Casino Royale, The Martian, Ghost in the Shell – these are just some of the blockbuster titles on David Sheldon-Hicks CV.
David is the co-founder of Territory Studio – a London/San Fransisco creative studio that specialises in motion, digital and graphic design for some of Hollywood’s biggest hits. He’s also an alumni of Signals, attending a workshop here in his youth – and we’re very excited to say he’s also a member of our board of directors.
We spoke to David about his journey to Creative Director and his top tips for aspiring digital creators.
Describe how your career led to where you are now.
After graduating with a degree in Graphic Design from University of Portsmouth, I won an internship at a new media agency, and from there spent some time working at a few other similar agencies, until I realised that I craved a more fast moving creative environment. I went on to work for a video production company designing moving image material and graphics for music videos, which was great! Creative freedom and fast turnarounds really sharpened my skills and taught me the value of intense focus. When that folded, I ended up answering a small ad in Creative Review, for a freelance motion graphic designer, and suddenly found myself designing screen graphics for Casino Royale – my first film project.
In 2010, together with my business partners, we set up Territory Studio. The first project we got was creating a 2 minute opening CG cinematic for Medal of Honor’s 2010 reboot. The rest, as they say, is history.
Territory is known for its work with creating ‘future technology’, how do you approach this?
When Territory is brought on board a film project to create screen graphics, mostly user interfaces for near future or futuristic technology, our starting point is always the script and conversations with the director, production designer and art director. We need to understand the role of the graphics and how the technology fits into the story for the film, how it can support character and narrative development, actors performance and help to add drama.
…our graphics fit seamlessly into the film and help make sense of the narrative by explaining complex plot points…
This is always our primary objective with any film, that our graphics fit seamlessly into the film and help make sense of the narrative by explaining complex plot points (that would ordinarily require lengthy dialogue) or provide an ambient mood that help guide the audience’s perception of characters, environments and scenes.
To achieve this we interrogate the script, asking ‘what actions and plot points can be told with the help of a screen graphic’? We look at actions using any kind of computers, tablets and mobile phones, and screens in medical labs, mission control, vehicles, airplanes, weapons, heads up displays, etc. We also ask ‘at what points in the script can the actor find support from an action that involves a screen interaction’? And ‘can the dramatic tension of a scene be enhanced with by using screen graphics as a narrative device’? We did this in The Martian, when one of the key plot points – when Mission Control understood that astronaut Whatney was still alive – was mediated with the use of screens.
What makes a good Future User Interface for film?
Because UI and screen graphics are increasingly visible and not just part of the background, we have to make sure that our concepts sit within the overall visual style of a film. We work closely with the production department and take creative references from set design, costume, props and VFX departments. We also rely on our own experience, which spans film, games, brand and product so we have a rich and diverse approach.
When designing the FUI for an alien spaceship, we ask what kind of hands do they have, how many fingers, how do they see?
Things like research and ergonomics are important for to create authenticity and credibility for the audience. So, once we have mapped out the key narrative points that can benefit from a graphic treatment, we look at how the screens can work within the context of set design, props and costumes to get a sense of visual language and special criteria – for example if we are designing FUI for an alien spaceship as in Guardians of the Galaxy, we ask what kind of hands do they have, how many fingers, how do they see? We also ask what kind of other assets, like satellite and maps, can help tell the story and look at how colour palettes, animations, holographics and 3D elements can enhance the FUI and tie in with plot points. And if it is a film about near or far future technology, we contact research labs and advance technology companies to ask what their thoughts are about the kind of technology we need to create.
For Ghost in the Shell, the concept work was very exciting for us because the chance to shape the film’s visual direction involved some complex design and development of ‘products’ that don’t yet exist. To deliver this futuristic technology we researched how humans and cyborgs are likely to engage with technology in a world where computer screens of any form are obsolete.
When you’re approached with a project, what do the briefs look like?
It varies depending on what kind of a film it is and where we come on board in the process. On Ghost in the Shell (released 31 March 2017) we came on board in post-production, when most of the film already had been shot, whilst on most other projects, from Prometheus to Blade Runner 2049 (to be released in October 2017) we’re brought on board before filming has begun and design FUI for on set screens. The two approaches involve quite different methods to create FUI. In post-production, the interfaces are designed to fit within existing actions and environments, while working on set means that our designs are implemented and shot as live props and become part of the action.
Working with director Ridley Scott on the set of Prometheus was formative for the studio’s approach.
Where do you draw inspiration from for designs?
From many different places. Partly, from our practical research into modern technology trends, advances and breakthroughs across military, medical applications, avionics, robotics, etc. which is important for credibility and authenticity.
Working with director Ridley Scott on the set of Prometheus was formative for the studio’s approach. He told us not to take references for the UI of the super sophisticated and advanced spaceship from aviation or technology or other films, but instead asked us to consider the natural marine world, choreography from contemporary dance companies and the work of certain artists as inspiration. It was a fantastic experience to be pushed in that way, which was more about how to create mood and feeling and atmosphere – we still adapt the spirit of that approach to all our briefs.
How big are the teams working on these projects?
Again, it varies from one project to another – a core project team is usually around 5 people, typically including a producer, creative director, 3D artist and motion graphic designers. That team can scale up to 12 or 15 people depending on the type and number of deliverables.
What are the key steps of the design process?
It would be brief, script, concept, iterations, design, render and production process, delivery to post or on set where it is implemented. But that process can change at any stage throughout a film – the brief can change and you have to go back to the beginning, or just one element or colour can change.
What tools do you use to create this future technology? E.g. equipment and software.
Equipment: Both Mac and PC’s. Software: Photoshop and Illustrator for designs. Maya, Cinema 4d and After Effects for animation, and Shotgun for pipeline.
What is your advice to aspiring designers and film makers who may need to start out on small budget projects?
I have three mantras that have supported us through both large Hollywood blockbusters but also a few very small but interesting independent projects.
The first two are: ‘Don’t be afraid to try new things’ and ‘Be flexible and inventive’. The rapidly evolving technology used to create film and digital projects mean that we need to stay flexible and be prepared to try new things, not just because of budget constrains, but because the industry is evolving all the time.
The third mantra is ‘Be generous’. Even though the industry can seem big and sprawling, once you find a niche in film making, it suddenly becomes a very small world where your good name and word of mouth recommendations are essential, and your attitude and relationships becomes part of why people want to work with you.