Continuing the series of interviews with designers and artists that bring user interfaces and graphics to the big screens, it’s my pleasure to welcome Clayton McDermott. A multi-faceted portfolio highlights Clayton’s work in art direction, motion graphics, illustration and animation. He’s been with “Black Mirror” since the very first season when he worked on “Fifteen Million Merits” and “The Entire History of You”, as well as the now-iconic title sequence of the show. His work can also be seen in the later episodes such as “Men Against Fire”, “Hated in the Nation”, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” and the most recent interactive installment of “Bandersnatch”.

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

Clayton: I never really knew what I wanted to do growing up, I was interested in a lot of things and I still am. I watched a lot of animation, I played a lot of computer games, I was amazed by film and animatronics, I drew, I painted and generally just enjoyed anything art and design related. I think more than anything though I was fascinated by how stuff worked.

I had a decent enough computer at the time and although the internet was still relatively young I began exploring some of the things that interested me digitally. I started messing around with programmes like Photoshop, Director, Adobe Flash, even HTML and began to realise I could use them to make my own content. It was around that time that I realised motion graphics was a thing and how a program called After Effects was being used to make some of the stuff I had seen on TV as well as things like DVD menus etc. All the while I was looking into these things I was learning and teaching myself new skills, I enjoy it all as a creative process. I began to realise that maybe if I just did something I enjoyed as a career hopefully it wouldn’t really feel like I was working. That’s where my career began.


Screen graphics for “Men Against Fire” episode of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Clayton McDermott.

Kirill: Looking back at your first couple of productions, what was the most unexpected part of working on client projects?

Clayton: I don’t think anything really prepares you for your first job and although I’m not sure it was completely unexpected I think early on in my career I learnt not to be too precious or protective about that initial idea. Things often evolve or change over the course of a project and more often than not you will need to revisit or adapt ideas as things progress. Sometimes a client brief will change so much you need to pretty much start again. There are often a lot of moving parts, it is what it is.

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

I think it’s hard not to think about, especially when you have grown up and are working in a time that has seen such rapid advances in technology. Whether or not it worries me, I’m not so sure. I’d like to believe that everything has its place in time and I can live with that. I suppose most of the projects I have been involved with also serve as a form of entertainment and I’m still entertained by things that now might otherwise seem dated.

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?

Clayton: I suppose without the idea the tools are useless. When pitching ideas there are often parts where you are unsure of how you will achieve them. I guess that’s also what keeps me interested in the process – the idea of learning something new or going about solving that problem. It’s usually a good or unusual idea that forces me to learn more or develop that knowledge of those tools further.

Kirill: Looking back at when you started, do you think it’s easier to get in this field today compared to back then (better software, more affordable hardware, …)

Clayton: I remember when I started I just had to fiddle with the software to figure out what it could do and how it worked. Nowadays the internet is full of tutorials or information about how to create imagery using a wide variety of programs. Software has also just become much more accessible, I can’t remember the last time I saw or used a CD to install anything. I’m not sure laptops even come with drives anymore. With the advances in cloud-based software and subscription it’s easy just to rent software even if it’s just to try it. Obviously the internet has also been able to provide way more information than I could ever get my hands on when I started. Hardware nowadays pretty much comes right off the shelf as well, I remember a time when I had to order a computer to be built before I could use it. So I definitely think you have more exposure to the field than I ever had, not to mention an increase in available roles due to the development of film, tv and interactive content.


Screen graphics for “Men Against Fire” episode of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Clayton McDermott.

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Continuing the series of interviews with designers and artists that bring user interfaces and graphics to the big screens, it’s my pleasure to welcome back John Koltai. The first time we talked was six years ago, as he fielded questions about his work on “Iron Man 2”, “Iron Man 3”, “Robocop” and “The Avengers”. In this second installment John talks about his quest to improve his work-life balance, the meticulous attention to detail that goes into bringing these stories to our screens, the continuing prevalence of holographic elements in live action and animated features, and on finding the right color palettes for his characters. Between these and more, he dives deep into his work on “Spider-Man: Far From Home”, “Thor: Ragnarok” and the recently released “Spies in Disguise”.

Kirill: Since this is not the first time we’re talking, let’s dive right into it. What have you been up to professionally since the last time we talked?

John: Well, the biggest FUI project that I’ve done since we spoke has been “Spies In Disguise” from Blue Sky Studios.

That was pretty significant in that when I take an FUI project, I’m usually hired by a boutique design house that’s hired by the production company. But in this case, Blue Sky reached out to me directly and hired me to essentially be the design company for all of the FUI work.

A lot of times I work on very specific things, like one particular set of gadgets or holograms. There may be a ton of these types of elements in a film and it gets spread across multiple designers and animators. With “Spies in Disguise” I designed and animated every FUI element, so that was quite an undertaking and something I’m really proud of.

Outside of that you, I contributed some designs and animations to the latest Spider-man film, as well as “Thor Ragnarok”.

I do like to break things up and not always do UI design. So I’ve also worked in-house at Showtime branding their original show “Billions”, as well as doing a bunch of Showtime sports promos and designs. Another studio I love working with is Versus NYC, and I did a bunch of short fun explainer animations with them for the NFL on CBS. I also have some very talented friends that run a production company called Human Being and I partnered up with them on a number of their Governors Ball Music Festival recap videos, as well as some videos from the band Turkuaz.


Screen graphics for “Spies in Disguise“, courtesy of John Koltai.

Kirill: Does it leave you time to relax between productions?

