Dreaming in Virtual Reality
April 11, 2016

Dreaming in Virtual Reality

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Katniss leads an invasion with a handheld hologram device, and Beetee sits before a multi-panel computer display in order to hack into the Capitol. Tony Stark puts his Iron Man helmet on, and hundreds of relevant graphics animate to life: maps locating nearby enemies, flight controls, suit diagnostics, and holographs all help to tell the stories in Iron Man and The Avengers. Floor-to-ceiling glass/holographic displays enable James Franco to explain how a new drug will make apes smarter in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Jayse Hansen has gained international attention for designing some of the most iconic fictional user interfaces in film history. His work specializes in “revealing the details beneath the surface of machines, computers and ‘hero devices’ such as holographic tablets in Ender’s Game, or the creation of new superhero gear using holographic tables in Disney's Big Hero 6. In the film Pixels, look closely for his many ’80s video game nods and easter eggs hidden in the advanced military UIs.

In addition to designing for the fictional film world, Hansen has also consulted and designed for various real-world software companies in VR and AR, as well as the US Department of Defense on strategies to use his “outside-the-limits” design thinking to dramatically increase efficiency for dealing with immense amounts of time-sensitive, mission-critical information.

Hansen’s work is featured in the April/May 2016 issue of Computer Graphics World, while more of his designs can be found on his website at www.jayse.tv. Here, he continues the discussion about his workflow and this unique genre of computer graphics.

You’ve provided fictional user interface (FUI) graphics to memorable scenes in some of today’s most beloved films. Can you tell us what an FUI is, and how the story influences your designs? 

FUI graphics are used in instances where a character in a film is interacting with a computer or display technology of some kind. The technology can be worn on the head as a heads-up display (HUD), like in Iron Man when he puts his helmet on and is surrounded by hundreds of relevant data graphics, or a hologram, like when Hiro assembles the armor for Baymax in Big Hero 6 , or in The Force Awakens when R2-D2 and BB-8 project their holograms of the map to Luke Skywalker. These elements are all designed, modeled, and animated by a small, specialized team of VFX artists. They both rely on and support the narrative of the film. They are always designed to move the story along in some dynamic and interesting way.  

FUI graphics seems to be a specialty within visual effects content creation. How did you start designing this way?

I've actually been obsessed with screens in movies and TV since I was a child, but I didn't know it was someone's job to actually create these things. When I met Mark Coleran (who coined the term FUI and is a master at it creating content in films like Bourne Identity, The Island, Mission Impossible, and so on) I knew that was the direction I wanted to dive into with full force. It fits my love of research, pixel perfection, and super creative thinking. It's really an awesome job!

In a film, you are called in to create designs at different phases of production, both preproduction and postproduction. Can you tell us about that?

It differs with the needs of each film. On Mockingjay , I was designing and animating on set with Cantina Creative in Atlanta. The director, Francis Lawrence, wanted to have all designs 'live' on set, not only for lighting, but more importantly so that the actors had something they could emotionally react to since a big part of that film was told through the screens. Sometimes the director will want something that can't be done practical on set, such as Katniss's (Jennifer Lawrence’s) mini hologram that she carries with her through the film to locate President Snow's traps, or when Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) are walking through BB-8's hologram on the Millennium Falcon in The Force Awakens . In that case, I'll get brought back in postproduction. For The Force Awakens , for instance, I was brought on board VFX master Andrew Kramer's excellent team at Bad Robot to help design and animate key moments after the film was shot.  

How do you approach an empty digital canvas, so to speak? Can you tell us more about your workflow?

That empty canvas is both exciting and terrifying, so I've worked out a few ways that I tackle it. I always start on paper. I allow myself to draw really badly and just get ideas out because even a scribble is less terrifying than a blank page. Then it becomes really apparent what I need to research and it flesh out. I’ll also look at hardware for shapes and re-imagine those as software. Then I go straight to Illustrator from paper, and straight from Illustrator to After Effects for compositing and animation, and then back and forth between Cinema 4D and After Effects to add dimensionality.

The topic of virtual reality and augmented reality in entertainment content creation are trending topics at the moment. Are VR and AR graphics created in the same way but just viewed differently? 

