Screen dreams

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

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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.”

graphic lan­guage

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.

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