Continuing the ongoing series of interviews on fantasy user interfaces, it’s my honor to welcome Steven Bussey. His work can be seen on the screens of “Pacific Rim: Uprising“, “Mission Impossible: Fallout“, “Justice League” and his most recent project – “Underwater“. In this interview Steven talks about his life-long passion for movies, the path that took him into the world of screen graphics, and his take on the role of technology in our daily lives.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and what brought you to where you are today.

Steven: All the way back to when I was a kid, I always had a deep interest in movies. I was brought up with it in a familiar sense where my family would gather around and watch all kinds of movies together after a long day. The unrealistic movies I would have to watch for myself however and that would be movies like the original Star Wars that I would watch again and again from when I was very young. I would even watch the credits for most movies to much irritation to the rest of the family, I would read it all and listen to the music and thinking that one day I could maybe end up there somehow or another working on movies.

As the years went by, I started to discover more films by myself too, reading the newspapers and preparing for what I wanted to see over the weekend and tape them on VHS so that I could watch them again and again. “Die Hard” was one of the first movies I really remember when it comes to screen graphics and UI. It had these cool ’80s CRT monitors with all kinds of realistic graphics on them which served as an important storytelling device. In the movie bad guys hacked the entire building, shut it down and used it as a tool to lock people in, all done with sophisticated technology. I watched it many times along with the Star Wars movies and I will never forget those specific movies.

Screen graphics of “Die Hard”.

Growing up with comics and books of all kinds, I didn’t know exactly what, but I always had it in my mind that it would be something creative. Time was flying and all of a sudden I had to choose which college or university to go to and it was really hard, because I had no idea how to get into an industry working with design or art.

It was during the high school years that I discovered design through my sister. She did a design course in the same college that I had in mind so I was really looking forward to the final year at this particular college where I could explore drawing and design classes. This college was very narrow minded however and my study counselor told me that working in the creative industry was probably a bad idea, because it would be hard to get an internship and all kinds of other nonsense. So he recommended me to study history instead and become a teacher. I failed my last exam in history, as if it was some sort of lucky revenge, because he was also the history teacher there and I had been doing great so far. So that idea was quickly discarded.

After mandatory military service, I went back to kind of a prep school for university. Officially it was a marketing school, but you could take loads of optional courses in computer, web and graphic design. It was there that I met the most important person on this entire journey. He showed me where to really study graphic design and how to work with creativity.

He said that there was a school further down south of Denmark where they taught graphic design and that I should apply there. So that is what I did. I spent loads of time getting ready for it and making a portfolio doing all kinds of tutorials in Illustrator and Photoshop. I got in and there I did my bachelor degree in graphic design which was three years of hard work.

We had courses in Flash, web, advertising etc and it was when one of the teachers showed the class the title sequence for “Catch Me If You Can” and that planted the idea that not only can you illustrate, design and work with typography, but you can also animate these things. That inspired me to always keep motion graphics in the back of my mind during all of the remaining courses.

But during those 3 years at university which coincided with the global financial crisis of 2008, I figured it was going to be a bit hard to find a job in Denmark. So I did an internship in London at Bunch Design to open up my chances for a job opportunity plus I felt there was more stuff there that could help me work with what I wanted to do. Jo Kotas was running the studio at the time and gave me the chance to work on some amazing projects and meet all kinds of people. But the crisis was still around so I did my master’s degree back in Denmark. It was still focused on graphic design and typography, but I always had that little spark of motion graphics and animation that I really wanted to dive into. I was still pushing it into my projects as I was working on my degree and I was still inclined to work in London. After more interviews and hard work I got my foot in the door with a big studio called EmpireDesign.

I asked them if they were doing internships or tutoring programs and they replied that I was welcome to come in for a couple of weeks. I packed my bags and went, even though I was still busy with the final project on the masters degree. EmpireDesign does posters and trailer graphics for films which was perfect for me, thinking back to my childhood and now somehow getting to work with movies for real. I started out animating posters and promotional content for feature films and later making trailer graphics too.

During my masters and full-timing it at EmpireDesign, me and my buddy (shout out to Martin Aggerholm) started exploring the UI scene that started to become more and more visible in movies and video games like Call of Duty and many other games. They would all have these techy and cinematic preloader screens and cut-scenes which where super immersive. That’s when we discovered studios like BlindLtd, SPOV and Territory and other studios all over the world that were defining this new style of work.

Personal work. Courtesy Steven Bussey.

So I started to dig deeper into film and TV production in this particular area. I was given the opportunity to work on my first feature film and after a one-week trial period and a few high end feature film projects I finally started on my new journey as a freelance motion graphics designer working mainly with UI design for film and TV.

As a freelancer all of a sudden I was networking, working with different veterans from the industry, different companies and making new colleagues and acquaintances. It was like two different worlds going from full-time to freelance but both of them were amazing for me and I owe a lot to all the people who steered me, helped me and those who gave me a chance and believed in me.

Continue reading »

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.

Continue reading »

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.

Continue reading »

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.

Continue reading »