Here's Why Star-Lord's Spaceship Looks Like an 80s Sports Car

On emotional coding and cinematic storytelling with the screen graphic designer of 'Guardians of the Galaxy,' 'Zero Dark Thirty,' and 'Prometheus.'

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Dec 9 2014, 8:45pm

Chris Pratt as Star-Lord pilots the Milano spaceship in Guardians of the Galaxy. © 2014 – Marvel Studios

David Sheldon-Hicks is the Creative Director & Co-founder of Territory Studio, the London-based creative agency responsible for the motion, digital, and graphic design of films including Guardians of the Galaxy, Prometheus, and Zero Dark Thirty. In anticipation of today's release of Guardians of the Galaxy (available now on Digital, 3D Blu-ray, Blu-Ray, & DVD), we asked him to write an article for The Creators Project about creating graphic interfaces for cinema.

While screen graphics may not immediately spring to mind when thinking about how movies tell amazing stories, increasingly directors are using graphic interfaces as powerful storytelling tools. 

As designers specializing in screen graphics for film, our priority is to support the story by making graphic interfaces and the actors' interactions with them believable and engaging. As working on-set props, usually in-camera with the actor, they are part of hugely exciting and dynamic visual narratives, and our approach is all about creating graphics that add emotional richness and depth to the bigger story.

Sometimes our work can be quite informative; graphic buttons and data that look good and feel right for the context. Other times, it’s more expressive, even abstracted, to guide value judgments, evoke a mood, enhance a feeling, or build tension. In this way, graphic interfaces for films play more subtle storytelling roles than their real world or gameplay UI counterparts. Ultimately, film graphics exist to support and enhance plot points, performance, and atmosphere over and above making sense of information. 

Michael Fassbender as the artificially-intelligent David interacts with Dr. Shaw's cryopod in Prometheus. © 2012 - Twentieth Century Fox

A perfect example of how graphic interfaces are used to convey narrative subtexts and help the audience make value judgments is the work we did for Ridley Scott on the set of Prometheus. The scene I’m thinking of is in which David, an AI robot, is seen to access and watch Shaw, the heroine’s, dreams. As one of the opening scenes in the film, it introduces the robot character and his relationship to the crew and Shaw. Our role in this scene was to create the graphic interface for the cryopod, which David interacts with to tap into Shaw’s subconscious mind as she lies in a state of suspended animation during the long journey through space. 

Ridley Scott was more interested in evoking an unsettling and slightly sinister undertone to this scene, and suggested graphics that feel intrusive and voyeuristic. We used tentacle-like UI elements that reach in toward Shaw’s face to suggest these notions. The framing of David’s hand against our UI elements was considered almost a year before the shoot in an early sketch by the director, so we had time to consider the more organic interface between robot and human. Whilst the graphics still held true to the look throughout the ship, the tweaking of elements and the arrangement between the two actors was intended to make the shot feel slightly uncomfortable.

The result is an interaction that feels inappropriate and manipulative, reinforced by the headset that obscures David’s eyes from view.  As a narrative device, the graphics and the interaction mediate a series of complex subtexts and plot points that help the audience establish value judgments about David, and what his real role in relation to the human crew is (an AI that we can’t quite trust), which in turn heightens the dramatic tension (we’re now waiting for him to turn evil), enhancing the emotional mood of both scene (sinister) and context (super intelligence vs. human emotion).

In other films, screen graphics are often more entertaining, enhancing personalities and action, even playing on nostalgia by referencing a specific design sensibility—like the 1980’s in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Looking at the UI screens designs for the Milano spaceship, the brief was very clearly to reinforce the ship as a cool sports car with a retro style—a fast and aggressive pirate ship, hacked, enhanced and modified to get better performance. In creating screen graphics and UI for everything from weapons targeting, navigation systems, engine and tolerance analytics, entertainment and sound systems, we researched UI design during the 1980’s and referenced red and orange colors against a black background for all control panels, game UI styles such as Space Invaders, and even the visual language of a tape deck and cassette. The resulting screens evoke a warm, friendly and familiar environment that the audience feels very comfortable with and a bit nostalgic about—much like Peter Quill, the likable hero of the story.

The UI of Peter Quill's Milano Spaceship in Guardians of the Galaxy. © 2014 – Marvel Studios

A retro-styled video game appeared as an easter egg in the Milano spaceship's user interface. © 2014 – Marvel Studios

In contrast, the graphic navigation interface that we created for the evil Ronan’s spaceship, Dark Aster, helps the audience appreciate just how bad he really is. We designed a really physical holographic control interface—an organic pulsing pustule, for want of a better way to describe it—that reflects Ronan’s aggression and intention in the way that he has to push, press and mold this thing to fly the ship. This came out really well in VFX and seen in action, it really helps reinforce Ronan’s compulsion to control, oppress and destroy.  

The sinister graphic navigation interface of Guardians of the Galaxy's antagonist's spaceship. © 2014 – Marvel Studios

Of course, UI and screen graphics are mostly used to enhance the story with information as a way to explain, illustrate and dramatize plot points. Again, as designers we create these interfaces to support the narrative and the director’s vision—be that with warmth and a sense of humor or to reinforce a cold, analytical and oppressive dramatic tension.

Take the prison lineup scene in Guardians of the Galaxy; the transparent graphic overlay provides the backstory of each character at a glance in a way that’s as entertaining as it is informative. We were able to show x-rays of each character to give a sense of their biology and modifications, their wrap sheet, talents and character traits, while each actor was able to let their character’s personality show as they posed against the graphic. This graphic device was so successful in reflecting the film’s characters and conveying a sense of fun that it became a key promotional image in the movie trailers.

The graphic overlay in the prison lineup scene from Guardians of the Galaxy gave us insight into the characters' biologies and personalities. © 2014 – Marvel Studios

Then, there are times when a scene or environment requires realistically functional and bold dramatic graphics, as illustrated by our work in Zero Dark Thirty. In this dramatic action thriller about the search for Osama bin Laden, our grainy satellite surveillance imagery helps the audience get a sense of geography and appreciate the scale of the challenge involved in finding and interpreting the data, while also being used to heighten the dramatic tension throughout the film. In the design of each graphic, our main considerations were to balance realism with narrative, for example, though based on real satellite images, we had to alter details, scale and resolution to support plot points and the actors' performances—and get military approval.   

Territory created realistically functional graphics of satellite imagery for Zero Dark Thirty. © 2012 – Columbia Pictures

In Zero Dark Thirty, a US command center interacts with surveillance satellite graphics created by Territory. © 2012 – Columbia Pictures

This brings us back to the idea that in film, graphic interfaces are more about telling a good story than conveying real information. Our ultimate goal is to create screens that feel credible and authentic to the spirit of the story, and if they achieve that, we’ve done our job well.

Visit Territory's website to see more of David Sheldon Hicks' cinematic UI design

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