The art and craft of screen graphics – interview with Serge Khomutovskiy

June 1st, 2018

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces, it’s my pleasure to welcome Serge Khomutovskiy. In this interview he talks about what drew him into the field, the relationship between tools and ideas, the crazy pace of work in the world of episodic television, and what goes into creating screen graphics that support the story. In between and around, Serge talks about his work on “Legends of Tomorrow”, “Arrow”, “The Flash”, “Supergirl” and “Wayward Pines”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your path so far.

Serge: Hi! My name is Serge and I am a creative designer based in Vancouver, BC. I graduated from Simon Fraser University’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology with a BA in Design and Media Arts. During my co-op placement the second Iron Man movie came out and inspired me to start an ambitious project that led me to where I am. I only had a basic knowledge about green screen and compositing from the few courses and videos I learned from. The project was to create a promotional video that showed a co-op student interacting with a virtual environment like menu that explored co-operative education options available to her. This project was a stepping stone to my career now as a motion designer and lead me to invest more time into learning and exploring the industry.

Kirill: What drew you into the field of motion and graphic design, and how did that change now that you do this for a living?

Serge: I’ve always been somewhat creative and originally wanted to get into print design or do some sort of graphic design. Growing up I read and watched a lot of sci-fi and was hugely inspired and enchanted by the worlds built in Neuromancer, Dune, Gundam, Star Wars and Star Trek, and a bunch of other less prominent franchises. Those stories will always have a special place in my heart and have definitely inspired me to explore and grow.

I was very fortunate and got to work with and learn from the amazing Robyn Haddow, Jeremy Unrau and Nick Oja at Scarab Digital. I have always been inspired by the works of Ash Thorp, Danny Yount, Corey Bramall, Jayse Hansen, to name a few. Direct exposure to motion graphics community was what drew me in. The openness, sharing of knowledge and support is what amazes me and keeps me going.

Screen graphics for “Arrow” season 4. Courtesy of Serge Khomutovskiy.

Kirill: Between the ideas in your head and the tools at your fingertips, do they have equal importance, or is one more important than the other?

Serge: Tools are important when you first start, but as you gain experience you build a library of various skills and techniques you can use that come naturally. Once those skills are developed and you have a workflow figured out, ideas become much more important.

Kirill: When you read a script and start thinking about the particular screens, do you go to pencil-and-paper, or straight to digital tools?

Serge: It largely depends on the scene, actor action and what’s been already built. Smaller background screens don’t require any interaction and are simply there for one reason, and that is to be a cool background. Those don’t require a lot of work and sometimes can be thrown together from previously created pieces. Most of the time it really helps to draw down a few things, sometimes a mind map, sometimes a diagram, to figure out what will actually be happening on the screen.

Screen graphics for “Arrow” season 5. Courtesy of Serge Khomutovskiy.

Kirill: What was, or perhaps still is, the most surprising or unexpected thing about doing screen graphics in episodic television?

Serge: Variety. I’m still surprised by the amount of variety that screen graphics can bring. Anything from your usual and very basic email and text editor to a complex schematic managing ion drive manifold (or something like that).

Kirill: What do you say when people ask what you do for a living? Are people surprised to hear that every single screen needs to be explicitly designed?

Serge: At the very basic level, “motion design and animation” usually gets the idea across. If I need to get into details then yeah, explaining that most if not all of the screens that people see in the scene are specifically designed, surprises a lot of people. It’s a simple thing that stays in the background and a lot of the time, out of focus, but every little detail contributes to the set and atmosphere.

Screen graphics for “Arrow” season 5. Courtesy of Serge Khomutovskiy.

Kirill: As you work on shows set in the present day, do you find yourself competing against the screens that people have in their daily lives?

Serge: It is sometimes difficult to design something that is set in present day, but doesn’t look exactly like what people use every day. How do you design a text editor screen that isn’t Microsoft Word but closely resembles one and is easily identifiable as a text editor? A lot of research! Common practices and design principles help a lot.

