SciFi Interfaces Q&A with Territory Studio

The network of in-house, studio, and freelance professionals who work together to create the interfaces in the sci-fi shows we know, love, and critique is large, complicated, and obfuscated. It’s very hard as an outsider to find out who should get the credit for what. So, I don’t try. I rarely identify the creators of the things I critique, trusting that they know who they are. Because of all this, I’m delighted when one of the studios reaches out to me directly. That’s what happened when Territory Studio recently reached out to me regarding the Fritz awards that went out in early February. They’d been involved with four of them! So, we set up our socially-distanced pandemic-approved keyboards, and here are the results.

First, congratulations to Territory Studio on having worked in four of the twelve 2019 Fritz Award nominees!

Chris: What exactly did you do on each of the films?

Ad Astra (winner of Best Believable)

Ad Astra Screen Graphics Reel from Territory Studio.

Marti Romances (founding partner and creative director of Territory Studio San Francisco): We were one of the screen graphic vendors on Ad Astra and our brief was to support specific storybeats, in which the screen content helped to explain or clarify complex plot points.  As a speculative vision of the near future, the design brief was to create realistic looking user interfaces that were grounded in military or scientific references and functionality, with the clean minimal look of high-end tech firms, and simple colour palettes befitting of the military nature of the mission. Our screen interfaces can be seen on consoles, monitors and tablet displays, signage and infographics on the Lunar Shuttle, moon base, rovers and Cepheus cockpit sets, among others.”

The biggest challenge on the project was to maintain a balance between the minimalistic and highly technical style that the director requested and the needs of the audience to quickly and easily follow narrative points.”

Ad Astra (New Regency Pictures, 2019)

Men In Black International (nominated for Best Overall)

Men in Black: International | Screen Graphics | © Sony Pictures

Andrew Popplestone (creative director of Territory Studio London): The art department asked us to create holotech concepts for MIB Int’l HQ in London, and we were then asked to deliver those in VFX. We worked closely with Dneg to create holographic content and interfaces for their environmental extensions (digital props) in the Lobby and Briefing Room sets. Our work included volumetric wayfinding systems, information points, desk screens and screen graphics. We also created holographic vehicle HUDs.

What I loved about our challenge on this film was to create a design aesthetic that felt part of the MIB universe yet stood on its own as the London HQ. We developed a visual language that drew upon the Art Deco influences from the set design which helped create a certain timeless flavour which was both classic yet futuristic.”

Men in Black: International (Sony Pictures, 2019)

Spider-Man: Far from Home (winner of Best Overall)

Spider-man Far From Home (Marvel Studios, 2019)

Andrew Popplestone: Territory were invited to join the team in pre-production and we started creating visual language and screen interface concepts for Stark technology, Nick Fury technology and Beck / Mysterio technology. We went on to deliver shots for the Stark and Fury technology, including the visual language and interface for Fury Ops Centre in Prague, a holographic display sequence that Fury shows Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and all the shots relating to Stark/E.D.I.T.H. glasses tech.

The EDITH sequence was a really interesting challenge from a storytelling perspective. There was a lot of back and forth editorially with the logic and how the technology would help tell the story and that is when design for film is most rewarding.

Spider-Man far from Home (Columbia Pictures, 2019)

Avengers: Endgame (winner of Audience Choice)

See more at Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War & Endgame

Marti Romances: We were also pleased to see that Endgame won Audience Choice because that was based on work we had produced for the first part, Avengers: Infinity War.  We joined Marvel’s team on Infinity War and created all the technology interfaces seen in Peter Quill’s new spaceship, a more evolved version of the original Milano. We also created screen graphics for the Avengers Compound set.

We then continued to work on-screen graphics for Endgame, and as Quill’s ship had been badly damaged at the end of Infinity War, we reflected this in the screens by overlaying our original UI animations with glitches signifying damage.  We also updated Avengers Compound screens, created original content for Stark Labs and the 1960’s lab and created a holographic dancing robots sequence for the Karaoke set.

Avengers: Endgame (Marvel Studios, 2019)

What did you find challenging and rewarding about the work on these films?

