You know the MCU, right? Who doesn’t? The abbreviation is one that millions if not billions of comic and film fans around the world would be able to identify as either Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics universe or, as of more recently, the Marvel Cinematic Universe it spawned with the release of Iron Man in 2008. Lee might be the name we most associate with the universe, but a close second is New York–based design firm Perception, which has brought Lee’s intricately woven superhero cosmos to life for millions of cinemagoers thanks to its title sequence and VFX work on just about every Marvel movie since 2009. But beyond creating title sequences, user-interfaces, data visualization, head-up display (HUD) design and futuristic tech such as AI and transportation for some of the biggest movies in the world—among them Iron Man 2, Black Panther, The Avengers: Endgame and Infinity War, Doctor Strange, Captain America: Civil War and The Winter Soldier—in the real world, the agency has worked with global automotive, aerospace and tech clients on all aspects of UI in automation, data visualization, cybersecurity and more.
Cofounders Danny Gonzalez and Jeremy Lasky surely couldn’t have predicted such a stellar rise for their agency when they set it up in 2001, but they did have a vision of “creating a company that was built on cost-effective animation, editing and visual effects for broadcast, ad agencies, networks and the like,” says Gonzalez. They chose the name Perception because “a strong part of the brand is the idea of stimulating and creating wonder for the senses, whether visual, tactile or auditory,” Lasky says. And they brought to it a winning mix of top-notch design skills honed via years with R/Greenberg Associates—now R/GA, arguably the best and most influential digital design agency of the 20th century—and all the chutzpah and tenacity of an East Coast upbringing. As Gonzalez says, “I’m from Queens. Jeremy’s from Brooklyn. So, we don’t take no for an answer and we’re healthily competitive, which infuses Perception today. We could put our team up against anybody and we’ll always win because we’ll always figure it out. We’ll do the right research. We’ll make it look beautiful when it comes to the dynamite. We’ll just work nonstop until it’s right.”
Research played an integral part in an early Marvel animation project, the title sequence for Hulk Vs., using footage and photographs shot at an upstate science lab that “looked like it came right out of a sci-fi movie, or a Frankenstein set,” Gonzalez recalls. “Mixed in with 3-D elements, nobody knew what was real and what was visual effects. It really worked out, especially when we had to do it in such a short turnaround.” This approach to reality suffuses everything Perception does. “Going to the source—finding real-world inspiration that’s relevant—has always been a driving force,” he adds.
And then there’s that tenacity. As Lasky puts it, “It’s reflected in the longevity of the company, because we’re now in our 20th year, and we’re incredibly proud of that. When we began, we drew up a list of dream clients and Marvel was top of the list. We spent seven, maybe eight years literally trying to attract them, and eventually, it paid off. From ten or so shots in Iron Man 2, we ended up with more than 130 shots.”
At the heart of all Perception’s work is its rooting in reality. “The comedian George Burns once said to the brilliant sci-fi TV director Kenneth Johnson, ‘if you’re going to tell a lie, put as much truth in it as possible,’” says Lasky. “What that means is surround it with facts, logic and reasoning. And that’s what we strive to do. We’ll create a fantasy technology, but it’s housed in a world of possibilities that are real.” The vibranium sand of Wakanda in Black Panther is a fine example, created after the agency learned of the University of Tokyo’s experiments with sand particles that could be moved by auditory waves.
The whole film is also a fine example of the way in which Perception’s work has expanded from “building elements for characters to now actually participating in the building of the worlds, or the universe of these characters and their technologies,” adds Lasky, though at the heart of all Perception projects is that character’s humanity and personality. “We create graphic personas—whether it be interfaces or whatever it is that characters are interacting with—that match their style. For Tony Stark, it’s about his being a billionaire, an orphan, a ladies’ man, a gambler… His technology has to come from those things. For S.H.I.E.L.D, [the MCU’s benign CIA-like secret service organization], we designed technologies that are more military-looking. For Jane Foster, a brilliant but broke scientist and Thor’s girlfriend, we designed elements that looked like they were made up of bits from RadioShack and put together with Scotch tape.”
Such a focus on the human perspective not only ensures a character or narrative’s humanity doesn’t get swallowed up in the gadgetry and tech, it also creates a sense of soul in all of Perception’s work, whether it be a movie or a high-performance car interface. “Whatever we’re involved in creating, we want the user to believe, or to know, that it’s actually being built by a person, not just on an assembly line,” says Gonzalez. “When you get into an automobile that we’ve had the honor of working on, you’re going to get a very different experience to a car where all the parts have been just picked off the shelf, because a lot of thought and creativity has been put into it. The team goes above and beyond to make sure that there’s something extra special.”
Another aspect important to Perception is finding the balance between what the audience already knows to be possible and making something sufficiently futuristic to satisfy a project’s narrative demands. “It’s a fine line to tread, and it’s something that we focus on quite a bit,” says Lasky. “There’s this notion we talk about a lot, of a ‘technological climate’: What do audiences know is currently possible and feasible by today’s technological standards? What is that general knowledge or understanding of what’s out there? And then knowing that, how can we push it just a little bit forward? What we’ve found is that if you go too far, you’ll lose the audience; they just won’t buy it. You really have to find that sweet spot that’s just beyond where we currently are.”
That “sweet spot” influences tech clients who might be working on similar things in terms of engineering to ask for Perception’s help on making their visualizations work for the user. As Lasky often hears from clients: “‘We want whatever this product is, or whatever this interface is, to look like it does in the movie. How can we make the experience feel cinematic?’” Gonzalez adds: “What’s interesting is that while the film work has to feel grounded in reality and look real, with tech clients, we’ll work to make something look more like it does in the movies. So in a sense, the real wants to look more magical, and the fake wants to look more real. It’s a great cycle where one feeds seamlessly into the other. We call it the science fiction feedback loop.”
That Perception’s tech and automotive clients look to the firm’s MCU films for their own inspiration, and associate this with the designers, is something the team are clearly—and justifiably—proud of. As Lasky sees it, “I think one of the main attractions [to Perception by] both our team and clients is that there are thousands of great digital agencies in the world, but there aren’t any quite like us that get to work in both spaces. There’s a little bit of movie magic that we bring to [our work]. It’s the same thinkers and the same talent working across it all, which automatically creates a healthy disruption and innovation.”
This year, a move to a larger New Jersey office will incorporate a digital-free “inspiration room” to echo the early days of Perception’s techniques and tools—“like walking around Manhattan taking photos of peeling billboards, or looking at books, or drawing with pen and paper, because those things for us led to some great projects,” says Lasky. “I think a lot of people get too comfortable just sitting at their computer, looking for the answer. Sometimes that’s the last place to look. You’ve got to get out of your comfort zone and go out into the real world.”
With the move and recent projects like Black Widow, Loki and GMC’s Hummer EV under their belts, Perception seems headed toward a future as bright as a supernova. But what do the ultimate visualizers of the future imagine their own personal futures will look like? Gonzalez believes there’ll be more electric vehicles on the road… “I’m going to be the only one left with a car that runs on gas,” he says. “I’ll be like Mad Max driving around in my old Mustang looking for gas that nobody has.” It’s not that he’s a gas guzzler, he insists, but rather a big fan of how a high-performance gas engine feels. Yet unsurprisingly, Perception is working on that. And odds are that when Gonzalez is doing his Mel Gibson impersonation, it won’t be in a gas-guzzling old Mustang but a state-of-the-art electric vehicle that will give him the same thrill, thanks in no small part to their input. ca