats, pitching and producing, learning along the way and using the tools as they progressed and grew. I really loved interactive work, and at the time, it felt like the perfect cross-section between entertainment and functionality.

Every campaign had to be engaging but also fun and easy to use. When you are making an experience that has to pull the user in, either a boring story or frustrating usability will be the end of it. On one end it exposed me to designing things that people wanted to use, rather than just making a piece of art that someone has an emotional connection to, but on the other it also taught me about storytelling and using narrative to bridge those interactions together.

Between 2011 and 2012 I worked on several large campaigns, for the first “Thor” and the first “Avengers” movie. The premise was that you were a member of SHIELD and logging into their network, and it required a lot of these UI-type bits for the various components. I started doing research and I came across Mark Coleran’s work who, in my mind, pioneered a lot of the things that the UI artists are doing today. He already had videos talking about his process and I learned a lot from all his work. I downloaded everything from his site, trying to reverse engineer, and figure out how he made certain things. It was such a fun experience, and it opened up the possibility of ui being something I could do for a living.

I didn’t know anybody who worked in that industry, and I was enamored by it. Artists like GMUNK and Ian Sargent among others, were doing great things and it made me pay a lot more attention to the motion graphics industry.

In 2012 I was approached by Facebook. I took a break from interactive work to move to San Francisco to work there primarily as a communication designer, and also to do some product work. It was a new and interesting chapter, but I knew that I eventually wanted to pursue ui work and work on films.

Simian” – self-initiated design exercise, courtesy of Kristoffer Brady.

It was during this time that I started working a lot on self-initiated projects for myself. I had no ui work in my portfolio so I had to create some work to show what I could do. I put out a 1 minute motion piece, that was part of a larger idea, and it sort of blew up. That piece got me some attention, and I was eventually approached to do some concepts on “Terminator Genisys”.

I did a few frames with them and struck up a friendship with the VFX supervisor who was part of that project, and he’s the one that brought me to work on “What Happened to Monday”.

Beyond that, I wrapped up that movie after a year, spent some time working in VR for Oculus and and a small gaming studio, and then struck out as a freelancer which is where I’m at right now. I’m primarily focusing on UI design for feature films, with a few in the pipeline.

Kirill: On your site you say “Tools have evolved and changed. Industry standards become old news, quickly replaced by something new. I’ve embraced the idea that learning new skills and being versatile is a necessary part of the job.” Do tools matter if you don’t have the artistic sensibility to dream up something to begin with?

Kristoffer: There’s some truth in that, especially in this particular niche field. We’re creating these fantastical interfaces which then inspire people who create real ones, which we in turn reference to make something new and so on. I’ve been on both sides of that coin, where I’ve had to work on real platforms and products, and the constraints that come along with that are different from what you do when it needs to be entertaining and support the story. It has to adhere to a totally different set of rules.

The tools are always secondary to your ideas. I still always start on paper, no matter what. It’s way more freeing. I don’t try to make anything too rendered. It’s very loose, because I want my ideas to be that way. Very rarely do I sit down and start digitally. It doesn’t nearly produce the same results. If I do, I struggle to just to get to that core idea, and I’d rather do that on paper.

Evolving with the tools, as I mention on my site, is a necessary thing. I absolutely believe in that. You should never value your technical skills over your ability to produce great ideas, at least in position as an artist. I try to approach the problem from the standpoint of what it is that I’m trying to solve. If my current toolset does not allow for that thing to be solved, I’ll have to learn it, solve it and move on. I don’t need to become an expert in that particular piece of software. I don’t need to know everything or do every tutorial in order to master it. I just need that program to be my partner for a little bit while I solve this issue so I can get on and create the larger picture.

Having technical skills and being aware of what’s possible is necessary. Whenever I have worked alongside developers, even though I wasn’t coding, I needed to be able to speak that language. I needed to be aware of what was possible, because design and technology rise up together. It’s a relationship between the two because they are both part of the same whole.