David Sheldon-Hicks (Founder & Executive Creative Director): It’s always a challenge to create original designs that support a director’s vision and story and actor’s performance.  There are so many factors and conversations that play into the choices we make about visual language, colour palette, iconography, data visualisation, animation, 3D elements, aesthetic embellishments, story beats, how to time content to tie into actor’s performance, how to frame content to lead the audience to the focal point, and more. The reward is that our work becomes part of the storytelling and if we did it well, it feels natural and credible within the context and narrative.

Hollywood seems to make it really hard to find out who contributed what to a film. Any idea why this is?

David Sheldon-Hicks: Well, the studio controls the press strategy and their focus is naturally all about the big vision and the actors and actresses. Also, creative vendors are subject to press embargoes with restrictions on image sharing which means that it’s challenging for us to take advantage of the release window to talk about our work. Having said that, there are brilliant magazines like Cinefex that work closely with the studios to cover the making of visual effects films. So, once we are able to talk about our work we try to as much as is possible. 

But Territory do more than films; we work with game developers, brands, museums and expos, and more recently with smartwatch and automobile manufactures. 

Chris: To make sure I understand that correctly, the difference is that Art Department work is all about FUI, where VFX are the creation of effects (not on screen in the diegesis) like light sabers, spaceships, and creatures? Things like that?

When we first started out, our work for the Art Department was strictly screen graphics and FUI. Screen graphics can be any motion design on a screen that gives life to a set or explains a storybeat, and FUI (Fictional User Interface) is a technology interface, for example screens for navigation, engineering, weapons systems, communications, drone fees, etc.  

VFX relates to Visual Effects, (not to be confused with Special Effects which describes physical effects, explosions or fires on set, for example.) VFX include full CGI environments, set extensions, CGI props, etc. Think the giant holograms that walk through Ghost In the Shell (2017), or the holographic signage and screens seen in the Men In Black International lobby.  And while some screens are shot live on-set, some of those screens may need to be adjusted in post, using a VFX pipeline. In this case we work with the Production VFX Supervisor to make sure that our design concept can be taken into post. 

Mindhunter model Mindhunter final
Mindhunter (Denver and Delilah Productions, 2017)
Mindhunter model Mindhunter final
Shanghai Fortress (HS Entertainment Group, 2019)
Goldfish holograms and street furniture CG props from Ghost in the Shell (Paramount Pictures, 2017)

What, in your opinion, makes for a great fictional user interface?

David Sheldon-Hicks: That’s a good question. Different screens need to do different things. For example, there are ambient screens that help to create background ‘noise’ – think of a busy mission control and all the screens that help set the scene and create a tense atmosphere. The audience doesn’t need to see all those screens in detail, but they need to feel coherent and do that by reinforcing the overall visual language.

Then there are the hero screens that help to explain plot points. These tie into specific ‘story beats’ and are only in shot for about 3 seconds. There’s a lot that needs to come together in that moment. The FUI has to clearly communicate the narrative point, visualise and explain often complex information at a glance. If it’s a science fiction story, the screen has to convey something about that future and about its purpose; it has to feel futuristic yet be understandable at the same time. The interaction should feel credible in that world so that the audience can accept it as a natural part of the story.  If it achieves all that and manages to look and feel fresh and original, I think it could be a great FUI.

Chris: What about “props”? Say, the door security in Prometheus, or the tablets in Ad Astra. Are those ambient or hero?

That depends on whether they are created specifically to support a storybeat. For example, the tablet in Ad Astra and the screen in The Martian where the audience and characters understand that Whatney is still alive, both help to explain context, while door furniture is often embellishment used to convey a standard of technology and if it doesn’t work or is slow to work it can be a narrative device to build tension and drama. Because a production can be fluid and we never really know exactly which screens will end up in camera and for how long, we try to give the director and DOP (director of photography) as much flexibility as possible by taking as much care over ambient screens as we do for hero screens. 

The Martian (Twentieth Century Fox, 2015)

Where do you look for inspiration when designing?

