The new film Guardians of the Galaxy is full of crazy cool future digital interfaces and interactions. David Sheldon-Hicks, creative director of motion at Territory, the firm that did all the UI work for the film, recently took the time to talk about their work in the film — as well as share a ton of images and videos.
Q: How did Territory get involved in this project?
We met and worked really well with Charles Wood (Production Designer) and Alan Payne (Art Director) on a previous project and when they moved on to Marvel’s Guardian of the Galaxy, they wanted us on board.
Q: What was assignment that you were given?
We were tasked to create on screen graphics and vfx for all environments – spaceships, planets, prison, etc. Since Prometheus, it’s the biggest project we’ve been involved with.
Q: How did you approach the work?
This project appealed to me because its script, by director James Gunn, is laugh out loud funny, and although it’s based on a Marvel comic from the 1970’s, it’s tightly written, cheeky and has a lot of fun with the sci-fi genre.
Our approach began with the script and meetings with James, Charles and Alan to get a feel for characters, environments, style, etc, which result in mood boards that are further refined until everyone is happy. As a film about characters and personalities we were able to take very human and personal creative approach to graphics, which was fun.
From Art Director Alan Payne’s perspective:
Using a dedicated team for this was a great help. It meant that Charlie (our Production Designer) could have real input into the look and feel of the on-screen Graphics. My job is looking after all the Graphics for the show so to have a team to bounce ideas off and to come up with some really strong looks was an immense help.
Q: How was the collaboration with director?
James Gunn was great to work with, very script focused with a clear vision of what he wanted. He was also very supportive of our work and gave us a lot of freedom. We felt a strong sense of connection with his pithy & dry sense of humour, which really drives many of the humorous and quirky details that give this film such personality and humanness.
Q: Which references and indications were you given or did you use?
We had biweekly meetings with the art team in which they would show us their concepts and visuals for scenes and environments that were further down the line than where we were – this really helped us understand the look and feel of the many locations be they planets, prisons, spaceships, street scenes, gambling dens, etc, which we would reference and support.
We also visited the costume department to get a sense of character development from their perspective. This helps us get a sense of the backstory of the characters and alien cultures that then feeds into our own visual language.
And, while we always want to stay at the forefront of creativity and design, we did have to keep within some parameters set by the Marvel Universe, and looking at previous films in the franchise helped us to stay within the bounds of the Marvel language. Fortunately, the outer space aspect of GotG enabled a great deal of creative freedom.
In this, Alan Payne was great. He researched old Marvel comics that featured the Guardian characters and how they had evolved over time.
Q: The various screens feature a lot of information. Can you describe some of the screen content concepts and their creation?
Our work was incredibly varied and we had to create distinct visual languages for each environment – human, alien, spaceships, prison and street scenes.
We created graphics for very human environments, such as navigation, weapons and utility monitors, entertainment interfaces for Peter Quill’s own spaceship, the Milano.
The Milano is a good example of how we develop our work. The backstory is that the ship has seen a lot of action but it’s still beautiful with many clever modifications. Our UI needed to reflect both this engineering sophistication and Quill’s can-do attitude to hacking the system to get the extra performance he wants – he’s more interested in effective modifications than in perfect code, so our screen graphics for the ship’s navigation, weapons and entertainment are a bit rough and ready to reflect this. To get the right feel, we looked at how to layer information and age screens to evoke system hacks and screen degradation. We researched how airplane windows and monitor screens age – the cloudiness and scratchiness that creeps in at the edges of screens, for example. We also explored how wear and tear of age and battles would impact on screen consoles as a way to make the technology feel authentic. And because of Quill’s nostalgia for the 1980’s we referenced the reds and oranges of technology interfaces of the time and were also able to have a lot of fun with details, such as the games and music which all reference 1980’s details.
The set for Knowhere was the most ambitious for us apart from the Milano and our graphics can be seen on ‘neon’ signs, interactive tables, the Coms Hub, etc.
In terms of concepts for a set piece Alan Payne AD says ‘I think my favourite set piece was everything we created for Knowhere. We wanted Knowhere to feel as though it really was in Deep Deep Space, so we had a Glitchy Interference style to those Graphics. This meant we could really think outside the box. We started looking into 1960’s and 70’s experimental computer graphics which gave it all a retro feel, and created a look very particular to Knowhere. Again we had a lot of projections on this set which made it into the Final Cut.’
And, we created dozens of screens for prison scenes that required a degraded military look.
Each alien spaceship and world needed different UI treatments, fonts and graphic styles that felt fresh and unique.
Our own art director Marti Romances looked at nature patterns to design some of his screens, specifically how the golden ratio affects some cellular systems and sea creatures. At the same time, he looked at car cockpits from the 1980’s, when they were trying to look futuristic using vivid colours and intricate line-work.
Q: How did you help the actors to interact with the screen contents on-set?
Our screen graphics were used on set to lend the environment authenticity and give actors something to work with.
It’s always challenging to set up looping screens but it makes life easier for the actors and directors – and it was fun to see them try to push buttons on the screens when they came on set – that always feels like an affirmation that our graphics are credible enough. We then reverse engineered a number of interactions with the on set computer consoles, mapping to gestures in post.
The Behind the Scenes on the Milano video that Marvel put out is a great example of our work in situ.
Q: How did you collaborate with Production VFX Supervisor Stephane Ceretti?
