Have you ever noticed those moments in spy or science-fiction movies where characters are typing away on high-tech screens with gorgeous UI (user interface) designs that make our smartphones look like they’re running on DOS? Those screens are specifically designed for the movie you’re watching, and while they can be easy to see as little more than background, that’s far from true. They can be important storytelling tools for filmmakers and videographers, aspiring and veteran alike.
One group actively demonstrating that is Territory Studio, the international creative agency whose dynamic screen and motion graphics have appeared in Ex Machina, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, and The Martian. We spoke with Territory creative director David Sheldon-Hicks about the importance of creating these graphics, and he pointed to a number of ways in which they can add significantly to any video project. Once you’re fully inspired, be sure to have a look at Pond5’s own motion-graphics template collection to add some digital magic to your work.
1. Graphics Can Convey Important Info Quickly and Efficiently
One of the big benefits of screen and motion graphics is that they can convey important story information. “Sometimes in storytelling, something can’t be delivered in dialogue, and can’t be delivered through a massive visual effect. But it can be delivered very simply in a three-second shot of a screen graphic,” says Sheldon-Hicks. “There are a multitude of narrative structures and points where a graphic really solves the problem very elegantly.”
He also stresses that a graphic isn’t just a useful tool for a director, but for editors as well. “We often work with editors when photography’s already been completed, and they’ve already commissioned all the VFX work, and they’re still seeing gaps in the story that they need to solve. Sometimes a screen graphic, a motion graphic, or another creative solution can fill those gaps and pull threads together.”
2. Graphics Can Be the Story
Screen and motion graphics don’t just have the ability to convey story information; they can be the story. Take the opening of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, where Simon Pegg’s character Benji scrambles to use a Russian program on a tablet to open a door on a plane. “[Director] Chris McQuarrie wanted this sense of frustration with technology. His point was, it’s going to be funny if Benji’s trying to fudge his way through this Russian operating system,” says Sheldon-Hicks. That meant designing graphics to tell that story and create the humor and tension that the scene called for. “It was very script-driven. We needed it to look as though it opened the wrong door, accessed the wrong systems, and then he had to access another system,” he says. Sure enough, every one of those story beats are shown just using graphics that make clear what’s happening.
3. Graphics Can Help Tell Stories in More Inventive Ways
Remember in the Harry Potter movies how we’d see close-ups of newspapers with pictures coming to life? For Sheldon-Hicks, that’s a good example of how filmmakers can tell stories in more inventive ways with graphics. “There’s an opportunity to pepper them throughout a movie, and to bring in clever little graphics, motion graphics, as storytelling devices, maybe in quite an expressive way. It Helps the audience see things in a slightly skewed perspective, which becomes a little bit more impressionistic.” The result will also be more memorable.
4. Graphics Can Add Authenticity to Your Worlds
Screen and motion graphics don’t just have the ability to affect story; they can also add authenticity to the worlds you’re building. That, for example, was the goal with The Martian. Director Ridley Scott told Territory, “We need to be authentic. I don’t just want fluff up on those screens. I want to know that all that data’s accurate, and at all the right points in the movie.” So that’s what Territory sought to do: create beautiful, but authentic, UI designs. “It’s a blend of the two,” says Sheldon-Hicks of their work. “You’re lending it a design aesthetic because we’re projecting 20 or 30 years in the future, but the movie equally relies on portraying NASA in an authentic way. We had to be mindful of that and work with NASA in understanding the kind of technologies, data, and science that goes on behind those screens, in order to depict those graphics in a believable way.” The result is that, even if you’ve never been inside a NASA building or an astronaut’s suit, the more than 400 screen graphics in The Martian look authentic in ways that make it easier for the audience to invest in the world.
5. Graphics Can Make Statements About Our World Today and Tomorrow
“Filmmakers want to talk to a large audience,” says Sheldon-Hicks. “Any portrayal of technology or UI in a film says something about where we are today and our views on where we might be going in the future. Directors are great at making statements on who we are, what we’re doing, what they see wrong in the world, and where we might be going. So, for a director to make a statement on this, and to engage with audiences on very different levels — user interfaces, UX, mobile phones, wearable technology, holograms — shows they’re connected to that space.” In other words, screen and motion graphics allow you to not only enhance the world you’re creating on screen, but to say something about the world offscreen too.
Top image: Still from The Martian, motion graphics work by Territory Studio. Territory is represented for US commercial projects by ODD NY.
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