Simian” – self-initiated design exercise, courtesy of Kristoffer Brady.

Kirill: I like what you said about the re-design you did for MPC Software – “I normally avoid un-solicited re-designs. You are too far removed from the decisions that were made, both from a visual aesthetic perspective and from a technical one.” Going back to that self-initiated FUI piece that you did to jump-start that part of your portfolio, do you think such projects are worth the time and the effort?

Kristoffer: A lot of the time you’re dealing with data sets that you don’t have access to otherwise. The MPC project was more of a re-skinning, not so much a re-design. I was using that software at the time, and I was unhappy with how it looked. It was a passion project for me. I even sent it to them, but nothing came out of it.

There’s a lot of unsolicited redesigns of this and that out there, and that’s fine. It’s a valid place to start. But you should approach it with a certain amount of humility. You don’t have the perspective of someone who is there building it. You spend some night in your bedroom on it, but you have no idea how much had to happen for it to get to where it is now. Obviously not everything that we see out there is good, but you can’t be ignorant of the process.

Not everyone has had the experience of being on such projects that are being used by millions of people on the daily basis, but you also need to be aware of the process and not fool yourself. But if you approach it as a way to show your thinking and your strategy to create strong composition and a balanced product, that’s an excellent way to work. Always present it in a correct light – not perhaps as a smarter approach or as a redesign but as your own take on it.

Concept design for first-person machine view of “Terminator: Genisys”, courtesy of Kristoffer Brady.

Kirill: People talk about Craigslist and how terrible it looks in their opinion, and they start redesigning it to be more “modern”. And on the other hand, sites like this one celebrate design that runs against the latest trends. How would you define what bad design is? Is it a universal concept? Is it something that doesn’t go well with the universe that it lives in, such as a movie for example?

Kristoffer: You’re starting to tread in subjective waters. If you’re talking about movie productions, there are cases where time runs out, or where constraints and criteria caused something to not match up the expectations. There are a lot of factors that go into something not looking 100%.

There’s definitely bad design out there. When I’m making anything, it’s always in a service of a larger thing, especially for film. The movie is not about the UI that I’m helping to create. I’m making a prop or a story beat that helps move the plot along. It’s not a showcase for UI. If I meet the needs of the director or the VFX supervisor, and it serves the purpose for the audience to understand and quickly digest, then I’ve done my part.

In that case it is about being effective. Whether it is subjectively good or bad is about taste more than anything else. That comes down to your understanding of what makes good design.

Concept design for first-person machine view of “Terminator: Genisys”, courtesy of Kristoffer Brady.

Kirill: People talk about timeless design, and yet they refer to such a tiny sliver of time of the entire human experience. So our notion of what is good design continues to evolve.

Kristoffer: There are trends of what is good at the moment. It used to be skeuomorphic, and now it’s flat, and it’s probably going to be skeuomorphic again. Who knows? It’s quite trend-driven.

My job is to come up with a creative solution within the constraints that I’m given. I want to entertain people, and I want to entertain myself. I want to create something that hasn’t been done before. I want to try and outdo myself. It’s about staying on top of what other people are doing, and also about finding new ways to research and understand technology. It’s about growing as a designer while creating things.

Concept design for first-person machine view of “Terminator: Genisys”, courtesy of Kristoffer Brady.

Kirill: Let’s get into a bit more detail on your work on “Genisys”. I remember watching the first “Terminator” when I was about 11, and the most terrifying thing for me was that red-black scan interface as the camera switches to the machine’s point of view as it is scanning the area around it. What I loved about “Genisys” was how it both preserved the approach and also evolved it into a more modern look. How do you approach taking something as iconic as that and giving it your own personal treatment 25 years later?

Kristoffer: I started on the far end of the spectrum. I went all retro because that was what was requested. I was trying to be respectful of the franchise as you said, but also to inject nuance of newness into it at the same time.

