The art and craft of screen graphics – interview with Ryan Uhrich

August 24th, 2018

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces, it’s my pleasure to welcome Ryan Uhrich. In this interview he talks about what it takes to create engaging and compelling screen graphics for the imagined worlds of feature film and episodic productions, and what considerations go into finding the right balance between the their technical nature and the demands of the overall story around them. In between and around, Ryan dives deeper into his work on “Star Trek: Beyond” and “Altered Carbon”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to do screen graphics for film and TV.

Ryan: I was one of those kids who daydreamed… a lot. I would doodle and draw during most of my classes. But, in high school, I started to realize that art class was something I was actually pretty good at. It was around this time that I saw a computer lab running a brand new copy of 3D Studio v3 for DOS (now called 3DS Max). I saw a computer generated sphere on the screen and I was awestruck. I remember thinking it looked so realistic! haha. This moment sparked a lifelong passion – but at the time I didn’t know how far it would take me. In the early nineties, computers were quite primitive and art class was where you went to avoid doing the “real” classes. Fortunately for me, I got to make a career out of it.

After high school, I taught myself how to make graphics with Photoshop and make web pages in HTML. The internet was brand spanking new and it was calling me in a big way. It satisfied my excitement for art and computers and I quickly found companies wanting to pay me to make stuff for them. From there, I got a job at a multimedia company converting old text manuals to interactive 2D & 3D lessons for Bombardier aircrafts. I started to learn Flash and I was a huge fan. I loved how it combined art & code and it gave me my first taste of animation. Eventually, by the mid 2000’s I enrolled in Grant MacEwan College for their Design Foundations program and subsequently went to Vancouver Film School for the Digital Design program, specializing in motion graphics.

Right after graduation, I moved to Copenhagen, Denmark to work at a studio called Thank You, where we created TV commercials. It was pretty nerve-racking to leave my home in Canada and venture off for my career, but I would definitely recommend it. It was an amazing opportunity and ended up providing a lot of experience, both personally and professionally. Another move to Sydney, Australia meant working for MTV, Z Space, and Collider. After three years abroad I somehow ended up back in Vancouver and was provided with the opportunity to work on an upcoming film called Ender’s Game. I instantly jumped on the offer because I was passionate about the aesthetics of UI and screen graphics and it felt like the right path.

Screen graphics for “Altered Carbon” under the creative direction of G Creative. Courtesy of Ryan Uhrich.

Kirill: Looking back at your first production, what was the most unexpected part of working in film?

Ryan: I was accustomed to tight deadlines from advertising and conceptualizing on the fly. However, the software pipeline was quite different and I found myself struggling to convert the 3D camera data from Maya to Cinema 4D. I remember spending a lot of time with those technicalities rather than designing and animating – which was what I was hired to do. Unfortunately, all these years later, VFX to motion graphics pipelines can still be problematic. I hope someday it will get easier. Haha.

Screen graphics for “Altered Carbon” under the creative direction of G Creative. Courtesy of Ryan Uhrich.

Kirill: How do you craft something compelling that keeps the viewer in the story?

Ryan: The largest component to screen graphics is storytelling. Our goal is to provide a tool for the director to convey important information to the audience at the right moment. It should communicate quickly and move the story forward without distracting the viewer. The second layer is the mood or feeling we are trying to elicit from the audience – it should harmonize with the narrative and not feel out of place. Once those are dialled we spend time thinking about all the fun stuff like plausibility and sexiness.

Screen graphics for “Altered Carbon” with Chris Cooper under the creative direction of G Creative. Courtesy of Ryan Uhrich.

Kirill: Do you find it limiting to work within cliches / tropes of “futuristic blue” color palette?

