No, that’s not a typo in the headline. Normally, we look behind the scenes, but today we’re going to look behind the screens.
Did you ever notice that computers in movies and TV shows look WAY cooler than in real life? Now only is the hardware often impossibly sleek and futuristic, but the software is incredibly fast, powerful, and awesome-looking.
I’ve been mildly obsessed with movie and TV computer interfaces for a long time, so I was very interested to talk to Derek Frederickson, one of the principals of Twisted Media, a company that specializes in on-screen graphics.
Derek, I think a lot of film nerds notice the graphics that appear on computers in film and TV, but they have no idea how those images get there. Tell us a bit about the process. How do you actually design and create the graphics? What software do you use? How much direction do you get from the production designers?
We (Tom Slattery & myself, Derek Frederickson) got started in this when I received a random email from the VFX super for the TV show “Leverage”; they were coming to Chicago to do the pilot and apparently liked my company name: Twisted Media. The email had one simple question: “Can you do graphics for a TV show?” A simple “yes” response is all it took to get it started; the next day I was having an interview with Dean Devlin (squee!) and managed to convince him that we were the right team to create the graphics for the various computer monitors, video walls and spy gadgets in the show.
The process of making the graphics and interfaces starts with the script; I first do a breakdown and have a few meetings with the director and production designer to get any notes they may have.
Then the design work begins using the usual tools: Photoshop, Illustrator. Motion is done in After Effects, 3D in Cinema 4D. It all comes together in Flash, where any interactive elements are programmed so the actor or playback crew can trigger whatever is supposed to happen at the right time.
Right now I’m finishing up the first season of Crisis (NBC); been working on this since August. Last fall also worked on season 1 of “Those Who Kill” (A&E), “Mind Games” (ABC), and “Betrayal” (ABC); also did a little work on season 2 of “Legit” (FX).
There’s also two series I may be working on, one in LA and one in Portland.
Add in a few high-end corporate videos and you’ve got a pretty busy schedule. Luckily help is on the way…
I’ve noticed that TV characters – especially hacker types – seem to be able to accomplish completely unreasonable tasks very quickly. Do you ever get a script that calls for something like running facial recognition on every surveillance camera in a large city, and wonder how to visually communicate that concept?
All the time…and a lot of the time I have to work with the writers and director to get something that’s even remotely believable, especially if it’s set in the present day.
But, we live in a world where these things happen instantaneously (at least on screen) so people are at least used to the concept.
On screen time is quite precious…in the beginning I would spend countless hours doting over every step the hacker would take to accomplish whatever it was they needed to do…now after years of experience (100s of shows, thousands of scenes with graphics), I only design what’s going to end up on screen, the stuff that’s central to the plot. There just isn’t time to explain all the little steps that might need to happen, but most of the time it’s not really that important to the story anyhow.
Once you’ve created the graphics, how do you set them up so that the characters can manipulate them? It seems that all computer functions on TV are accomplished with a keyboard, and that nobody ever clicks on a drop-down menu. Is that because all screen changes have to be either pre-programmed or triggered from somewhere else?
All our interactive graphics are programmed in Flash, and there have certainly been plenty of drop-down menus over the years. But…the quicker you get to the relevant information the better. A lot of details (like drop down menu kinds of things) happen off screen. You’ll be looking at the face of the actor while they work, so theoretically all those little things could be going on but no necessarily seen.
Have you ever had to create, say, a functional website or something that involved real coding?
All the time! But most of the time you can’t really show the rest of what would be on the whole monitor…the apple/micrososft logo and whatnot, so you design the whole screen and program only what needs to happen.
Also, very few actors are interested in learning a very specific series of clicks or other interactions to get through a scene (unless it’s totally central to the scene/storyline), so the simpler it is to work with, the better the day will go.
I’ve tried to create interface-type effects for a few of my projects in After Effects, and never been pleased with the results. How do you get such a lovely glow effect?
Trade secret. Could tell ya but – you know.
What are a few of the favorite projects you’ve worked on – either because of how much fun you had, or because they were shows you liked?
Leverage had an amazing cast and crew, and lasted for quite a while! (77 episodes over 5 seasons). Lots of good memories there.
Working on Torchwood in 2011 was amazing both creatively and in terms of working with some amazing people…was a HUGE fan of the show to begin with, so getting to work with John Barrowman and Russell Davies every day was quite a treat.
What was your reaction when you saw Jeff Goldblum’s character hook his MacBook up to the alien spaceship in “Independence Day”? Was that a low-point in the credibility of on-screen graphics?
I still joke about “uploading the virus to the mothership” … even with Dean. Yes, some things are just a little beyond our normal suspension of disbelief while watching a movie…but really the goal is always to sell what it is that the scene needs to sell. That movie had a sense of camp about it from the get go, so even though it was super corny it fit in with everything else that was going on.
I’ve often wondered why I can’t find an operating system that uses translucent, glowing windows in a monochromatic teal color scheme. Have you ever considered designing a Linux panel GUI that would look like, for example, your Torchwood desktop?
I read an article that “Future Screens are Mostly Blue”. We must not be in the future yet…