Screen graphics of the drone launch sequence in Season 2 of "Star Trek: Picard" by Noah Schloss.

The art and craft of screen graphics – interview with Noah Schloss

April 30th, 2023
Screen graphics of the drone launch sequence in Season 2 of "Star Trek: Picard" by Noah Schloss.

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces, it’s my pleasure to welcome Noah Schloss. In this interview he talks about defining success, communication skills, the difference between design and art, supporting the storyline, and the impact of generative AIs on human creativity. In between these and more, Noah talks about his work on screen graphics for “Star Trek: Picard” and “Westworld”.

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

Noah: My name is Noah Schloss, I’m a senior motion designer specializing in FUI currently working at Twisted Media. I have about fifteen years of experience, the last seven of which have been focused in the TV and film space. I’ve had the opportunity to work on some incredible projects like “Westworld”, “Star Trek: Picard”, “Fast and Furious Hobbs and Shaw”, “Morbius”, “The Godzilla/Kong” films, “Fallout”, “Borderlands” and others.

I started my career in advertising and made the switch over to TV/film when my good friend (now coworker) Clark Stanton, asked if I would freelance for Twisted. I started freelancing, and then joined the team full time, and have been at Twisted Media for quite a while now.

Kirill: Was there any particular thing that was surprising or unexpected when you started working in this field?

Noah: I didn’t expect to work on TV and movies from here in my home office [laughs]. The film industry can have some unexpected twists and turns, it can take some time to learn how to navigate. There are also technical aspects unique to film/TV that don’t have parallels in other industries.

Notes and feedback may also fall into this category. For the most part, folks in the film/TV space do a great job of focusing on what’s successful and supportive of the story we’re trying to communicate. Other industries might fixate on what’s wrong. It may seem like a subtle difference in communication but the net result is more concise directives. In an industry where directives are ever changing, the compounding effect can be substantial. Overall, I find this to be a more constructive environment for creative problem solving within large groups.

How to define success has also been a surprising take away from working in the Film/TV space. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been outlining what’s important in my process and learning how I internally define success more objectively. Success always starts with the resources available – not the least of which is time. If I only have 15-30 minutes to complete something, I take that into consideration when judging my own performance. Sometimes when talking with students coming out of school, they talk about a need to get a portfolio-ready piece every time that they put pixels on the screen. I had a similar attitude when I started, and it has changed quite a bit over the years.

Screen graphics for Season 2 of “Star Trek: Picard” by Noah Schloss.

Kirill: You work for a studio, and the studio works for this big production, and there’s hundreds of people, sometimes maybe thousands of people. Does it feel sometimes that you can’t put a finger on something and say “This is mine”, because so many people participate in that?

Noah: Ownership, and the thoughts and feelings around that can be tricky for a lot of people. I always think of it like playing a team sport, my involvement is one part of the overall team’s success.

I’ve definitely run into people who don’t think like that. It’s difficult, because everybody is there to make a good product at the end of the day. The thing that ties it all together for me is understanding that this is a team environment, everybody’s here to pitch in and make their voice intermingle with everybody else’s, and hopefully make a cohesive whole versus a standalone piece of their own.

Kirill: Do you feel that for somebody who is just starting, for somebody who has strong ideas, it might be a little bit more difficult to participate in this team environment if they are not willing to compromise or accept feedback?

Noah: It totally depends on the person. I’ve found a lot of people in film/TV are looking for what’s right versus what’s wrong. That way of communicating with constructive criticism is the best way forward in any creative endeavor. It’s almost as important to focus on how you’re saying the thing that you’re trying to convey in relation to what you’re saying. Those communication skills help get the job done. You want everybody involved to feel like one cohesive unit versus a fragmented, segmented silo.

Screen graphics for Season 2 of “Star Trek: Picard” by Noah Schloss.

Kirill: How many times have you heard feedback along the lines of “I’ll know it when I’ll see it”, where the feedback is not concrete, where it’s not clear what it is that needs to be changed?

Noah: I’ve heard it a fair bit over the years. That’s part of the role that we’re filling in the filmmaking process though. We are sometimes charged with figuring out what the directive is, and in turn, try to come up with a “right” answer to that directive. I have this conversation a fair bit with one of my co-workers Chris Kieffer. You can have so many “correct” answers to the creative problem solving associated with FUI and filmmaking. Part of that process can be reverse engineering the design brief, and maybe saying that this works for this situation, and we’re going to move forward with that.

