The art and craft of screen graphics – interview with Gladys Tong

July 19th, 2018

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces, it’s my pleasure to welcome Gladys Tong. She started her company G Creative Productions about 20 years ago, and since then the studio’s work was featured in a wide array of productions such as I, Robot, Fantastic Four, 2012, Watchmen, Man of Steel, Ender’s Game, Elysium, Chappie, Godzilla, Altered Carbon, The Cloverfield Paradox, Batman v Superman and Star Trek Beyond.

Screen graphics for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Courtesy of G Creative and Warner Bros.

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

Gladys: My name is Gladys Tong and I run a small company called G Creative Productions. I have always loved art and science so when I discovered that I could make a living combining the two, I jumped in with both feet! When I started 20 years ago, there were not a lot of people doing what I do today so the path for me has been relatively uncharted. It has led me to an interesting career and some wonderful people whom I have had the good fortune to work with.

Kirill: What drew you into the field of interactive motion graphics, and how has that changed since you’ve started working professionally in this field?

Gladys: As I mentioned, I was always interested in art and science. From drawing at an early age to learning about multimedia with computers it was a natural evolution for me to be drawn to interactive motion graphics. Twenty years ago most people including my friends and family did not understand what I did. Now with more exposure through films and tv shows as well as online access to information it has exploded and now there are more people and companies in this field. It’s an exciting time.

Screen graphics for X-Men: Last Stand. Courtesy of G Creative and 20th Century Fox.

Kirill: What can you tell us about G Creative?

Gladys: I started the company in Canada and chose the name in a hurry. I wanted something short and simple – just a letter but wasn’t allowed to incorporate a company with just one letter of the alphabet so I had to come up with a longer name. Many people assume that the G stands for Gladys but it actually represents more than me – graphics, geek, gear, green (for green screen) to name a few. I like the ambiguity and endless possibilities. Much like what we do there are no right answers to everything but many possible answers.

G Creative’s mission statement is to fuse compelling imagery with targeted technology to present a story that inspires, entertains, and informs an audience. This represents a philosophy that I try very hard to achieve in practice through the work we do both in hardware and software services as well as the people I work with. I have a great collective of talented artists, designers, and technicians whom I am thankful for.

Screen graphics for The A-Team. Courtesy of G Creative and 20th Century Fox.

Kirill: When you meet a new person and they ask you what you do for a living, how do you describe it?

Gladys: When I meet a person that I don’t know I tend to describe what I do with words that are more general and easy to comprehend. So I tend to say computer graphics as that seems to be received with nods of understanding. If the conversation goes further, I usually elaborate with the film industry which yields similar nods of familiarity. If I actually describe what I do, I get perplexed facial expressions that suggest a need to decipher this cryptic job I have.

What I do for a living is not as common so people have a harder time grasping the fact that there is a job like this and that it involves a seemingly unusual combination of tech and creativity. Even people that I work with within the film industry sometimes find what we do strange or surprising. In a world that’s increasingly converging I think that will be less so.

Screen graphics for Robocop. Courtesy of G Creative and Columbia.

Kirill: What are your thoughts on the word “fantasy” in Fantasy UIs?

Gladys: I tend to use more traditional terms like graphical UI’s, interactive UI’s, or fictional UI’s to describe what I think you are calling Fantasy UI’s. It’s probably just semantics but I find the word fantasy less encompassing because many of our interfaces are based on reality and though they don’t exist in real life, they are rooted in reality so I would use fictional rather than fantasy. If the interfaces we are designing happen to be complete fabrications from our imagination, then I would probably describe those specifically as fantasy UI’s.

Screen graphics for Elysium. Courtesy of G Creative and Sony Pictures.

Kirill: Do you try to stay current on the technological advances that are happening in commercial products and research labs?

Gladys: I try to. In fact I have to if I want to be good at what I do. Many of our film projects require our understanding of what is happening technologically in the past, present, and future. There are also different demographics of users within a film project that we need to consider so for example, a young character in high school would be very different from a older professor in a top secret research lab.

Having the knowledge of the trends and research areas also allows us to have a pulse on how software or hardware is being used. We can bring this knowledge back to a film project by advising a production that their character may be using a mobile device rather than a laptop for their social media posts as an example. It could also provide us with a solid basis to catapult ourselves into a futuristic mindset that can help inspire and engage our imagination. This is helpful for our more futuristic science fiction projects where we are allowed to take the technology further that is not here yet but can be.

