Did The Lawnmower Man Ruin Everything?

In the most recent issue of the delightful gamer nerd magazine Kill Screen, Erik Fredner and I discuss…

  • The sci-fi constraint I indentified called What You Know Plus One
  • Problem closure
  • The “Black light poster rendered on a Mac Classic” that is the virtual reality sequences of The Lawnmower Man.

It’s not online, so head to their website to find out the closest place to get your hands on some of that goodness yourself.

cover art  by @darkigloo and @KidMograph for Kill Screen

cover art by @darkigloo and @KidMograph for Kill Screen

Excerpt:

 
Poached from information science, the term “problem closure” means that the way a question is asked limits how we might answer it. In other words, it’s that box we’re always trying to think outside of. But, like What You Know Plus One, problem closure has a social dynamic to it. Valid answers to questions may not be recognized as good answers if they venture too far outside of said box. Videogames like Rez drew against the image of virtual reality Lawnmower Man helped create precisely because of the way movies had already framed the question of what virtual space should look like. Usually games have to work with what we already know to teach us something we don’t.
by @darkigloo and @KidMograph for Kill Screen

by @darkigloo and @KidMograph for Kill Screen

An Interview with Christopher Kieffer and Coplin Le Bleu

Chris Kieffer and Copin Le Bleu ran across my interview with Shaun Yue, and since they had done the interfaces for The Cabin in the Woods, contacted me eager to share their story as well. Since Cabin has the highest-rated interfaces in the Make It So survey so far, I was very glad to have the chance to talk with them as well. So in honor of the one-year anniversary of the film’s release…

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What brief did you receive? How did you interface with (director) Drew Goddard?

COPLIN: The one thing I really remember was that the control room needed to have an older feel to it, like it had been set up years ago but still functional… a kind of a low tech mechanical feel with high tech functions. I remember referencing photos of security/surveillance control rooms that you would see in a prison guard station. I didn’t communicate with Drew directly. All notes got were filtered down from the on set playback operator and supervisor.

CHRIS: When we started this project, design notes from Drew were given to our on-set playback supervisor Mike Sanchez in Canada, to relay to us here in the U.S. The notes said the control room is to look like its been there for a long, long time. As if they built this room with state of the art equipment years ago, but over time they have made some upgrades but kept the old stuff that still works there. So you could have a modern computer running software right next to an old light up panel with switches on it that work together. 

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Tell me how you went about creating the interfaces for The Cabin the Woods? How did you handle the remote collaboration between you two?

COPLIN: I started designing the interface with the idea that it was an older system set up, that might have looked high tech in it’s prime but had "weathered" a little bit.  So I tried to add a lot of terminal and DOS style elements that would imply a lower, underlining level of programing.  I also felt it needed to have a utilitarian and mechanical feel to the design as it would be controlling and monitoring the different parts of the house.  Chris and I were in the same office, although we were balancing multiple projects together at that time.

CHRIS: Coplin started the initial design on the interface, but we had a few variations of interfaces to make. I started designing different parts of the system like the video surveillance setup and background screens that included video oscilloscopes, code screens, door keypads, and a lot of surveillance on different monitors. The remote aspect came into play when things needed to get approved or changed. We would send the files to Mike in Canada for Drew to look at, and if changes were needed he would send us drew’s notes. So there was a delay sometimes in getting things approved which made it harder to get things made in such a short time. 

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Were there any great ideas that didn’t make it to screen? What would you go back and redo given the opportunity?

COPLIN: Looking back on this project, there were a lot of ideas that I’m glad did not make the film. After reading the review on your blog (a very humbling and at times embarrassing experience), there are plenty of changes I would’ve made.  One in particular is the idea of making the deaths on the "kill" screen less noticeable as that information would be less important for their mission.  There’s not usually a lot of time to spend on the details.  My first requirement is to tell the story point efficiently and effectively as I can.  I would have liked to have had more time think about the details of the designs.

CHRIS: Yes, at one point we talked about having a monster select screen that showed all the monsters and their stats. That would have been fun to make but we were early in production and they hadn’t picked/designed all the monsters yet, so that was never finished. After I finish any project I learn so much and always look back and say I could have done this or that, but there’s never enough time.

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What are your backgrounds? Are you interface designers or SFX artists by training?

COPLIN: I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in TV/Film Production from the University of New Orleans.  After college I became a self-taught motion graphics artist.

CHRIS: I have a BS in visual Communications, and an AS in Graphic Design. I started in print, designing packaging, advertising, and product design. I really liked animating graphics much more than print and so went in that direction instead. 

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What were the biggest challenges working on the film?

COPLIN: Time, as in all productions, seems to be one of the biggest challenges, as well as not physically being on set.  I find being on set helps me with designing the functionality of the screens, to see how they will be set up in their environment and how the surrounding set pieces interact with them.  Also it was very challenging for me to display a lot of "nondescript" information to make the screens look busy without tying that graphic to what ever pertinent plot point might be going on at the time.

