Territory Studios has made a name for itself in the super-niche art of on-screen interfaces. Tom May learns how they put their skills to the test for a recent series of Philip K Dick adaptations
We talk to Territory Studios, designers of on-set interfaces, about their exciting recent work on the Philip K. Dick television series Electric Dreams
In an ever-competitive industry, the key to the success of a studio often lies in finding and occupying the right niche. And Territory Studio, a small studio based in Clerkenwell, London, has done just that.
Formed by industry veterans in 2010, the studio’s biggest strengths lie at the intersections between motion, digital and graphic design. One of the specialisms it has become best known for is the art of designing on-set interfaces.
In other words, whenever an actor is seen interacting with any kind of computer software – whether that’s a traditional terminal, a tablet device or a futuristic, holographic projection – Territory designs what’s going on within the on-screen screen. And it does this in a way that integrates seamlessly into the (normally sci-fi) world that it’s part of.
That’s often done in post, but what really excites Territory is when they get to create interfaces that function live on set, as filming takes place. And this is exactly what they were asked to do for ‘Impossible Planet’, the second in a series of dramatisations of Philip K Dick short stories produced by Sony Pictures Television and shown on Channel 4 and Amazon Video.
The story takes place almost entirely within a dark and grungy spaceship,
dotted with computer screens showing the progress of the craft, weather maps and so on. running these simulations live on set during filming added a sense of immediacy and realism that just couldn’t have been achieved in post, according to Territory’s creative director Andrew Popplestone.
“When you’re doing it on-set for real, it always just gives such a more tangible, realistic quality,” he enthuses. “You get that interactive lighting with the actors, they can see where to press, and it helps direct their performance to a degree as well: it makes it much easier for them.”
tone and visual concepts
Territory’s involvement with Impossible Planet began when, fresh from their work on Blade runner 2049, they were contacted by production designer Lisa Hall. “She asked us if we wanted to work on a Philip K Dick series. And, well, it was Philip K Dick, so we couldn’t say no!” he recalls.
They agreed to work on five episodes, each a standalone story in its own unique world, aesthetically and conceptually, with most of the work falling on ‘Impossible Planet’. “Lisa gave us a rough outline of the stories, and explained the tone and concepts she was aiming for,” recalls Andrew. “Then we went away, put together some rough concepts and moodboards, came back, and started to hone in on things like tone and aesthetic concepts.”
This back-and-forth continued until everyone on the production team, including director David Farr, graphics art director Chris rosser and set dresser Sean Leishman, was happy with the designs. And this wasn’t totally straightforward, says Andrew, as the script demanded a pretty unusual look and feel to things.
The episode focuses around a space flight company that offers cheap intergalactic tours, with the emphasis on cheap and cruddy. “So it needed to feel like a futuristic version of a Greyhound bus. We were aiming for an aesthetic that wasn’t your usual sci-fi look. It was a little bit gnarlier, slightly grungy, much more optical and physical feeling.”
Motion graphics and 3d
Once they’d nailed the look and feel, Territory started to create the graphics that would appear on screens within the set. “We created these in Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, and then animated and composited them in After effects,” explains Andrew. “We did 3D work as well in Cinema 4D, and used Houdini to create particle simulations for the weather system screens, the mapping screens and things like that. everything was then composited in After effects and rendered out as Quicktime files, essentially as ‘a kit of parts’.”
These simulations were far more than just random sequences of numbers and shapes, he notes. real thought needed to go into the kind of information being conveyed and how it serviced the story.
“It’s all narrative driven, everything’s there to push the story along,” says
“She asked us if we wanted to work on a Philip k dick Series. well, it was Philip k dick, So we Couldn’t Say No!” Andrew Popplestone, creative director, territory
“There was an ‘upstairs, downstairs’ element to the Sets. So in the rooms where the PASSENGERS Stayed, the Graphic language looked Cleaner and Slicker” Andrew Popplestone, creative director, Territory
Andrew. “So there might be a discussion of ‘Hey, we’re getting closer to earth’ or ‘There’s Mars’, and the mapping systems you see in the background need to reflect that. So when we get the script and start to break it down, scene by scene, shot by shot, we’ll discuss, ‘Where is it in context in this world? And how is that aiding the story?’ All the information that’s on screen needs to be something. It can’t just be gobbledegook; it needs to make sense contextually.”
