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Interview: Jayse Hansen (The Avengers)

For The Avengers, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and other blockbusters, Jayse Hansen has created many of the UI elements in the films. I’m really excited that he took the time for this interview in which, besides lots of cool details and background about the designs, he also shares some fantastic behind-the-scenes graphic elements that lead to the final design…

Q: Can you talk a little about your background and how you got started.

Yeah, I always thought it would be amazing to work on feature films, but I took a rather roundabout path. I started in print design with grid based layouts in Pagemaker and Quark. I did a bunch of pixel-perfect organic UI Flash web-design when that was all the rage – and then got into motion design just out of frustration with web browsers.

Like almost everyone I fell in love with Star Wars as a kid, big time. I noticed that I gravitated towards two things: The graphic design in interfaces and on physical parts, and the actual models of the ships and vehicles. I always wondered what all the symbols and graphics on the pilot’s helmets meant and when I was like 10 years old I used to pause the movies and redraw them by hand. Such a nerd, right?! But that stuff was so cool.

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If they were still using physical, painted models in films, that might have been the route I would have taken. I’ve always loved the fact that there were details there you’d never see – but they must be there or the scenes would just feel fake. I tend to look at screen designs for film the same way.

Q: Who are your design inspirations?

There may be too many to name. Actually I discovered your site back in 2010, and a lot of the work and designers on here have been super inspirational to my work. Gmunk, Ilya Abulhanov, Danny Yount, Jake Sargeant – they’re all doing such gorgeous work. But also definitely check out complexity artists like Tatiana Plakhova. I really love the new trend of generative, or even faux-generative art.

In the film world I was always in love with the ridiculously detailed blueprints and designs by Joe Johnston for Star Wars – and then the modern masters like Phil Saunders and Ryan Meinerding inspire me to push beyond designing in just two dimensions.

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Q: Have you worked a lot on interactive projects?

A few. I did too many terrible interactive projects back in the days with Director and then later with Flash. I was always unhappy with the quality level and the limitations. I suppose I always wanted the same supercomputers they have in films. Film UI design might be my way of still trying to fulfilling that desire.

Q: How did you get involved in interface design for film?

I’m actually pretty new to screen design, still figuring it out as I go. But I started after I saw the work that my friend, FUI (faux-User-Interface) master Mark Coleran was doing. I really loved it and it seemed right up my alley. I had done interface work and theming before, and motion graphics, but never combined the two. I thought, “That’d be about the coolest job in the world.” After doing some FUI stuff for an Intel project I was working on, he thought they were decent enough to refer me to a few great places. One was an awesome company called G-Creative, who’ve done screens for some of the biggest blockbusters in history. G-Creative founder Gladys Tong is so awesome to work with, and she took a chance and began working with me on concepts for X-Men Origins: Wolverine. That led to other films like 2012 and Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

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Q: So how did you get involved with The Avengers?

I met Stephen Lawes (Cantina Creative co-founder and former PLF creative director) at the MGLA (Motion Graphics Los Angeles) meetup when we were both presenting. He was this totally cool and chill guy who had done just the most amazing graphics and vfx work on some of my favorite films like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. We immediately hit it off as friends. He invited me to their new studio to check out a few new projects and when I got there he put the Iron Man HUD up on the screen and asked if I was interested. I was like, “Oh heck ya!” I had no idea then what a huge project it would become.

Q: Were there a lot of others involved in the design and production?

Yeah, Jonathan Ficcadenti and Alan Torres threw down a lot of awesome design on the Science Lab and Loki-Search monitors, as well as on the HUDs. Navarro Parker, Asuka Ashizawa, Takashi Takeoka, Sarah Blank, Lukas Weyandt and Leon Nowlin crafted up a lot of sexy goodness for a bit of everything as well. So Cantina was this super-rad shrink-and-grow team of artists, compositors and designers. [Jayse credits the full team as ‘Club Suave’ on his site.] On the production end we had the most down to earth and genuinely cool producers I’ve had the pleasure of working with, Cantina co-founder Sean Cushing, and VFX Supervisor Janek Sirrs along with Stereo Supervisor Wes Sewell to guide us through the depth specifics of the HUDs.

