How the Fake but Really Cool Computers in Movies Get Made
Whether it's a DNA database in 'Blade Runner 2049' or the heads up display in Iron Man's suit, real world user interface designers are hard at work making sure characters have a way to operate their fictional tech.
Images courtesy of Cantina Creative
In the Iron Man films and comics, we’ll often see super-genius Tony Stark furiously churning out lines of code to make sure his latest suit upgrade can fly on auto pilot, harness a deadly new source of power, or pair with Bluetooth speakers. What we never see, however, is Tony mulling over font options, window sizes, and all the other variables that go into designing a user interface (UI) that doesn’t suck.
In the real world, tech behemoths like Apple pour billions into UI development, tweaking countless iterations of text bubbles and screen sensitivity to the point of perfection. But for the creators of fictional UIs of the silver screen who are working with mere slivers of a Silicon Valley budget, the path to a believable, elegant UI design is trickier process. At best, the work of these artists goes by unnoticed, seamlessly propelling the story while maintaining the aesthetic of the universe. At worst, it pulls the audience out of the moment, leaving them to wonder why future humans are using papyrus to announce an airlock breach.
We spoke with Alan Torres, a design supervisor at LA-based VFX studio Cantina Creative, to see what sort of process goes into this under appreciated bit of cinematic artistry. While at Cantina, Torres has helped design the God’s Eye device in the latest Fast and the Furious, created a dystopian DNA database in Blade Runner 2049 and, yes, even put the display in Iron Man’s helmet.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
VICE: Walk me through the process of developing a UI for a client, from conception to final product.
Alan Torres: For the creative process, we’ll usually be given the script to look over, or have a creative meeting with the producers, visual effects supervisors, the director.
Never the writer?
[Laughs] Unfortunately, not. That’s not Hollywood’s strongest suit. That’s a critical ingredient missing in these big movies, absolutely.
So, we have those meetings. We’ll go over the sequences we need to work on and get their current understanding of what the story is and what the technology needs to do to advance the story. Then we go off on our way and come back with the most out of the box ideas first—things we know they probably won’t go for.
Marvel movies are a good examples here because the design obviously leans on the story and the world that’s already been created and, in many ways, very fantastical and not always grounded. Tony Stark is an interesting character to design for because the suspension of disbelief is that he’s this genius who has the ability to create all this stuff, so we have all this creative freedom when designing for him.
We usually put together that initial presentation of things that we would want to see in the movie. We’ll meet again, in person or on a phone call, and [the client will] say “we like this” or “don’t like this,” and adjust from there. Eventually, it just become a molding design process, back and forth, with a lot of compromise. But, hopefully, it’s all for the betterment of the story.
Once they’re happy, we’ll start receiving plates or shots that these designs need to be composited into and animated to. We’ll begin doing the animation beats and sending those over, getting notes. That’s usually when the client's really nitpicky, because once they start seeing things in motion and the edit is further along, that’s when you start hearing, “Oh, yeah, make the text bigger, bigger, bigger, BIGGER!” Maybe that’s when they realize the writing isn’t so strong.
Do clients ever ask you to dial it back or is it always a push for bigger and bolder?
Not always. Blade Runner  was a great example here. I'm used to anticipating those punches being thrown, but on that one, Denis [Villenueve] had such a strong vision in his mind that he knew big text like that wouldn’t exist in this world and had us scale down a bit as we workshopped ideas.
Do you have any base-level templates that you can build these UIs on top of or do you start from scratch?
Both, actually. I try and give each project its own unique identity. However, Cantina does have a vast archive of design elements to reference and repurpose if the specific task requires it. The Marvel universe is a great example of being able to build upon the existing work. The cinematic zeitgeist is established, so our design process is more about refining around new creative challenges rather than building from scratch, generally speaking.
For Blade Runner, I was brought in later in production. Denis originally wanted me to come in and refresh everything that was “on set” and, in some case, completely redo it. As the edit got further along, some pieces from the “on set” just fit better. I was giving him a lot of different looks, and those just helped him steer the ship a bit better. [I made] mood boards to get [Villenueve’s] feel on the texture, smudginess, how delicately the light would emit through the screen. It’s a super bleak world and we’re seeing how the analogue tech fits in it. For him, it didn’t fit at first. It was still too digital. So that’s where we backed up to these older looking ones where there’s that printed grid, like old submarine UIs. He was really drawn to those. Still, about 80 percent of the stuff I sent him didn’t make it into the movie.
What fictional UIs do you draw inspiration from?
Blade Runner sort of spoke for itself. The original was enough for me to go off of. I love the original, so I was pretty familiar with the aesthetics of it all.
In terms of overall design inspiration, Oblivion is amazing. That’s a movie that’s still being copied today. What’s so fun about it is that everything is based off a grid. The guy who designed it, Bradley [G. Munkowitz], he goes by GMUNK, absolutely killed it. He’s super talented and admired.
In many of your projects, there’s a blue or green background color scheme that feels more representative of early computer operating systems than modern interfaces. Is that just the agreed upon “futuristic” palate?
It’s a studio thing. I think it’s a color that people identify with “high tech.” If it’s cyan, people think it must be technologically advanced, like Tron sets.
What are some other annoying or unrealistic elements in your work that don't make real-world sense, but the client pushes for anyway?
Big red “ALERT” text. I haven’t yet run across that in real life. That’s probably the most offensive note we can get: “Can you make the text size 100 and in red and bold?” Big text is so annoying because it just boils down to sloppy writing.
How has the overall design philosophy within your community adapted to the real world’s tech advancements, especially the somewhat recent fascination with interfaces that go beyond the traditional 2D screen?
As the real world starts to catch up and get more into AR and VR stuff, we’re finally starting to see some cool, subtle changes in movie UI. Some productions are getting a bit smarter and realizing maybe it’s better to not over-design. That’s not how it would be in reality so that mentality is finally starting to creep in.
It is a bit harder to design minimalist, though, because every line and dot needs to be there for a reason. And sometimes minimalist doesn’t look “expensive” enough in the eyes of the studio.
Her did a great job with this challenge, however, making the AI and programming surrounding it just a tool that fit perfectly within that world. Ideally, that’s how it should always be.
Have you ever been approached by anyone wanting to turn your fictional products into real ones? How would that work in terms of conversion and IP ownership?
The studios own the work we do for the movie, but the ideas can still be carried over. So, yes, people do come to us to try and create real world stuff. In their head, I think they saw something on a screen that worked because it serviced a story and go, “That was amazing. I need that in my helmet tomorrow.” But real-world design is a lot more challenging.
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. 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.
What sort of Easter eggs or inside jokes have you snuck into your work, if any? Is there a UI/VFX equivalent of the Wilhelm Scream?
Not really. People like to put in their birth dates or references to their loved ones. I never do it, not because it doesn’t sound fun. I think I just get too deep into the work to break from core creative ideas and do that.
Our team used to do that more a few years back. In Iron Man 3 [the studio] caught us and called us out a bit. A coworker put some lyrics in Tony Stark’s GACK and they just happened to pause on the right frame to catch it and read through it. It was just nonsense, but I think if it had some sort of comic book theme or joke to it they might’ve let it go but since it was just silly it got cut.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Justin Caffier on Twitter.