MASTER OF THE CRAFT
As mentioned, UI design tends to be a subset of the larger offering from the world’s VFX vendors. But if you’re not interested in superheroes destroying cities or dinosaurs fighting, don’t despair. It’s entirely possible to make a name as a UI specialist.
“Most previous clients and frankly even new ones come to us specifically because that’s what they know we do,” says Steve Lawes, creative director and co-owner of VFX provider Cantina Creative. Cantina has a great reputation after working on Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, Hotel Artemis, Captain Marvel, Blade Runner 2049 and countless other hits, but they have also carved out a name for great UI design.
Bradley G Munkowitz is a filmmaker and photographer as well as a UI designer working under the name GMUNK, and since his well-received contribution to director Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion
(2013), he’s carved out a unique niche. He previously worked with Kosinski on 2010’s Tron: Legacy
and has just completed work on the director’s sequel to 1986’s Top Gun, Top Gun: Maverick.
Munkowitz’s talent has thus allowed him to focus on pursuing work in the niche area that interests him, so he’s living proof that you don’t have to become a VFX jack-of-all-trades to prove yourself. VFX as a whole has never really interested him, and he uses a lot of terms from the worlds of graphic design and print layout like ‘grid’ and ‘typography’ – a very different starting point from the motion graphics principles that tend to underlie most CGI work. “I’m interested by the directing in visual effects but not the execution,” he explains. “I’m inspired by user interfaces because I love graphic design and gridbased design.”
But the trick to keep in mind is to remember that as a designer, you’re also a storyteller. You’re simply using UI design tools instead of Final Draft or a RED camera to tell that story.
Matt Checkowski’s background is as varied as Munkowitz’s – he’s a writer and director as well as an acclaimed UI designer, so his approach to every project is how it best tells a story. His company, The Department of the 4th Dimension, was set up as his filmmaking career was taking off so he could continue to focus on design in advertising and marketing.
He’s also somewhat famous in VFX circles for coming up with the UI design for Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), which not only had some of the most ‘storyembedded’ visual effects ever, it actually came true – only a handful of years after the sequence of Tom Cruise pointing and swiping to control the dream images from the minds of the ‘precogs’ Arthur,
Dashiell and Agatha, we were all doing the same thing after the arrival of the iphone.
“We played with the VFX,” is how Checkowski describes the process of designing and executing that iconic scene, where he and his team brought their own filmmaking skills to bear. “It wasn’t the traditional process of locking the edit, sending it to VFX to do their stuff and getting it back to give notes. Everything happened in concert. The best advice I can offer is think like a filmmaker, not like a VFX artist.”
And Checkowski’s team talked the talk, submitting a pitch for the precog dream sequence as a fully realised short film that you can view online (see the ‘showreels’ sidebar on the next page).
THE DNA OF THE STORY
But just like in other VFX, there’s a strange kind of tension in UI design. You want to do your best work and of course you want it to be seen and noticed – your work on screen is the best advertisement for your services, after all. But if you wait for a director to hire you because they really want to showcase your stuff, you’ll soon starve. They want you to design UI that fits seamlessly in the story they’re telling. In fact, the axiom from way back in the pre-cgi special effects days very much applies – if you’ve done your job properly, it’ll be invisible.
Take Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. When the doomed Rogue One crew transmit the Death Star plans to the Tantive IV in orbit over the Imperial data facility on the planet Scarif, the screen showing the data transfer as the panicked rebel soldiers look on with impatience perfectly matches the style and aesthetic we saw almost 45 years ago in the original film.
Today audiences expect far more bells and whistles from UI design in science fiction, because the rudimentary graphics technology from 1977 seem quaint by comparison. But in the Star Wars canon the events of A New Hope take place immediately after those of Rogue One, so it would have made no sense for the Death Star graphics to now look decades more advanced.
Or take the example of the HUDS from Tony Stark’s Iron Man suits. When Cantina first worked in the MCU there was a lot of past work to draw upon. “The suits influence what we do and the [established] design language of it sort of transcends what we do,” says Lawes.
But how do you strike that balance? Everyone we spoke to who’s successful in the field had one thing in common – they consider their job as to serve the needs of the script. And as commendable as that is, it’s not always easy. Lawes says Cantina can only do it when they have all the necessary information and context. “A bit of backstory is always the most helpful scenario because we understand what we’re designing for. Things don’t feel quite so successful when we don’t have enough context or don’t know the entire story.”
“THE BEST ADVICE I CAN OFFER IS THINK LIKE A FILMMAKER, NOT LIKE A VFX ARTIST”
Matt Checkowski, director/UI designer
In fact Lawes says that when Cantina doesn’t get that context (it’s more common than you think in today’s world of scenes split among so many providers, and the overall plots on some movies being so secretive) they’ll come up with their own, just so they have a story-based basis to build UI design from.
