In homage to the wrap of Children of Men, this post I’m sharing an interview with Mark Coleran, a sci-fi interface designer who worked on the film. He also coined the term FUI, which is no small feat. He’s had a fascinating trajectory from FUI, to real world design here in the Bay Area, and very soon, back to FUI again. Or maybe games.
I’d interviewed Mark way back in 2011 for a segment of the Make It So book that got edited out of the final book, so it’s great to be able to talk to him again for a forum where I know it will be published, scifiinterfaces.com.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
So obviously my background is in sci-fi interfaces, the movies. I spent around 10 years doing that from 1997 to 2007. Worked on a variety of projects ranging from the first one, which was Tomb Raider, through to finishing off the last Bourne film, Bourne Ultimatum.
My experience of working in films has been coming at it from the angle of loving the technology, loving the way machines work. And trying to expose it, to make it quite genuine. That’s what I got a name for in the industry was to try and create a more realistic side of interfaces.
Why is it hard to create FUI that would also work in the real world?
It’s because most people have no idea what an interface is, or what it’s supposed to be. From the person watching, for the actor using, the person designing, the person writing, the person directing, they don’t really know why it is there. This is the fundamental problem of the idea of sci-fi interfaces, they’re not interfaces. What they are are plot visualizations. They’re there to illustrate, or demonstrate something happening, or something that has happened. Or connect two people together in space.
So the work of the FUI designer is, working quickly, to fulfill the script, the plot point. Secondarily you consider the style of set design, context, story segment, things like that. That’s not the way things get made in the real world. Film UX and film UI are very much two separate things.
Consider this. If we made things that worked for actors to use on set, the second that actor starts using something, they stop performing, they stop acting. So we can’t make something they actually use during filming. We have to play man behind the curtain, controlling the interface, matching their performance. That allows us to tell the actors, “Do not think about it, just do it. Just do your acting.” So when you see incoherent mashing on the keys and senseless clicking or mouse movement, it’s because we told them to do that.
Imagine how dull it would be to watch a film of a real person trying to figure out real software. There’s a line of realism you can’t cross. You don’t want a genuine database lookup of a police suspect. It’s a user experience problem wrapped in a user experience problem.
Let’s talk specifically about Children of Men. It’s now 10 years old. What do you think of when you look back on that work?
It was a really brief job, I only spent two weeks on the entire thing. It was a subcontract by a company called the Foreign Office. And the lead director was Frederick Norbeck, I think. So their commission was to design all of the advertisements in the film.
They did a lot of the backgrounding and the signage and they brought me in for the technology side of it, and also to create kind of brief world guide. For that I would just draw a timeline. Here’s what it’s like now, here’s where this unknown fertility event happens in five, six years time, and then the story in the film happens 20 years after that. Then I asked, “Okay, what is it like there? What were the systems like?”
As a result of the fertility event, all major technological advancement stops, so half the job was looking at just roughly where we’re gonna be in a couple of years and predicting how that technology will decay.
That’s why the paper has moving images, but they’ve got black lines and those things. It’s decaying.
The step-through security gate & intuitive design
I liked the signage we did just for the step-through security gate. There’s a level of paranoia in that shot. On the side are four icons, like, “Radiation, weapons, explosives, biohazard.” Tiny, hard even to notice, but they tell of the scope of the problems they’re facing. Or expecting to face.
It gets at a larger issue with a lot of these things. When you and I first spoke [for the book Make It So], I was kind of dismissive about a lot of the background of what we do, and what I do. It’s just like, stuff, I’d said. Make It So made me stop and ask, “What am I doing in my design?” There’s not a lot of time in any of these jobs. You have to work with your intuitive sense of design, with your vision based on your experience. Everything you’ve ever played, everything you’ve ever watched. It all has to go in. You have time to reflect later.
The Kubris Game
There’s a great lack of reflection at the front edge really. With the Kubris game all I got was, “It’s a game in a cube.”
“Okay,” I thought, “It’s space, let’s have him manipulate the space of the cube.” Maybe he’s pulling it, and it’s tumbling. But why is it tumbling? “Okay, let’s have pieces sliding down and if they go too far they’ll slide off the face, so he has to keep all these more and more pieces moving, sliding.” At a certain point you feel, “Oh that could be an interesting little game.” And it would play well in the scene.
It took me two days to go from that idea to having it on screen.