It was a pretty fast sprint, and I stayed with it for a month or so. It went to a more modern gridded look, and that’s what my final plates ended up looking like. I was a part of visual development, and the final look in the movie was different from what I did at the end.

I looked at a lot of real-world machine vision references. When you strip away the fancy stuff that we try to create, and simply produce something functional like Craigslist that you mentioned, there’s no need for it to look pretty if it serves its purpose. If I was a single-minded killer robot, I wouldn’t need to have fancy transitions or beveled edges. I would need it to be functional.

It’s also about the mood it conveys. As a member of the audience, I look at it and it feels utilitarian and cold. There are no human hands behind it. It was put together by a cold heartless robotic entity. So the shape language that I was trying to use at the time for the first-person perspective of the robot is intentional. It needs to look and feel that way, for you to subconsciously pick up on the fact that it shouldn’t feel inviting. It should feel cold and stark and off-putting.

Concept design for first-person machine view of “Terminator: Genisys”, courtesy of Kristoffer Brady.

Kirill: What do you remember to be the most surprising or unexpected thing when you started working on feature films? As you said, you were exploring the FUI work of others earlier and perhaps thinking of the glamour of that world. But then you go into the proverbial sausage factory and see how things work on the inside which might not match what you thought of it.

Kristoffer: “What Happened to Monday” was a huge learning experience. It was the first true feature film that I’ve worked on from early pre-production through post.

But even now after having seen how the sausage is made, I love the taste of the sausage [laughs]. I am humbled and happy to be continuing to do it. It is very much new to me, and I am standing on the shoulders of giants. I have a lot of respect for anyone who is doing this work.

The main thing that I took from working on “What Happened to Monday” was the amount of people, time and effort that goes into working on a film. It’s incredible. There are so many moving parts. All the people and all the various companies are working on all the little pieces, and it’s all coming together. It was wonderful to see the layering of craft happen, and to be a small part of it.

Screens of “What Happened to Monday”, courtesy of Kristoffer Brady.

There were a lot of late nights. There were a lot of long hours and a lot of shots. But I don’t regret it at all, and I am humbled to have been asked to be a part of that process.

As far as lessons go, learning more about the pipeline and how what I do in Illustrator or AfterEffects eventually makes it onto the screen was really eye opening. That process is on the technical side of things. From the narrative perspective, you need to understand when you need to create something that fits into the environment while looking technically interesting. And then you have the hero shots where I’m really part of moving the story along. We had a lot of those on “What Happened to Monday”. It was a challenge to make sure that I structured my design to properly communicate exactly what the director wanted in that moment.

Kirill: Going back to the beginning of that pre-production phase, was it clear that you were signing up for a project of that magnitude that would take a whole year of your life?

Kristoffer: It is hard to ballpark, especially having never been a part of a larger production before. I’m fortunate to have been in the good hands of Bryan Jones who was the VFX supervisor on that film.

I was not fully aware of how much work that amount of shots would be. But I was aware that those kinds of opportunities don’t come along very often. It was way too important to pass up. I knew that it was going to be an incredible learning experience. Also, being that early into the production gave me the freedom to do more world building and creative writing to build up the backstory of how all the technology fit together. It was incredibly satisfying. The more I participate in other films, the more I recognize that opportunity as unique.

Screens of “What Happened to Monday”, courtesy of Kristoffer Brady.

Kirill: The main timeline of the movie is somewhere in the 2040s. That places it in a timeframe that is not too far enough to be too fantastic, but not too close enough to require you to stay with perhaps the next generation of our devices. Did that you give a lot of freedom to explore where the world of technology would evolve by that time? There are a lot of interesting interaction there – the mirror, the bracelet, the boxing bag – which are not around the corner yet.

Kristoffer: I’ve seen some real world versions of mirrors that people have made and posted about, but obviously nothing of that scanning magnitude. The mirror was an important story device too. It needed to communicate the daily transformation of Karen and the oppressive struggle that the seven sisters had whenever they wanted to go outside. The mirror always made sure that the outside world saw the same person in the same way. That was important from the narrative perspective, and it served that purpose.

