NASA Goes Hollywood

For Sir Ridley Scott’s latest space adventure The Martian, Territory Studio teamed up with specialists at NASA to design future user-interface (UI) technology featured extensively in the film. Territory’s Creative Director David Sheldon-Hicks collaborated with Production Designer Arthur Max and Motion Graphics Art Director Felicity Hickson on the project, a group that also worked together on another Scott feature, Prometheus.

“We could tell from the script that this was a new take on space exploration, and that excited all of us,” says Sheldon-Hicks on the opportunity to work with Scott again. “It quickly became apparent that The Martian was going to live or die on people’s ability to buy into its realism. The user-interface effects required an understanding of NASA science today to feed into the effects of tomorrow.”

It was Scott who suggested that Sheldon-Hicks enter into close collaborations with NASA to help him achieve believable future technology used by everyone in the film. As a result, Territory successfully created an authentic UI look after retrofitting real NASA elements along with envisioned technology of the future.

Extensive correspondence with NASA specialists—led by Dave Lavery, Program Executive for Solar System Exploration—collected a wealth of information, including modern-day interface designs used by astronauts and ground control.

“It’s incredible speaking to people who have been into space,” he continues on conversations with NASA. “It’s pretty raw up there, and the lag on data streams and communications are also quite severe. Astronauts are dealing with a multitude of challenges in the same way that a Formula 1 or NASCAR team does, all pushing technology to the absolute limit. All of this information fed into our design work.

Territory Studio’s extensive research with NASA led to the creation of believable near-future UI designs and screen graphics for Sir Ridley Scott’s The Martian. In total, around 400 screens were designed and delivered for on-set playback. Above: Details of screens in NASA’s Mission Control.

“The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Dave Lavery educated us on the day-to-day routines of the NASA teams,” continues Sheldon-Hicks. “We examined what each person focused on at their control desk, and even had someone figure out the correct calculations for the Hermes slingshot maneuver around the Earth.”

Sheldon-Hicks goes on to note the challenges presented during the creation of various effects. “On The Martian, it was more about the science, really, about understanding the content we were designing and allowing that knowledge to feed into our creative,” he reveals. “We needed to be especially clever with our color palettes. This can often be a struggle because you quickly run out of colors to use on such an extensive job. We do have some favorite fonts that work exceptionally well for screen graphics, though.”

Sheldon-Hicks notes that Scott allowed his creatives to work diligently without overwhelming them, making design suggestions only where warranted.

Four versions of the screen content viewable on the suit computer.

“Ridley is a graphic designer, at heart, so he let us know when things became too intricate,” he explains. “He allowed us to work with momentum and process, and always drove us to do better and faster work. He never micromanaged or pixel-pushed us in any way.”

Months of extensive work created a bevy of effects that were used throughout the film, including images, text, code, engineering schematics and 3D visualizations based on authentic satellite images showing Martian terrain, weather and mission equipment. All UI effects were displayed on consoles, navigation and communication systems, laptops, mobiles and tablets—even on astronauts’ arm screens.

“Some of the wearable tech was a collaboration with the costume department,” notes Sheldon-Hicks, also liaising with set dec to garner visual cues and references to assist in the design process.

In all, around 400 screens were delivered for on-set playback, with most featuring interactive elements. There were 85 screens on the NASA Mission Control set alone, often on 6x18m-sized wall screens.

NASA’s Mission Control. The set included over 70 screen variations shown throughout the film.

Many dramatic moments come to pass in The Martian with Territory’s graphics in full view, effects that quickly become part of a dynamic bridge between Earth and Mars, narrative and action, audience and characters.

“We stayed true to the data NASA provided,” explains Sheldon-Hicks on the final look of the film’s UI. “All the interactive controls came from real data, and that helped Ridley tell a compelling story while never straying away from reality. Working with NASA showed us the value of innovation and the importance of doing things that have yet to be done, as discovering new ways of creating effects is a large part of what we do here.”

Asked why Territory has amassed an impressive reel with effects work on blockbusters including Guardians of the Galaxy, Ex Machina, Jupiter Ascending, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Zero Dark Thirty, Sheldon-Hicks quickly responds that it really comes down to his incredible team of multi-disciplined artists.

Monitoring a weather system in the HAB on Mars.

“Our full-time staff here are technically generalists,” he answers. “What I mean by that is, they can all do art direction, 3D, animation and more, but each person also has a specialism. We’ve collected a hybrid team that has been working with us since we founded the company, and they know this stuff inside out. We also work at pace, on cool projects over a short space of time, so real connected learning happens between our team members. There’s a lot of product design going on here at the studio, with people building apps, designing fonts—even print work. We work best together as a cross-collaborative, multi-disciplined team.”

Sheldon-Hicks adds that different techniques and technology also help the studio create fresh and unique effects work. “I’m fascinated by evolving technology—and how a change of technique might influence the final creative,” he expresses. “We also have our own R&D projects going on here that allow us to explore new ways of doing things, so when a client approaches us and says they need to innovate, we already have material ready that we can show and pitch.”

A screen on Hermes used to remote-control the MAV on Mars.

Discussing the state of technology today, Sheldon-Hicks is jazzed by its potential to change the world. “I really love the crossover that we’re seeing between the film content world, the advertising world and digital innovation,” he offers. “It’s fascinating seeing those three worlds almost colliding with each other now, because you don’t know if you’re being entertained or sold to, or using an amazing new product! Content creators and innovators are entering that space now because it’s a very exciting area to occupy creatively. Virtual and augmented reality are part of that equation, allowing films and brands to connect with audiences in exciting new ways.”

As for the road ahead, are there more features awaiting out-of-this-world effects akin to those in The Martian?

“We’re known for our user interfaces in feature film, so it would be all too easy to have a house style and just do that—but we get bored so easily!” quips Sheldon-Hicks. “It’s really about finding new ways to be fresh with the material that we create, along with a desire to keep things moving in new ways at all times. It’s about innovating more across all media, and bringing storytellers and innovators together to create vibrant new worlds across all media.”

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