Somewhat, both tend to be assembled in a real-time game engine, such as Unity. But the needs and purposes of each can be dramatically different. In VR, for instance, you are blocking out your world and substituting it with an artificial reality. So a complete world needs to be built. In AR, it's more about the integration of your physical world with digital content. A company I consult for, called Meta (getameta.com), is doing the most amazing things right now and really leading the pack in this early development of fully immersive AR. They're allowing you to fully interact with your digital content. The digital content can be fanciful, like a lifelike dinosaur that runs across the street where you live. Or it could be a small model of a car you're considering buying. You can toss it around, rotate it, explore it like a physical object, open the doors – and even put yourself inside it to explore the interior from a first-person point of view. Or blow it up life-size and see how it looks in your driveway. Personally, I'm excited to have the ability to spawn 20 virtual monitors around you so you can brainstorm and work more efficiently. 

You recently provided FUI designs and holograms for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and the animated blockbuster from Disney Big Hero 6. Can you comment on how you approach live-action projects differently from animated projects?

Big Hero 6 was a dream job. When this legendary guy, Disney Art Director Paul Felix, called and told me they were fans of my work and asked if I was interested in collaborating with them on a new Disney film... my heart did a bit of a joyful leap. Like everyone, I'm a huge fan of Disney. The approach was still all about telling the story. So I would take ideas that were in the script for different scenes and concept out design ideas to eventually create a UI design language for the film. Design-wise, it was all about finding the balance between high-tech looking and sufficiently advanced to not look dated years from now, but it also had to be kid friendly and huggable. After establishing a design language, the work was taken from concept phase to final by super-talented artists like VFX Animator Bruce Wright. We really had a blast working on that film because of how much energy they put into creativity and playfulness. They really can teach a lesson to all of us on how to inspire fun and passion in our work.  

What are the favorite tools in your digital tool kit. Are there technical challenges or barriers that prevent you from creating more freely?

I keep it simple. I use Adobe Illustrator to design, After Effects to composite and animate, and Maxon Cinema 4D for 3D and layering. Recently I've added Element 3D as my favorite bridge between Cinema 4D and After Effects. I find these tools to be pretty liberating. Cinema 4D and After Effects work so well together that you can iterate on design ideas really fast and deliver everything from rough concepts to final shots for use in the film.

What do you say to those who doubt the impact of virtual reality on entertainment content creation and call it a “passing fad.”

They could be right. But to me, they sound like people saying the Internet would be a fad. It is just the beginning. Like the first cell phones, everything currently is huge and bulky. Everything is glitchy and garage-style. And yet, it's still so amazing that millions of people are jumping on it and having the time of their lives. Moore's law will take care of the rest, so I don't worry about it.   Instead, I'm focusing on what's just so powerful and liberating about this new tech. It's awesome to be jumping into the possibilities at this phase, where it's a bit of a Wild West and there's a real chance to help shape and define it. It's definitely an exciting time to be a new kind of UI designer – a volumetric UI designer!

You provide FUI/holographic designs and consultation to companies beyond film entertainment. Can you tell us about some of these markets that are using this type of graphics? 

Yeah, I love the creative energy that projects outside film give me. Although my year is typically booked straight through with stretches on films, I do offer a limited amount of consulting and UI concepting for companies seeking either advanced UI design for hyper-efficient applications, such as the Department of Defense and Army Research Laboratory, or for software companies seeking a different, more outside-the-limits perspective on the possibilities of even a simple UI.  

Where you see the market heading for 3D artists and areas of opportunity?

It's definitely going to grow. We're already at a time when concept art and matte painting is becoming more and more 3D-based. UI design is just at the beginning phase of a similar trend. UI designers will no longer just be thinking of a UI in terms of a flat, two-dimensional screen. For instance, in films (and now in the AR and VR space,) I consider the sides of the UI, the back of the UI–- the curvature, or the dimensional shape of a UI and how it helps the user. I'm always designing what a UI looks like to other people in the same space that see another angle of it. In some ways, it's starting to take on aspects of industrial product design. I'm currently trying to help companies hire the rare breed of 2D designers who can think in 3D. There aren't many out there currently who can bridge that gap, so it's a nice little niche to get into. In fact, Fast Company just listed 'Augmented Reality Designer' as their number one most important design job of the future. http://www.fastcodesign.com/3054433/design-moves/the-most-important-design-jobs-of-the-future

Where do you find inspiration, and how do you continue to challenge yourself as 3D artist?

There's an overload of inspiration out there in the world! I love traveling and photographing places I've never been before. I find a lot of inspiration in the gorgeous organizing principles of nature. My bookshelf is full of manuals for how to fly the Space Shuttle, schematics, diagrams, and anatomy books. Data visualization is a particular source of inspiration because it really challenges you to make something extremely useful and, therefore, extremely beautiful.

Can you tell us about any new projects on the horizon? 

Lots of amazing things I can't talk about yet!