Kirill: Did you sketch those interaction during pre-production to discuss the portrayal of that technology?

Kristoffer: All of my communication was through the VFX supervisor. He was on set, talking with Noomi about what hand motions to make, just enough to not have me pull my hair out when I got the plates. It was challenging sometimes to match it up. I had to make some critical decisions about where things needed to be, because there were already hand motions in those particular places.

As far as the tech being far enough into the future, because of the setting, it needed to feel utilitarian and controlling. It also needed to be somewhat grounded in reality, and I feel that the choices we made to maintain that were well suited, while still feeling futuristic. It wasn’t too over the top. And by not having to explain how those bracelets worked or the tech behind it, we were freed to create whatever interaction paradigms we wanted for them.

Screens of “What Happened to Monday”, courtesy of Kristoffer Brady.

Kirill: I loved how the mirror supported the need for the sisters to have their own unique personality inside the apartment, and yet be seen as one outside of it. So perhaps in a sense, that mirror is a character in the story, as the camera spends so much time on it. Did you feel the need to spend additional time to work on extra details or progressive reveal of functionality as we get deeper into the story?

Kristoffer: The mirror was definitely one of the biggest challenges on that project, and Tommy Wirkola the director focused on that. The story comes back to it several times, and it needed to be consistent and clear.

We had multiple design revisions. It went from an advanced technology with a lot of animations to something much more stripped down. I was very pleased with the end result. Sometimes during the process, especially early on in the process when you’re working on it without the actual plates, you don’t know how much of it is going to be on screen and how it fits into the beat. Once the shots starting coming in, things became clearer. You strip away all the unnecessary parts.

But I still wanted it to feel like a real thing that was being used and tried to make the secondary elements reflect that. It had different modes and variations of her skin tones, and additional data that talks about what is happening to her and what needs to be fixed. Those are the framework parts that help prop up the rest. Even if it’s not central to the beat, it allows me to have fun while building up the design. The scan data markers that pop up are the real story points that are communicating something to her and to the audience. As long as that central core element was nailed, the rest was more of a wrapper, but it still needed to make sense.

Screens of “What Happened to Monday”, courtesy of Kristoffer Brady.

Kirill: What was the idea of having government-issued bracelets as communication and identification devices, in addition to the tablets?

Kristoffer: The bracelet, tablet, mirror and screens were all a core part of the story by the time I came on to create the designs. It was never a question of what was more effective, since those were written into the script to serve a purpose.

Maybe some of the things they did on the tablet could have been done on the bracelet, but you’re dealing with technology that the audience has to buy into a bit more so there’s an additional level of immersion there. For that reason maybe different interactions were happening on the different devices.

Kirill: I like what you said earlier about grounding the technology in realism, like not having any holograms or particle clouds hovering above surfaces. And yet, throughout the movie we see that information appears on a lot of surfaces – like the mirror, the bracelet projection onto the palm of your hand, the incubator walls at the end. I found that interesting to think about what can happen beyond the very specific screen hardware of today. Was it much different to design for surfaces instead of screens?

Kristoffer: The bracelet gets into the light field AR tech a bit. It’s projection-based technology, or at least was meant to be. It was an interesting challenge to conform designs to a hand and use gesture based interactions versus the tapping on screens or tablets.

It’s really just about solving for the constraints. If the need for the design is to be more 3D or to have more depth in order to properly communicate that instance, then you use that subset of tools to approach it. In a flat space, you have a library of interactions and paradigms that people are already accustomed to, and you build on top of that, whereas with a 3D object you can be more expressive.

The approaches are all slightly different, but in the end you’re still trying to solve for what that particular scene may have needed.

Screens of “What Happened to Monday”, courtesy of Kristoffer Brady.

Kirill: There were a couple of sets that had multiple connected screens – one in their apartment, and another in the server room of the medical facility. Did you have a design system with widgets you’ve created to use for replicating and populating content across those screens to appear consistent without being repetitive?