David Sheldon-Hicks: Another good question! Prometheus really set our approach in that director Ridley Scott wanted us to stay away from other cinematic sci-fi references and instead draw on art, modern dance choreography and organic and marine life for our inspiration. We did this and our work took on an organic feel that felt fresh and original. It was a great insight that we continue to apply when it’s appropriate. In other situations, the design brief and references are more tightly controlled, for good reason. I’m thinking of Ad Astra and The Martian, which are both based on science fact, and Zero Dark Thirty and Wolf’s Call, which are in effect docudramas that require absolute authenticity in terms of design. 

What makes for a great FUI designer?

David Sheldon-Hicks: We look for great motion designers, creatively curious team players who enjoy R&D and data visualisation, are quick learners with strong problem-solving skills.

There are so many people involved in sci-fi interfaces for blockbusters. How is consistency maintained across all the teams?

David Sheldon-Hicks: We have great producers, and a structured approach to briefings and reviews to ensure the team is on track. Also, we use Autodesk Shotgun, which helps to organise, track and share the work to required specifications and formats, and remote review and approve software which enables us to work and collaborate effectively across teams and time zones. 

I understand the work is very often done at breakneck speeds. How do you create something detailed and spectacular with such short turnaround times?

David Sheldon-Hicks: Broadly speaking, the visual language is the first thing we tackle and once approved, that sets the design aesthetic across an asset package. We tend to take a modular approach that allows us to create a framework into which elements can plug and play. On big shows we look at design behaviours for elements, animations and transitions and set those up as widgets. After we have automated as much as we can, we can become more focussed on refining the specific look and feel of individual screens to tie into storybeats. 

That sounds fascinating. Can you share a few images that allow us to see a design language across these phases?

I can share a few screens from The Martian that show you how the design language and all screens are developed to feel cohesive across a set. 

What thing about the industry do you think most people in audiences would be surprised by?

David Sheldon-Hicks: It would probably surprise most people to know how unglamorous filmmaking is and how much thought goes into the details. It’s an incredible effort by a huge amount of people and from creative vendors it demands 24-hour delivery, instant response times, time zone challenges, early mornings starts on-set, and so on. It can be incredibly challenging and draining but we give so much to it; like every prop and costume accessory, every detail on a screen has a purpose and is weighed up and discussed.

How do you think that FUI in cinema has evolved over the past, say, 10 years?

David Sheldon-Hicks: When we first started out in 2010, green screen dominated and it was rare to find directors who preferred to work with on-set screens. Directors like Ridley Scott (Prometheus, 2012), Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty, 2012) and James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy, 2014) who liked it for how it supports actors’ performances and contributes to ambience and lighting in-camera, used it and eventually it gained in popularity as is reflected in our film credits. In time, volumetric design became to suggest advanced technology and we incorporated 3D elements into our screens, like in Avengers; Age of Ultron (2015). Ultimately this led to full holographic elements, like the giant advertising holograms and 3D signage we created for Ghost in the Shell (2017). Today, briefs still vary but we find that authenticity and credibility continue to be paramount. Whatever we make, it has to feel seamless and natural to the story world.

Where do you expect the industry might go in the future? (Acknowledging that it’s really hard to see past the COVID-19 pandemic.)

David Sheldon-Hicks: On the industry front, virtual production has come into its own by necessity and we expect to see more of that in future. We also now find that the art department and VFX are collaborating as more integrated teams, with conversations that cross the production and post-production. As live rendered CG becomes more established in production, it will be interesting to see what becomes of on-set props and screens. I suspect that some directors will continue to favour it while others will enjoy the flexibility that VFX offers. Whatever happens, we have made sure to gear up to work as the studios and directors prefer. 

I know that Territory does work for “real world” clients in addition to cinema. How does your work in one domain influence work in the other?

David Sheldon-Hicks: Clients often come to us because they have seen our FUI in a Marvel film, or in The Martian or Blade Runner 2049, and they want that forward-facing look and feel to their product UI. We try, within the limitations of real-world constraints, to apply a similar creative approach to client briefs as we do to film briefs, combining high production values with a future-facing aesthetic style.  Hence, our work on the Huami Amazfit smartwatch tapped into a superhero aesthetic that gave data visualisations and infographics a minimalistic look with smooth animated details and transitions between functions and screens. We applied the same approach to our work with Medivis’ innovative biotech AR application which allows doctors to use a HoloLens headset to see holographically rendered clinical images and transpose these on to a physical body to better plan surgical procedures.