Kirill: How crazy is the pace of work on episodic television? How many episodes do you find yourself juggling at the same time?

Serge: It’s pretty crazy! A lot of work is done for on set playback and most of the time you’re working on multiple episodes. The work you do today, will most likely go out on the set tomorrow morning. Hero screens do take longer so they need to be planned in advance.

Screen graphics for “The Flash” season 2. Courtesy of Serge Khomutovskiy.

Kirill: With so many screens for so many episodes, do you have some kind of a design system that allows you to scale your work to fill all those screens on each set?

Serge: Just your usual project managing system. Trello, Jira, Shotgun. Every studio has their own system and knowing the few most popular ones makes it easier to deal with most of them. Planning, delivery dates, revisions, etc. It definitely helps having a project manager!

Kirill: As there are so many screens in these shows, how do you visualize the flow of information when you are working on them at your desk that has, probably, fewer monitors on it?

Serge: Most people don’t work with more than 1-2 monitors. I’ve seen some game developers’ desks that had 6-8 screens and that was crazy!

In the shows, each screen tells a certain story. Scripts help figure out this story and interaction between actors and screens and overall flow of things on the set. Building a little map for myself helps understand and visualize this interaction.

Screen graphics for “Legends of Tomorrow” season 1. Courtesy of Serge Khomutovskiy.

Kirill: What happens before a new season of a show begins? If we’re talking about “Legends of Tomorrow”, what does it take to define the visual language of the show’s technology?

Serge: Before a new season starts there’s a bit of R&D, sorting of assets. I think it’s important to identify and establish where the inspiration comes from for the visual language. Since Legends of Tomorrow is set in our galaxy, there isn’t much of alien tech influence. It’s your basic human ingenuity and science. Even though some of the technology is borderline fictional is it still based on earthly science, and I feel like 80s and retro futurism have influenced its visual language a bit.

Screen graphics for “Legends of Tomorrow” season 2. Courtesy of Serge Khomutovskiy.

Kirill: How much evolution to you put into the screens as episodes progress throughout the season to keep it visually fresh and engaging?

Serge: It depends largely on the story. Some screens never change, and why would, for example an airlock control panel ever change? It serves one purpose and changing its look may create confusion and draw unwanted attention.

On the other hand if you have an in-house wiz/hacker like Felicity or Sisco and they’re constantly developing new gadgets and tech then it should be reflected in designs as well. Changes are usually small and gradual. For example screen graphics in The Flash have changed their overall blue hue scheme from more turquoisy to more darker navy blue.

Kirill: As you work on consecutive seasons of shows such as “Arrow” or “The Flash”, how much do the visuals change between the seasons?

Serge: I think visuals and screen graphics have become a lot more sophisticated and essentially become story telling mechanisms when before they were mostly used as cool techy-looking backgrounds. A lot more attention is being paid to what’s happening on the screens that actors are interacting with. You can’t really get away with using source code from an old Pong game as a means of hacking into one of the most secure server earth. Gotta improvise!

Screen graphics for “Wayward Pines” season 2. Courtesy of Serge Khomutovskiy.

Kirill: What happens for you when you get into a new season of a show that you haven’t worked on, such as “Supergirl” or “Wayward Pines”? How much do you study and evolve what was done on that show before?

Serge: It takes a bit of a catch-up, that’s for sure. When it’s a completely new show/film for me, personally I need to get familiar with its canons and established visual language. With large shows like that, most of the time a lot of designs get inherited and evolve in very small increments, to stay true with the overarching scheme and history.

Kirill: I notice that your work breaks the conventional boundaries of blue-teal-green color palettes and explores almost the entire color spectrum. How difficult is it to go against the grain, so to speak, of what we see in the current wave of sci-fi productions?