Given the timelines that a lot of film and TV productions have, you don’t have time to infinitely explore every idea. We are charged with dissecting the brief, coming up with a game plan, and quickly executing that, and then getting feedback and having this cycle to get where we need to go.

Kirill: What’s the difference between design and art for you?

Noah: I go back to what one of my professors at design school said in his human centered design program. His take on it was artists were always responding to the world around them, and then designers create the world around them. It was always an interesting distinction in my mind to categorize design and art differently like that. I still haven’t found a firm footing in one camp or the other, because one influences the other and vice versa.

You can take a framework like gestalt principles that’s supposed to be the “right way” to organize thought or lead people’s eye in the right direction. Those are helpful rubrics, but there’s also the postmodern school of thought, which is about throwing that out the window and see what else happens. I have Wolfgang Weingart’s book on typography, and he’s one of my favorite typographers that talks about throwing the traditional principles out the window. Even the cover of it removes most of the typographic form, and you still can read it. He was a master at toeing that line of form and function.

Screen graphics for Season 2 of “Star Trek: Picard” by Noah Schloss.

Kirill: So you have the art and the design, but then you also have the execution. Do you feel that a person needs to be equally well versed in each one of these, or is one of them more important than the other? Can you be a great executioner without a great design sensibility? Can you be a great designer without being a master of those software tools?

Noah: It depends on what your use case is. There’s plenty of creative directors that have great communication skills, but can’t necessarily design well. Design is only a tool. You can create objects and communicate ideas through that medium. Design is just another medium to get ideas across.

If you look at it like a pyramid, the first building block in that pyramid is strong communication skills. Which includes speaking other people’s languages. If you’re playing on a team, that’s important, and in the film industry it’s paramount. As an example, and not that I have a lot of experience doing this in my current role, but if I’m talking to a sound person, I might draw them an audio wave instead of just saying that it needs to be louder here and here. That’s their language. It’s about having those communication skills, and understanding who you’re talking to, and what they understand, and having the empathy to communicate in their language. To be like, oh, they will probably understand this idea that I am trying to convey a lot better in their native language vs my translated language.

The execution point and the design point are two other crucial parts if you want to be a good designer. Over the course of anybody’s career, when you look backwards, you see that the trajectory was not linear, it zigged and zagged. You might start off as a designer, but then figure out that you like editing more. You might start off as a typographer and then get into printmaking. More information is always better, and with those data points you can plot your course, figure out what you like doing, and tailor what your output is considering your experiences.

Going back to the original question, you can be a great Photoshop artist. There’s a lot to be said for mastering that craft. It all depends on what you want your output to be, and understanding where you’re going is paramount to that.

Screen graphics for Season 2 of “Star Trek: Picard” by Noah Schloss.

Kirill: Do you think that anybody can be trained to be a good artist?

Noah: I 100% think that you can train yourself to be a better artist. One of the ways you can do it is by training your eye. Ira Glass talked about the gap between having good taste and being able to produce great work. That also involves being able to communicate the difference between something you may judge as good and something bad. You do the work, you do that hundreds and thousands of times, and over time you start to put those building blocks together. Those building blocks can definitely be taught.

I had another professor in school who said that your best design tool is going to be a camera. That works because you can take a photo of anything that you see. You don’t have to design anything from scratch. You start with composition, and then you build around that.

You don’t need to be good at drawing to be a good designer. That is one of the more common ways for people to become disinterested with design when you focus too much upfront on those technical skills. You do that, and you’re not going to train those other building blocks of the communication that I was talking about.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as too many meetings or too much communication?

Noah: It very much depends on the project and the team. It goes back to what I was saying before about trying to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. The best leaders that I’ve experienced in the field have an immense amount of empathy towards their team members, and that comes down to being a good communicator. That’s the basis of trying to understand what people’s needs are, what people’s wants are.

It’s important to figure out the priority of things to work on, and another component of it is trust. A lot of the people that I’ve been lucky enough to work with understand and trust us to do a great job with the graphics, and take responsibility for pushing the story along with the graphics that we’re creating. It’s a cog in that wheel of storytelling.

That’s another one of those things that I’ve learned over my career. You realize that the objective is to get the point across with the three seconds of screen time the audience will see what you’re designing. Sometimes, what you’re seeing on screen is just complicated as hell, [laughs] not because we’re trying to confuse you, but because the objective of the storyline may be to communicate that the character is going through a really complex process. Sometimes people talk about the interfaces that are in movies and TV as if they are functional – and they’re not. They’re not meant to be. That’s not the visual problem we’re trying to solve. It’s all about supporting the story, and that gets lost in translation sometimes. Some of these interfaces are going to be unusable or not user friendly if somebody had to use them in a day to day environment.