What made that project particularly challenging and unique?
The vast majority of films are just reflections of what we have right now, but Children of Men actually felt like it was trying to step ahead and show how things might really be. The temptation in a lot of technology to do the shiny thing, and this world is anything but shiny. So how does this technology reflect this real environment. But in this film, the interfaces aren’t the focus of any scene. It’s all there, but it’s just low-key texture.
What’s the worst FUI trope?
I want to say translucent screens, but I see why that’s become a trope. Having them transparent makes them feel like they’re part of the scene, rather than an object on a desk. Plus you get to see the actor’s faces. There’s an interesting connection to your crossover concept here [that is, that sci-fi and the real world mutually influence each other, see the talk about it at the O’Reilly recording here, or the post about transparent screens]. About 2–3 years ago I started to see translucent screens on the market, and I suspect the idea to create them came from sci-fi. The problem is, none of them could do true black, so they never really looked right.
No, a true trope vortex are spinning 3D globes and “flying” to information. I remember the original Ghost in the Shell. When Togusa looks at section 9 security, he says, “Show me something.” In response you it takes like three seconds for this building to spin just to show him the thing he just asked for. I’m like, “Uh…WHY?” [laughter] And FUI designers just keep going back to it, building on it, making it worse every time. It’s like it’s faster, and faster, and faster, and it just breaks apart.
Going from FUI to real-world design and back again
I was called to do motion graphics and some interface work on…I’m not even gonna say which film it was. But I worked with through one of the most brilliant crews you can imagine. And despite all our incredible work, this film just…sucked, really bad. And I recall thinking, “It doesn’t matter who you are and what you do on a movie, you have no control whatsoever as to the outcome.”
So I thought I’d shift to work in the real world. Did some stuff in Canada, some really progressive stuff about file management and projects, how we visualize those things and work on them. Then I came to Silicon Valley, doing more work here, only to learn the lie of Silicon Valley: Designers believe they’re doing something positive and good. Really, you’re just subsuming whatever vision you have to somebody else’s idea of minimum viable product. Which in itself is fundamentally wrong, they should be minimum valuable product.
There’s also the horrible trade off between being an in-house designer, and having your ideas ignored by the higher ups, or being an external consultant, and having a very limited quality assurance in the execution of your ideas.
Hilariously, I once worked in-house on a TV project (again, I won’t mention names) and the team had some beautiful ideas. We presented them, and while we were waiting for the response of the higher ups, one of them decided “We need to get some external company to do this.” So they contacted an external firm, and two days later, I get a phone call from that company asking if I’m available to do the work as a subcontractor. It was very surreal. In reflecting on this I realized that I had a lot more influence on technology trends when I was working in the movies.
So now I’m heading back to that world.
What are your favorite Sci-Fi interfaces? Either that you or somebody else has created.
There’s a couple of them, one was the comlock from Space 1999. I loved the simplicity of that idea. It was a small thing, but it had an actual television screen, two inches wide. The characters pick it up off their belts, and look into it. So it all looks like they’re doing a kind of video karaoke. The best thing was it was all working display technology. They did some fancy camera work to hide the wires to the airstream next door with all the equipment that made these little things work. It was Graham Car’s work, and it was phenomenal.
Secondarily, I’d say the lap gun lasers from Aliens. [Seen in director’s cut, or unedited versions of the movie.] It’s just a laptop with a countdown of remaining ammunition. It was a simple, beautiful way of telling a piece of story. It was so elegantly done, and yet such attention to it. I really, really liked that.
One thing that stood in my mind recently, was Arrival. All the mundane use of technology was really nice. It’s still a background, a way characters are trying to tackle the problem, but it shows how they think. Like on the tablets, you draw or reselect pieces, build a structure from them. Beautifully done.
Then a surprising one is Assassin’s Creed.They changed the interface from the games. Look for the screens in the background, which are beautiful. Really different than a lot of people have done. Black and white. Very subtle in a lot of ways. There were all those little squares, doing things, very busy. It almost feels like it could’ve suddenly made something. It’s elegantly done.
If you could have any Sci-Fi tech made real, what would it be?
I want The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I love the idea of having a guide for everything. A snarky guide for everything. It would probably get you into trouble, but at least make life interesting. Google Maps is just too damn good at what it does, it’s like, you need some variety in life. It’s the idea of an imperfect piece of technology could make your life interesting, or at least fun.