Kristoffer: Absolutely, and that was a moment of responding to the production design and having to adhere to the constraints that were created by it. Some screens didn’t have edges. Some had rounded corners and varied in size. So some of the normal things that you do, like creating grids, start falling apart a bit.

Because of this we opted for a more modular approach. I created a lot of little pieces that we then could stack and shift around to imply complexity in places. Some of those had to be a part of very specific story points, and we layered things to point at the piece that we wanted to fill the frame in the center.

Screens of “What Happened to Monday”, courtesy of Kristoffer Brady.

Kirill: There’s a certain vocabulary that has been developed for portraying technology, especially on screens. Blue and green is good. Red and orange is bad. A warning is giant red blinking text in the middle of the screen. How do you find the balance between conveying a story point in the time that you have and designing your own take on these interactions?

Kristoffer: It is very theatrical in a way when you have to amplify things. In theater they speak loudly, so that the back of the audience can hear everything. It’s the same with ui sometimes. You pump up those elements so that the audience doesn’t have to make too much of an effort to think about it. They see it and automatically understand and move on. You’re still a part of the story. I don’t have an issue with that, and it’s about finding clever ways of approaching that.

I have made some UI with unfortunate giant warning signs on them, but sometimes that’s not up to me, and instead up to the director and what they want out of the shot. I don’t find it conflicting. It’s up to us as designers to find the most elegant solution for the problem. Slapping a giant warning box on it is probably not the best approach, and if you can find a more elegant solution that effectively communicates the same thing the giant box can, then you’ve done your job. It’s about using your skillset to work within those constraints.

Screens of “What Happened to Monday”, courtesy of Kristoffer Brady.

Kirill: What about the colors? Does it feel that you’re confined to a rather small part of the color spectrum, as productions usually don’t do magentas, yellows or browns, for example?

Kristoffer: The blue is at this point a bit of a trope.

For “What Happened To Monday”, it was just another constraint. I’m not unhappy with anything that ended up on screen, but initially I was pushing towards a more monochromatic-type look for everything, kind of E Ink or Kindle. I was thinking of something stark, something cold. That didn’t match up with what the director wanted so I moved on and embraced the direction.

I worked with that spectrum, and I’m very pleased with everything. When I saw the final cut, it didn’t bother me at all. I thought it fit the world well. That said though, I definitely don’t want to do blue screens for the rest of my life.

Kirill: It’s kind of a self-reinforcing cycle. The more productions of this kind use this approach, the more it becomes the canon, if you will.

Kristoffer: There’s some audience expectation in there too that people immediately understand what it is they are looking at. It’s up to us as designers to try to push that envelope. Even if it’s not what ends up on screen, you try to inject what you think is interesting into the process. That’s our job. You work within constraints, but also try to inspire and change people’s minds about what looks good on screen.

Screens of “What Happened to Monday”, courtesy of Kristoffer Brady.

Kirill: When you meet somebody new at a party and they ask you what do you do for a living, what is your answer?

Kristoffer: You should ask my wife this question, because she gets really frustrated with me. I tend to say that I’m a graphic designer because it’s something people know and understand. I guess if I had to define it I’d call myself a concept designer and UI artist who also animates. I’ll try to break it down and say that I work on technology that exists within the world of that particular film, and that the technology can have screens or holograms or some type of broadcast mechanism that the actors interact with or stand next to. I’ll say that the technology needs to be designed to fit in that world, and sometimes play a part in the story.

Kirill: We have so many screens on and around us nowadays, and software is an integral part of those devices. Do you think people are surprised to hear that the screens they see in film need to be designed?

Kristoffer: I don’t think they are surprised and usually people become quite interested. The reaction I normally get is people saying that they’ve always wondered how those are made and how those come to be.

