Interview: Jorge Almeida (Lead Designer: MI:4, TDKR)

“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”

Jorge Almeida has worked on a wide range of fantasy UIs for film — the most recent being “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” (MI:4) and “The Dark Knight Rises” (TDKR). I’m so happy that he was able to take some time to talk about his work, as well as to share some images.

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

I started working for Black Box Digital in 1999. They were a small design house in Santa Monica who specialized in producing user interfaces for feature films. They had created UIs for movies like “Enemy of the State” and “Armageddon.” I was originally hired to work on an online comic book for a client of theirs, and eventually started helping with their UI work. I had years of experience in newspaper layout and ad design, so UI design wasn’t too much of a stretch. I also love movies, so I was eager to get involved. My first UI work was for “Impostor,” and I’ve worked on many feature films since- with the most recognizable definitely being “Minority Report.”

Black Box Digital has since changed its name to OOOii (pronounced “ooh-wee”), where I have been serving as a creative director for the last couple of years. I’ve also done some freelance UI work for Pacific Title (“Eagle Eye”) and Prologue (“Iron Man 2”).

I’ve been working in motion graphics for close to 10 years now, with the vast majority of it being film UI work. It’s sort of become my niche, and I really enjoy it. I’m naturally more of an illustrator than a designer, so having a storyline to design around plays to my strengths.

“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”

Q: How did you get involved with MI:4? The Dark Knight Rises?

OOOii has done some work for Bad Robot in the past. We created the UIs for MI:3 as well as “Star Trek,” so we’ve developed a great working relationship with those involved. Being a fan of Brad Bird, I was pretty psyched to work on his first live-action film. As for TDKR… I’m not sure exactly sure how we became involved, but I’m glad we did. I love the character, as well as the first two films, so having a chance to work on Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film was awesome.

Q: What was your role? Were there a lot of others involved in the design and production? What software did you use?

I was lead designer on both projects. I designed the look and animation style for the UIs, and oversaw the completion of all graphics. I normally work with just a few artists, depending on the amount and type of work involved. On these two projects there were two animators in particular, Alex Gibbs and Paul Luna, who were instrumental in getting the work finished. As far as software, I stick to Photoshop, Illustrator, and After Effects – and will incorporate additional elements from our 3d artists when necessary.

We primarily created graphics that played live on set. We therefore used Flash or Director to create cued animations that could be timed to the actors’ movements. This can be a time consuming process, as we try to give the director as many options as possible. All of the graphics we created for TDKR were for on-set playback. As for “MI:4,” there were only two major sequences done in post — the dust-storm GPS and the BMW heads-up display.

“The Dark Knight Rises”

Q: Was there a general design brief or design direction that you were given? What were your design influences?

For both films I was briefed on the various shots we’d be working on, and shown concept imagery for some of the sets and props that would require UI designs. I always love seeing that stuff. Not only is it a great help in determining the style of the graphics I need to design, but it also gives me a sense of connection to the entire production. It’s a great motivator seeing the work of such talented people. I also read each script beforehand to further understand the various story beats that need to be communicated to the audience. The next step is usually to find UI reference to show the production designer, assuring that we are on the same page style-wise before I move forward with generating original concepts. Both of these films feature characters using cutting-edge technology in a real world setting, so it was primarily the differing production designs that determined the look of the UIs.

For MI:4, I had seen a conceptual design of the traincar safe-house. It had a stylized metallic feel, which I used as the starting point for the IMF interface. I tried to design something that I felt would fit within that world. I wanted to suggest a feeling of secrecy, almost as if the agent is using a flashlight to view the information. I also tried to give it a utilitarian, government agency feel. I worked off of the idea that an agent would need information as efficiently and clearly as possible- almost like a powerpoint presentation. Not only so that the agent could quickly analyze crucial data, but also to reduce overall file size. It also provided me with a justification for using oversized text for crucial story points.

For TDKR, I was told to keep the UI style real-world, which is obviously consistent with the style of the first two films. I read the script and was shown concept art for various sets, including the batcave and the fusion reactor. Both of these sets had a very sleek high-end style which was well constructed and designed, not hacked together. For the batwing and tumbler, the production designer had specific military-style reference which I stuck to pretty closely. The one set that we didn’t work on was the government war room, but I believe everything else was ours.

