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Interfacing with Mars: Territory Studio and ‘The Martian’

David Sheldon-Hicks, Marti Romances and Peter Eszenyi share how they cued off authentic NASA mission control systems to bring realistic computer UI designs to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi hit.

What would NASA’s computer user interfaces look like 20 years from now?  This was the key question Territory Studio had to answer after being tasked with producing 400 screens with interactive elements for Ridley Scott’s The Martian.  “We were invited to the project at the outset and it was clear from the initial discussions with Ridley and production designer Arthur Max that the story was predicated on real science and therefore, authenticity would be key to credibility,” states Territory Studio creative director David Sheldon-Hicks.  “It was also clear that screens were integral to the story and there would be a lot of them. Finally, Ridley wanted the screens to be live for onset playback. We spent time breaking down the script with UI art director Felicity Hickson to identify the story points that could be supported, explained or brought to life with screen graphics.”

Both NASA and the European Space Agency advised on all aspects of cinematic adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel.  “The imagery we received from the art department was about real NASA captures, or photos of real shuttle and plane cockpits,” explains Territory Studio art director Marti Romances.  “For the Mission Control sets we looked at how different Mission Control centres and MSE's clients looked across different countries and scales - all of them are similar.  Knowing that in the film, we’d have the old Pathfinder left on Mars, we researched a lot about how they were receiving and decoding images in Mission Control almost 20 years ago.”

NASA program executive for solar system exploration Dave Lavery was essential to the development process.   “Dave provided invaluable reference and research material on all aspects of NASA’s work, from what offices and control rooms look like, to the systems and data streams that are mission critical and why, to the designs of past, present, and future technology,” remarks Sheldon-Hicks.   “Dave gave us details and schematics about the Pathfinder and Sojourner. He also provided reference material for the new Orion Rover, and his advice on factual accuracy was key to our work.”  Another critical contributor was UI art director Hickson.  According to Romances, “Felicity was our day-to-day contact and we worked closely to agree on the visual language and design concepts for each set. She was a lynchpin in the project, always on top of everything, and helped us to understand each set and scene.”

“My discussions with production designer Arthur Max centred on the filmic vision and high concepts for the visual language of each set in the context of the set design, action and interactions,” says Sheldon-Hicks.  “Arthur and Ridley have clear ideas about what they want, which helps us to know how we need to fit in.  Having worked closely with Arthur on Prometheus, which was also a huge project, we knew his and Ridley’s expectations and approach. It was a pleasure to be part of that team again.” Unlike with Guardians of the Galaxy (which Territory previously worked on) the personalities of the characters did not influence the UI design process.  Notes Sheldon-Hicks, “It was the dialogue, action and factual accuracy that governed the placement, interface design, and content of each screen.”

85 screens were created for the NASA Mission Control set.  “With a brief to remain authentic to current data and interface conventions, we researched all the screens that Dave Lavery forwarded,” remarks Romances.  “We studied what data was prioritized and when, how that was organized and depicted on screen and in the Mission Control space, how crew interacted with it, what commands were given and how that changed the data display. We also talked to NASA about how they think that will evolve over the next 20 years. Once our research was finished, we created a visual language that was true to the data requirements and the spirit of NASA’s current Mission Control. The backgrounds we chose were black and dark blue with white fonts and light blue indicators. Red was used to highlight mission critical data and indicate warning status. The overall look of the interface is serious and authoritarian, but the hierarchy of information is clearly readable to tie in with story points.  The futuristic Mission Control screens are more refined, evolving the way data is displayed. Font colours remain consistent but a lighter background with differentiated panels added a more contemporary edge to the graphic designs.”

Not all NASA headquarters graphics were confined to the Control Room.  “Dave Lavery’s photos of hallways, rooms, desks and screens gave us the best indications for how those spaces are organized and the type of systems they use,” explains Romances.  “It was interesting to see that laptops, keyboards, and computer mice jostle for space alongside paperwork and console screens.”   The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory also makes an appearance.  As Romances describes, “We stayed quite true to the real world references we were given.  It was more important to convey an accurate reflection of JPL’s engineering focus and remit, rather than embellish with a visual style. The screens are extremely functional and all about systems, data, control, feedback and schematics.”

Additionally, China gets involved with the space rescue, requiring yet another set of systems graphic elements. According to Romances, “Chinese Mission Control was possibly our biggest challenge because of the language differences. It was difficult for us in the studio to know which characters to use, but Fox provided us with an interpreter who advised us, which made it less stressful.”

Territory particularly enjoyed their work on the Hermes spacecraft. “The Hermes was great to work on,” notes Romances.  “While we based our data on authentic references we were asked to come up with a twist on modern avionics.  To get a sense of the latest in spacecraft R&D, we looked at NASA’s own projects, some in development and others still conceptual.  We looked also at how SpaceX is designing their consoles. Out of the routes we presented, Arthur Max chose a bright blue, green and white palette against a black background, with a clear grid structure for the data displays. It provides a good balance between authentic data and a more contemporary ‘advanced’ avionic interface.”

The screens for the spacesuit arm computers were designed primarily to display biometric data about the crew members, so the data was limited. “The interface was designed to be easy to read through a helmet, so clear simple displays with white and orange data against a black screen,” says Romances.

