Concept art for "Ghost in the Shell", courtesy of Stylow.

The art and craft of screen graphics – interview with Stylow

April 19th, 2019
Concept art for "Ghost in the Shell", courtesy of Stylow.

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces, it’s my honor to welcome Stylow. In this interview he talks about breaking into the world of screen graphics, the ever-raising bar in the field, finding inspiration and pushing forward. In between and around, Stylow dives deeper into his work on the screens of “Ghost in the Shell” and “Ready Player One”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Stylow: I’ve always been creatively active without me realizing it. My parents were always involved in the creative industry; my mom is a singer and my dad is a dancer, stepdad an actor, so I was always surrounded by creative individuals.

As I kid I was always active. I remember I spent a lot of time playing with Kapla blocks, making all these weird structures. I had books of them which were basically tutorials for kids on how to make certain structures. I also went to a Steiner school where they focus on the children and bringing the best out of them through arts. You are exploring creativity through painting, sculpting etc at very early age even in classes like math or biology.

Much later on I was really excited by the VFX industry when I saw “The Matrix”. I was blown away. It was insane, and I was just trying to understand how they’ve done it. I was around 15 when I started looking at behind-the-scenes of how you make movies and how you do certain VFX. I then discovered Photoshop, and I initially thought it was a program to edit cars with.

I was playing with Photoshop, and that later led me to making VFX in AfterEffects. For quite a long time I was stuck in this world of 2D, I always admired 3D work because the possibilities are endless. I didn’t do 3D, so I was trying to fake it in AfterEffects by using 2.5D effects.

After a while I told my step-dad that I will spend a full year doing dailies around the age of 23. It’s quite famous nowadays on Instagram, you see it everywhere. He liked that decision, because he saw that I wanted to push myself. I was never spending any time with 3D, so to actually learn it I would have to dive deep into that world. When he heard that, he said that if I miss a day, he would shave my hair [laughs]. I agreed, and that was our little contract. That got me going for 365 days and I learned so much by just sitting down everyday and learning from tutorials. Anything I saw and didn’t know how to do it, I would google it and try to mimic it.

That is how I got into the industry. It was through posting that work every day on social media. I got in contact with studios, and eventually worked with Territory where I’ve done most of my UI work.

Kirill: Do you think that you are a part of a newer generation that was not exposed as much to the more physical side of design? Would you say that the digital side of it has been the dominating force on your path so far?

Stylow: Technology is advancing so fast that these days you can do very cool things with very cool software. I remember back when I was trying box modeling. I started with Maya and then went to Cinema4D, and it was difficult. I think that technology definitely helps making it quicker for, let’s say, the younger generation out there.

And it’s good to know how difficult it was as well going into that space. You should know some of the basics, how it was before, so that you can adapt to that new space which is 3D. It’s like sculpting with actual clay can be transferred these days to sculpting in software, or lighting an object for photography vs CGI as well. I still try to think how would you light this if it was an actual physical thing. So knowing the real thing will help for sure.

Concept art for “Ghost in the Shell“, courtesy of Stylow.

Kirill: One thing that people always mention in these interviews is that render times stay roughly the same no matter how much the underlying technology progresses. The hardware is getting faster and the software is getting more sophisticated, but the level of demands from clients and productions keeps on rising as well.

Stylow: It’s the natural evolution of almost anything, really. When something is quick and easy to do, I guess you don’t feel fulfilled in some ways. I start feeling that I haven’t pushed it far enough. I was working with a 7-GPU system, and some renders in OctaneRender were so quick that it feels like you have to add more and go another level deeper or at least it gives you the possibility to now do more thanks to technology moving forward so fast. You’ll definitely always push that bar.

I think it will never stop, but the teams might become smaller because of that. There are amazing artists out there these days. Somebody talented can make a full CGI short by themselves, and nobody would take you serious if you said that just 20 years ago [laughs].

Kirill: I remember when I was in college in mid ’90s, and the high end graphical SGI stations cost over $150K each, not even adjusted for inflation. Probably today it’s much more affordable to get into the field, where you can get a decent desktop machine for so much cheaper.

Stylow: We were talking about pushing the bar. So yes, it is easier to step into it because the tools are way cheaper, but the bar is so much higher now. It’s almost scary to start in that aspect. You have all these amazing artists out there, and it’s daunting to look at it when you’re just starting out. The bar keeps on going higher and higher because in some aspects of that the tools are cheap.

Concept art for “Ghost in the Shell“, courtesy of Stylow.

Kirill: When you introduce yourself to somebody new, how do you talk about what you do for a living?

Stylow: I find it sometimes tricky to explain to people because I like to do a lot of things. It’s hard to put a label on it. So I just say I’m a designer, as cheesy as that may sound. I like to do a bit of everything [laughs], and it’s also probably because a lot of the things are becoming easier as well. You can tap into multiple areas, like motion design, graphic design, UI design etc.