Ryan: Haha yes, the dreaded cyan and other cliches we see over and over – similar to the emergency always being red. I try not to think of them as limiting, but rather a design tool to use when necessary. Colours dive deep into our subconscious and unlock instant emotional responses, some of which must be engraved in our genetics as humans. For example, red inspires passion and danger and blue conveys calmness and progress. Colours can evoke a deep emotional impact on the viewer very quickly, which is important because our graphics may only be on screen for one second – or far in the background and out of focus.

Screen graphics for “Star Trek: Beyond” under the creative direction of G Creative. Courtesy of Ryan Uhrich.

Kirill: Between ideas in your head and deep knowledge of tools to translate those ideas to the screen, what’s more important in your opinion?

Ryan: In my opinion, a good idea is more valuable than any tool because they are harder to come by. Great concepts are the spark of inspiration that gives us the energy we need to see the project through. However, tools are also very important for allowing us to work fast and iterate on many of ideas in a short period of time. I guess I’m saying they’re both important – you can’t have one without the other.

Kirill: Let’s talk about Star Trek. Which parts did you work on? What kind of discussions / decisions went into those?

Ryan: Sure. Star Trek Beyond was an amazing opportunity because not only am I a Trekkie at heart, it was my first film project where I was asked to start in the conceptual stage and see the project through to the very end. The G Creative team was involved in discussions like how the USS Enterprise Bridge would look and perform (what a dream). What the set would look like if it was lit up by a bunch of red screens, hailing a “Red Alert”. How the screens would react if they were being attacked by a swarm of alien ships headed their way. We iterated on many ideas and I felt our voice was heard and our concepts adopted throughout the film.

Screen graphics for “Star Trek: Beyond” with Paul Beaudry under the creative direction of G Creative. Courtesy of Ryan Uhrich.

One of the most challenging shots for me was the medical device. I was in charge of conceptualizing how this device would react and behave. How the body scan would look through the augmented flexible holographic screen. How the A.I. would analyze and diagnose the medical problem on the fly – giving the audience the right information before the “red shirt” expired. How the body organs would shrivel up as a result of the alien weapon infecting the body. The shot was fairly quick on screen so this information needed to be not only clear and precise but also needed to feel plausible. Star Trek is known for inventing clever devices that end up in our daily lives. For instance, look at the communicator device from the original show and how closely they nailed a 90s flip phone. Incredibly big shoes to fill! I must have done 40 permutations of these concepts. We went down a rabbit hole of ideas and in the end, some of my work was replaced by another vendor (which can happen) but I learned a lot about many aspects of my job and I was proud to have been such a big part of conceptual phase of that shot.

One of my favourite designs was the nebula cloud hologram. I love particle work and I really got to push my boundaries with it. I spent a long time fine-tuning the look for the cloud along with help from Paul Beaudry, who designed a layer of UI elements for it. One of the biggest obstacles was to not only have the cloud particles move in an organic and ethereal way but also keep the particles from flying off in different directions. I created an invisible organic shell that the particles could move around in but also keep their overall form – which was important. We needed to find a balance – a recognizable nebula and make it feel like it’s A.I./data driven and holographic.

Screen graphics for “Star Trek: Beyond” with Paul Beaudry under the creative direction of G Creative. Courtesy of Ryan Uhrich.

Kirill: What about stories set in the non-immediate future (i.e., Altered Carbon) and how did you explore technology in such a world?

Ryan: We were incredibly fortunate to work with a production team who really valued creativity and exploration – similar to my Star Trek experience. They were really up for anything and allowed us room to conceptualize the underlying technologies for their world. Gladys Tong played a key role in experimenting with in camera interactive lighting and projection mapping. I was able to help them by supplying concepts and motion graphics which were mapped into new forms that felt holographic and tactile at the same time. A lot of these designs and concepts were sprinkled throughout the show almost unnoticeable at times but really added flavour to the cyber punk mood we needed to achieve.

Screen graphics for “Altered Carbon” under the creative direction of G Creative. Courtesy of Ryan Uhrich.