CHRIS: I agree with Coplin on this one. We only had a couple of days to design and animate all the screens for the main control set. That includes making changes on the fly. It does make it hard not being there, not being able to see the actual set and see how something looks on a monitor and being able to adjust it. Then we have the “make it bigger, and red or green” problems. This is when we have to make some text on the screen very large and red if bad and green if good. We try very hard to avoid things like that but sometimes it’s out of our control. They need to get a specific point across to the audience quickly, and even though your computer wouldn’t say something like "Access Denied" in RED 72pt FONT, some of these just might.

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What interfaces are you most proud of in the film? (And, of course, why?)

COPLIN: I guess I’m most proud of the "Penta-Vitals" aka "Marking the deaths" screens.  They’re dense and busy but I feel like you could easily at a glance tell who was where and how they were feeling. 

CHRIS: I actually liked making the older electronic equipment screens. The oscilloscope, waveform monitors, were a challenge to make look real. I found making the older tech screens look real was a lot harder than I thought. The look and feel they had on those tube monitors is almost impossible to match on an LCD or plasma, but some we made for tube monitors.

What’s your favorite sci-fi interface that someone else designed?

COPLIN: Of course I’m a really big fan of Mark Coleran‘s work and the stuff that Ash Thorp, David Lewandowski, Jayse Hansen, and Bradley G Munkowitz do (to name a few).  Anytime I see anything from those guys my mouth drops and I want to crawl into a hole.  One of my favorite sci-fi interfaces is from Moon, It’s fun, clean and memorable.

CHRIS: I like a lot of interfaces I see in films and tv shows, but off the top of my head I really like the look and movement of Ash Thorps recent work on Total Recall

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In your opinion, what makes a great sci-fi interface designer?

COPLIN: I think what makes a great sci-fi interface designer is someone who can artistically tell the story and creatively display pertinent information in a clear and concise manner.  Someone who can put themselves in the characters shoes and imagine what that character would want to see on the screen.

CHRIS: I agree, a designer should find a way to solve a problem or create a user interface that is fast and relevant to the story while making it artistically appealing to look at.

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What’s next for you?

COPLIN: I’m hoping to continue creating interactive motion graphics for on-set video playback and post production.

CHRIS: To continue working on interface design and animation for films and tv shows. Im starting on a new project right now designing a 3d Holographic navigational control system, and some HUDs for some space suits.


Images Copyright Lionsgate

An interview with Shaun Yue

Midway through the reviews of the Prometheus interfaces, I was delighted to receive an email from the lead designer for the on-set graphics on the movie, Shaun Yue. Since I must evaluate television shows and films as an outsider, it was great to have Shaun’s insider perspective on how and why things get done the way they are. What follows is an email interview conducted with Shaun about his work on the film. Shaun was also kind enough to share some larger images of screens in development, which are included throughout.

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What was your role with the Prometheus sci-fi interfaces?

Shaun: I led the visual design of the on-set physical interface graphics. Based at Pinewood Studios for principal photography of the Prometheus ship interiors, I developed the design templates for the set graphics and helped oversee the design team of five which were based remotely around London.

The overall on-set graphics supervisor was George Simons, who managed the logistics, determined the deliverables based on the script, specified hardware requirements and was the key liaison between the production departments. We were both working for set-decorator Sonja Klaus who along with production designer Arthur Max are long time collaborators with Ridley Scott.

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Could you describe the creative process with Ridley Scott?

Sonja and Ridley were quite keen that we incorporate novel colours and shapes into the screen design. Sonja’s reference point wasn’t computer interfaces, but rather more broad visual references such as luminescent underwater wildlife and astrological photography. They were keen that the visual language be so futuristic that the technology appeared almost foreign and unrecognisable to contemporary viewers.

It was quite a challenging brief, as basing sci-fi graphics on reality is a powerful method for making designs more believable to the audience. Regardless of how far in the future we speculate, usability and functionality are key, especially when the script requires the audience to read the design immediately for storytelling. As a fan of the original Alien’s robust, utilitarian screen design, I thought it would be a shame to completely disregard it.

However, in meetings with Ridley, he always made reference to visual artists, such as the constructivist works of Rodchenko, rather than objectively predicting the future. I think the key to responding to this challenge was to embrace that Ridley has an intuitive and artistic visual approach to filmmaking. Essentially he saw screen design as an extension of this sensibility.

For our design team, the process was all about trying to loosen up the design rules, not being too rigid with grids, and especially playing around with negative space. We layered shades of transparent gradient windows on top of each other and really just approached the design in an impressionistic way. We saw the screens as the equivalent of moving artworks, I self-rationalised it almost like an AI reconfiguring the design bespokely to its context!

To try and keep things sympathetic to the design of the ship, which was robustly industrial and structured, we overlaid some more defined graphic elements to hold the design together and make it a little more functional, the single line “holding” bracket, header and tab structure, recognisable data elements and button iconography.