Screen graphics for Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Courtesy of G Creative and 20th Century Fox.

Oftentimes we will question or raise issues about the choice of technology or graphics requested with a director, writer, or production designer. This is a common criticism that happens with our work when people see software behave in ways that are not reflective of reality. This is justified for those of us who generate graphics for the sake of aesthetics rather than reality. If we’ve done our homework, we try to bring more thought to it by having the conversation. That’s where the education and keeping up to speed with the technology comes in. It takes more time and investment to go deeper and to think about what we are being asked to do.

The technology reflected in our films and tv shows today is a good example of how fast the changes have been and how much we have adopted those change into our lives.

One of the biggest reasons I enjoy what we do is having a pulse on technology’s role and relevance with our human existence. Technology will affect our lives more and more and the narratives we can engage in through our projects have become an important source of conversation. I feel it is not enough to just do the research learning about what is happening with trends and the latest technological advances in labs or companies. It requires educating ourselves about people and what it means to different people. Since it is changing so fast it’s hard to keep up with the pace. My job has allowed me to contemplate the many issues surrounding technology, think about its ethics, consider its effects and how to deal with it appropriately for our lives. The ubiquitous use of mobile devices, privacy, security, and social media are big topics these days.

Screen graphics for Star Trek: Beyond. Courtesy of G Creative and Paramount.

Kirill: And on a related note, with so many screens around us in the last few years, does it become more difficult for you to push the envelope of human-computer interaction in your feature productions?

Gladys: I think the power of the human imagination is incredible so I don’t believe there is a limit to what we are all capable of dreaming up. However it’s the interpretation of what pushing the envelope for human-computer interaction means that gets interesting. There are lots of examples of exciting new designs that look “cool” but aren’t usable. For me, communication and usability are the most important considerations when it comes to story-telling and believability. Communicating “cool” is also important for entertainment and engagement but it should never override clarity of message.

Screen graphics for Star Trek: Beyond. Courtesy of G Creative and Paramount.

I would think the ultimate human-computer interaction is actually more invisible. We don’t want to be always bound by rectangular 2D displays and goggles. We want effortless interaction. So if we can start asking the right questions to look deeper and provide solutions in context then we may even end up reducing the amount of graphical screen work we are accustomed to but if it’s more appropriate and thoughtful then that’s exciting to me.

With the changing technology, there’s always something new to talk about and our approach to it is to find the deeper aspect and develop our concepts and ideas from there. It’s more challenging to steer it away from what has been done before with the crowded landscape but it’s also exciting to push ourselves and our imaginations.

Kirill: What are the tools that you are using? Do you start with pencil-and-paper?

Gladys: We use everything and anything that we can afford. Pencil and paper is the cheapest so yes that’s one of our tools.

Screen graphics for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Courtesy of G Creative and Warner Bros.

Kirill: Are the ever-increasing demands for details and sophistication from the productions met by the companies who are making software and hardware tools that you are using?

Gladys: We have been able to do our job with what is available software and hardware so I have to say yes for now. However it’s a changing equation of expectation and delivery so we shall see. You never have a fast enough computer or good enough software to do everything you want but I think it’s also how you are using what you have. When I started, we had a fraction of the available hardware and software compared to today but we were able to do everything that we needed to. It’s also about managing expectations.

Kirill: How do you combine the realism of our everyday interactions with technology with demands for novelty and short screen time that you have for your interfaces in film?

Gladys: We haven’t had an issue yet but maybe we are not pushing the novelty factor to have noticed. If you are too novel people don’t recognize it so in the short time we have to tell a story, we have less opportunity to deviate from what is recognizable.

Screen graphics for The Cloverfield Paradox. Courtesy of G Creative and Netflix.

Kirill: Is the big red “Access Denied” warning a necessary compromise to quickly convey a story point?

Gladys: No, I don’t think so. I think there are more imaginative ways to tell that story. However “Access Denied” has already been established as a short hand for a language we all understand so I am not surprised when we get asked to do it especially if it a quick shot.

Many things fall into this category – scrolling code is another example. What is boring, laughable, and unrealistic in one world of users is a form of language for another world.

Screen graphics for Ender’s Game. Courtesy of G Creative and Lionsgate.

To me a film is still an art form that an artist has the ability to tell his/her story and choose whatever language he/she wants. The graphical aspect is a form of that language – even if it is “access denied” in big red letters. You and I may not like it but if that artist feels that is the language most effective in communicating his/her story, then that is a choice. My job is to present alternatives and try to influence the language but ultimately, it’s not my choice.

