CreativeReview

Building a better world

Computer screen showing the user interface designs created for the film by Territory Studio Computer screen showing the user interface designs created for the film by Territory Studio Ava, the female AI robot in Ex Machina was developed by visual effects studio Double Negative under the direction of overall VFX supervisor, Andrew Whitehurst. (Ava is played by Alicia Vikander.) Screenshot showing details of the user interfaces created by Territory for the film Screenshot showing details of the user interfaces created by Territory for the film Photo showing details of the user interfaces created by Territory for the film

In the space of just five years, Territory has made a name for itself as the kind of malleable creative agency that doesn’t settle on one single way of working. Depending on the job, the studio can function as a production company, an ad agency, or a progressive motion graphics house. It’s in this area that creative director David Sheldon-Hicks and his team are able do the kinds of projects that would make any self-respecting sci-fi fan go weak at the knees.

The studio’s film work is always top secret, with scripts kept locked in a safe. But when they’re able to talk about creating the screen-based graphics for Ridley Scott’s Prometheus spaceship, for example, or the user interface designs for Alex Garland’s new film, Ex Machina, it becomes clear their work plays a vital role in helping a film to tell its story, rooting it in a reality however far, far away the action might be set.

For Ex Machina, the imagined future is a little closer to home. Though the date is undisclosed in the film, it’s obvious that Garland’s world is a projection based on today’s technological climate. Its two human protagonists work at Bluebook, the world’s biggest internet company – Caleb is a coder while Nathan its CEO and founder. From his Alaskan hideaway, Nathan is also the developer of the world’s first AI, a female robot called Ava – and he wants to use Caleb to test her believability.

Territory was asked to create a series of interfaces for the various computer screens shown in the film and also a set of schematic drawings for the AI itself. While the printed schematics are used on lightbox displays in Nathan’s retreat, the studio’s on-screen work appears in the scenes that take place in Bluebook’s offices and the CEO’s covert studio.

According to Sheldon-Hicks, creating ‘near future’ on-screen graphics required “a balance between what’s real in terms of user experience, how people currently use technology, and what story the director wants to tell here. On Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, there was much more of a pull towards creating a texture of the fantasy space – we don’t know how aliens talk to one another – so the UI is an extension of their universe, impressionistic in a way. Whereas, for Ex Machina, we had the question of what does AI look like? We don’t know, but we can tie into how coding works and what the key indicators are that a coder uses.”

Territory’s work on any new film project will usually start with technical or scientific research. “On Prometheus we went to a medical lab that was on the cutting edge of visual displays for medicine, testing holographics,” says Sheldon-Hicks. “We also try and link up with science labs – NASA has been great, we keep an eye on MIT, and over here Berg were a really great test lab.” On Ex Machina, director Garland wanted the future world to be as believable as possible – and that directly influenced the design decisions that Territory made.

“Alex knew he was projecting forward, so there’s an amount of speculation, but we could take key cues from the ideas of the film,” says Sheldon-Hicks. “With Bluebook we needed to tap into that idea of a search engine moving into operating systems, content coming to the fore and a simplicity of design. Code comes through in little dribs and drabs – flashes of it – so you get this sense that, yes, it’s an operating system, but for these people who work with it everyday there’s a hardcore code system underlying it, which ties in to their characters and personalities.”

Territory initially looked to build in more “expressive” UI designs through the use of movement, rather than via text or iconography, says Sheldon-Hicks. “But actually that worked against the immediacy that was needed for the idea of coding [as a] background to the story,” he says. “So then it was down to just clean, elegant, modernist design and that’s really where Apple, Samsung, Google have gone.” Designing speculatively from this point onwards was tricky, he says, not least because of the increasing lack of differentiation between these companies as their aesthetic approaches move in a similar direction.

“If you think about Minority Report, it wasn’t far after that that we got the Microsoft Kinect technology – that’s very similar,” says Sheldon-Hicks. “And there’s a reason for that. When we’re researching the considerations around future technology, we often look at the tech from the most cutting edge research projects and we extrapolate from that point, because it ties us somewhat into reality. Of course, tech giants are probably doing the same thing. So we’re showing two years into the future as a narrative point in a film; five years on with a tech giant, they’re building the same thing.”