A classic example is the “Minority Report” interfaces where Tom Cruise’s hands got tired on set from doing all those gestures. It would be the equivalent of boxing several rounds, all throughout your day. But it looked cool and it was a future forward perspective at the time. Is it right for the mass audience of people using computers? Probably not. But is it the right solution to that problem of trying to make something look futuristic and complicated and sci-fi? I would say yes. And it’s been iconic ever since.

Screen graphics for the drone chase sequence for Season 2 of “Star Trek: Picard” by Noah Schloss.

Kirill: That’s an interesting thing about “Minority Report” that came out 20 years ago, and almost every interview I’ve done on screen graphics references it, maybe not as a shining beacon on a hill, but as something that did stick, that did something different, that did spark those conversations – and maybe some of those explorations that don’t necessarily translate into something one-to-one usable in the real world, but are still enduring.

Noah: The same could be said about “Star Trek”. So many people love “Star Trek” because of what it symbolized the future to be, both from a social standpoint as well as a technological standpoint. That’s an important role that the movies and TV that we’re creating have in society. It speaks to human nature of how important stories and storytelling can be to both influence and comment on society’s shortcomings, celebrations, and all these different things that are innately human.

Kirill: Speaking of “Star Trek”, how was it to join a production that is set in the universe that has existed for almost six decades now? How do you get into something so rich in its own history, how do you respect that while still trying to expand on it?

Noah: It was a daunting task. So many people look to “Star Trek” as a cultural mecca of something good. When you walk into that situation, you certainly don’t want to mess it up. I was lucky enough to have two people on our team that live, breathe, and know everything about Star Trek – Casey Feldt, who was our producer on that project, and then Andrew Jarvis who is a fellow FUI designer on that show. They are the nerdiest nerds of “Star Trek”, and fantastic people to bounce ideas off of.

This was great for me because I’m admittedly a relative newcomer to Trek. My dad was a huge “Star Trek” fan, but I didn’t follow in his footsteps. So it was a lot of research for me. Andrew had done quite a bit of research and development to create what he called LCARS 2.0. The first version of LCARS was developed by Michael Okuda for “Star Trek: The Next Generation” series, and we wanted to pay homage to that as much as possible. It was a daily occurrence to cross reference what we were building with the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual. Towards the end of season two and into season three, Michael Okuda joined the team as an advisor for the show’s graphics and LCARS. It was really helpful to have a lot of these guiding voices that had originally created the graphics of past series to make sure we got these things right.

Screen graphics for Season 3 of “Star Trek: Picard” by Noah Schloss.

David Blass the production designer and Terry Malalas the showrunner were great people to guide that knowledge and inject it into our design process. Geoffrey Mandel as the graphic designer for the show, and Doug Drexler did concept design were also integral for our design process as they provided quite a bit of assets for us to work with as well. It was great to have these people who are legendary Trek alumni in the space that were ready and willing to guide us when we needed it. It was a pleasure and necessary to have them on the forefront of Picard’s last hurrah.

Kirill: I was reading in another interview that you were working on the two seasons of “Star Trek” at the same time. How was that?

Noah: Westworld S4 and Trek blur a little in my mind but Trek seasons 2 and 3 were shot back to back. All told, I think it was about a year and a half’s worth of time. I was responsible for all post production graphics across seasons 2 and 3 of “Star Trek: Picard” as well as a good chunk of the playback graphics we created. There was definitely some overlap of working on post shots from season 2 when we were in production for season 3. As you can imagine, keeping storylines straight between seasons, episodes, and timelines took some extra attention – thanks for all your help with that Casey [laughs]. It was a lot of late nights, a lot of making sure we were getting things right, and we couldn’t have had a better team for it. Seth Molson who I think you’ve spoken to before also joined our GFX team in Season 3, and he was an awesome person to have on the show too. Chris [Kieffer] also helped on a few sets and was on season 1 along with Andrew. He was doing “Westworld” Season 4 when “Star Trek” wrapped up, and I joined him to work on some of the post shots for that show. All in all, it was a busy year and a half but I am really proud of what our team at Twisted created for Trek and Westworld.

Screen graphics for Titan lounge table for Season 3 of “Star Trek: Picard” by Noah Schloss.

