Graphic art director Alan Payne and Territory Studio tackle the challenges of bringing super-sized personalities to the small screens of Marvel’s latest super hero tentpole.
As computer interfaces become more and more sophisticated, it’s not surprising their onscreen depictions must match the futuristic dazzle and design aesthetic on every device and in every scene in which they appear. Tasked with the responsibility of creating believable, cinematic computer and high-tech gear user interfaces was Avengers: Age of Ultron graphic art director Alan Payne (Fast & Furious 6), working together with Territory Studio. Payne previously collaborated with Territory on Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). “We worked closely with Alan on a daily basis,” remarks Territory creative director David Sheldon-Hicks, who was involved with the development of 200 screens and 80 minutes worth of animation for the 11 sets constructed at Shepperton Studio. “Alan was responsible for all graphics and we work really well together. Alan understands our process, the amount of work involved with the relentless timings on turnaround, and with such a big set to design for, he helped us keep track of what we were designing for on any given day or week.”
Payne’s conversations with director Joss Whedon (Serenity), production designer Charles Wood (The Italian Job) and overall visual effects supervisor Christopher Townsend (Iron Man 3) started the process. As Payne explains, “We did have intermediate chats about the research but were left alone to come up with initial ideas and concepts.” “As the script and concept screens took shape,” continues Sheldon-Hicks, “we got more specific direction about how to support Joss’ vision for this film, which was a darker and grittier story that really got under the skin of the Avenger characters and explored their humanity.”
A key defining factor was that the story revolved around Earth-based science fiction. “We had to approach the designs in a more realistic fashion while still giving them an edge that said, ‘This is what future UIs could look like,’” notes Payne. “On Guardians we could literally set our minds free with the possibilities, whereas on Age of Ultron we had to stick to the realms of what is actually possible.” The Marvel Cinematic Universe has established a slick UI style. “Charlie wanted the screen graphics to bring together Marvel’s high-tech UI with real-world data, context and material,” adds Sheldon-Hicks. “For instance, if we’re doing the MRI scans of the brain, how does that look when it’s merged with the highly stylized worlds of Marvel and Avengers and the comic-book feel? As the concept art, costumes and props took form, we drew on those references to get a feel for the effect of the physical interactions the characters were going through. For example, we had to consider the varying degrees of damage to Iron Man’s armour which needs to be reflected in the screen graphics.”
Marvel has its own Look Development Department. “We did receive some 3D assets which assisted us in creating various screens,” states Payne. “For example, we received the 3D Iron League models which David and the guys used to make a beautiful ‘exploded’ animation which we utilized in Avengers Tower. Other than that, most of the concept came from our mood boards and research.”
The different UIs had to be unique and functional. “As with Guardians we wanted to set various tones with these UIs. This stemmed from whose UI it was, how it would be seen and used, and what colours would suit each particular UI.” Payne continues, “For Bruce Banner [Mark Ruffalo] we wanted a realistic scientific UI based on medical/scientific software we researched. We brought in elements like 3D cell structures and cross-sections to enhance them. On the flip-side, Dr. Cho’s [Claudia Kim] research was more futuristic in both style and colour but still integrating recognisable science such as DNA structures and 3D human models.”
Payne explains that “Avenger’s Tower just had to look slick, functional and very Tony Stark [Robert Downey Jr.]. We did our own version of the Stark Keyboard introduced in an earlier Iron Man movie.” Engineering and architecture references were incorporated in the visualization of the collaborative workflow UI. In regards to Stark’s Lab, it was a mix of Tony Stark, Bruce Banner and Dr. Cho technology. “Each had an area of their own – Banner with lots of hydroponics, Cho with lots of medical equipment, and Stark with lots of engineering technology.” Sheldon-Hicks refers to the laboratory of the billionaire inventor and superhero as an “MIT playground managed by an AI who would pre-empt Stark’s thought process.”
The film’s signature aircraft was influenced by avionics, military, and HUDs. “The Quinjet was one set we wanted to keep as realistic as possible, with artificial horizons and radar maps, but still have look in keeping with some of our styles from Stark,” remarks Payne, who had also had to deal with fortress of Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann). “We had to create some animations for a set that was used in the tie-in-shot on Thor: The Dark World  which we filmed early on Age of Ultron, so we had the styles set in place. We then incorporated more art department assets into these designs once certain pieces had been created.”
Distinct colours and movements had to be devised for the various UI. “We knew that some of our screens would help the audience locate the action so an Iron Man suit schematic would immediately say, ‘This is Stark’s lab,’” says Sheldon-Hicks. “But we knew that Joss and Charlie wanted the screens to show more rounded characters. We began by breaking the tasks into Bruce Banner, Tony Stark, and some of the villains that we knew would be require screens as well as the new character Dr. Cho. We designated colour palettes, design systems and content that would be appropriate for those characters. Some of the colours were given. For example, we knew that Banner / Hulk had to be green, and we used orange / red / gold as per the Iron Man tradition. But we were free to choose colour palettes for the new characters. So Dr. Cho is purple.”
“With Stark and Banner we were aware that there was a character UI that we had to respect,” states Sheldon-Hicks. “Charlie would fill in the character backstory so that we understood what made them tick in terms of influences and inspiration. By asking / pushing us to incorporate these elements, we had to approach the task with more originality. 3D screens that looked holographic onset were a real challenge to create with proper depth perspective. The temptation is that if you hear that its going to be a background screen you don’t put the quality into it. But ever since we worked with Ridley Scott [Prometheus] we knew to give the director the option to use it as part of the narrative, and best quality in case of a close-up.”
Additionally, the final dynamic of a group of UI displays presented together introduced some glitches that had to be worked out. “We had some issues with certain movements within the animations,” reveals Payne. “While an animation looked amazing when playing on your own screen, it didn’t quite work when there was a bank of screens all doing similar movements.”
UI Graphics were displayed onset during the principal photography. “It was important for everyone to the extent that it brought the sets to life,” observes Payne. “Joss, Charlie and Chris knew that screens could be changed in post-production, but we had by that time a lot of assets animation-wise, and knowing Charlie, we pretty much placed as many screens on each set as was humanly possible.”
“Along with looking after the screens with David and Territory, my team and I had to turn various locations into different countries using a plethora of signage, a lot of which we created in-house,” states Payne. “Every aspect of the film had graphic implications which kept us busy right up until the very last day.” The finale is the favourite sequence for Payne. “We filmed it in three towns in Italy and then an abandoned Police college in North London. As this was meant to be a fictitious Eastern European country [Sokovia] we had to change /create signs into Cyrillic Serbo-Croatian graphics, ranging from companies and transport systems to newspapers, adverts magazines, and products. It was a lot of work.” Despite the difficult schedule and complicated work, Sheldon-Hicks enjoyed being part of Avengers: Age of Ultron. “We weren’t really involved in the ending, so we got to sit back and enjoy all the action at that point. I thought all the other creative teams and VFX vendors did an amazing job.”
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.