I know people who only do animation, and they are amazing at it. And some others who only do logo design or graphic design. But I like to make stunning visuals and moving forward, getting myself more into story-driven content.

Kirill: Do you find that the software tools are adequate, or is there always some space for improvement?

Stylow: There’s always space for improvement, but it’s pretty amazing these days what you can do in the software. My main tool is Cinema4D, and it’s great. Before it existed you only had way more complex software packages, and it’s cool to see these new software companies come out and develop smarter ways of speeding things up. I really like to see that.

Substance Painter is an amazing piece of software to paint on a 3D model, and it feels like you’re sketching on the actual object. Stuff like that is pushing what’s possible in an easy-to-understand way. For example, if you know Photoshop then you’ll know that piece of software very quickly too. In that sense it is definitely going well.

Concept art for “Ghost in the Shell“, courtesy of Stylow.

Kirill: Transitioning to film UI work that you’ve done so far, do you remember if there was anything particularly surprising or unexpected for you when you joined your first film production?

Stylow: Working at Territory studio was amazing because they they opened up a lot of doors for me. They got me on board as a fairly unexperienced UI designer. Back then I only did a couple of UIs on short films and personal projects, and only a couple of UI designs for visuals like DJ sets and stuff like that. They brought me to London and I was super excited, because I was working on concept art for this thing named the holo-globe for “Ghost in the Shell”. Then they extended it for two more weeks, and then for another month, and then invited me to London. In the end, I went there for two years on and off as a freelancer.

One of the surprising things was how small that team that makes all of these cool UI projects was in the beginning. I was also impressed with how fast you had to get something out there. I was not used to that speed at all! I remember that Andrew Popplestone who was the creative director on it later told me that “everything was good about you, but you were so slow in the beginning” [laughs]. That really shows that the speed of working in movies is often very fast and you have to get used to that speed.

Concept art for “Ghost in the Shell“, courtesy of Stylow.

Kirill: How different was “Ready Player One” for you? You mention on your site that you went back to old school arcade games for inspiration.

Stylow: On “Ready Player One” I was more involved with the graphical UI design. One of the coolest things on the movie was going back to the ’80s references. I was born in 1992, and going to those references was kind of discovering this whole new world out there that I didn’t know about that much. I was intrigued by that.

I tried to be inspired by the old-school arcade games, and the look of the arcade game centers. I even went looking out at some old-school arcade games centre to see how the UI was made. How clunky were they? What colors did they use? I wanted to find some weird color balance, and be inspired with the shapes as well. Steven Spielberg said that he wanted a perfect mix between the future and the retro ’80s-type gaming.

It was a good chance to use weird fonts as well. I was making Logo fonts for characters like Aech and Artemis. It was fun to have a play with that. You look at those old arcade games, and they use big fat type and chrome text on popups. You almost can never go and use those type of fonts because it’s too wacky and big. But it was fun to go crazy and big and bold, and use different line work and different geometric shapes that wouldn’t fit elsewhere.

The thing that I enjoyed the most about that project was the opportunity to do something completely different style-wise.

Concept art for “Ready Player One“, courtesy of Stylow.

Kirill: Do you want me as a viewer to be paying attention to these little details, or do you want it to blend seamlessly into the overall frame and not call attention to itself?

Stylow: Most people won’t even notice it or go that deep, unless it’s the people itself that are in the industry that can see references here and there. It’s important to go that deep. The people will see the detail and effort you put in them. It’s almost a selfish thing that I want to put as much effort as possible in it, and I love to go deep in that direction.

Directors like Steven Spielberg love it when you share some images and talk about the inspiration behind them. I don’t think people from the outside directly notice that, but perhaps subconsciously understand it – from, maybe, them having played those games or having lived in that area.

But depending on the shot in the film the UI most of the time need to blend in seamlessly with the characters. In this case the UI was pretty “in your face”.

Concept art for “Ready Player One“, courtesy of Stylow.

Kirill: Especially for “Ready Player One” that is based on the book that draws so many inspirations from real-life arcade games, books, movies and TV shows. For a movie like that, if it doesn’t hit the right note, maybe then people notice that something is missing.

Stylow: You have these amazing VFX companies, and you look at the screen and you don’t realize that you’re looking at a fake building or a fake street. You don’t see it, and I think that’s when they should be happy – when their work doesn’t get discovered weirdly?!

UI is a tricky one. In some ways you want to let it stand out as much as possible, but then you also want it to blend into the world. You’re always trying to find that balance. That’s what design is about I think – it’s about finding the balance, about not going too far or too low and finding that sweet spot.

Kirill: Is it disappointing, in some sense, that when your film UI work is done well, it is almost invisible?