Kirill: What do you have in terms of your environment setup? You design for multiple screens, and some of those are holograms. How do you validate the work that you do?

Noah: There was quite a lot of different screen resolutions and different devices. We had a bunch of transparent screens, as well as run-of-the-mill 16×9 and ultra-wides.

As far as registering the designs and making sure that it all lines up, there was a rigorous process for some of the science bay and the engineering bay screens to make sure that the registration was correct. We had a live feed of what the camera saw throughout Covid. I’m in Chicago, and Andrew is in Chicago. Casey was out in California, and so every time we needed somebody on set, Casey or Chris would go. Derek Frederickson went to set a few times to make sure that everything was looking well and lining up, and Jayse Hansen was also on set to help with registration and graphics a few times as well.

As far as validating on set playback graphics, we would send the graphic to playback to get it loaded up on the actual device it was set to playback on, onset. Todd Marks and our onset playback team would load the graphics on the devices and send us reference pictures of the graphics from set and we would adjust accordingly. We also had a direct feed from the QTAKE system to see what the camera saw. I have a few monitors here at my office to work off of and test with. Some of the smaller props were on iPhones and there were a bunch of tablets. Overall, it was a pretty smooth process.

Kirill: Were there any colors that you were instructed to stay away from in the interfaces?

Noah: We had a whole design guide that we had put together in the outset of Season 2. We had a few weeks of discovery development, and Andrew put together a style sheet and style guidelines. After doing this for a while, you know what ends up looking good in-camera. On set screens might get color corrected to shift to orange or blue, depending on what the lighting situation is like. There can be a lot of color variation across screens, and that’s just inherent to manufacturing techniques. You never go full white, full red can also be an issue, after working on a couple shows you understand what your safe color zones are, and you work within those.

We used some neon green and purple in Soong’s lab. We tried to differentiate sets a little bit for the viewer to understand which space you are in. But I don’t remember there being any color that was off limits.

Screen graphics for Titan viewscreen for Season 3 of “Star Trek: Picard” by Noah Schloss.

Kirill: A hypothetical question on evolving LCARS if it was happening in the real world. Do you think there would be more dramatic changes in the interface over five or six decades if that universe was real?

Noah: I do, but that’s a double-edged sword. You have to understand that LCARS is the design language and the lexicon that makes the Trek universe, the Trek universe. In order to answer some of the visual storytelling questions, you take something familiar and nostalgic, and evolve it so that it continues the journey forward without being jarring and taking that audience out of that Trek universe. Something totally new that’s a dramatic change from the familiar requires more of an investment from the audience to commit to. As a point to help the story and make the audience comfortable quicker (especially with a spin off series), it almost needed to live in the same lexicon and set the visual constraints that LCARS had before it – and also to celebrate that this was Picard’s last hurrah. So it makes sense that it would be a continuation of that, and a celebration of what had come before – which is exactly what this series has been.

Kirill: And as you said earlier, these interfaces are not supposed to be usable. They are supposed to support the story.

Noah: Exactly. I don’t think we as a society are moving towards interfaces that take more time to interact with. One of the many things that “Star Trek” got right, was having Picard say “Tea Earl Grey hot”. He’s not pushing a button. He’s not swiping anything or bringing up a hologram. How great would it be to think of a thing, and then there it is. You bring that latency to almost nothing, and that is the future of technology – less direct interaction.

Kirill: That might work great in the real world, but maybe not so much in film. How do you jump from point A of “I want to have this” to point B of “I have this”?

Noah: Exactly. It’s not serving the storyline in any way, shape or form. In fact, it’s confusing the audience even more. That goes back to that point of what’s the problem we’re trying to solve here? More often than not, it’s guiding the audience along the storyline, and having some guardrails in the form of graphics to support what’s going on in the storyline.

Kirill: Moving to “Westworld”, did you find parallels in terms of designing screens for technology that we don’t necessarily have in our daily lives today?

Noah: It goes back again to supporting the storyline. So much of “Westworld” is technology based, and the story does such a great job of giving you the peak under the hood of what the capabilities are without shoving that down your throat. Your brain almost gets to complete that narrative, which as a viewer I find more exciting. It creates more value in the story that you’re consuming.

You might not see every single thing they are doing, but it’s there. If you pause it, you can see that a certain element on the screen might interact with functionality, and might lead back to the storyline. It’s a great way to tease out some of the things that the story might not touch on directly.

On that show they always gave out a technology packet, and it was helpful to go through that and do a bunch of research on what the technology looked like for that set to help get your head wrapped around the world that you were creating for and the one that the characters are interacting with.