In the end the design process on a film is largely about facilitating a collaboration between the various production creatives to reach a goal that satisfies the director.

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How are decisions made over the course of production? How did you collaborate with other departments?

Working concurrently as sets were being designed and built meant we had to be flexible in responding to the changing iterations leading up to shooting.

A prime example was the bridge. Ridley envisaged a lot of holograms throughout the set, but the CGI proved cost prohibitive. We did camera tests with the DOP, Dariusz Wolski, to project onto perspex panels. The images were a bit soft, but the advantage was the realistic light spill and live images cast onto the actors and set (a bit reminiscent of the opening scene in Alien). In the end it fit with Ridley’s style to shoot as much for real on set.

The art department had to design full size mockups of the pilot consoles to house projectors and a mirror to bounce the projection back onto the perspex. Also a foam core mock up console with fitted with functioning displays helped present the animated designs to Ridley in context.

Also on the bridge, Ridley was wanted a visual representation of the descent to LV-223 depicted on the screens. He could describe and sketch in great detail the Prometheus’ trajectory to the surface and its surrounding terrain. The visual effects department had explored some options with pre-viz of the two merged locations being used for the planet exteriors (Wadi Ramm in Jordan and Iceland). We used their merged geo-data to define the terrain and map out a descent visualization from the live perspective of the Prometheus. It resulted in a 4 minute long animation from atmosphere to the surface. It was vastly more than required for the final film but preparing material to be shot on set required a lot of extra redundancy for shooting coverage, and also gave something for the actors to respond to.

A vital part of on-set screen design is collaborating with the playback technicians to produce animations which are technically feasible to playback and control on-set for shooting. Sonja was quite keen on touch screen interactivity so we worked with Mark Jordan’s team at Compuhire to create interactive door and control panels which the actors could press and have reactive animation. This was most prominent in the medi-pod cesarean sequence, which had several interactive stages determined by the script. All the buttons were highlightable and controllable, but the activation was quite simple so that Noomi Rapace did not have to memorise complicated controls or gestures when delivering her performance.

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What is your background? Are you a designer or an SFX artist by training?

I studied Multimedia Design at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia. It was a mix of digital media, web, animation, film and graphic design. I briefly worked as a web designer before moving to animated and live-action commercials, and then was a lead designer at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI).

In 2006 I moved to London and have been lucky enough to work on The Dark Knight, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Crysis 2 in addition to numerous commercials and music projects.

What were the biggest challenges working on the film?

Other than balancing interface functionality with Ridley’s aesthetic sensibilities described above, the biggest challenge would have been achieving the amount of work within a really tight schedule. We went from a blank slate to shooting in 12 weeks eventually completing around 250 screen designs.

The other major challenge was responding to requests for design changes or even completely new designs during shooting. Some of the screens were shot were designed and animated the same day they were shot!

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What interfaces are you most proud of in the film? (And, of course, why?)

The entire bridge was really satisfying as it was a massive set with so many screens, over a hundred designs working together. It was a great testament to the efforts of the design team so props must go out to our supervisor George Simons and the rest of the design team David Sheldon-Hicks, John Hill, Paul Roberts and Rheea Aranha. Also thanks must go to Sonja Klaus and Karen Wakefield for their guidance and integrating us into the set-decorating department.

I’m personally quite fond of the medi-pod activation screen as it encapsulated all of the design challenges of an on-set graphic: it was detailed enough to be filmed close, it responded very specifically to the script narrative, and it was programmed to be interactive for the actor to perform with.

The last thing which was quite fun was trying to squeeze in references to Alien. From the nondescript numerals measuring chemicals on the spacesuits, little references to Muthur, to the warning cross motif when Prometheus sets itself for collision, it was our way of trying to pay respect.

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What’s your favorite sci-fi interface outside of Prometheus?

Kubrick’s 2001 for its consideration and relentless practical execution, and anything Dan O’Bannon’s designed for its narrative clarity and ingenuity.

What’s next for you?

I wasn’t sure what could compare to working on Ridley Scott’s first sci-fi for almost 30 years, but I was lucky enough to spend most of last year working on Sam Mendes’ Skyfall. To be part of the 50th year of Bond and revisiting Q for the modern age through computer interfaces was pretty amazing.

However, I’m interested in exploring some more speculative design ideas beyond the narrative and practical constraints of feature film production, so we’ll see what the future holds.

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Images Copyright 20th Century Fox

Production Credits for the images above:
Directed by Ridley Scott
Production Designer: Arthur Max

Set Decorator: Sonja Klaus
Senior Art Director: Karen Wakefield

Screen Interface Designer: George Simons
Screen Graphics Designers: Shaun Yue, David Sheldon-Hicks, John Hill, Paul Roberts, Rheea Aranha

On-Set Playback: Compuhire
Technicians: Mark Jordan, Adam Stevenson, Eliot Evesons