It took me years to realize this but once I did I stopped getting so upset about it. When your goal is to communicate to a target audience of a mass population compromises are inevitable. The only way to start changing that language is through education and having conversations like the one we are having.

Kirill: How would you compare doing on-set playback with doing screen and motion graphics in post-production?

Gladys: They are completely different and require a different set of tools, planning, and mindset.

Screen graphics for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Courtesy of G Creative and Warner Bros.

Kirill: You’ve worked on “Man of Steel” and “Batman vs Superman”. They are part of the same universe, and yet you don’t necessarily want to be repeating yourself. How do you evolve screens in such a universe?

Gladys: The stories and the sets were not the same so it was easy not to repeat myself. However, any time there’s a continuation like sequels, that’s an opportunity to continue the conversation and to go further. Since our approach is always from a character or overall set perspective, any design discussions from the past can be carried forward.

We try not to repeat or re-use anything but rather use the language that has been established to create new from existing rules. In your example, having the same director like Zack Snyder on both projects is also fantastic since we get to pick up where we left off with a familiarity for both of us that makes the working relationship that much easier and better.

Screen graphics for Godzilla. Courtesy of G Creative and Warner Bros.

Kirill: There are a few productions in your portfolio, such as “Godzilla” and “Wall Street”, that are not heavily centered around technology and screens. What are your thoughts on having your work occupying a background space in such films?

Gladys: I don’t have an issue with occupying background spaces. Sometimes it’s safer there!

We actually did more in those films than you may realize. I feel most of our work occupies a space that you could describe as background or at least a space that is not in your face. That to me is a sign that we’ve done a good job of integrating the technology without having to shout it out to you. As well I see ourselves as a part of a team so it’s not always about what we did exclusively in the final frames.

For example, in Godzilla we developed the graphical signature for the kaiju that Gareth Edwards and I went back and forth with. Yes it was small in the film but it was an important element as it was the identifying signature that our character and audience needed to recognize for narrative purposes. My team came up with many different options and I kept going back to Gareth. I think he even drew some options as well until we finally got to something he liked. That showed up in a retro black and white graphical dot matrix form but also in a newer more modern screen animation.

If we are supporting important narratives like that then it never feels inconsequential even if it is small and seen quickly in the final movie. In fact it is quite satisfying if it makes the cut! The best part for me is the process which is a lot of fun! The same was true of Wall Street.

Screen graphics for Godzilla. Courtesy of G Creative and Warner Bros.

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?

Gladys: That is a good question as more holograms are showing up in our films. I recently spoke to a researcher at one of the universities about this topic. He told me that we aren’t better at navigating 3D holographic interfaces than our 2D displays if we are trying to do something functional like selecting a button. In fact we are slower and I think less accurate. So if usability is not better than would we expect to use holograms all over the place? I do think it is a trend in films right now to convey complexity and perhaps represent technological advancement. This goes back to my earlier comment about language.

Screen graphics for 2012. Courtesy of G Creative and Columbia.

If we can integrate more from our researchers to better inform us about what is more effective for human computer interaction into our films, we may be seeing more holograms for some aspects of our life like entertainment or education. I think VR is a wonderful immersive medium to learn and appreciate history or historical places that don’t exist any more as an example. However my feeling is that just like the clutter in our homes, we won’t want digital clutter. Again my comment earlier about invisibility with technology is what I may prefer in my home but if the rest of society prefers a trend that sees holograms as “cool” ways to interact than we may see more of it.

Customization is another aspect that comes to mind so I think in our future, we will have even more choices. That brings up the most interesting aspect for me which is to make sure the conversations are being had with all aspects surrounding technology so that we better informed to make the best choices for our own future.

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?

Gladys: I am worried I will say something here in this interview that is immortalized forever on the Internet for others to quote and bring back to haunt me! No, seriously though I cannot worry about that because we can only do our best during the time we have and as long as we are honest, sincere, and try our best, the rest is not up to us.

Screen graphics for Ender’s Game. Courtesy of G Creative and Lionsgate.

And here I’d like to thank Gladys Tong for taking the time out of her busy schedule to talk with me about the art and craft of screen graphics. You can find more of the work that G Creative has been doing over the last two decades on their recently redesigned site. Their most recent work on “Skyscraper” is playing in theaters now.

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.