Screen graphics for Season 4 of “Westworld” by Noah Schloss.

Kirill: How would you compare work that you do for on-set graphics versus post production graphics?

Noah: I like working on post graphics better. There is definitely a magic to playback graphics and building a tangible prop that an actor or actress can interact with on set. The interaction is better, the camera and lighting is better with real-world reflections and all that stuff. It’s generally cheaper too.

But there comes a point where you have a lot of control with the output of a post graphic, and I find that to be a lot more fun. We get into some of the post shots, and the edit may have changed the shot’s overall concept. And so what you created for the shoot day has been segmented and isn’t as direct of an expression as what you were going for. Some of the magic that happens in post comes down to understanding exactly what the cut is going to look like in the end. Understanding exactly what the audience is going to see before and after. You get a little bit more context of how this graphic is living in the space that it’s in.

You might have a ten-cue graphic that explained everything in a larger time scale, but because of the way that the edit needed to go, it got cut into three cues. And the three cues didn’t represent the full idea that you were trying to get across. Now in post you can understand that time scale and adjust accordingly. You can see it going to three cues, so you know you need to condense the original ten down to three. That conversation is more satisfying, and the end result is more robust in that sense.

Screen graphics for RICO app for Season 3 of “Westworld” by Noah Schloss.

Kirill: Was there any particular form factor that was more interesting to work with on “Westworld”?

Noah: I don’t think any form factor was more or less fun to work on. There’s plenty of screens that are about the size of an iPhone that I loved working on. I got to design the RICO app, and that was a fun one. Bernard’s tablet was a lot of fun to design. I worked on all of Season 3 with Chris. Then Chris and Mark Coleran did Season 4, and I came on for post for that.

I like having a mix of things to design for. It’s always fun to see a different form factor, see how it’s going to play, see how different people are going to shoot it. It might be an over the shoulder shot, or a close-up shot of just the device, or maybe it’s going to have a hologram to it. I don’t think I can say one or the other is better. It’s more of what’s right for the situation.

Kirill: Was there any particular piece of technology in “Westworld” or “Star Trek” that you would like to have in your life?

Noah: The Holodeck would be sweet [laughs]. As far as “Westward”, maybe Rehoboam, but that’s too scary. I’m pretty happy with the tech today, to be honest.

Screen graphics for Season 3 of “Westworld” by Noah Schloss.

Kirill: You worked on “Morbius”, “Fast and Furious” and “Godzilla”. How would you compare working on productions where screens are not necessarily the hero elements, but more of a supporting character or a set dressing – but you still need to make them look as a part of that story?

Noah: The best way to describe it is broad brush strokes versus small brush strokes. It may fill the set, but there may be a tight focus and it’s blurry in the background, and at that point, it’s more about shapes and colors – versus hero content.

I love designing for those broad brush strokes because you kind of have a stream of consciousness exercise building supporting elements versus targeted, concise elements. You get to think on and illustrate tangential content that expands past the targeted story points but is still relevant in the set.

One of the more interesting things we did in “Star Trek” was a lot of research into how the human brain works, neural pathways and stuff like that. Even if the camera is not focusing on that screen, you can still add those secondary elements to the core concept that we’re trying to illustrate. It’s supporting what the storyline is, and then it’s reaching a little bit further.

Screen graphics for Rehoboam for Season 3 of “Westworld” by Noah Schloss.

Kirill: Does it feel sometimes limiting to work within the certain expectations of how a system is supposed to look like? Say, if it’s a global surveillance system, it’s a globe with some outlines, and maybe red circles showing the spread of whatever it might be.

Noah: It goes back to understanding what you’re illustrating and designing for the story – versus what the FBI or the NSA actually looks like, because it’s a lot more boring and less sexy.

You look at situational awareness with the military and similar organizations, and it mostly comes down to having a ridiculous amount of data. The problem with that is how do you illustrate having everything, every bit of data to the viewer? If you were to do that, the list of information would be infinite, and you’re trying to hone in people’s attention instead of segmenting it. In a good way, we’re limiting the stream of information and focusing on a few of those streams versus all of those streams.

Kirill: There’s been this trend in consumer app space to make things visually simpler, to try to remove the clutter. But perhaps in these stories, if you remove the clutter, it questions the capabilities of those systems to track every single person or every single device wherever they are.