I was given a lot of freedom with the Jack-It-Off hallway set. The animated projections on the walls were a combo of Cinema 4D and Octane Render. At the time, I was spending my free time learning Octane. I was able to create many versions of android looking women and men dancing and they picked which ones they liked the most. The projections not only helped bring to life the cyberpunk vibe but they were also used by the DP’s to light the actor’s faces and create abstract colours and forms within the frame. I felt like my designs were given a chance to be like an actor – interacting with Kovacs – the main character.

I was also asked to conceptualize what the computer information in this world would look like if it was encoded and not directly viewable to anyone without the optical neural interface (ONI). I had a lot of fun working with Gladys on this task. We iterated on a bunch of ideas and settled on a dotted light matrix that could be recognized as busy A.I. computations. I was able to create this effect using the cloner system in C4D and augmenting that with compounding layers in After Effects.

Screen graphics for “Altered Carbon” under the creative direction of G Creative. Courtesy of Ryan Uhrich.

Kirill: How do you approach finding the balance between quickly conveying a story point and staying true to the technical nature of screens in our daily lives?

Ryan: Human computer interaction is rapidly changing from year to year, especially in the last five years. We are moving away from typing and mouse clicks and moving towards usability optimisations such as voice, touch and gesture – which comes more natural to us and saves precious time. Since this is a rapidly changing landscape, I feel we are given more and more liberties in the way we manipulate computers in film and TV – even if the setting is current day. Which makes our job a little easier because we can use many different conventions that the audience is familiar with – to tell the story quickly. However, in some cases you still can’t get around a scene that needs a bold and clear popup that captures the audience’s attention in less than a second, no matter how unrealistic it seems. As long as it doesn’t break the viewers immersion and helps the story move along.

Screen graphics for “Altered Carbon” under the creative direction of G Creative. Courtesy of Ryan Uhrich.

Kirill: In general, do you start sketching on a piece of paper, or do you go straight to digital tools for your explorations?

Ryan: I always sketch out (on paper) doodles and notes as I’m brainstorming a new concept. It’s still the quickest way to capture an idea before I lose my train of thought. I have a large sketchbook on my desk at all times but most of it looks ugly and unorganised. It doesn’t need to look good for me to quickly remember what I was thinking – then I’ll continue to develop the idea digitally. Things are changing though. Over the past few years I’ve been using tools like Octane Render which allow me to play with 3D concepts (in almost realtime) and see how they look and behave as I go. This has drastically changed my workflow and I’m excited to see what other realtime advantages we will have in the near future. Augmented reality might eventually kill the sketchbook but I guess we’ll have to see.

Sketches for screen graphics for “Altered Carbon”. Courtesy of Ryan Uhrich.

Kirill: Do you worry about how your work will age / be seen in 20-30 years?

Ryan: I think more important than worrying about how others might perceive our graphics 30 years from now is to ask ourselves how are we going to inspire people today. I think if we are successful at this, then we are doing our job. Inspiration doesn’t need to be perfectly accurate for it to lead other people’s minds to do interesting things. My hope is that we keep trying to do our best and help others by sharing the information we’ve learned along the way.

Screen graphics for “Batman v Superman” with Paul Beaudry under the creative direction of G Creative. Courtesy of Ryan Uhrich.

Kirill: When you are asked what you do for a living, how difficult is it to convey the complexity of what you do?

Ryan: That’s the funny thing – I have a hard time articulating what I do for a living – even to my wife who hears an earful daily! Probably most of us in this profession have this in common. It’s such a new and niche profession that explaining the details to someone who is not in the industry can be difficult. I usually say I make computer software for aliens.

Screen graphics for “Star Trek: Beyond” under the creative direction of G Creative. Courtesy of Ryan Uhrich.

G Creative team on these projects included Gladys Tong, Jamie McCallen, Paul Beaudry and Chris Cooper.

And here I’d like to thank Ryan Uhrich for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk with me about the art and craft of screen graphics. You can find more of his work on Behance and Instagram. 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.