Prior to founding Territory Studio in 2012 with Lee Fasciani and Nick Glover, David Sheldon-Hicks worked on projects like CASINO ROYALE or THE DARK KNIGHT but also on CALL OF DUTY: WORLD AT WAR and MODERN WARFARE 2.
What is your background?
Territory set up in 2010 with myself, Lee Fasciani and Nick Glover as partners. We’ve quickly grown working on Formula 1 spots for McLaren and cinematic work for KILLZONE 3. We see ourselves as a creative agency that work across branding, digital and motion, priding ourselves on the craft of the work, with a strong foundation in traditional graphic design. My focus is leading the motion side of things but we quite often find ourselves working on projects that span all 3 disciplines.
How did Territory Studio got involved on this show?
I have a freelance history before setting up Territory that spans film screens on CASINO ROYALE and THE DARK KNIGHT and also cut-scene work for games such as MODERN WARFARE 2. A friend of a friend had mentioned my name to George Simons the computer screens supervisor, who ultimately ended up commissioning Territory.
What have you done on this project?
We collaborated with George Simons and Shaun Yue on the overall look for screens on the bridge of Prometheus. We were also responsible for the design and animation of screens in the medical area, social area, escape pods, some of the Rover vehicle screens. We also solely completed post screens for Cryo Pod, DNA tablets and screens, Helmet Cam HUDs and load of other stuff. Around 250 designs and animations to go on-set. We then handed over these animations to the very clever people at Compuhire, headed up by Mark Jordan, who’s engineers and technicians made sure it was all physically run through to the set and worked with the rest of the art departments designs.
How was the collaboration with director Ridley Scott?
He’s incredibly inspiring and encouraging to work with. He’s creative briefs were very loose, but he was always demanding in final execution and pushing us to think outside of the normal screen design look. He continually questioned our thinking and was always asking us for originality. I believe the entire Territory team found the process creatively rewarding. Plus we knew our work was going to be shot beautifully against other stunning visual produced by the rest of the art department and VFX.
What was his approach about the screen graphics?
He wanted a more high tech look to the screens in this film from the original ALIEN film. This ship was meant to feel much more advanced as it represented an expensive research facility. Designs for screens in the medical areas and to some degree the bridge used node tree’s like you’d see in Nuke or Flame UI’s. This came from Ridleys reference of under water coral reefs and complex organic natural forms.
The social areas Ridley proposed abstract fine artists such as Paul Klee. We created abstract animations, that were meant to stimulate the crews mood and emotions. We’d take nutritional data of the food the crew were eating, and abstract the data so much it became much more suggestive and emotive layered textures.
In the more functional areas such as lifts and corridors we took reference from Ron Cobbs original functional designs in ALIEN. Bright yellow dials, data and warning info was displayed in bold, isometric frameworks to convey a more utilitarian and functional aesthetic.
Which references and indications did he give to you?
It was really varied as mentioned. Ridley would talk at length about ideas that were being used throughout the art department, maybe a texture or form being used in part of the engineers head, or a pottery design to go in the eating area as a springboard for our computer interface concepts. Sonja Klaus would also be a great part of the process suggesting materials going into the surrounding consoles, tables chairs and other furnishings that could inspire our own views.
How did you approach this project?
With a very hard work ethic! We always start with research. Based on that visual exploration we start to version out many, many designs. Once we’ve explored these designs as best we can we get to work on all the 2d and 3d animation. At all points through this process we’re thinking about how we can best convey relevant narrative purely through quite technical data visualisations and 3d imagery. Its this pride and focus on the content that we take very seriously.
Did you take some stuffs and references from ALIEN for the screen design?
We couldn’t help but be aware of the original ALIEN film in working on PROMETHEUS. Everyone in our team trained as graphic designers so knew of the original title sequence and designs of Ron Cobb which are both timeless and beautiful. We sneaked in little elements here and there such as bold crosshairs in the corners of screens, and simple iconography design throughout.
The various screens features a lot of informations. Can you tell us more about the screen content concepts and their creation such as the cryo-pod?
We created the HUD display for the cryo-pod late in production as a post shot. We were given the background plate and told to make something cool that would feature the name of the person asleep in the cryo-pod. Briefs for the UI work were always fairly loose, letting the script dictate key plot points for the content.