Noah: That can be addressed with secondary screens. If I were a production designer, I would organize it into the main interaction here, and some secondary information presented in other places around it. As a traditionally trained designer, I am constantly talking about hierarchy of information. So what does your eye see first, second, third? What pattern am I trying to create? What path am I trying to guide your eyes on in order for you to have a payoff in the end?

A lot of these questions can be addressed with secondary information that leads to primary information. It’s an interesting problem to solve, and you hit the nail on the head. How do you illustrate both targeted information and also general information about everything? I think that’s best achieved by the hierarchy of information, sorting out what priority you’re seeing first and second and so on.

Screen graphics for Season 3 of “Westworld” by Noah Schloss.

Kirill: Would you say that blue and orange are two of your best buddies?

Noah: I’m a real big fan of neon green [laughs], and I try to sneak that in whenever I can. At this point, blue and orange are overused. However, blue can light the room without blowing out the contrast.

As far as colors to settle on, there’s worse ones. There’s plenty of shades of blue and orange that I’m quite happy with.

Kirill: Stepping out of the particular productions into more general world, what was the impact of Covid on your professional life?

Noah: We’ve always been 100% work from home, so it was business as usual for us. Even before Covid I didn’t go on sets that much, but rather joining meetings through Zoom.

We did have a point where everything slowed down, and no productions were filming towards the beginning of a pandemic. It was a crazy, uneducated time, and we were all trying to figure it out one step at a time. We [Twisted Media] did work on “S.W.A.T.” though, which was one of the only productions filming in Los Angeles at that time, which helped set a lot of the rules and regulations for Covid protocols. I wasn’t involved in the production at all but talking to other team members who were, it was interesting to hear about some of the problems that they were trying to solve as a production to try and film.

Screen graphics for Season 3 of “Westworld” by Noah Schloss.

Kirill: Do you feel that Covid has compressed the progress of collaboration tools, that everybody was forced to be online, and that forced the tools to evolve to meet those needs?

Noah: Absolutely. QTAKE is an indispensable tool to have, to be able to see a live feed of what the camera saw, to understand what I need to tweak. There are other tools like Zoom, DropBox or Box. But the number one thing that was helpful was having gigabit Internet, especially when you get these long EXR sequences that sometimes weigh in at 24 gigabytes each. I was, for better or for worse, stuck being the person to download and upload everything because of the fiber connection that I had at the time.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as a computer fast enough for you or a disk big enough for you? Or is there always something that you would want to improve?

Noah: I wish Apple would put Nvidia cards back in their laptops or in their machines, or didn’t alienate professional users. Hopefully there’s a new Mac Pro that competes with a machine that you can build at home with off the shelf parts. I’m on a M1 MacBook with a four terabyte drive in it, and I have a custom-built PC next to it. And then I share a double screen monitor setup between the two. The only reason I have the custom PC is to work on large 3D files.

Until recently I had a huge setup with four graphics cards in it for GPU rendering. It was great to have that render power when I needed it. But with graphics cards now, you can get a single card that is better than the four graphics card rig I built. That’s pretty amazing that you can have less components and more than enough firepower. But with all of this, I always want more [laughs].

Kirill: How about the software tools? Are you happy with them?

Noah: For the most part, yes. I’m in these programs for at least 10 hours every day, which says a lot about how robust they are. But, when there is a pain point they can become pretty glaring.

I’m using an M1 laptop quite a bit and running After Effects in Rosetta to make sure that all my plugins work, which is less than ideal. I’m hoping that the hardware/software limitations subside in the future and the subscription based softwares integrates their licensing software better. It’s still pretty incredible to be delivering film and TV assets from my setup though.

Screen graphics for Season 3 of “Star Trek: Picard” by Noah Schloss.

Kirill: You were talking about simplifying the interaction with technology on “Star Trek”. Do you think that in your lifetime we will see something significantly different in terms of how we interface with machines?

Noah: I hope it’s going to get better. Research shows that it takes about 400 milliseconds to break your train of thought. If the way that you’re interacting with the computer is mismatched beyond that threshold, that flow in your mind is broken. Instead of thinking about the implementation of those inputs and outputs, I think it’s more important to facilitate the link between user and computer. That includes UI’s role in that equation.

A good UI should get out of your way when you’re trying to have a flow system and trying to create things in an unhindered manner. I don’t know when that might be coming up, mostly because of the history of what we’ve seen come already and the adoption rate of new things. But then you look at the iPhone that was the first good iteration of a smartphone. You can easily see how it redefined what or how people interacted with a computer. And how much power can come from a handheld form factor. I was talking to my nieces and nephews, and they were watching Jurassic Park for the first time, and they were blown away with it. We were having a discussion about the graphics and the visual effects, and I told them that the computers that did the rendering for those visual effect shots of those dinosaurs were less powerful than the iPad that you have right now. Which is nuts.

