Interfaces (Part 1): The Art of Screen Design

In the real world, Graphic User Interfaces (GUI) are often meant to be simple, usable, and should not distract the user’s experience. However, GUIs on the silver screen are often made to depict an exaggerated view of the action and are usually designed to thrill the audience with suspense.

Screenshot from the Jurassic Park DVD (Universal)

Ok, I’ll admit I’m a complete nerd when it comes to interfaces… and no, I haven’t designed one (at least not yet!). So this blog post is mainly pointed towards the obscure art of designing interfaces for movies. I’ve included only a couple of movies from the past and present of which I thought had strong screen design but I have also included some links at the end of the article for you to learn more on the subject.

Past: Jurassic Park (1993)

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been obsessed with movies. Not necessarily for their actual content but for the interface graphics that appear in them. A classic example for me was Jurassic Park. I can’t really explain why I became obsessed with that movie’s screen design but every time I watched it, I always had the desire to have the same computers (SGi Crimson & Apple Quadra) and pretend that I was Samuel L. Jackson dealing with the mess (I know, I know… my childhood was sort of boring).

Screen capture from the Jurassic Park DVD displaying a weather tracking system

Dennis Nedry’s sabotage being executed

“It’s a UNIX system… I know this!”

I always thought that the 3D UNIX interface depicted in the final minutes of the movie was a fake one (refer to the picture above). However, upon doing some research, I stumbled upon a nice little discovery; apparently, the GUI was a real one. The file system interface, File System Navigator (FSN), was an actual demo that had been released by Silicon Graphics back in the early 90s and it ran under SGi’s IRIX platform:

Real-world: Screenshot of the FSN IRIX interface

What’s interesting about watching movies while having obsessions with GUIs is that sometimes I often catch little mistakes here and there (and I’m sure we all do). There is a scene where Dennis Nedry (the chubby guy from Seinfeld) is talking to someone near the dock during a thunderstorm. I could clearly see that it wasn’t a live feed but a .mov QuickTime movie being played back.

Here you can clearly see that the movie is a Quicktime .mov being played and synched with the dialogue from Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight)

Present: Avatar (2009)

I should say that I haven’t really gone out to the movies lately. The main reason is due to the fact that Hollywood movies don’t really entice me all that much anymore. However, Avatar was a must see for me because I’m a self-proclaimed 3D whore. The movie itself was not that bad but I didn’t really care much on the storyline; the interfaces (and 3D) were the real attraction for me.

Screenshot of the Blu-ray edition of Avatar (20th Century Fox)

After the half-hour mark, I was in heaven; watching how the interfaces worked in true 3D was mind-blowing. Everything was beautifully executed, from the graphics placed in 3D space on the webcam to the tablets and rotating computer workstations.

Avatar: Webcam transmission — Note: The typography and graphic elements of the webcam transmission live on 3D space.

Avatar: I was in awe after drooling over this 3D holographic interface

The genius behind all of the work done for Avatar is Neil Huxley, an art director from the visual effects house known as Prime Focus.

The overall art direction for this movie was obvious. Since most screen designs in this movie are within the context of a military operation, they were rendered to resemble military interfaces such as Heads Up Displays (HUD) and Digital Display Indicators (DDI) found in modern military aircraft.

Real-world: DDI displays showing the avionics of an F/A-18 under various functions

Real-world: Heads Up Display (HUD) from an F/A-18C Hornet

Avatar: DDI displays of the “Scorpion” VTOL aircraft

Avatar: HUD inside main aircraft

Avatar: Rotating HUD workstation

Avatar: Computer interface

Avatar: Computer interface

There’s a great interview on Neil Huxley over at Inventing Interactive explaining the rationale and process. You can read more about him here:

Additional notes

There’s a lot of great interface designers out there and I might as well point out some of the most recognized faces out there.

Imaginary Forces was responsible for the “Machine Vision” interface design seen in Terminator: Salvation. While I haven’t seen this movie yet, I can tell that a great amount of detail and effort was put into the screen design of this movie.

Machine Vision in Terminator: Salvation

I remember when Mark Coleran’s reel appeared for the first time in Motionographer, it spread like wildfire across social networks. Coleran is a celebrity figure when it comes to screen design. His interfaces are extremely intricate and detailed and it’s a shame that they usually show them for a couple of seconds in the movies they appear in.

Coleran Reel 2008.06 HD from Mark Coleran on Vimeo.

Image by Mark Coleran

Image by Mark Coleran

Image by Mark Coleran

Image by Mark Coleran

You can read an interview of Coleran’s process and techniques here:

I hope you enjoyed this article. I will be writing another article concerning other types of interfaces soon. Stay tuned.

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4 Responses to “Interfaces (Part 1): The Art of Screen Design”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tesselate, D Kim. D Kim said: Extensive article about interface design in movies (for all you GUI nerds out there!) – Enjoy :-) [...]

  2. swantron says:

    I found this article looking for a screen shot of the Jurassic Park girl at the *nix terminal…half hour later, here I am. Good stuff. I was in nerd heaven watching Avatar as well…cool stuff. Excellent write-up!

  3. D Kim says:

    Hey Swantron, thanks for stopping by :-)

    I was in GUI heaven as well when I saw Avatar. I have to admit, I enjoyed the movie. Although the plot was lacking, I couldn’t help being compelled by the overwhelming sensory overload I had.

    I’ll be writing a second part focusing on interfaces whenever I get the chance.

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