Often, the only reference material that Cantina will get is an edit and some postviz treatment, and then the challenge is to overcome what he calls ‘post love’. “They’ve lived with it for so long in the edit they can’t get out of that,” he says. “So we’re often going ‘no, there’s a different way of looking at this.’ That’s a pretty constant battle we fight.”
Despite Minority Report being Checkowski’s first on-screen UI design project (he’d mainly done main titles prior), he had what sounds like a fairly charmed time. Realistic UI design was baked into the project from the get-go, when director Steven Spielberg assembled 16 future technology and behaviour experts and locked them in a room until they emerged with a carefully thought-out picture of what the year 2054 would look like.
As soon as that was done and acclaimed production designer Alex Mcdowell came on board to sketch it all out, he recruited Checkowski and his team to help bring it all to life as storytellers, not just an effects crew. “It’s a testament to everyone involved in the early concept phases,” he says. “It really wasn’t just snapped on and I think that’s part of the reason why it still sings, they were there to support the amazing visual executions.”
But not every project is so easy. Having become one of the preferred providers of services to the ultra-secretive Marvel Universe, Lawes and his colleagues often win assignments that are very light on story details. “We treat every project exactly the same, but it doesn’t take long before you realise ‘okay, it’s going to be one of those…’,” he says (we should hasten to add that he’s not singling Marvel out by name).
A lack of contextual detail about a project can also reveal deeper systemic problems with the whole project. As Lawes’ colleague Alan Torres told VICE online, “that’s when you start hearing, ‘Oh, yeah, make the text bigger, bigger, bigger, BIGGER!’ Maybe that’s when they realise the writing isn’t so strong.”
And all the while, you have to be thinking about how the UI you’re building would work for real users in the world of your story. But you have to be thinking of the audience even more. “We do think of human psychology when we create these projects and consider where things need to be mapped and what makes sense in terms of visual hierarchy,” Torres told VICE. “But sometimes we just go ‘screw that, this is what the story needs.’ In real life it’s the complete opposite and a lot harder to create a working product. Development takes years as opposed to weeks.”
TOOLS AND METHODS
In most cases, the workflow to concept, create and deliver UI design to a movie or show is much the same as any visual effects gig. To Lawes, the best scenario is when you’re bouncing ideas back and forth with the production rather than just getting an assignment, toiling in isolation and reacting to notes.
Munkowitz got to do so for Oblivion in a way that would make most UI designers jealous, because director Kosinski wanted the UI
“A BIT OF BACKSTORY IS ALWAYS THE MOST HELPFUL SCENARIO BECAUSE WE UNDERSTAND WHAT WE’RE DESIGNING FOR”
Steve Lawes, creative director, Cantina Creative
graphics played right on set with the actors, rather than the usual method of transposing/animating them in post-production. It meant working with DP Claudio Miranda way back in preproduction, figuring out how to best display and shoot the UIS in situ on set.
As far as the critical tools and techniques go, Lawes says he and his artists spend 80 per cent of their time in After Effects and Cinema 4D and a little less time in utilities like PF Track or specialist tools like Houdini where the project warrants it. Prior to that, almost everyone we spoke to said it all begins with doodling and pencil sketches, then moves onto basic wireframes or animatics for client approvals, before going into fullrender production.
Munkowitz, again referring more to the rich legacy of print layout than motion graphics, says he works mostly in Illustrator, creating elements to then bring into Photoshop or After Effects to give them the optical qualities needed.
“We always start with sketches,” he says. “You know, information, hierarchy, usability, user experience. We go from ‘how does it work?’ to ‘what does it look like?’ What kind of typography are we looking at? What kind of dividers and colour palettes and structure? Then, once I have a rough idea of what we’re going to do I design the grid. The grid does the work that the interface will exist within and once you have that, you just kind of pick the time and populate the grid in beautiful ways.”
Of course, every production and director (as well as every other element) is different, and that can make the workflow quite varied for each project, according to Lawes. “Some designers love to start with little thumbnails, others start straight in Photoshop or Illustrator, some take a bunch of photographs of textures or reflections for source material for inspiration.”
And above all, remember that you can end up too deep down a small rabbit hole. Design inspiration comes from everywhere. Munkowitz and Checkowski run studios where they do far more than UI design for movies, and all that knowledge of filmmaking, art installations, advertising technologies and more cross pollinate and augment the artistry in every other area.
In fact, Checkowski goes even further. He studied design at university but took classes in everything from meteorology to psychology. “I learned a lot about design through those, and then I went through a software class,” he says. “Learn how to be a storyteller and not just use the software.”