There’s a moment of clarity of understanding how good technology has become, even if the cycle of it hasn’t been redefined every time there’s a new generation.

Kirill: Speaking of technology, do you worry about the AI-powered tools like Midjourney where it takes a prompt and generates a “thing”, be it a concept art, an illustration, and most recently multi-layered Figma files? Do you worry that while it might automate some things, it might also take away from the human creativity and ingenuity of the process?

Noah: Absolutely. There’s a lot to be said for happy accidents and situations where you’re going down a path, you made a mistake, and you figured out something that you would never have thought to do before.

We’re going to see a world where AI and the Midjourneys and the ChatGPTs are going to knock out the lower end of the market for generative design. If you need a social media post, you will go to ChatGPT, write a prompt, and it gives you ten different ideas for what the social media posts are going to be about. You take those ideas, you go to Midjourney, you generate a visual on that and boom, there you go.

I don’t necessarily think that was good design to begin with, and “good” is probably not a great word to describe it. The rate at which we consume has just gotten faster and faster to the point where it’s almost treated like garbage. You’re scrolling past something, and I don’t know if it’s worth the time to have somebody sit there and do Instagram influencer posts.

The flip side to that is that it was somebody’s job that made them, and they were able to feed their family. All of these tools, whether you’re talking about desktop publishing, a script that you wrote to push your After Effects nulls in Z-space or whatever – are tools. That is what they should be thought of, versus all of the other things that we’re attaching to what these tools are. As long as we use them as tools and not a holistic replacement for creativity, we’re in good shape.

Like any new technology, everybody’s going to have to react and understand where that tool or that piece of software or whatever new advancement is has a place in society. Is it wrong that they’re afraid of it? Is it wrong that we’re using them? I don’t think so. I don’t think we have an understanding of how they’re going to be used, or the implications that they’re going to have on society.

There’s a whole discussion going on about intellectual property, and who owns all this stuff, and where is the dataset coming from. That’s a discussion that is definitely going to be in the forefront in the next couple of months or years. Getty Images is suing Stable Diffusion for copyright infringement for allegedly copying millions of their licensed images, and the outcome of that is going to set the tone for a lot of the AI-generated stuff.

Screen graphics for Bernard’s tablet for Season 3 of “Westworld” by Noah Schloss.

Kirill: I worry how it will enable a “lazy” generation of prompting. As you were saying in the beginning, you look at something and try to analyze what makes it a good art, what makes it a good combination of colors, of shapes, of typography, of patterns and what not. But now you can generate hundreds of different variations in an hour, and “build” your portfolio from that, but it doesn’t generate something new. It generates something derivative from the work of others. What implications does it have on the human creativity on the higher level? How can you build up the next generation of artists if you are taking away the incentive to spend time to understand what makes it good?

Noah: Absolutely, and you’ve put it into words what I was trying to say about the replacement for creativity. If it becomes a replacement for creativity, it’s going to be more detrimental than helpful. That’s the obligation of everybody that’s using it. It might be generating some ideas that I wouldn’t have thought of, and I’m using this as a tool for my process. I’m going to look at these images and discern my outcome with everything, all the research that I’ve gathered to have a well-informed output.

Chris Kieffer introduced me to this technique to flesh out ideas. I do a Photoshop comp of stuff that I like, whether it was an image of a train map or some sort of technical schematic. I toss them into Photoshop, paint out the parts that I like, combine them, collage them together until I like how the forms are coming together to create an overall composition. Then I start building my own unique elements to create an interface based on the collaged composition. Using the photoshop comp as a sort of sketch outline defining the overall form. Are those pieces still somebody else’s work? Yes, but I’ve created something totally different using my own elements and not passed the collage off as the finished work. That’s the way that it should be used.

You could also argue that taking everybody else’s work, remixing it, putting your spin on it is exactly what ChatGPT and Midjourney are doing. If you take them at face value, that’s the problem. There’s this comic strip/meme that has two characters, one of them handing an object to the other and saying “I made this” in the first frame. The second character asks “You made this?” then looks at the object in the second frame, and in the last frame that same second character proclaims “I made this”. That’s the quintessential tipping point where you’re taking credit for other people’s work.