John: I try to give myself some time between gigs. The last time we spoke, I was very much in a mindset of grinding and taking on everything. I had a tough time saying “No” to work, so I got a little bit burnt out.

I would say I’ve worked pretty hard on dialing in more of a proper work-life balance now. Right around the time of our last interview I learned how to surf, and that has become a huge part of my life. I feel that it balances the time in front of the box really well.

Kirill: Moving closer to these three features you’ve worked on recently, how does it feel to see months or even a couple of years of work condensed into a 90-120 minute final product? When you talk about what you do with people who are not in your field, how do you convey the complexity and the time scale of it?

John: Well in general I don’t think people outside of the industry really quite understand how much meticulous detail goes into making a movie. And that’s across the board, costume design, cinematography, lighting, script – all of it. I try to always display the work I’ve done on my website, whether it’s styleframes or a process reel, and I think that helps convey the complexity of what I do. And usually it’s the other creatives that understand just how long the time scale of these things are.


Screen graphics for “Spies in Disguise“, courtesy of John Koltai.

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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”.


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

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.

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Continuing the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces, it’s my honor to welcome Jamie McCallen. In this interview he talks about keeping the viewers in the story, the process of designing for screens in film, the differences between on-set and post production work, and the evolution of hardware and software tools at his disposal. In between and around, Jamie dives deeper into the first 15 years of his work that spanned productions as diverse as “Elysium” and “The Age of Adaline”, “Batman v Superman” and “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian”, “Star Trek: Beyond” and “Godzilla”, and many more, including his most recent work on “Altered Carbon”, “Skyscraper” and “The Cloverfield Paradox”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to doing screen graphics in film / TV.

Jamie: I am a freelance designer and developer based in Vancouver, Canada. Over the last 15 years, I have worked on just over 40 film and television productions providing interactive desktop and mobile applications and post-production motion graphics.

I took a bit of a detour before getting into the industry. Art and programming had been interests, but I always had a different career in mind. In my teens, I had had art lessons, attended summer computer camps, that sort of thing. In my first years at university, I had taken a few programming courses and I worked one summer developing research applications for a statistics professor. But my intended career path was law and labour relations and over the next few years that’s what I did: law school, human resources manager, lawyer, co-founder of a labour relations non-profit organization. To that point, I had enjoyed the work I was doing, but it was while building the website for the non-profit, that something clicked. I realized I was excited about what I was doing and really enjoyed the combination of coding and design. Not wanting to give that up, I started working with a Vancouver-based team building websites for game companies and their game titles.

Around this time, I had a chance encounter with Rick Lupton, owner of i.Solve, Inc. Rick had heard I was doing some work in Director and inquired if I could build a joystick-controlled gimbal screen for the x-jet in “X2: X-Men United”. Over the next few years, I worked with the i.Solve group and started to design more and more screens.

It would take a few more productions and the opportunity to work with Gladys Tong and the G Creative team before I stopped thinking of myself primarily as a developer and started to consider myself a hyphenate (designer-developer).


Screen graphics for “Godzilla” under the creative direction of G Creative. Courtesy of Jamie McCallen and Warner Bros.

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

Jamie: On the first couple of films I worked on, I remember chasing some information that I thought would be helpful while building screens. “What city are they in? What is the last name of that character? What is the exact date?” It took a while to figure out there were often no solid answers and that productions sometimes wanted to keep those aspects as vague as possible on purpose. It just became easier to work around the details and get creative about hiding the holes. Nevertheless, I just remember expecting some of those details, especially timelines, would have been fleshed out.

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

Jamie: Considering some of my work is nearly 15 years old, I should probably start to worry. But, no, I don’t worry about it. Style and design are a product of their time and some will age well, and some won’t.

While designing, I am definitely not thinking about future audiences. But I do have the contemporary audience in mind and am considering what they are familiar with, what visual shorthand can I use to reinforce the message. Mainly, I am trying to produce a style that matches the character and the set design. When my work is seen by future audiences, I just want it to continue to mesh with the overall production.


Screen graphics for “2012” under the creative direction of G Creative. Courtesy of Jamie McCallen and Columbia Pictures.

Kirill: Do you find yourself competing with screens in your daily life? How do you craft something compelling that keeps the viewer in the story?

Jamie: Absolutely, I think we all compete with screens to some extent. It’s fairly common to be in situations where a person you are with is trying to finish up a message or post. For the most part, I just keep doing my own thing. If the person knows I am there and chooses to continue with what they are doing, I’ll respect that choice.

It’s kind of the same way in movies. You need to know what your message is competing with and how important it is. It’s not always about demanding attention.

As for your second part of your question, keeping viewers in the story. That’s key. We have all watched a show where something was off. Display graphics can suffer from the same types of problems. Sometimes they can be overly distracting, have awkward mannerisms, look out of place.

So, the first part of designing any screen is to just try to make sure it doesn’t stand out for the wrong reasons. Screens have to play their role. If it is a background textural screen, it should not call too much attention to itself. If a screen is given the chance to drive the story – be a “hero” – it needs to command attention and, as you said, be compelling.

To build a compelling hero screen, I think it should offer something unique and it needs to read clearly. For me, the process starts with the message. What story does the screen need to tell? Usually a screen is only visible for a few seconds, so it is important to figure out the core of the message and eliminate anything else. I try to strip out anything that I can read past and still get the whole message. Some of what is stripped out can be reintroduced later as secondary elements, but the main message should be as simple as possible.


Screen graphics for “Star Trek: Beyond” under the creative direction of G Creative. Courtesy of Jamie McCallen and Paramount Pictures.

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