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.
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.
The Bourne Ultimatum, from Mark’s online portfolio, see more at coleran.com.
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.Continue reading →
Depending on how you count, there are only 9 interfaces in Children of Men. This makes sense because it’s not one of those Gee-Whiz-Can-You-Believe-the-Future technofests like Forbidden Planet or Minority Report.Children of Men is a social story about the hopelessness of a world without children, so the small number of interfaces—and even the way they are underplayed—is wholly appropriate to the theme. Given such a small number, you would not expect them to be as spectacular as they are. Or maybe you would. I don’t know how you roll.
Sci: A (4 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?
The interfaces are wholly believable, given the diegesis. Technology is focused on security, transportation, and distracting entertainment, which is exactly what you’d expect. Nothing breaks physics or reason.
The only ding is that Quietus could have included some nod to its reimbursement promise, and that’s so minor it only reveals itself as a problem after deep consideration. It doesn’t break the flow of the film.
Fi: A (4 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?
All of the interfaces point back in some way to the world that created them, and help move the story along. Security is everywhere. Jasper cobbles together technology to help his resistance. Suicide is a government-sanctioned option.
Interfaces: A- (4 of 4) How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?
Luke’s HUD is a little slow, considering that its job is to help avoid collisions.
These are the main three issues that mar an otherwise very well considered set of interfaces and technologies.
Final Grade A (12 of 12), Blockbuster.
It’s rare that a film’s interfaces gets a full blockbuster rating on this site. The only other one at the time of publication is The Fifth Element. And while I take pains to rate the interfaces as distinct from the movie, I’m pleased when such a brilliant (yet, ironically, dark) film includes brilliant interfaces as well.
Jumping back in the film a bit, we’re going to visit the Ministry of Art. When Theo goes there to visit his brother, after the car pulls to the front of the secured building, Theo steps out and walks toward a metal-detector gate.
Its quite high, about 3 meters tall. The height helps to reinforce the notion that this is a public space.
This principle, that short ceilings are personal, and high ceilings are public, is I believe a well-established one in architectural design. Read the Alexandrian pattern if you’d like to read more about it.
Is it a public space? It is, since it’s a Ministry. But it isn’t, since he joins his brother in what looks like a rich person’s private dining room. I was always a bit confused by what this place was meant to be. Perhaps owning to The Dark Times, Nigel has cited Minister rights and cordoned off part of the Tate Modern to live in. If anyone can explain this, please speak up.
On the downside, the height makes the text more out of sight and harder to read by the people meant to be reading it.
The distance is balanced by the motion graphics of the translucent sign atop the gate. Animated red graphics point the direction of ingress, show a security stripe pattern, and provide text instructions.
Motion is a very strong attention-getting signal, and combined with the red colors, does all the attention-getting that the height risks. But even that’s not a critical issue, as there is of course a guard standing by to ensure his understanding and compliance.
Note that there is no interaction here (which is the usual filter for this blog), but since I’m publishing an interview with the designer of this and the Kubris interface soon, I thought I’d give it a quick nod.
After Jasper tells a white lie to Theo, Miriam, and Kee to get them to escape the advancing gang of Fishes, he returns indoors. To set a mood, he picks up a remote control and presses a button on it while pointing it at a display.
He watches a small transparent square that rests atop some things in a nook. (It’s that decimeter-square, purplish thing on the left of the image, just under the lampshade.) The display initially shows an album queue, with thumbnails of the album covers and two bright words, unreadably small. In response to his button press, the thumbnail for Franco Battiato’s album FLEURs slides from the right to the left. A full song list for the album appears beneath the thumbnail. Then track two, the cover of Ruby Tuesday, begins to play. A small thumbnail to the right of the album cover appears, featuring some white text on a dark background and a cycling, animated border. Theo puts the remote control down, picks up the Quietus box, and walks over to Janice. *sniff*
This small bit of speculative consumer electronics gets around 17 seconds of screen time, but we see enough to consider the design. Continue reading →
When Theo, Kee, and Miriam flee the murderous Fishes, they take refuge in Jasper’s home for the night. They are awoken in the morning by Jasper’s sentry system.
A loud cacophonous alarm sounds, made up of what sounds like recorded dog barks, bells clanging, and someone banging a stick on a metal trash can lid. Jasper explains to everyone in the house that “It’s the alarm! Someone’s breaking in!”
They gather around a computer screen with large speakers on either side. The screen shows four video feeds labeled ROAD A, FOREST A, FRONT DOOR, and ROAD B. Labels reading MOTION DETECTED <> blink at the bottom of the ROAD A and ROAD B feeds, where we can see members of the Fishes removing the brush that hides the driveway to Jasper’s house. Continue reading →
Perhaps the most unusual interface in the film is a game seen when Theo visits his cousin Nigel for a meal and to ask for a favor. Nigel’s son Alex sits at the table silent and distant, his attention on a strange game that it’s designer, Mark Coleran, tells me is called “Kubris,” a 3D hybrid of Tetris and Rubik’s Cube.
Alex operates the game by twitching and sliding his fingers in the air. With each twitch a small twang is heard. He suspends his hand a bit above the table to have room. His finger movements are tracked by thin black wires that extend from small plastic discs at his fingertips back to a device worn on his wrist. This device looks like a streamlined digital watch, but where the face of a clock would be are a set of multicolored LEDs arranged in rows. These LEDs flicker on and off in inscrutable patterns, but clearly showing some state of the game. There is an inset LED block that also displays an increasing score. Continue reading →
This post is about the speculative suicide kit called Quietus that appears in Children of Men.
Suicide is not an easy topic and I will do my best to address it seriously. Let me first take a moment to direct anyone who is considering or dealing with suicide to please stop reading this and talk to someone about it. I am unqualified to address—and this blog is not the place to work through—such issues.
In fact because this is a serious life-and-death issue, I’m going against my usual scifiinterfaces tack of thinking through this as a real-world product. While I believe in our right to self-direct our deaths with dignity in the face of terminal illness or longterm suffering, I also believe that it should be handled by caring, informed, and professional people rather than a kit. So, instead, I’m only going to address the design in the context of the film. It would take much more research, time, and the input of many professionals to confidently design for such a product in the real world.
When Luke is driving Kee and Theo to a boat on the coast, the car’s heads-up-display shows him the car’s speed with a translucent red number and speed gauge. There are also two broken, blurry gauges showing unknown information.
Suddenly the road becomes blocked by a flaming car rolled onto the road by a then unknown gang. In response, an IMPACT warning triangle zooms in several times to warn the driver of the danger, accompanied by a persistent dinging sound.
If Jasper’s car is aftermarket, Syd’s built-in display seems to be more consumer-savvy. It is a blue electroluminescent flat display built into the dashboard. It has more glanceable information with a cleaner information hierarchy. It has no dangerous keyboard entry. All we see of the display in these few glimpses is the speedometer, but even that’s enough to illustrate these differences.
Jasper is a longtime friend of Theo’s who offers his home as a safe house for a time. Jasper’s civilian vehicle features a device on its dashboard that merits some attention. It is something like a small laptop computer, with a flat screen in a roughly pill-shaped black plastic frame mounted in the center of the dashboard. The top half of this screen shows a view from a backwards-facing camera mounted on the vehicle.