Serge: I think it’s fun! Exploration and experimentation is important to finding a good fit for the visual language. Of course, it’s important to understand why certain practices are in place. Sometimes there are certain technical limitations that need to be addressed. For example, certain cameras simply won’t pick up bright colours from screen graphics on the set and it just looks like a bright white blob of… nothingness.

Screen graphics for “Supergirl” season 2. Courtesy of Serge Khomutovskiy.

Kirill: Do you get to fully enjoy shows that you work on when you watch them on TV, given how much you know about the plot lines?

Serge: That’s the hard part. Since we get to read scripts we spoil the whole thing for ourselves. I have never really been bothered by the whole spoiler culture so it’s not that big of a deal if I already know what’s going to happen in the next episode. I still fully enjoy seeing the work I produce being interacted with by the actors. You’d think there isn’t much room for interpretation but sometimes actor see it differently and it’s very fun to see them improvise and make the most of it!

Kirill: What are your thoughts on the cliche huge flashing red “Access Denied” dialogs? How do you balance the need to quickly convey a story point and staying true to the technical nature of these interfaces?

Serge: It’s a story telling mechanism. As much as I care about realism and usability, there are certain things that can not be communicated clearly without being large and flashy. Red flashing sign communicates a sense of urgency and the need to attract attention because “something’s wrong! hey! look here! NOW!”. If we’re looking at a real life interface, most of the time it’s presenting us with a ton of data. Unless you’re specifically trained to read it, this data won’t make much sense to a regular person.

Screen graphics for “The Flash” season 2. Courtesy of Serge Khomutovskiy.

Take a fighter jet pilot, when they look at the dashboard with 50+ switches and lights, everything makes sense to them. Slight variation in lights tells them that something is wrong and they can react to it accordingly. As a regular viewer, looking at such a complicated dashboard and trying to figure out what’s wrong would take way too much time which you wouldn’t have in a dire situation. Balancing realism with story telling points is not easy, sometimes some sacrifices have to be made for clarity and ease of understanding.

Kirill: How important for you are your side projects where you explore your own ideas?

Serge: Very important! It’s how I stay sane and continue to grow as a person and as a designer. Eventually everyone hits that moment when new ideas… are just not popping up. I think it’s very important to explore, even outside of your field. Inspiration is fickle thing.

Screen graphics for “The Flash” season 2. Courtesy of Serge Khomutovskiy.

Kirill: If I’m a designer that wants to get into this field, and I’m considering doing a few of these self-initiated projects, what would you say should I keep my focus on?

Serge: Do the work you want to do. Even it’s not going to be at the feature film level, it’s a start. Take a course, do tutorials and apply that to what you want to do. Don’t just blindly follow the steps and copy, improvise, remix! You only get better at something if you keep at it. And share it! You may have an amazing project sitting on your drive, but no one would know about it if you don’t show it to anyone.

Kirill: How do you like the software tools at your disposal, and what would be the top wish items from those tools for you?

Serge: Simply love Illustrator, everything is scalable! Integration between AE and Premier was an amazing new feature. I guess more integration between AE and C4D would be interesting, but there are a few workflows that worked well for me in the past, so I can’t complain.

New plugins and effects are always cool!

Screen graphics for “The Flash” season 3. Courtesy of Serge Khomutovskiy.

Kirill: What do you think about the screens and technology in our daily lives? On the spectrum of “bringing the humanity together” and “destroying the very fabric of our society”, where do you fall?

Serge: I think there can be a middle ground found where screen tech can augment and help with daily lives without impacting human society to the point of isolation and alienation. There will always be someone who would take either side to the extreme, but as we know only Sith deal in absolutes. Although, then there’s the whole debate about Sith not being entirely evil…

Screen graphics for “Legends of Tomorrow” season 1. Courtesy of Serge Khomutovskiy.

And here I’d like to thank Serge Khomutovskiy for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk with me about the art and craft of screen graphics, and for sharing the supporting images. You can find more of Serge’s work on his Behance page. 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.