Sci-fi movies are more popular than ever, and future fantasies are rendered on movie screens with ever more dazzling realism. Meanwhile, in the real world, rapidly developing user interfaces, media surfaces and wearables blur the line between science fiction and life in the present day. How do graphics and visual effects teams go about designing an on-screen future that has an impact on audiences living in an era of wondrous technology? Yolanda Zappaterra went to some of the best in the business to find out.
At an East London movie theater on a spring evening, trailers are featuring the usual mix of summer blockbusters, rom-coms, kids’ movies and arthouse films that people half-watch while chatting and playing with their phones. Then a trailer comes on screen that demands everyone’s attention: it’s for the 1982 noir sci-fi film Blade Runner, and its impact is even stronger today than it was when it was first released. Now, 34 years later, we can see just how prescient it was in designing the future. Its dystopian depiction of the year 2019 shattered our visions of a tech-filled utopia and revealed how technology can backfire.
“Blade Runner is a perfect film, with amazing vision,” says Danny Yount, the man behind lauded credit sequences and interfaces for Oblivion, Tron: Legacy, Tyrant and all three Iron Man films. “The moment at the end when the replicant realizes his mortality is pure poetry,” he says. Many of today’s science fiction visionaries share Yount’s reverence. David Sheldon-Hicks, creative director and co-founder of London-based multidisciplinary group Territory Studio, which made screen graphics and interfaces for Prometheus, Jupiter Ascending, Ex Machina and Guardians of the Galaxy, says, “Even though it wasn’t necessarily a beautiful or utopian view of the world, there was a seductive beauty to the work that pulled me in emotionally, with an authenticity that immersed me in the film’s vision.” Shawn Walsh, executive producer of visual effects at Image Engine in Vancouver, which devised the look of Neill Blomkamp’s hugely influential District 9 and Elysium, says, “It’s not so much the accuracy of Ridley Scott’s predictions of the future landscape as the plausibility of all of the visual imagery in the film and the sociocultural assumptions the film makes. Overpopulation, superstructures, VTOL [vertical take-off and landing] craft, sophisticated interface design, amalgamation in language… all of these things combine into a setting that feels completely believable as a future reality.”
Yount, Walsh and Sheldon-Hicks have played substantial roles in predicting the future from a twenty-first-century stance, albeit with occasional nods to their twentieth-century forebears. Image Engine’s work on the torus space station environment in Elysium draws inspiration from futurist designer Syd Mead’s work on Blade Runner as well as Mead’s early space station illustrations for National Geographic in the 1970s. In this year’s Ex Machina, Territory Studio’s work references many of Blade Runner’s human/replicant themes, but the two films couldn’t be more different, largely because we are quickly moving toward the possibility of real artificial intelligence. Sheldon-Hicks explains that Territory had to create a more believable artificial intelligence in order to appease sci-fi fans who would scrutinize every aspect of the movie’s depiction of the future. “There are fans who are passionate about everything from code to terminology, so we do try to work with that,” he says. “While our approach always assumes some artistic license, there are times when the discipline that realism brings can really enhance the process, as it did when we were asked to design a credible new operating system that evolved current user experience and user interface conventions for Ex Machina.”
A key impetus for Territory’s work is what Sheldon-Hicks calls humanness and describes as “a love of the human element—glitchy technology that needs a very physical jolt to set it right, information interrupted by transmission errors, UI [user interface] anomalies generated by various hacks, screens aged by time and use, organic forms and shapes that tap into our collective unconscious, and screen content that allows for an actor’s emotional response,” he says. “Authenticity and credibility are rooted in emotional experiences or rational convention.” In Zero Dark Thirty, for example, Territory drew on real-world drone camera shots to convey the extraordinary tension of operations rooms. InPrometheus, the graphics subtly contribute to the movie’s narrative and mood. The screens on the ship’s bridge “convey a scientific vessel with its own super intelligence far beyond the audience’s scope of experience,” Sheldon-Hicks says, “while in the informal meeting spaces, the graphics were all based on organic forms and colors that evoked warmth, comfort, familiarity and reassurance.”
UI designer Jorge Almeida acknowledges that humanness drives his work as well. Almeida has designed screen interfaces for The Dark Knight Rises, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Star Trek: Into Darkness andTomorrowland. He also worked on Minority Report, arguably one of the most influential uses of UI in modern times, which has been widely praised for its vision of the future, especially its elegant and engaging glass precog interface. “Several things in that film were pretty accurate in terms of where media surfaces are headed, from touchless interaction to augmented reality,” says Yount. Such spot-on visualization was no accident—it came directly from Almeida’s desire to humanize the interface and tether it to the physical world. “I try to find one idea that I can lock onto for motivation, even if it ultimately never translates to the screen,” he says. “For Minority Report, I thought of the data as some type of organism floating in fluid. That led me to play with different layer modes and transparencies in order to try to make the data look almost cellular. I thought of all of the precrime division interfaces as windows into a giant aquarium.”
Likewise, the gritty realism that Image Engine brought to District 9 is a testament to what Walsh says is the studio’s constant search for ways to bring a rooted, visceral aesthetic to its work. “We’re constantly investigating the real world and scouring the Internet for captivating and relevant references for the digital work we do. Once we have this element, we become obsessed with being able to replicate it within the specific context of our digital work, no matter what project we are working on,” he says. And for Yount, the experience of being self-taught, developing his career in an earlier era of sci-fi movies and television shows, has given him an aesthetic sensibility that goes beyond the more recent concerns brought on by video games: complexity, hyper-frenetic layering and processing speed. “I love layering and complexity,” he says, “but I came from a generation where story was more important, and UI was just used to supplement it—very utilitarian and not flashy.”
The key, for all of them, is to ground the science-fiction fantasy in the real facts of human nature. “I always want to know what is next in technology and the development of humanity,” Yount says. Almeida, meanwhile, has traded sci-fi movie work for present-day UI design. He’s helping create UI for Microsoft’s upcoming HoloLens, “working with technology that feels straight out of the movies,” he says. And like his cinematic work, his design for HoloLens is rooted in personal expression and humanity. “One of the features that I think is so cool is the ability to place holograms in your physical space, like on a countertop, and leave them there. I think this will open the door to UI eventually becoming a form of personal expression, like interior design. More and more people will look at interfaces and data visualization the same way film UI designers do, as part of the bigger picture,” he says.
As Sheldon-Hicks puts it, “All images of the future are a reflection of our current views on technology and culture.” Let’s hope that today’s UI predictions, centered around ideas of fallibility and personal expression, augur a future filled with the best user experiences and interfaces possible—not so much Blade Runner and its terrifying impersonal scale, but Ex Machina at its most intimate and human. ca