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Territory’s Prometheus UI

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For Prometheus, David Sheldon-Hicks and his team at Territory were asked to work on several UI elements. David recently took the time to answer some questions about their work for the film.

Q: How did you and Territory get involved with this project?

We got a phone call out of the blue from George Simons, the screen graphic supervisor. I think a friend of a friend had mentioned that I’d done screens for Casino Royale and Dark Knight. Territory signed some NDA’s and we were then told about the project. We were obviously very excited about a film revisiting the Alien universe, directed by Ridley Scott.

Q: What was the assignment?

The first brief I got was to send over some styleframes that looked like nothing else seen in a film. The blank canvas idea is never as easy as I’d hope. I’d been working up some sketches a few months before, looking at breaking away from the usual grid based systems. I’d always been interested in node-based interfaces. The more curvy linear structures seen in a lot of data visualizations I felt hadn’t been fully explored in screen graphics for films. I wanted to try to work circular frameworks in somehow, floating information in the frame in pleasing compositions. These floating frameworks would be tied to tabs at the edge of frame using the nodes. My loose theory being that we were looking into portals of data, tethered via node lines to external tabs linking out to various other systems. This sounds like techno babble, but we honestly always try to ground this work in some form of research and logic.

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Q: As you started working, what were your influences and inspirations? Did you consider the earlier Alien films as you approached your work?

Ron Cobbs work and the original Alien screens were certainly front of mind. Ridley steered us away from the more utilitarian look though. He acknowledged a lot of thier influences, but wanted the tech on this ship to be relevant to a science ship, rather than the freight ship of Alien. He started to suggest color and textures found in coral reefs and underwater life. Not the normal reference points for computer UI or HUDs. This leant itself to the more organic node based systems we were developing, so we pushed those designs on further. The bridge and in the medical areas are examples of this more organic approach to data visualization.

For the social area Ridley made references to abstract pieces of art. The screens were depicting things such as nutritional information, so we played with abstractions of this data. We experimented a lot with overlaying simple data with layered abstract data forms. The overall intent was to create little moody animated textures, that the crew would be aware of but not necessarily reading from all the time. We also created a screen featuring the animated Weyland logo for this room. Weyland Industries is all about building worlds, so being quite literal we built a globe from the triangle shapes in the logo. The animation was quite a simple execution referencing again some of the elegant executions from the original Alien film.

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Q: What was the most interesting, or most challenging, interface you worked on?

There were a lot of screens that could fit this question. On a personal note, probably the screen depicting the severed engineers head. I used this screen as the foundation for a lot of the other medical screens. It was also a key plot point. The 3d render was treated with a series of translucent shaders, again taking reference from underwater life. We had to cover many plot points, which unfortunately didn’t make the cut. I went through over 100 design and animation iterations on this screen, mostly internally at Territory before going in front of the director. We were given a 3d scan of the head by the sculpting team, and we then explored dozens of ways of scanning a 3d object. The priority was showing the inner layers of the head without giving too much away. In the end we built up about 30 particle layers in cinema 4d so that the readability of forms became suggestive than overly accurate and desriptive.

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Q: Anything else?

Just the immense scale of deliverables was enough of a challenge. 100 screens to go onto the bridge alone. Each having to be programmed, loaded onto computers on-set once we’d designed and animated it all. We worked at an intense pace, sometimes having half a day to design and animate each serene. It can be a buzz working at this speed and seeing the designs on set in front of the actors. It was always interesting to see actors like Michael Fastbender reacting to a weird abstract animated UI.

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Q: How do you think this work will look years from now?

Because we didn’t go down the utilitarian route, I imagine it will date quite fast. I think most film UI work does date quickly though. Just looking at the time between Minority Report and then the Ipad and Kinnect coming out, it doesn’t take long for tech featured in a film to be commonplace it seems.

I’m pleased we worked without cramming as much detail in as possible though, and tried other routes. Highly detailed UI work always looks amazing, but it was fun to explore other options. We enjoyed playing with negative space and creating pleasing clusters of node curves in compositions. Floating data and visuals around in frame threw up many challenges, not least of all creating coherent compositions, but I think we got there.

Ultimately I’d hope there’s originality in the work. I don’t know if we achieved it, but we certainly had fun trying.

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Q: Is there anything you’d like to have done differently?

I’d always like to have more time on a project. There’s never enough time to craft the visuals, especially when the graphics are going on set. We did about 15 post shots with screens, but the other 180 were all on-set. We’d work really long hours, just out of passion but it still wasn’t enough. If only we could invent a time machine for such projects we’d be sorted.

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Q: How big was the team that worked on this? Key people? What software was used? What was the timeframe?

Ridley Scott really did have a key input in on this project. His desire to create original work really drove the direction of the team. George Simons was a great co-ordinator of everyone else involved making sure other art departments, costume, animatronics and set-dec all fed there designs and influences into us, and back the other way too.

A very talented Shaun Yue was the on-set motion designer dealing with a lot of the day to day requirements and working with myself and Territory to design the overall look. Because Territory were brought in very early on we were able to build a team of 5 to produce the large number of screens required in short turn around times. We had Carl Fairweather creating scripts and tools in after effects to helps us create all the technical gizmos and help streamline our workflow.

I believe we had about a months work before shooting that allowed us to design and animate most of the screens for the bridge, social area, corridors and medical rooms. Because that timeframe was so short we worked throughout the 3-4 months of shooting creating shots for each week. We always knew we be pushed for time, but that helped in a way. We couldn’t be super detailed with the work, we were forced to be spontaneous, intuitive and play more with abstract shapes and forms.

Q: Thank you for your time.