At Cantina, Stephen Lawes completely revised all my preconceptions on what After Effects could and couldn’t do – he is an absolute master. An amazing artist named Venti, or Ventzeslava!, Hristova led our team of crazy artists and designers with the help of super-sweet Lily Shapiro. They kept our crazy-train on the tracks. Organization was no small task as the helicarrier screens alone took up such a large percentage of the film. The Cantina crew also did the Loki-Search monitors, the Stark devices like the phone, ‘laptop’ etc., so it was actually quite a small team considering the amount onscreen time and detail they wanted on these things. Some things went through several iterations through to the very end.

Q: What was your role?

My role was pretty much whatever needed to be done design and animation wise. I ended up designing the UI look and feel of the glass screens on the Helicarrier, as well as leading the design and animation of the Iron Man Mark VII HUDs.

Q: What was the project’s brief? And what was the scope and timeframe of the project?

There was definitely a lot to design and animate on this project. When I first started at Cantina, we went down to their theater and watched the rough cut showing just our scenes involving the helicarrier screens. It was something like 40 minutes long! And they added more after that. And that didn’t include any HUD shots. So we knew we were in for a decent amount of work!

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The first thing on my plate was designing the UI framework that would be the basis for all the glass screens on the helicarrier. These were shot as just empty blank panels on set. My designs needed to accommodate Nick Fury’s main 4-up arrangement, Maria Hill’s tri-up display, and, in a modified version, the science lab screens where Bruce Banner and Tony Stark are analyzing the Tesseract and Loki’s scepter.

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Once the design base was set, I drilled into designing the look and feel of the hero elements that were needed and did some animation development. Those designs became the framework that the team could then create new elements for and animate as I moved on to starting the HUD designs.

Q: What was the working process like? How did the designs evolve?

So, the process is pretty simple. Like most screen projects – the process begins with research, which, in the screen-design world is quite fun actually. We were handed a spreadsheet which listed all the major story points that the screens would need to handle. I saw the Helicarrier as a cross between a Nimitz class aircraft carrier and some type of combat helicopter or flying government fortress like Air Force One. So I researched real aircraft carrier screens and master cockpit layouts such as what you’d find on the Space Shuttle or commercial airliners. I even pulled out my old copy of the Space Shuttle Operator’s Manual, because, well, you always need a good excuse to learn how to fly a Space Shuttle!

As my personal preference of working, I also like to get to know the characters in order to design for them. So for instance Fury’s monitors are straight up, hard edged and no-nonsense. They’re almost harsh in a way, kind of like Fury. Hill monitors are a little more elegant, with softer curves and have a bit more color while still living in the established Helicarrier UI look.

Venti (Hristova, Cantina’s VFX Supervisor) and I both really loved orange and felt it was rather underused on film Ui’s – so I began exploring different versions of it as the accent color. In the first week, I did a quick mock up of Fury’s screens with these angular expandable semi translucent panels that echoed the Helicarrier hardware – and that exact base UI survived to the final screens.

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I always expected to evolve it a bit more, but the evolving happened much more on the hero elements both by myself and the team. So, just as one example, I started out by creating a mock up of the damaged ‘Engine 3′ as a generic ‘found’ 3d model engine, just for reference.

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As we got more info it became a turbine engine, so I modified the first engine and jammed on some new looks and expanded views.

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Then we received actual gorgeous models from ILM of the helicarrier and its engines, and I did yet more looks where we could get really detailed and all tricked out. So the end look was similar to the first slap comps – but just more exact and clear as we went along.

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Colors, contrast and opacity levels were also changing as different versions of glass-screen-compositing were done. Luma Pictures and Evil Eye did a fantastic job making them look sexy in the final composites and ended up darkening down the transparency of the screens quite a bit which made them really sit well in the scenes.

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Q: How did you start on the HUD design?