The VFX supervisor Stephane Ceretti and VFX Producer Susan Pickett played a key role here – because they oversee all the vfx vendors, they are able to ensure the consistency of our concepts, from screen to post.
We had to create a few concepts for VFX – one of the main ones was for the Prison Scanning System we see in the trailer and the team was very happy and proud to see it made the final cut.
Q: The movie features various screen design done by different vendors. How did you work with them to have the best continuity?
We shared some of the Illustrator libraries, such as Marti’s widget designs, and some of the other teams used them for some VFX shots to help maintain consistency and ensure a seamless feel between the different animations.
Again, the VFX supervisors play a key role here – because they oversees all the vfx vendors, they are able to ensure the consistency of our concepts, from screen to post.
Q: What was the biggest challenge on this project and how did you achieve it?
The biggest challenge is creating something that is equally unique, relevant, cool and understandable on screen, and which is manageable in terms of time and producing assets. For example, the sheer number of different sets each required a unique visual language – we almost ran out of colours! With so many alien languages, fonts and looks, it was quite challenging to stay fresh and new. Plus, we had to incorporate a 1980’s feel in our designs.
On a practical level, we worked very closely with Art Director Alan Payne who was responsible for graphics, and our friends at Compuhire, the wizards responsible for getting our visuals to playback on-screen. Their challenges can be a bit different to ours; while we create the UI, they have to get it to work on-set and I know that Alan found the tubular screen consoles to be a huge challenge. Again, this references a very 80’s thing, and the practicalities of making units with tubular screens was very tricky – but the end result brought a dimension to our graphics UI that was beautiful and could not have been achieved otherwise.
Alan Payne AD: I think the biggest challenge was the creation of Tubular Screens for the Milano. These screens had a tubular lens fitted to them which gave the 3D graphics we produced a great depth, something we could not have achieved with a normal screen. We also set up a lot of projections, which were a challenge in themselves.
Q: Was there a shot or a sequence that caused any lost sleep?
We envisaged a holographic control interface for the villainous Ronan’s ship – an organic pulsing pustule, for want of a better way to describe it – and began to create that when our art director said “wouldn’t it be cool to make this a more physical interaction, that reflects the aggression and intention of the bad guy” and we all thought “yeah it would” and got excited about the tangibility of this thing that is pushed and pressed and moulded. But delivering that very difficult concept cinematically was really tricky and it will be interesting to see how vfx handles that.
Q: Can you breakdown one particular screen set-up, in terms of the tools and techniques you used and how you went from design to final shot?
The 80’s tape deck is an interesting one: we created an interface that was based on an authentic deck, that visually converts the media into a cassette tape as it is inserted and ejected, with tape that can be seen to roll as the music is playing.
To maintain this illusion, we created a series of animations – inserting the tape, playing the tape and ejecting it. On set, this mean that we set up each animation to run, controlling it by manually pressing a button when Peter Quinn did – it sounds simple but a lot of planning went into it to make it seamless.
Q: How did it feel to be part of such an anticipated film?
The whole studio has had a good time – we’ve been part of telling a great story which is what we love to do, been allowed a great deal of creative freedom, had an enthusiastic and supportive team of directors to work with and been involved with almost every major scene in the film, so it’s been an adventure.
Q: What do you keep from this experience?
We feel that this project has really proved our capability to consistently deliver large complex projects that keep true to our creative standards and craft-led approach. It’s not sexy but it comes down to effective process and controls of visual languages for each set and internal workflow and pipeline to directors and partner vendors.
Q: How long did you work on this film?
About a year.
Q: How many shots did you do?
At least 400-500 on set screen graphics, and around 30 vfx shots. The majority involved 3D design and animation, and 2D animation.
Q: What was the size of your team?
We always scale up as needed and began with myself and 3 art directors, then grew to 4-5 animators and back down to the core team for vfx.
Q: Which software did you used to create your screen graphics shots?
Photoshop and illustrator for designs. Then into Cinema 4d and After Effects for animation. We also created our own in-house tools for some of the animation node systems. We used X-particles 2.0 on some of the screens, although it was released a bit too close to the deadline for this project to really benefit
Q: Have you created procedural tools to help your artists?
Our investment in managing workflow has helped the team create and deliver a large number of assets effectively, as well as work across time zones. And on a creative level the project inspired lots of R&D that led to creating some useful custom tools.
Our head of 3D Peter Eszenyi was involved on some of the screens that needed extra 3d bits and treatments on top of motion designer Nick Hill’s work. Some shots needed particles and abstract elements, terrains, and treatments. In terms of procedural tools we used some x-presso systems, some procedural setups and so on.
Q: What is your next project?
We are waiting for another 2 films to be released in 2015 but as we never know what or how much of our work makes the final cut, it’s always a bit tense. And we’re involved with another Marvel project which is also very exciting.
Director: James Gunn
Production Designer: Charles Wood
Set Decoration: Richard Roberts
Art Director: Alan Payne
VFX Supervisor: Stephane Ceretti
VFX Producer: Susan Pickett
Creative Director: David Sheldon-Hicks
Motion Designers: Peter Eszenyi, Nick Hill, Ryan Rafferty-Phelan, Marti Romances, Martin Aggerholm, Yugen Blake, Jay Dingle, Gabor Ekes, Ryan Jefferson Hays, David Penn, Alasdair Willson
Font Designer: Lee Fasciani