It’s a similar argument that Ian Malcolm makes in Jurassic Park, where he says “You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could” and then follows up with “but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should”. That’s hopefully what people are asking themselves when they use these tools. I hope they’re asking themselves whether these tools have a place in their process. Hopefully that place is not the end product generator for whatever you’re using. It’s a cog in the machine. It’s not the machine.

Kirill: There’s also another meme where Will Smith asks an AI robot “Can you create designs without copying from others”, and the robot replies “No, can you?”

Noah: [Laughs] It’s the same thing. I think there’s a common misunderstanding of how leaps of creativity are made. There is an aspect of it where you do borrow / steal from other creations and sometimes mess it up. And then in the middle of it you see something that you never considered before, and you add that all together to create something “new.” I don’t think anything is really created in a vacuum. We’re all influenced and shaped by what has been created by others before us. The video series “Everything is a remix” does a great job illustrating that point.

Screen graphics for Eleos ship for Season 3 of “Star Trek: Picard” by Noah Schloss.

Kirill: Are you happy with how much time you spend on screens in your daily life?

Noah: Day to day, I don’t mind it. If I’m being honest, there is a wealth of content to explore. My dad knows a little about a lot of different things, and that drive to learn as much as you can is the way that I go about living my life. So the screens around me are a tool to help facilitate getting that information into my head.

Having said that, a lot of the times when my wife and I go on a vacation, we tend to go to remote places. We love to go canoe camping, and we’ve done boundary waters trips where we’ve canoe’d for 12 hours a day. We carry everything in backpacks, like back in Lewis and Clark times basically. And that is something that I personally need. I spend so much time on screens with technology, and I need to re-appreciate interacting with the natural environment, and to have a break from all of that.

Kirill: But on the other hand, these screens and the Internet in general has enabled us to do things that my younger self back in the late ’80s couldn’t even dream of. Of course humans have lived for thousands of years only knowing a small local group of people, but to look back just 30 years ago and see how much has changed in terms of communication is simply incredible.

Noah: Especially considering how small some cultural groups are, it has brought people together in a way that humans have not been brought together in all of human history.

Kirill: And we are still struggling with it. There’s a lot of negativity from it.

Noah: We’re going to continue to struggle with it too. I don’t know if the net effects of it are positive or negative. You have all the information at your fingertips all the time. If you look at the number of times that new information gets impressed upon me, you, kids – it can get daunting quickly if you don’t have a good system in place of how to filter out what’s important and what’s not.

There’s so much misinformation out there right now. If you wanted to, you could pick out any data point, something random like does coffee cause blindness? And I’m sure you could find three articles in support and three articles that are negating it. And who has the time to read clinical studies of the effects of coffee? A strong system – scientific method maybe – of figuring out what’s important and what’s not important is paramount. One thing as a society we can do a better job on as a whole is trying to understand what’s more important to us.

There is a great interview that Isaac Asimov gave where he basically predicted what the Internet is today. The interviewer asked him “What if all you want to learn about is baseball?” and Asimov said “Why wouldn’t you want to just learn about baseball, if that’s what you’re interested in?” Why wouldn’t you want to tailor-make an education system to fit every single individual person? If you have an infinite library where all you want to learn about is baseball, that’s totally fine. You might be then intrigued about how to throw a curveball, and then you might be interested in the rotational aspects of that, and how to express it through physics or math or whatever.

It’s infinitely important to understand that a journey to information has got so many different avenues, and it’s not linear. That has been paramount for me in my life, and I hope it’s paramount for other people too. When you do have those organic ways of gaining a new perspective, it’s almost a point of clarity that causes you to want to learn more. What a great expression of humanistic thinking it is when you feel that you have a yearning to learn more.

That is a more optimistic way to look at the internet though [laughs].

Kirill: If you had a time machine, and you jumped back to when you joined this industry, is there a piece of advice you would give to your younger self?

Noah: To bring it full circle, I would definitely say learn how to objectively define success.

I wish there was a more succinct way to say it than success. Using the word “success” implies that there are unsuccessful moments. But all those unsuccessful moments get to be put back in the cycle, and influence your understanding of what you’re working towards. It’s all about trying to get to a better place. That’s the winning – continuing that journey. As long as you focus on that, you’re good. As long as you find success or happiness in that, you’re good.

Screen graphics for Operation Daybreak for Season 3 of “Star Trek: Picard” by Noah Schloss.

And here I’d like to thank Noah Schloss 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 Instagram, Twitter, Behance and LinkedIn 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.