Q: What were a couple interesting interfaces shown in the films: what was the task, how did you approach the design?

The Batcave:

The production designer, Kevin Kavanaugh, showed me production art for the batcave, which included a 9 monitor workstation which rose out of the ground. We discussed the scenes where the workstation would be used. He wanted it to look powerful without being slick or sci-fi. The challenge was to make it look interesting without feeling designed.

“The Dark Knight Rises”

As far as my approach, I’ll first do plenty of research, possibly draw some thumbnails, or just start designing in Photoshop or Illustrator. I try to establish a color palette early. Cool dark greys felt appropriate, and matched the stone interior. I just started building shapes and basic layouts and adding elements as I went. We purchased a great set of icons from webalys that fit nicely with the subdued look I was going for.

When Bruce Wayne was doing research on Selina Kyle, the goal was to keep the UI from looking like a web browser. Gotham is an old city, so I thought using images of newspaper pages and arrest reports would suggest more of a historical archive than a website. I like mixing photoreal elements with the graphics when possible. I think it adds warmth to the design, and helps the audience register the information quicker.

“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”

MI:4 Mission Video:

I was pretty psyched to work on this, as it is the most iconic UI from the Mission: Impossible series. I was given an audio recording of the mission, as well as fake surveillance photos and satellite imagery. Production pretty much left it up to us to fill in the rest. Again I incorporated photographic elements into the UI by creating a series of fake top-secret documents and composited them on burnt and scuffed paper textures. I wanted to give the data a history, as if IMF field agents took tremendous risks in retrieving it. The goal was to make it feel like the classic slide projector briefings seen in spy movies, but with a layer of digital tech. During each stage of completion I would post updates for Gladys Tong, the video playback supervisor, and worked closely with her throughout the production. She would regularly review our work and provide script notes or director feedback when necessary. She was great.

“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”

MI:4 Kremlin Hallway Animation:

The Kremlin Hallway animation was one I was pretty happy with. It was one of many concept-driven animations we did for MI:4, where the purpose is to visually explain what the computer is doing. In this case, we were showing the Kremlin hallway being scanned and transformed into a duplicate 3D environment. These can be tricky to pull off, because you want it to look visually interesting without feeling cartoony. The whole thing was animated in After Effects, using 2D elements placed in 3D space. Gladys took a series of set photos, which I then used to trace elements (like the statue) in illustrator and create fake texture maps. I like this approach, because I find I can get some pretty cool results that feel different than traditional 3D.

Q: Can you talk about the UI in the BMW concept car? How did you approach the HUD and dashboard graphics?

I can’t take any credit for the design, as the majority of elements are based directly on concept art provided by BMW. I did create the map and other hero elements, but tried to keep them consistent with BMW’s design style. While I did not have any direct contact with BMW during the process, they did have final approval on the HUD animations. Fortunately, they were happy with everything I produced and approved the sequence without any changes.

One interesting element of windshield heads-up displays is how to depict them from outside the vehicle. In reality, what you would see on the outside of the windshield would be a mirror image of the driver’s POV from inside the car. Environmental indicators that move towards the driver from his POV can therefore appear to move towards the audience from the exterior, almost giving the impression that the driver is moving in reverse. So we decided to cheat a little for the exterior shots and project the environment graphics as if they were moving towards the driver. Even though it’s technically wrong, it keeps the focus on the actors.

Q: Any crazy stories?

Aside from the long hours, no. 90% of my job is sitting on my butt in front of a computer, which is about as exciting as it sounds.

Speaking of which, I highly recommend to anybody who is beginning a career in visual effects to take care of themselves physically by stretching, having your eyes checked, using correct posture, etc. This industry is notorious for working long hours, so you need to take care of yourself or it will catch up to you.

Q: What’s next?

We finished all of the on-set UI work for “Star Trek 2” back in May, and now I’m now doing some post-production work on the film. We also have a couple of very cool movies coming up that we’ll be working on, but I can’t say what they are yet.

Eventually, I plan to resume my art training at Watts Atelier so that I can slowly transition into a career in fine art/illustration. I love doing UIs, but I just don’t see how I can continue such intensive computer work over the long run. We’ll see…

Thank you.

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