Images courtesy of Cantina Creative
In the Iron Man movies and comics, we’ll often see super-genius Tony Stark furiously producing lines of code to ensure his latest costume upgrade can fly on autopilot, harnessing a new source. deadly power or pair with bluetooth speakers. . What we never see, however, is Tony pondering 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 giants like Apple are investing billions in user interface development, tweaking countless iterations of text bubbles and screen sensitivity to the point of perfection. But for fictional big-screen UI creators who work with simple slices of a Silicon Valley budget, the path to believable and elegant UI design is a trickier process. At best, the work of these artists goes unnoticed, seamlessly propelling the story while maintaining the aesthetics of the universe. At worst, it pulls the audience out of the moment, leaving them wondering why future humans are using the papyrus to announce a breach in an airlock. We chatted with Alan Torres, a design supervisor at Los Angeles-based VFX Cantina Creative studio, to see what kind of process unfolds beneath some beloved cinematic art. While in Cantina, Torres helped design the God’s Eye device in the last Fast and 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: Explain to me the process of developing a user interface for a client, from concept to final product.
Alan Torres: For the creative process, we’ll usually have the script to review, or we’ll have a creative meeting with the producers, the visual effects supervisors, the director.
Never the writer?
[Laughs] Unfortunately no. This is not Hollywood’s strong suit. It’s an essential ingredient that’s missing in these great movies, absolutely. So we have these meetings. We’re going to go through the sequences we need to work on and get their current understanding of what history is and what technology needs to do to move the story forward. Then we go on our way and come back first with the most original ideas – things that we know are unlikely to be right.
The Marvel movies are good examples here because the design obviously draws on the story and the world that has already been created and in many ways very fantastic and not always grounded. Tony Stark is an interesting character to design because the suspension of disbelief is that he’s that genius who has the ability to create it all, so we have all this creative freedom when designing for him.
We usually set up that initial presentation of the things we would like to see in the movie. We will meet again, in person or by phone, and [the client will] say “we like it” or “don’t like it”, and adjust from there. Ultimately, it just becomes a two-way, two-way design process with a lot of tradeoffs. But, hopefully, it’s all for the betterment of the story. Once they are satisfied, we will begin to receive plaques or blueprints in which these designs are to be composed and animated. We’re going to start making the animation rhythms and sending them out, getting notes. This is usually when the client is really picky, because once they start to see things in motion and the editing is more advanced, this is when you start to hear: ” Oh, yeah, make it bigger, bigger, bigger, BIGGER! ” Maybe that’s where they realize the writing isn’t that strong.
Do customers ask you to call it back or is it always an effort to be bigger and bolder?
Not always. Blade runner  was a great example here. I’m used to anticipating these punches, but on this one, Denis [Villenueve] had a vision so strong in his mind that he knew a big text like that wouldn’t exist in this world and made us shrink a bit as we worked on ideas.
Another Blade Runner 2049 User interface shot
Do you have any basic templates that you can build these user interfaces on or are you starting from scratch?
Both, in fact. I try to give each project its own identity. However, Cantina has a large archive of design elements to reference and reuse if the specific task demands it. The Marvel Universe is a prime example of being able to build on existing work. The cinematic zeitgeist is established, so our design process is more about refining around new creative challenges rather than building from scratch, in general.
For Blade runner, I was later brought into production. Denis originally wanted me to come and refresh everything “on set” and in some cases redo it completely. As the edit progressed, some parts of the “on set” fit better. I was giving him a lot of different looks, and those just helped him steer the ship better. [I made] mood boards to get [Villenueve’s] feel on the texture, the smudging, the delicacy of the light emitted through the screen. It’s a super dark world and we see how analog technology fits into it. For him, that did not correspond to the beginning. It was still too digital. So that’s where we backed off on those old models where there’s this printed grid, like the old underwater UIs. He was really drawn to them. Still, about 80% of the stuff I sent him didn’t make it into the movie.
What fictitious user interfaces are you inspired by?
Blade runner sort of spoke for itself. The original was enough for me to get out. I love the original, so I was quite familiar with the aesthetics of it all. In terms of overall design inspiration, Oversight it’s incredible. It is a film that is still copied today. What’s so funny is that everything is grid-based. The guy who designed it, Bradley [G. Munkowitz], he goes through GMUNK, absolutely killed him. He is super talented and admired.
In many of your projects there is a blue or green background color scheme that seems more representative of early computer operating systems than modern interfaces. Is this just the agreed “futuristic” palace?
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 the other boring or unrealistic parts of your job that don’t make sense in the real world, but the client insists anyway?
Large red text “ALERT”. I have yet to meet this in real life. This is probably the most shocking note we can get: “Can you set text size to 100 and red and bold?” Big text is so boring because it boils down to sloppy writing.
How has the overall design philosophy within your community adapted to real-world technological advancements, especially the somewhat recent fascination with interfaces that go beyond the traditional 2D screen?
As the real world begins to catch up and take more interest in augmented reality and virtual reality, we’re finally starting to see some subtle and cool changes to the movie’s UI. Some productions are getting a little smarter and realizing that maybe it’s best not to over-design. It wouldn’t actually be that way for the mentality to finally begin to creep in. It’s a little harder to design minimalist, though, because every line and stitch has to be there for a reason. And sometimes the 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 that surrounds it just a tool that fits perfectly into this world. Ideally, that’s how it should always be.
Have you ever been approached by someone wanting to turn your fictitious products into real products? How would that work in terms of conversion and IP ownership?
The studios own the work we’re doing for the film, but the ideas can still be carried over. So, yeah, people come to us trying to create real world stuff. In their head I think they saw something on a screen that worked because it served a story and they said, “It was amazing. I need it in my helmet tomorrow. But the conception of the real world is much more difficult. We think about 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 say ‘fuck this up, this is what the story needs’. In real life, it’s just the opposite and it’s much more difficult to create a functional product. Development takes years rather than weeks.
What kind of Easter eggs or inside jokes have you slipped into your work, if any? Is there a UI / VFX equivalent of the Wilhelm Scream?
Not really. People like to write down their dates of birth or references to loved ones. I never do, not because it doesn’t sound like fun. I think I go too deep into the work to break away from basic creative ideas and do it. Our team was doing this over a few years ago. In Iron man 3 [the studio] grabbed us and called us a bit. A coworker put lyrics into Tony Stark’s GACK and they just stopped on the right frame to grab it and read it. It was just nonsense, but I think if there was some sort of comic book theme or joke they might have let it go, but since it was just silly it was chopped off.
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