Earlier this year I made two presentations called Gorgeous+Catastrophic, in which I show six sci-fi interfaces that are both beautiful to behold and that would be disastrous if implemented in the real world, all to illustrate why we should keep interfaces in sci-fi at arm’s length and evaluate them with a critical eye. It’s a fun talk to give. You should totally ask me to come present it at your local conference.
But in one of the talks, when I introduced the first of the six examples—the medpod interface from Prometheus, starting around 06:35 in the video—I misattributed the whole design to Territory Studio. This was oversimplifying the team on a couple of levels, so let me make the formal correction and apology here.
Territory Studio did work on Prometheus, and even did work on the medpod: They did the VFX interfaces shown around 07:50, and were joined by teams from Fuel VFX and Compuhire. They did not do the on-set touchscreen that sits on the side of the medpod that Noomi Rapace/Elizabeth Shaw touches directly starting around 07:28. That was designed by Shaun Yue, working as an individual contractor. An additional complication is that George Simons, who was graphics supervisor on the film, is now with Territory, but was not then. And then, there’s the credits, which only list names, not companies, and not full teams.
Mea culpa. I should have known better, since I even have an interview with Shaun Yue on this blog about that movie. It’s a small competitive field, and proper credit is hard to get. It’s functionally advertising, so this mistake isn’t minor. My apologies to Shaun, George Simons, Rheea Aranha, John Hill, Paul Roberts, Daniel Burke, Mark Jordan, Eliot Eveson, and Adam Stevenson. If I give the same talk again I won’t make the same mistake.
The trickiness of attribution
It doesn’t excuse the mistake (and I’m glad I have this forum to right the wrong) but I will note how very difficult it is to get attribution of scifiinterfaces correctly.
Who is the designer?
A sci-fi interface is a pie with a lot of fingers in it. If it’s central to the plot, then the writer will have described what it does in the script. The director will have had (in this case) his opinions as well, well before shooting, and actors may have input after reading the script and during shooting. If it’s not central to the plot, it may have been handed to someone elsewhere in the hierarchy. Then there’s art directors, production designers, and editors all directly touching the end result of what we see on screen.
With interfaces becoming more and more part of sci-fi movie making, the teams are getting larger and more specialized. There may be one team whose responsibility are on-set interfaces that the actors see and touch. Another team might be handling the post-production interfaces that are built after principal shooting. One individual might do the graphics as static elements and another do the motion design. Final assets produced by designers may be cut up and remixed by editors (without consulting the original designers) to meet the narrative needs of the flow of the story, so what winds up on screen may not be what was originally designed.
Given all of these people, where is the line of who is and isn’t the designer? Or even the design team? Is it everyone? Is it just “the designer?” Who is that in this complicated case? Who gets the credit?
Highlighted for focus
An informally defined role
Another part of the difficulty of attribution is that interface design is not as formalized a role as many of the other roles in movie production. If a person is listed as the Director of Photography, that has a specific meaning and set of responsibilities. But there isn’t a formal title that every production agrees to, like Director of Interfaces (even though, hey, Hollywood, maybe it’s time). Sometimes, as was the case with Prometheus, it’s a mixture of individuals and studios hired separately. Sometimes the designers are in-house employees of the studio. It’s hard to even review the credits for some movies and clearly say these people were the ones involved in the interface. That person’s name may represent the individual whose name stands in for a studio. Even Prometheus listed the individuals by name, even though I’ve confirmed through some direct conversations who were hired as individual contractors rather than individuals.
It is so very complicated.
So again, this is not an excuse, but an explication about why trying to get the attribution right is a fraught enterprise, and I did not due my due diligence when speaking about interfaces. It would be easiest to simply bypass attribution altogether, but I want to recognize people for the difficult and beautiful work they do.
This whole thing is especially on my mind as we head into the end of the year and I’m working with folks to create an award for the best sci-fi interface of the year. This will be important to get right, and clearly I’ve got to get better at doing it.