Stylow: The UI in “Ready Player One” was quite dominant. It was part of the character, and that was really cool about that movie. It’s a unique experience to work on something like that. It was all about this VR world.

But it should not pop out too much. If it does, you’re noticing UI more than story, and people go to a movie for the story and not some flashy screens [laughs]. It’s all about blending it in. Does it disappoint me? No, not at all. It’s more about doing a good job for the type of movie that it is.

Concept art for “Ghost in the Shell“, courtesy of Stylow.

Kirill: It felt to me that both “Ghost in the Shell” and “Ready Player One” were a bit less restrictive on the color palette at your disposal. These are not your run-of-the-mill FBI or CIA conference room filled with a myriad screens, all with the same shade of blue.

Stylow: It always starts with the brief and what they want to see. In a way, it’s more about pushing your ideas out there and trying to be brave about it. For both of those movies it was broad and open, while for other movies it would be small and quite specific.

Sometimes it’s more about daring in the concepts you make. You are doing what they say, but also on the side you are showing them your ideas of what you think it should be. What can happen then is “that’s really cool, let’s try that”.

Concept art for “Ready Player One“, courtesy of Stylow.

Kirill: At a broader scope, we have so many screens in our daily life these days. Does it feel that it’s becoming harder for you as a designer to create something compelling, something that is able to “compete” against so much UI that we see on our screens?

Stylow: I always like to experiment and come out with something new or fresh. What is new? Most things are a remix of a remix. Although I have to say that it’s very difficult sometimes. You’re seeing so much cool stuff out there, and you’re always referring to that, often without you realizing it.

One thing I’ve discovered later on is that we often look at the same references for everything that we do. I’m not saying that Pinterest is bad, because I use Pinterest almost every day and I love it. But when we go to Pinterest, we always look at the same image library. We check on Instagram, and it’s the same thing there. You’re always looking at the same pool of content.

When I want to come up with new and cool ideas and have the time to do so, I go looking in a different art direction, or at a different category. Something that you can relate your design references to, but which is not a direct reference from UI for example.

Just pack up your stuff, go to a library perhaps, pick up the weirdest book you’ve ever seen and look what’s in there. Sometimes you’ll find these little gems and cool things that might make you ask yourself “what if this weird glass thing was a UI element”.

It’s often looking at strange and totally unrelated content. This is where I get the most refreshing ideas from. At least I think so [laughs]

Concept art for “Ready Player One“, courtesy of Stylow.

Kirill: What do you think about the advances in AI and machine learning, and how that might take over some of the lower-level design tasks in the near future? Do you feel that the future of creative thinking is in danger? Is it realistic to think about algorithms coming up with automated ways of creating beautiful things?

Stylow: To be honest, that’s the only advantage. If we can learn to control it, for example, show AI some reference and ask it to make something cool, then perhaps you can incorporate that element in your design. That would be an advantage.

It will be a disadvantage if it gets to the stage where you write a brief, send it to AI, and AI sends you back the completed finished project. I don’t think that AI will take care of the whole creative part.

Being creative has so many little nuances. It’s pretty hard to get a calculation out of what is creativity. Because even we cannot fully explain that.

Kirill: That’s my next question, actually. Is it realistic to automate creativity? Is it possible to somehow quantify what is or is not good design? Design trends come and go, and taste is rather subjective.

Stylow: That is difficult as well. What is good design? One person might look at a car and say that this is good design. And somebody else might be looking at the same exact car and say that they don’t like that car at all.

It’s person specific. It comes down to the specific director that likes to work with certain artists or companies, as it boils down to taste. I don’t think AI can define what taste is, unless it gets connected to our brains and proceeds to learn what our taste is. I hope we’re still far away from that point [laughs].

Concept art for “Ready Player One“, courtesy of Stylow.

Kirill: Do you find yourself worrying how the work that you are doing today will be seen by yourself and others in 20-30 years? Do you think about what your kids might say about the work you did on “Ready Player One”, looking back at it from a couple of decades into the future?

Stylow: To be honest, I’m always thinking forward and never looking backwards. I see life as a big adventure. You have to take care of it, and no matter what you do, you learn from your experiences. It’s more about seeing in front of you than looking behind you.

I can always sleep well. I’m never staying awake because I made something bad [laughs]. You’re stuck with a certain piece of software, and software dates so quickly. You use a piece of software now, and three years from now it might look totally garbage.

It’s more about going back to the basics. If you were to make a CGI short film, it’s more about the story that might survive endlessly than it is about the visual CGI side of it. The story is the main foundation. You can take a story from today and tell it to people that lived hundreds of years ago, and they will still understand it more or less. Perhaps it’s less about technology and more about going back to the basics.

Kirill: It brings up an interesting area to explore. What is timeless design? What are those basics? Does the architecture of ancient Greece or the sculpture of ancient Rome qualify to be timeless?