A lot of simply gorgeous work had been done on the HUD before with Kent Seki and Dav Rauch figuring it all out in Iron Man 1 with the Mark II and Mark III, and Stephen Lawes, Venti Hristova and Takashi Takeoka designing the Mark IV, V and VI in Iron Man 2. But the new Mark VII HUD was an open book at first, and we all wanted to do something very organic and very different with it. But, because the comic-book idea of the direct-neural-interface was not something we’d explore as a story-point in Avengers, it was decided it might be confusing to viewers. So we kept the HUD more in the already established Iron Man Universe.

I started designing something a bit more real-world and much more tech based, looking for queues I could keep from the previous designs, while working with a bit of a new, more fine lined design language. When my friend Mark Christiansen saw my designs, not knowing where we had started from, he commented that they looked ‘nicely organic’. So I suppose that original organic direction worked its way into the final design a bit anyway.

We knew from our Helicarrier designs that Joss was a director who put story first, but liked to have a reason for each design element. It couldn’t be just a bunch of animated circles with no purpose, in other words. So I began creating a ‘HUD Bible’, in which I would list the reason for each and every widget in the HUD, even the micro text that could be zoomed into.

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Q: How did you approach the main element designs?

I saw that Tony Stark has the same problem most of us face with our current data feeds; we have too much information to make sense of it all. In a way it becomes useless. Stark is extremely comfortable with dense data displays, so I wasn’t trying to design a simplified ‘iPhone-in-a-HUD’ type of look. But at the same time, he also needs to get a read of his most useful data in milliseconds.

So I designed the HUD with the idea that he should be able to get his most important information at a glance. A lot of the design work in the main diagnostic is pattern-recognition based. He can look at it, and in an instance see if a part of his suit is failing or performing properly. This is based partly on research I had done on Rise of the Planet of the Apes where scientists were using patterns in circular ‘connectograms’ to show healthy and/or deteriorated neural relationships in the brain.

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This type of data-display may look new and confusing to some people now, but it’s actually a very good way of displaying complex data and is currently being used across everything from tracking relationships between Facebook friends to planetary systems. In fact, in a few years this may look as familiar to us as a family tree.

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Q: Were there any special challenges as you worked?

There were a few. Design wise, designing in multi-dimensions is the challenge with the HUD. You’re designing it to look good and function from Tony’s point of view. That’s a must. But in the film, you mostly see it from the point of view of the ‘impossible camera’ looking back at Tony’s face. So in a way – it has to look even better, and more dynamic in that view. We also knew that Joss wanted to do another first – side views of the HUD. That meant the widgets also had to read well from the side.

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I began designing the UI a bit more like product design, referencing physical shapes such as combat gun scopes, lenses and optical equipment. This way the graphics look a certain way when viewed straight on, but from the side have a completely different, more dimensional view.

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This was also the first time the HUDs were done in stereo. Using the standard ‘curved planes in space’ set up from the first Iron Man films, they began to feel flat very easily. But we ended up using that as a design tactic, making the previous Mark VI HUD (seen at the beginning of the film) purposely a bit more flat to contrast with the new Mark VII HUD. With the new HUD, I pushed what After Effects could do to dimensionalize every piece.

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Q: What software / tools did you use?

We were working on the older iMacs with just 16GB of RAM, so we kept it to just the basics. I’d sketch out super-rough ideas on paper and then go straight to Illustrator.

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The 3D elements were done in Cinema 4d and we passed a lot back and forth between it and After Effects.

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After Effects was used and abused for animation, compositing and final stereo delivery of the shots as 32bit dpx sequences.

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Q: Looking at the film now, would you have done anything differently?

Yes! We should have gone out for more Shawarma!
Nah, it was a fantastic time and I think the film turned out awesome. I’m really happy to have been a small part of Cantina in making it all come together. In the process we all came up with lots of cool unused ideas that I’m sure we’ll develop in future films and projects.

Q: What would your ideal next project be?

My ideal project would be any project that is cool and next level, done with cool people. You can’t beat working with cool people that also happen to completely nerd out on crazy UI’s.