The rushes we were sent to add our UI graphics to had the character David wearing a funky yellow visor helmet, doing something with the interface on the surface of the glass window, monitoring Shaw’s dreams. Quite a fun one this as it’s not your typical computer readout on a science research space ship! We sketched out a bunch of different ideas. Maybe we could see the dreams as fragments of images or represent the dreams with a series of abstract shapes and patterns. We talked through the ideas and realised we wanted the system to look as though it’s purely monitoring the person inside, as it’s David’s Visor that ultimately gives the view into the dream. We wanted the interface to come from the same graphic language we’d already put in place for the medical area. We used floating control points for David to interact with, and there movements influenced tendrils that connected back to the main interface. We had sensors float over the person, taking measurements, again connected by tendril/node cables. Small amounts of data would flow around the screen, creating a route and logic to the system and processing of information. In the end we were really pleased with how this UI turned out. It’s a great example of the organic style we developed and used throughout every screen and HUD in his film.
How did you help the actors to interacts with the screen contents on-set?
Most of our screens weren’t post so they could see and interact with them for real. We got a really good reaction from the actors because of this. We didn’t get the issue of the actors looking at the wrong point on a glass screen projection, because the Compuhire guys did it for real on-set. It looked great.
Which softwares did you used to create your screen graphics shots?
Photoshop and Illustrator for designs. Then into Cinema 4D and After Effects for animation. We also created our own in-house tools for some of the animation node systems.
Have you created procedural tools to help your artists?
Yes, the scripts for After Effects by Carl Fairweather mentioned below.
How did you collaborates with Production VFX Supervisor Richard Stammers?
Lots of emails and ftp file sharing.
The movie features various screen design done by different vendors. How did you work with them to have the best continuity?
Because we were the on-set guys we started designing very early on before all the VFX post houses. We had most of the bridge screens and medical screens animated and provided renders on a big hard drive that got sent out. It was then up to Richards team to ask for additional designs and animations be be provided to the various VFX houses. We tend to put focus on the look and movement of the UI, screens and HUDS which then gets passed onto places like MPC and Fuel VFX to integrate into there shots.
Ridley Scott’s return to SF is highly anticipated. What was your feeling to be part of it?
Do a bloody good job.
What was the biggest challenge on this project and how did you achieve it?
The biggest challenge was technically achieving the node based operating system we had devised. We wanted the computer graphics to use lots of connected lines, almost like cables or tentacles. The movements and shapes of these node lines would be affected by the steady undulating rhythm of tabs, windows and widgets. To create these nodes strands in the way we wanted in After Effects proved to be a little tricky. In-fact, at the time, we couldn’t find a plugin or work-around that would make it work. We had the option of going into 3d which would have worked, but based on our timelines wasn’t practical. In the end a good friend, Carl Fairweather, built us a plugin that gave us the solution. We had lots of Bezier handle controls that we could parent and weight to other objects movements. All our motion designers loved it and he developed it further as we started asking for more features.
Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
Most of them. Seeing your work on a large cinema screen knowing lots of people are viewing it, and its for a film by Ridley from a classic film franchise. Doesn’t get much bigger and pressured than that. We didn’t tend to have much time for sleep anyway!
What do you keep from this experience?
Creatively we learnt a lot. We had to be very responsive and think on our feet. That rapid turn around could be seen as a problem but we tried to use it to our advantage and be much looser and expressive with our design layouts.
Also, its worth having someone on the team that can script tools. Having the ability to ask for new tools in after effects or Cinema 4D was invaluable and I’ll try to have that on many more projects.
How long have you worked on this film?
In total about a year.
How many shots have you done?
Post shots there were around 25 I think, but the on-set delivery was around 250 screens that featured throughout the film. Haven’t counted how many shots, but a lot.
What was the size of your team?
At Territory there was around 5 people involved. Myself, Carl Fairweather, Luke Hale, Ryan Close and Lee Fasciani, plus many others that helped at various points along the way.
What is your next project?
We’re currently working with Kathryn Bigelow on her new feature, games cinematic for a new Sony game and animations for Virgin Atlantic.
What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
Wow. Hmmm. I think BLADE RUNNER is a front runner for me, which in turn inspired GHOST IN THE SHELL, which in turn lead to THE MATRIX. Those 3 certainly challenged my perception of what could be done cinematically. For the fourth I’m gonna go safe with SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, no wait, change that to SE7EN, no , no I can’t decide. This is not a fair question.
A big thanks for your time.
// WANT TO KNOW MORE?
– Territory Studio: Dedicated page about PROMETHEUS on Territory Studio website.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2012