Tom Cruise’s arm waving may be a little extravagant for some (it is Tom Cruise after all), but in Minority Report his character’s use of a ‘spatial’ interface served as a way of dramatising a technological sequence that was key to the storyline. “Think about the director’s point of view,” Sheldon-Hicks suggests. “The reality of interacting with a computer is completely and utterly dull. I don’t want to sit there watching people email and do Excel spreadsheets. That’s the reality of computer interactions in most narrative points in a film. The beauty of that Tom Cruise point was for a moment it was a complete crossover between actor performance, content on screen and interaction – and it worked beautifully. I can’t criticise it because it told the story in an engaging way.”

Moreover, a user interface can even reflect a director’s wider vision for their film. “These days UI’s are actually quite an expressive part of a film, almost a branding element,” says Sheldon-Hicks. “A director might feel they’re making a statement within the film, commenting on either our use of technology now or where we are going. So that ties into consumerism, what we’re doing politically, it threads everywhere.”

While designing on-screen graphics is one thing, the practicalities of how they are rolled out onto a film set brings another set of challenges. In Ex Machina, one of the key scenes for Territory’s work was at the opening of the film when Caleb receives the news by email that he has won a competition to spend a week at Nathan’s retreat. “We built a programme so it was editable, literally until the day of the shoot – they could change that message to what they wanted,” says Sheldon-Hicks. To enable this live performance, Territory worked with Compuhire, a company which specialises in providing programmable computer screens for film and television. “They’re the brains that allows our stuff to be seen,” says Sheldon-Hicks. “We give an animation or a set of designs to them and they then programme it so it will be interactive on set.”

The sequences are made “actor perfect”, as Compuhire’s Mark Jordan explains – essentially so that “an actor can click anywhere on the screen, or press any key, and the ‘correct’ thing will happen on the screen”. This also means an actor will know exactly what point to look at on the screen, rather than having to ‘react’ to something that would be added in post.

“There’s definitely been a reaction to ‘green screen’,” says Sheldon-Hicks. “If we can get more done in-camera [it means] we’re having to edit less, we’re not changing an actor’s performance. The director loves it because it gets the actors into that ‘space’ and the DOP loves it because they get to see what the picture will look like, that the colour spilling out from the screen onto the actor is going to look like that.” In fact, Territory’s creative director has noticed that most directors will try to work with on-set graphics wherever possible. “It’s just a perception that people have that it’s done with green screen and put in afterwards,” he says.

With JJ Abrams’ forthcoming Star Wars film already being heralded as a return to in-camera visual effects, Sheldon-Hicks can’t hide his enthusiasm for the film work that his studio does having a physical presence on set. “If I was on the technology side of Star Wars, I’d go back to rear-projecting graphics at 16mm – almost to the level of designing the graphics back out in pencil first, with proper mark-up, acetate sheets, printers’ blocks. Doing it physically, for real, because that alters the design process. Working in vectors changes your mindset. Let’s change our toolsets a bit; I want the glowing fuzz of real projection that they had back then.”

And in reality, technology is rarely as slick or as trouble-free as some CGI-heavy films would have us believe – an aspect of our experience with tech that Sheldon-Hicks would like to see more of, too. “With the Millennium Falcon, they expressed that frustration with technology through banging the bloody console, giving it a kick – you hear the thing screaming for a little bit and then off it goes. So I’m starting to think: less information on screen, a bit more human, a bit more physical, more connection to the nature of imperfections in the world and expressing that in some way.”

Territory has already shown that on-screen digital effects can work best if they’re set within a film’s physical reality. In doing so they’re helping filmmakers to tell more believable stories, be they of perfect or imperfect worlds.

Territory’s work can be seen at territorystudio.com. Ex Machina is in UK cinemas now, exmachinamovie.co.uk

Film credits: Production designer: Mark Digby. Visual effects: Double Negative. Overall VFX supervisor: Andrew Whitehurst. Graphic designer: Andrew Tapper. Territory credits: Creative director: David Sheldon-Hicks. Producer: Kelly Woodward. UI screens: Peter Eszenyi, Marti Romances, Yugen Blake, David Penn. Schematics: Peter Eszenyi. Playback: Compuhire