Stylow: You look at architecture of old cities, and in some ways it’s timeless. But it also has a style in its own, its own twist of a sort. These days everything is rigid and structured. I think almost nothing can be timeless, but a lot of it can stand for a very long time.

The Nike logo is one of the coolest things that I think is timeless. It was designed a while back now, and it maintains its simplicity and beauty that we all understand. It’s almost about simplicity while still remaining elegant.

Concept art for “Ready Player One“, courtesy of Stylow.

Kirill: Is it an exciting time to be a designer?

Stylow: Ow yes! In some aspects, it’s definitely challenging. As designers, we are thinkers and problem solvers. Somebody comes to you and they need to solve a certain problem. It’s always challenging, and if you want a job in this field, you have to be curious. You have to love being challenged. You have to love experimenting as much as possible.

Kirill: Would you still do all of this if you won the lottery tomorrow and had enough money to never worry about money?

Stylow: You have all kinds of designers. I’ve worked with people who saw that as their 9-to-5 and were happy with that. It wasn’t their dream thing. But for me it was always about creating and about making.

I never graduated to become a motion designer. I’ve always self studied and I was broke for a long time in this industry. I didn’t earn anything for a long time, and my bank account was pretty empty. But my heart was always telling me to enjoy it and to push myself as much as possible in what I do rather than going after the money. My mindset was that I’ll be happy when I make a living out of this, but at least I’ll have a good living doing something fun than an office job that I don’t even like. People that see it purely as a job might take that lottery money, buy a yacht or a mansion and just head off.

The first thing I would do would probably invest and make a feature film. I would probably strive to keep that small and independent. You don’t always need a big team to make something great.

I’m reading a book right now from Robert Rodriguez the director, and it’s all about how he made his first feature film “Mariachi”. It’s called “Rebel without a Crew”, and he talks about doing it all himself, and the end result is just amazing. People who weren’t actors were wearing black glasses to read their script that was laying right in front of them out the screen. It’s amazing what he as a creative individual has managed to pull off.

You don’t often need a big team to make something great. I sometimes think it’s actually an advantage to keep it small with super talented people.

Concept art for “Ready Player One“, courtesy of Stylow.

Kirill: What defines success for you?

Stylow: I always wanted to work on a big movie. That was my goal and my dream. That was my success. And when I finally got there, it was like “And now what? Now what am I going to do. I’m already here”. It didn’t feel like I was done, like I was finished, fulfilled.

Maybe that is just me, but I always try to push it further as much as possible and set new goals. I think that’s what most people do – they reach a goal, and they hopefully set a new goal. If I could talk to myself at the age of seventeen, I would say that it’s not going to be what you think it’s going to be like.

Finding success is hard. I think success is when you’re happy in life. That’s the main part that we all strive for right? and I’m very happy now, so I think I found success.

Concept art for “Ready Player One“, courtesy of Stylow.

Kirill: What do you think about how deeply technology has integrated itself into our daily lives?

Stylow: It’s definitely crazy. My dad always used to say that he remembered the days when they had to actually send a hand-written letter just to get an answer back. With those aspects it’s way less stressful.

I think it’s Christopher Nolan who said that he doesn’t use any devices because he doesn’t want that in his life. I think that phones especially bring a lot of stress to us. You’re answering the phone, checking your email, and wasting time. What I do while working is I turn everything off. I just go into airplane mode and only leave on Slack or another app to talk to the clients only. The smallest blink on Facebook can mean that I might spend an hour looking at crazy videos [laughs]. In that aspect it’s very social, but at the same time is very anti-social as well.

It’s social to keep in touch with your friends and family members, but at the same time it’s easy to lose focus. It’s a balancing act.

Concept art for “Ready Player One“, courtesy of Stylow.

Kirill: Do you worry that we’re being over-reliant with our technology? Wi-fi goes down and people start panicking.

Stylow: Definitely with the internet [laughs]. I’ve been in a few situations when that happened, and it’s so weird that you lose everything. Now what do I do? I wanted to look up a tutorial, and you don’t have that tutorial anymore. I could not imagine a world without internet because I came up in that world. It’s so easy to type something in Google and you find it straight away.

I’ve talked about this with people who are older than me, and they say that we are in a crazy good century. You can just type something and you’ll find it straight away. Compare that to back in the days when people had to go to the freaking book store [laughs]. They had to read the manuals to learn this piece of software.

It can be a bad thing if you use technology to waste your time. It comes down to self discipline and going forward. Doing the things you really want to do. So whatever your destination is, enjoy the journey and just…keep…going.

Concept art for “Ready Player One“, courtesy of Stylow.

Embedded below find the design reel of Stylow’s work on “Ready Player One”


And here I’d like to thank Stylow 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 materials for the interview. You can find more of his work on his Vimeo, Instagram and Twitter profiles. 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.