Over the weekend, the highly anticipated remake of Total Recall was released. Several crucial moments in the film involve interactions with technology, and one of the key people behind designing those interactions was Motionographer regular Ash Thorp.
We caught up with Ash for an in-depth look at the process behind crafting the insanely detailed interfaces and displays in the film.
The last time we featured your work here on Motionographer, it was very much powered by illustration. Since then, you’ve done screen design work for Prometheus and now Total Recall. How did you make that transition?
Yes! Seems the seasons are changing at the moment. I have always had an interest in interactive design but never thought it would be playing such a vital role in my life as it is now.
Looking back, I think the transition was fairly natural. I always take on way more then I can do, which leads me to push myself creatively beyond my limitations, no time to be lazy or second guess, only time to move forward and fast. I was and still currently am a full-time lead UI designer on a project called Ender’s Game. While in pre-production on Ender’s Game, a mutual friend (Michael Meyers) linked me up with Patrick Tatopolus who is the production designer on Total Recall.
Patrick is a monumental talent in the film industry, so to meet with him was such a privilege and honor. We met a few times to discuss his needs, and we hit it off instantly. I was sold after he showed me the early development of the project &emdash; its a total VFX powerhouse. I always look at my life as things leading from thing to another; thankfully, one door closes and another five open.
Does your illustration background inform your UI design? If so, how?
I would like to think so. I spend a bit of time in my mind working out the concepts before I touch the computer. I always start with my sketchbook and/or my Wacom to get the energy out.
Being able to draw forms and imagine shapes really helps, I think. It’s easy to visualize and problem-solve mentally. I would like to think having the mind of an illustrator gives me a different voice in the UI world.
Once you get a job to do screen design for a film, what’s the first step? Do you get anything like a brief? Or just a script?
Big question! Every job is different, of course. Different people, timelines, needs, desires, thoughts, etc. With Total Recall, I felt extremely privileged to even be offered the chance to take a stab at it.
Before my first meeting with Patrick, I joined up with my buddy Ryan Cashman, who animated all my designs. I wanted to surprise Patrick with a test render to show him what Ryan and I were capable of as a joint effort. That test turned out to be one of the concepts I enjoyed most.
It was a hand-telephone display the characters of the film use to communicate to one another. It was a random thought I had one night, and we put it together in a day or so and brought it to our first meeting up in LA. Luckily, Patrick and Len Wiseman loved it, and it made it in the film.
After we set the pace and showed them what we could do, Ryan and I tried our best to keep it at that level of quality and originality. Our brief consisted of our meeting with Patrick up at his office where he ran us through about 30 min of footage and explained what he and Len where looking for.
I remember scribbling down all his key words as fast as I could. After our meeting Ryan and I discussed the monumental task ahead of us and tried to wrap our heads around timelines and how we were going to get it all done. We were a bit speechless afterwards. But I’m always up for a challenge, so I agreed blindly and knew we were in for some long nights, weeks and months.
Each of the films for which you’ve done screen design so far have had very strong visual aesthetics. In terms of art direction, how much freedom do you have when designing interfaces?
I have been really lucky as far as freedom is concerned. I really try to nail each beat and aid the director with what he needs to tell his story. Once I earn that trust, things go smoothly, and I am able to generate dialogue between myself and the director, which is usually my favorite part of these projects.
At the end of the day, the most important part of my job is to help the director and his team tell his/her story. For Total Recall, it was a bit of a back and forth at the start with Patrick to address what he was aiming for. Once things started to move along and the design aesthetic was worked out, I was able to have regular video chats with Len, where I would submit as many designs and shots I could build in a week or so and he would share his thoughts and concerns.
Len was awesome to work with. We really lucked out with the Total Recall team. Everyone was amazing to be involved with and extremely talented.
Who reviews your work?
Each project is different, but with Total Recall, I was thankful enough to have a straight feed to the director as his say was the final say. It’s so rare and amazing to even have any time with a director as they are always pulled in so many directions so having short but frequent review sessions with Len was extremely valuable to our success on the project.