Similarly, our work for automobile manufacturers applies our experience of designing HUDS and navigation screens for futuristic vehicles to next-generation cars.  

Lastly, I like finishing interviews with these two questions. What’s your favorite sci-fi interface that someone else designed?

David Sheldon-Hicks: Well, I have to say the FUI in the original Star Wars film is what made me want to design film graphics. But, my favourite has got to be the physical interface seen in the Flight of the Navigator. There is something so human about how the technology adapts to serve the character, rather than the other way around, that it feels like all the technology we create is leading up to that moment.

Flight of the Navigator (Producers Sales Organization, 1986)

What’s next for the studio?

David Sheldon-Hicks: We want to come out of the pandemic lockdown in a good place to continue our growth in London and San Francisco, and over time pursue plans to open in other locations. But in terms of projects, we’ve got a lot of exciting stuff coming up and look forward to Series 1 of Brave New World this summer and of course, No Time To Die in November.

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The Fritzes 2020: Audience Choice Voting

The form to cast your vote for Audience Choice is at the bottom of this post.

On 09 FEB 2020, scifiinterfaces.com is announcing awards for interfaces in a 2019 science fiction feature film. An “Audience Choice” will also be announced, and determined by the results of the poll, below. What is your selection? You should see the movies in full, but you can see reminder videos and summaries for each of the nominees, below.

Ad Astra

Sometime in the near future, Roy McBridge heads to Mars to find his father and see if he is responsible for immense electrical surges that have been damaging the earth. His journey is troubled by murderous moon pirates, frenzied space baboons, Roy’s unexpected emotions, and the aforementioned surges.

Alita: Battle Angel

The year is 2563. After doctor Ido revives a mysterious cyborg girl from a junkyard, she discovers he is a bounty hunter for evil rogue cyborgs and wants to be one. After she finds a new superpowered body, she is able to save her friend Hugo by turning him into a cyborg, too. With his new abilities, he tries to scale a cable to the forbidden floating city Zalem, but dies. The movie concludes with Alita committing herself to vengeance.

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame is an indie feelgood about a group of friends who go rock hunting together. Just kidding, of course. Endgame is the biggest box-office movie of all time, earning 2.67 billion USD worldwide and bringing to climax 11 years of filmmaking in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The story happens after Infinity War, where Thanos performed “the snap” that disintegrated half of all life in the universe. Endgame sees the remaining Avengers build a time travel device in order to “undo” the snap, defeat Thanos, and along the way resolve some longstanding personal arcs.

Captive State

After an alien occupation, most of humanity falls in line with the oppressors. But not everyone. Captive State tells the story of a resistance movement bent on freeing humanity and saving the earth from ruthless alien capitalists.

High Life

High Life is certainly the most unusual film among the nominees. Convicts in the far future are sentenced to find a new energy source traveling into a black hole. On route to their certain death, sex is forbidden, but they find release in a Holodeck-style masturbatorium called The Box. Meanwhile, there are power struggles and murders and intense sexual situations. 

I am Mother

A robot raises a child from embryo to young woman in a mysterious underground facility. As the human explores more of her world, she learns dark truths about the facility, her life, and the robot she’s come to know as Mother.

Men in Black: International

The Men in Black franchise got new life in 2019 with the release of Men in Black: International. In it a young woman named Molly charms her way into the MIB, only to join Agent H on a mission to forestall an invasion by the hideous but beautiful race called the Hive. On the way, they uncover a mole in the organization while Molly helps H overcome a dark event from his past.

Spider-Man: Far from Home

In the second 2019 nominee movie from the MCU, Peter Parker fails to have a normal summer studying abroad in Europe. He witnesses what he thinks are elemental monsters wreaking havoc on popular tourist cities, and a new superhero named Mysterio fighting them. Over the course of the film, Parker and his Scoobys discover the terrible truth before defeating and exposing the real bad guy. In the end, Parker learns to accept Tony Stark’s legacy, and then has his secret identity rudely outed.