If anything, we are going to have more screens, in our homes and on our appliances. As our technology evolves, our acceptance to have screens everywhere and not just computers will grow. It will be interesting to see what will happen in ten years when you’re designing something grounded in reality. How futuristic is it going to feel? How are you going to design tech for a spy movie in that time? What kind of technology will be just around the corner then?

If I’m tasked tomorrow to design UI that needs to be near-future, I’ll try to avoid things that are too fantastic or too far away from the scope of today’s technology. But if I’m still designing UI for film in 2028 it will be interesting what “grounded in reality” would look like at that time. How different will it be? Will there be AR everywhere? How will we create new things to push the envelope and inspire new technology as we’re doing today? It’s a fun thought.

Screens of “What Happened to Monday”, courtesy of Kristoffer Brady.

Kirill: If we’re talking about the world of real-life technology of today and near future, what are your thoughts on that? Does it feel that we’ve come to rely on technology too much?

Kristoffer: I’m quite conscious how much it is a part of my daily life. I do remember not having a phone around all the time when I was younger. I grew up spending a lot of time outdoors, and now I’m in front of a screen 10–12 hours every day and sometimes more. And that’s not even counting being on the phone. That’s just working and building things.

Just recently my wife and I started this thing where we bought analog alarm clocks for our bedroom. We’re not using phones as alarms anymore. They don’t go in the bedroom at all. It’s little things like that. Things that try to bridge the gap between us and the technology. You forget how it gets tethered to you and how you take it for granted that it’s always around. You’re reaching for it in your pocket when it’s not even there. It’s crazy.

I wouldn’t say that I’m scared. I’m more concerned about humans than I am about technology at this point. But it is going to get weird with things like AI and machine learning. In a sense, we are evolving alongside our technological inventions, and that line will become blurrier over time.

Screens of “What Happened to Monday”, courtesy of Kristoffer Brady.

Kirill: I also remember the time when we didn’t have cell phones on us every waking moment. But I also never had to pump water out a well. And I also never didn’t spend my evenings reading books by the candlelight because electricity hasn’t been invented yet. So maybe the next decade or two will be much like the decades and centuries before them, and we as a society evolve alongside the technology.

Kristoffer: One thing that is already happening is how our relationship with the technology and our ability as people to consume data is affecting our culture. The way we do that today is having a big impact on people. It’s disrupting all kinds of things, social, economic and elsewhere.

I don’t think we’re going to have replicants running around quite yet. But AI is going to get super-crazy and bizarre, and I’m excited to see that. I obviously don’t know what all the possibilities are. I exist in my little corner of the world, and as long as I’m able to create my art and learn from my colleagues to participate in this creative space, I’m happy.

As a creative thinker and problem solver, I think that the critical thinking discipline might be in the safer camp. But who knows? Maybe there will be AI-driven UI design programs, and I’ll have to pivot. I’ve done it before, so that’s ok. My path hasn’t been a straight line, and that’s a part of being a creative person. It’s growing and learning. We should want to grow alongside the platform that we’re standing on.

Kirill: My take on this is that while technology might be evolving more rapidly, it’s still a gradual process and new things don’t just arrive fully materialized one day out of nothing. So over those ten years until 2028 we will have a chance to adapt and change our own paths.

Kristoffer: I do feel that technology is an extension of humanity. We’re creating it. I’m not arguing that it’s the next step of human evolution or anything like that, but I do think that humans are somehow ingrained with the need to improve and create new things. Unfortunately, history proves that it’s not always the wisest thing to just blindly push into that new territory.

I don’t have any power over that. I’m just trying to be good to other people and to myself, have a craft that I can be proud of, and hopefully make something genuine along the way.

Screens of “What Happened to Monday”, courtesy of Kristoffer Brady.

And here I’d like to thank Kristoffer Brady for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk with me about the wonderful world of screen graphics for feature film, and for sharing the supporting images. You can find more of Kristoffer’s work on Instagram, Vimeo and Twitter. “What Happened on Monday” is playing on Netflix, and his latest feature is “Black Panther” in theaters everywhere.

Finally, 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.