And attention to detail needed to be high, not least because sci-fi fans are notorious for freeze-framing single shots and analysing them to death. “You’d be surprised how often that happens,” Andrew smiles. “Particularly when you’ve been working on Marvel films or something like Blade runner 2049. You’ll get someone writing a blog post saying, ‘This doesn’t make sense.’ So we try our best to make it all fit together with reality. With things like the distances between planets, for example, we had to put our best scientific foot forward.”
Work on set
Territory’s designers also put their physical feet forward, turning up on set at the Gillette Building in Osterley to co-ordinate things with a separate company that took charge of the on-set playback of the animations
Territory’s role was much like the conductor of an orchestra, making sure the individual sequences fitted seamlessly into the progress of the story. “So the script will be broken down into all the different beats,” explains Andrew. “And with any particular shot, we’ll have a certain number of animations, like a kit of parts. There’ll be a trigger point, which will happen through playout, where something will happen, the actor interacts with the screen or with an interactive device, and then that will trigger something else, and we’ll hit that story beat.”
Sometimes it gets even more complicated than that. “Very often the director would have to change things around in the middle of the shoot,” Andrew adds. “So our designer would have to create something new or change the animation on the fly.”
visualising the hoax
The Territory team, which included Andrew, Jay Dingle, Genevieve Mcmahon, David Sheldon-hicks and ryan raffertyphelan, was also asked to create the ‘Vision Mixer’, a futuristic technology that enhances and changes the view from the spaceship’s windows. “So the tourists are seeing this beautiful nebula, but it’s actually just a couple of rocks on an asteroid belt.”
The team spent a lot of time concepting what this vision mixer might work from a mechanical point of view, says Andrew. “We went through all sorts of concepts for it, such as physical kaleidoscopic lenses clunking into place and shifting through. But we ultimately landed on the idea of taking it back to filters and making it almost like Instagram: ‘pick your filter here’.
“Conceptually, we figured that would make it more galling if audience could see this hoax is such an easy thing to pull off: they just press a button and pull the wool over all these people’s eyes.”
Finally, Territory was asked to draw fully on their graphic design smarts to create the logo and branding for Astral Dreams,
the company behind the space tours in the story. “Astral Dreams is this company that takes tourists out on these galactic trips and essentially scams them,” explains Andrew. “So we wanted our branding to be quite dingy and mundane, not slick and cool. Creating something like that is surprisingly difficult; it’s much easier to create something that’s polished and professional!”
And just to complicate matters further, there was also an ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ element to the sets. “So in the rooms where the passengers stayed, the graphic language looked cleaner and slicker and more sophisticated,” he explains. “Whereas downstairs in the cockpit where the workers were, it was much more pragmatic and utilitarian and more pared back. So we needed to take the designs and apply them in a different contextual way.”
ghosts in the Machine
Another episode in the series that Territory worked on was ‘Crazy Diamond’. It stars Steve Buscemi as an average Joe who’s tempted by an attractive synthetic woman to risk everything by carrying out an illegal plan. The story posed quite an unusual challenge, says Andrew.
“One of the main elements of this film are QCS, which are essentially these ethereal spirits which float around in these little boxes in this factory called the Spirit Mill,” he explains. “So we had to create this very ethereal thing, this quite bizarre concept, and create a control system for them.”
The visuals they created for the show are quite beautiful and otherworldly, yet still capturing the essence of a digital interface. It’s a great achievement that really adds to the believability of the otherworldly story, highlighting just how creatively challenging the art of on-screen interface design can be.
For all the interfaces in this episode, the graphical approach was a long way miles from ‘Impossible Planet’, according to Andrew. “This set was very brutalist and stripped back: it’s very bold, minimal, clean,” he explains. “So it was totally contrasting design-wise. But it’s perfectly complemented the production it was in.
“And that’s ultimately what it’s all about,” he notes. “Whatever the project, we could try to design something that’s great and exciting and turns heads… but actually it shouldn’t. It needs to sit perfectly and harmoniously within the set, like it’s part of the furniture and belongs, and not stick out. And that’s what I think we’ve done really well across this whole series.”
For ‘impossible planet’, the interface graphics needed to fit the story, both aesthetically and mathematically
above: one of the original concepts for the vision Mixer ui in ‘impossible planet’
Far right: concepts for the astral dreams logo
right: the vision Mixer ui used in the show.