How much of your graphics are filmed on set (playing back on actual screens) and how much are comped in post?
Nothing was play-back. I was brought on after the movie was filmed and they where moving along in post at a crazy pace. We made enough content for about 200 shots in the final film, which where all comped by talented VFX houses like Double Negative and MPC.
Was there anything about Total Recall that made it different or more challenging than previous work?
I think the biggest challenge on Total Recall was the massive scale of all the shots that where needed. I would get so discouraged every time I would jump into a shot and realize I was hardly making a dent in the lists needed. That, and the time line was like all production timelines: ridiculous!
I watched the original Total Recall about 20 times when I was a kid. Did you watch it? Did you try to avoid it?
OF COURSE! I love the original. It is apart of my child hood. I am a die hard Arnold fan!
When I got word I might be jumping on the project, I watched the original that night to get my mind in that world. Such a fun movie. Philip K. Dick rules!
For each shot that involves screen graphics, did you know the exact shot framing and camera distance from the screen?
When I first got on board, I was given a massive drive with about 200gbs of selected shots that Patrick and Len knew they needed graphic content for. Since I had what would be a final shot, I knew how the design needed to live in the space and what form it would take.
Another wild card are the actors and their hand gestures. You have to design within those boundaries. It would get a bit crazy as they would move their hands between shots, and I had to reconfigure how the interface interacts and is designed.
There was lots of back and forth on this, since the actors were doing their job on blank screens. I mainly focused on selling the idea of the design and nailing the shot. The camera distance is more of a concern for the post houses that took the animations Ryan built, I think.
Do you have a favorite shot? If so, why is it your favorite?
As I mentioned above, I am very hard on myself and am never satisfied with my work. I always expect the best out of myself.
Since movies take so long to come out, I usually outgrow the work ten fold during the process. I cringe at moments when I see something I don’t like or wish I’d put more love into while working on it. That will always haunt me, I think.
That being said, there was a design I can remember actually being very happy with. It’s the icon design on the synth police robot helmets. I remember sitting down looking at a blank page in my sketchbook and thinking about the idea and just drawing it out and going back and forth between my sketchbook and Adobe Illustrator.
As it developed, it took on a life of its own. Once Ryan began to animate it, I was so thrilled. He really nailed what I saw in my mind. To me this is a proud moment, as I felt I solved the problem at hand and came up with something I can consider to be my own creation, offering something new to the community and exciting the director in the process.
What tools do you use to design this stuff?
As for hardware tools, I use a Wacom Intuos 4, a Wacom Cintiq 21UX, a 30″ Apple display and a Mac Pro with all kinds of memory and other techno babble.
I mainly work within Adobe Illustrator for building elements and then Photoshop for bringing everything together, like gradients and photo details. I sometimes dabble in C4D and am slowly teaching myself Zbrush and Maya. I must emphisize the word “slowly!”
Who animated your designs? Did you guys work closely together?
For Total Recall, I had the help of my buddy Ryan Cashman, who took all these crazy ideas and sporadic thoughts I had and put them to motion. He has a wild imagination like mine, so we were right at home creating together.
Ryan and I worked very closely on Total Recall. Although most communication was via phone or iChat, as we have separate physical offices, we kept our lines of communication very open to nail each beat of the story. There was no time for mistakes.
Is there anything you wish you’d done differently on Total Recall?
This project was so massive for us, and I wish I had more firepower or time to flesh out ideas. I really wish I was on board during the pre-production phase to work directly with the concept artists. I feel that the UI should feel as one with the hardware it is presented on.
What’s next for you? More screen design work?
Right now, I am juggling way too many projects. I am on a few other films and helping on some commercial work as well. I’m also developing a side project with a friend of mine, which we are extremely excited about. I have been writing and developing a couple really cool stories, which I hope to some day tell cinematically.
I think for me it’s all about doing work I love with people I enjoy doing it with. Wherever that takes me is up to fate. I just feel blessed to be doing what I love and what I dreamt about as a child. Every day I wake up I remind myself of that.
Visit Ash Thorp’s website for more imagery.