Ever since I was very young, I’ve been fascinated by the tools that people use in science fiction movies. I was obsessed with the design of starships and their controls. The Millenium Falcon’s cockpit; how exactly a tricorder worked and what exactly was Spock looking at in that hood thing on the science station?
I even had Michael Okuda’s Technical Manual, explaining in intricate detail how the Enterprise NCC-1701-D was constructed.
So, when I came across Jayse Hansen’s post about his work on the user interfaces in the movie The Avengers, I knew I had to reach out to talk with him a bit about how he does what he does.
Jayse is a freelance visual artist working remotely from Las Vegas, NV for film and television. He has built a solid reputation in the industry as a creative-art director for print, web and motion design with clients ranging from Symantec to MTV and Fox. His latest work has been in the niche area of fictional UI and data design for feature films like 2012, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and The Avengers.
For The Avengers, Jayse worked on the heads up display, or HUD, that you see any time actor Robert Downey Jr’s face is inside the Iron Man helmet. He also worked on the various computers used on the bridge of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, its mobile command post.
You can see more of Jayse’s work on his site at Jayse.tv.
How did you get your start with UI design for movies?
I was the kid who was always trying to freeze frame the displays in films and read what they said. I always knew there was some cool stuff hidden in there. I loved art and design, so I started teaching myself graphic design and motion design and began designing interface themes for Windows and Mac.
I met Stephen Lawes — Former Creative Director of The PLF, now Cantina Creative — when we were both presenting at MGLA — Motion Graphics Los Angeles. He asked me afterwards if I was interested in collaborating on future projects. One of them turned out to be Avengers.
What is your basic workflow? Tools used, problem solving process, inspiration, that sort of thing.
The basic workflow is usually trying to figure out what the director is trying to say, what the story is and how to make it all look sexy on computer screens, HUDs, or whatever medium your work will be displayed on. As for tools, I keep them simple – Illustrator, Cinema 4d and After Effects. I usually design everything in Illustrator, then take that to C4d or After Effects for Animation.
You said on your site that Iron Man’s Mark VII HUD was designed with input from an A-10 Fighter Pilot, is that something you like to do, take real-world experts and use them to inform your designs?
Yeah, I really love the research process. Since film production timelines are so short, the best way is to find people who are already experts in a particular field and get their input. With the HUD I knew I had to understand a bit of how real HUDs worked in order to take them to the next level, so I used flight sims, space shuttle sims and read books on glass cockpit instrumentation.
But the most pertinent info came from a combat pilot himself, because I could ask him how he’d want his HUD to function in a very specific situation. It’s fascinating and something I’ll continue learning more about because I still can’t fly a real jet fighter. But maybe one day!
I notice you said that you start on paper. What is it about starting with the sketch that makes it an important part of your process?
Yeah, I like thinking on paper. I was fortunate enough to take a class with an amazing concept designer named Iain McCaig. He’s designed some of the most iconic figures in film history, including Darth Maul, Queen Amidala.
He taught me a great process: Imagine it and draw it badly, research it to fill in your gaps of knowledge, then redo it with your newfound knowledge. And that’s pretty much why I start on paper – I just dream it up and give myself ‘permission to draw badly’. It’s easier to think outside the box when you’re not using rulers.
Do you focus on (potential) usability, or visual appeal first and foremost when designing movie UIs? And how do you reconcile one with the other in the Avengers?
That’s actually a fantastic question. I trade them back and forth as I go but the real winner is always the story. Enriching the movie, helping the story, that’s my first goal with any design I do. But it’s also about the characters. For instance Fury’s screens are designed to mirror his hard-edged, no-nonsense self. Once I know story-points, then I, or the team, will research and gather up a lot of real-world examples. I’m one of those ‘reason for everything’ type designers and I feel that a screen that just looks cool but isn’t well thought out won’t feel right when it’s viewed on-screen. So I try to think my stuff out as much as possible.
But lastly, when designing — you have to allow yourself the freedom to go far outside what’s ‘real’ and enter into something that’s more fantastical. A lot of the time, with film UI’s, you’re attempting to show what’s going on behind the screen; to show graphically what the computer is doing. Whereas, with real UI’s, you’re usually attempting to hide it. So allowing for non-real, non-usable creativity is essential to a good story-telling UI. Someone once called it an NUI — or non-usable-interface — and I kind of liked that. You do have to break some usability rules to make it dynamic enough.
How much input did you have in the final designs, was it pretty much anything goes or did the visual effects director have a lot of input?
There was a ton of input from all sides – a lot of meetings. But the UI that I came up with in the first week is exactly the UI that ended up in the film. So I guess that means I had a fair amount of input. Venti Hristova — Cantina Creative’s VFX supervisor — and I had lots of conversations about the possible widgets and readouts on each screen. She’s awesome to brainstorm with, and she led the whole production of too many screens to count.
On the production side, most of the meetings tended to be about story-point graphics, timing, compositing, how many pieces should be animating, blinking etc. Or what distracted you from the actor’s performances vs. what enhanced their performances. That’s where a lot of the time is spent: getting it just right.
With the HUD designs, I actually created a HUD Bible – a physical 11
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