The visual language of the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) presented an interesting challenge.   “As an ascent vehicle, it really has a limited function that defines the data on the screens.  MAVs are featured in two key scenes at the beginning and end, and there is a lot of dramatic tension tied into them. We designed the graphic interfaces for maximum visibility, not just because the crew wear helmets but because it is a busy environment with a lot going on.  The interface design is quite chunky and utilitarian - purple and black backgrounds divide display areas by function, and white and yellow fonts indicate status. For example, during the launch phase, ‘LAUNCH’ is displayed in yellow highlighting its active status, and bright red indicators display mission critical information at that time.   The next generation MAV seen at the end of the film is quite different, more subtle and refined to reflect advances in the technology that perhaps requires less manual intervention.”

The HABitat facility on Mars is where Territory was able to be a bit less data driven in their interface design.  As Romances explains, “The white environment is reminiscent of a research facility, so we adopted a more modernist look and feel to the visual language of the graphic displays. The bright white and blue typography against a dark grey background played well onset and contributed a balance of advance tech with clearly recognizable data streams.”

Another challenge was designing various screens for the Mars Rover, the vehicle American astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) uses to travel around the Red Planet.   Says Romances, “We referenced the organization and data streams of JPL’s new Orion Rovers, adding a pared down utilitarian style functionality to the interface design based on white fonts and orange indicators against a navy green background. We felt that worked well against the white Rover interior and the red hues of the Martian landscape.”  In regards to the Pathfinder, Romances notes, “Our screens were true to the original Pathfinder systems, which NASA gave us references for. We ended up reproducing the actual way the images were decrypted in some of our key scenes when Mark Watney is using the camera to communicate with Earth.”

“We knew that many of the screens required interactions or animations to tie into story points, so we designed the graphics with movement in mind,” continues Romances.  “We looked carefully at the UX [user experience] of the interfaces that we ‘reimagined’ for the story to make sure that the choreography felt right in terms of ease of use and expected function.  Most of the requests for the interactive screens were image sequences for Compuhire, our onset engineering team, to program. They had to be programmed to display images refreshing in a realistic timeframe, and our animations and simulations were usually reduced to an image every three seconds. Other screens were programmed to simulate typing scenes from the crew laptops or Mission Control computers.  No matter what the actors were typing, the right message was appearing on screen.  The MAV simulator that astronaut Rick Martinez [Michael Peña] uses from the Hermes was all designed in Illustrator and featured some interactive buttons that had to be pressed onset following a sequence. We isolated all the interactive buttons to be programmed for the onset performance. In the middle of that screen we had to render a visualisation for each stage of that remote controlled probe. So we animated and rendered each different stage of the lift-off of the MAV in a way that could be triggered onset with those buttons. The MAV 3D renders were done in Cinema 4D using a wireframe pass to achieve a more realistic look.”

As The Martian was shot in native stereo, Territory had to provide 3D assets.  “My role was to design and deliver 3D plates, renders and animations to be used in the onset screens,” remarks Territory Studio head of 3D Peter Eszenyi. “Initially my brief was to develop a look and create animations that show the location of the HAB on Mars in different lighting conditions and states. One of the crucial moments in the film is when NASA figures out Watney is alive by looking at satellite images of the area and realising that the solar panels have been cleaned. This initial brief was extended to show the giant storm around the HAB, the rover driving through various regions on Mars, creating the pictures that the Pathfinder beamed back from the surface of the Mars, creating various 3D elements for the screens as launch simulations, potatoes, soil samples and so on.  I enjoyed creating the environments around the HAB, creating landscapes for the rover and the storms. I do not know anyone in this business who does not like creating huge dust storms. This probably has something to do with having superpowers to be able to control the elements.”


“I liked working on the scene when they receive pictures from the Pathfinder showing Watney's handwriting on a panel,” notes Eszenyi.  “This is something that most people categorize as an easy shot, just a backplate photocomped onto another photo. But the way we approached it was this needs to be a photoreal, fully flexible, 3D scene so if there is any change regarding the camera angle, the time of the day, different lighting setup or a wider lens we can do it quickly.  We knew that this picture was sent back by the Pathfinder's camera, so the first step was to gather all the information available about the optical systems, figuring out the exact distances between the things Watney put in front of the camera. I designed a few versions of the environment, and we ended up using a photo from the actual shooting location camera projected onto 3D geometry as the base. We received reference about the panel and we had received Matt Damon’s handwritten sentence to be put on the panel. I created different versions of the Pathfinder solar array and instruments as well as the deflated cushioning to make sure we could deliver wider renders if the production needed them. The final result works beautifully and is satisfying personally. It is a good example of something that seems uncomplicated being quite complex.”

Ultimately, the biggest challenge Territory faced was to create graphics that looked like they were genuine NASA screens as envisioned 20 years in the future. As Romances describes, “The amount of realism was key, but we had to push things a bit further to look like it was a near future technology. Knowing that NASA is always one step ahead of modern-day technology we had to imagine ways to represent things, thinking about technologies they are testing now or have not even started developing. I learned a lot about things and how they work. For instance, knowing what material the camera is pointing to by shooting a laser at it and analysing the light reaction. Learning how all those things work enabled us to be as authentic as we could, but it was a big challenge.”  Sheldon-Hicks adds, “We all felt that this project was a career highlight - working on a near future concept with Ridley Scott and his team, as well as NASA, really made it unique.  The Martian is a great way to celebrate Territory’s 5th anniversary.  We’ve come a long way since Prometheus, which was our first project and essentially launched us as a studio, so having been invited to work with Ridley again at this point marks a significant moment for us.”


Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for sites such as the CGSociety, 3DTotal, Live for Films and Flickering Myth; he is a big fan of Raiders of the Lost ArkBatman: The Animated SeriesThe Hobbit, Studio Ghibli, and Peter Weir.

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.