X-Men Dark Phoenix

Superhero movies are not known for their restraint. Dark Phoenix starts with our mutant team rushing into space to, oh, you know, rescue some astronauts, and Jean Gray absorbing a “mysterious space force” in order to save the day. Over the movie, she finds her psychic and telekinetic powers amplified, but ultimately out of her control. She is hunted by the U.S. military, an alien race called the D’Bari, a Magneto gang, and even her own team, to no avail.


Of those movies, which do you think had the best over all interfaces? Cast your vote below. To avoid flagrant ballot stuffing, you must have a google account and be logged in to that account to cast your vote.

Voting will be open until 01 FEB 2020, 23:59 PST.

Please share this post on your social media to get the vote out! Thanks!

The Fritzes 2020: Nominees

This year scifiinterfaces is going to try something new: Giving out awards for the best interfaces in a movie in the prior calendar year. The timing will roughly correspond to the timing of the Oscars.

It’s going to be an “alpha” release version, mind you, since I don’t have a sponsor lined up, and you always have stuff to figure out the first time you try a massive project, and it’s hard to rally collaborators around a new thing. So, the “award” will be virtual, even though the honor is real. Also everything will happen via this blog and social media rather than any live stage event or anything like that. I have tried to do this on a larger scale in the past, but each time something stood in the way. Wish me luck.

The idea here is to reward and encourage excellence and maybe help readers discover what awesomeness is happening in sci-fi interfaces, without going into the full-scale, scene-by-scene critique that normally occupies this blog. The Oscars give awards for “Achievement in production design,” but this often entails much more than the very specific craft of sci-fi interfaces, which is the focus of this project.

On the name

The award will be called the Fritz, in honor of Fritz Lang, who was the first filmmaker to put realistic interfaces in a sci-fi film, specifically his 1927 film Metropolis. Lang was grappling with the larger role of technology in society, and his interfaces are wonderfully evocative and illustrative. Naming the awards after him honors his pioneering spirit and craft.

4 Awards

Sci-fi films have to answer to many masters, and rather than just give one award, I’m going to go with 4. Two of these will respect films that err towards either believability or spectacle—I believe there is often a wicked tradeoff between the two. The main award will honor films that manage that extraordinary challenge of accomplishing both. The fourth award is a viewer’s choice, where I share all the nominees and ask readers (like you) which they think is the best.

  1. Best interfaces (overall)
  2. Best narrative
  3. Best believable
  4. Audience Choice

Perhaps in the future there will be other categories, like for shorts, student work, or television serials. But for now just these four are going to tax the resources of your lone hobbyist blogger, here. Especially as I try to keep up regular reviews.

I will have the help of a few other judges. (I’m still chatting with them now to see if they want to be named. The Academy stays anonymous, so maybe these judges, should, too?) Winners will be announced the week of 09 Feb 2020.

What gets considered?

Focusing efforts on a narrower category of media helps the task be manageable, which is important since a new program cannot rely on submissions from others. I have loosely followed the Academy’s guidelines for eligibility for feature-length films (over 40 minutes), with the exception that I included feature-length films released on streaming media as well, such as those produced by Amazon and Netflix, which never saw theatrical release.

These guidelines gave the judges a list of 27 candidates to consider, and the following are the final nominees, presented in their category in alphabetical order. Keep in mind that the nominees were elected for the quality of the interfaces in the context of the film, but with specific disconsideration for other aspects of the work. In other words, a film could be panned for nearly any other reason, but its interfaces just marvelous, and it could wind up a nominee.

Nominees: Best believable

Nominees: Best narrative

Nominees: Best interfaces (overall)

Congratulations to all the nominees. Nice work.

If you’re the sort who likes to see all the nominees in a category to justify your outrage at the results, get to watching. You have a few weeks to see or re-see these before results are shared.

Stay tuned to scifiinterfaces.com here or on twitter for more, including when and where to vote for Viewer’s Choice.