It has been said that a circle has no end, but where did it begin? Take the circle of art and technology, for example: which one influences the other more, and which one came first? Is it just one big feedback loop where science fiction will always conceptualise technology, or do technologists and developers dramatise art in their own creations? Will a visual effects studio ever be contracted to create the next version of Android, iOS or Windows? So many beautiful interfaces are spied in films, but what are the chances of the next big thing being something from a movie?
Paul Butterworth is a visual effects artist with some impressive credits to his name. He’s worked side-by-side with Ridley Scott to create the holographic effects in Prometheus, right through to working on Thor, Rabbit-Proof Fence and Farscape. Speaking last night at the Prometheus Blu-ray launch, he revealed that both he and Ridley Scott in creating the beautiful holographic interfaces seen in the film were inspired by everything from fighter jets down to Apple’s iPad.
The F-22 Raptor fighter jet is an impressive machine. It’s a $US150 million, Mach 1.82 war machine and served as the inspiration for the graphics on the Prometheus’ holotable. The shiny blue heads-up display loaded with numbers, figures and data was perfect for transplant into a dark, alien environment.
The F-22-inspired graphics form a map of the pyramid that the crew of the Prometheus explore in order to find the Engineers who created human life. Data on the shape and size of the stone corridors is pulled from explorer drones that float around the joint, projecting LIDAR-like signals all over the walls in order to determine the shape, size and occupancy of the ancient structure.
Of course it’s not the first time that the heads-up display of the Raptor has inspired artists and designers. The Lamborghini Aventador — the company’s latest four-wheeled, V12 supercar — liberally applies the interface from the Raptor into the dashboard instruments, for example.
Meanwhile, back on the Prometheus, blue hues, detailed numerical data, contrasting yellow markers and familiar ping sounds make up the holotable that the captain of the Prometheus uses to monitor the mission inside the pyramid. At one stage, a chamber is discovered that houses an ancient orrery — a map of the planets, stars and their resident life forms from the beginning of their history up to the present moment.
The orrery also bears the blue hues of the Raptor fighter jet, but that’s where the similarities stop. The orrery is built around touch and gestures. What was the inspiration for the control system then if it wasn’t the world’s favourite fighter jet? Butterworth tells me that it was in fact both the iPad tablet and the humble app dock in Mac OS X.
Butterworth recalls getting a “Ridleygram” from director Ridley Scott — a sort of sketch for how he wanted something to look with a brief caption attached. On the Ridleygram, Scott talked about how he had just bought himself an iPad and asked if the orrery could be operated by pinching in and out. In the cinematic cut with the orrery, David the android selects an element of the holographic interface — the representation of Earth — and centres the whole machine around it.
The orrery is also surrounded by lines indicating different species on the planets that the Engineers had created. These lines were inspired by the zoom functionality on the OS X app dock, Butterworth adds.
“In this film, form definitely followed function. We found an engineering idea that worked and then grew the design on top of that. We try to give it a sense of believability. Years ago when I worked on Farscape, we used to go on these flights of fantastical [with the technology] and we got nailed for that. We try now to make tech very believable so that it can last for five or maybe even ten years,” he said.
So, now we know that one of the most beautiful sci-fi films in living memory pulls its inspirations from existing digital concepts and stylises them to make them look like plausible representations of the future. But what’s to stop designers and developers from borrowing these hyper-stylised concepts as the virtual effects artists did from their creations, and apply them into the next great smartphone?
According to Butterworth, nothing at all. He believes that film and television have always influenced the next big thing in technology.
“Occasionally you get questions [from developers] saying that our stuff would be a cool idea for an app, and sci-fi has proven in the past that it inspires technology. The classic one is the mobile phone. The guy who created one of the first mobile phones was a die-hard fan of Star Trek and always wanted [a tricorder]. If you look at the original Motorola flip-phones they’re dead-set designs from Star Trek. So sci-fi in technology definitely has its place.”
So the next time you see something beautiful in a movie, all you have to do is settle in and wait a few years for that amazing technology to get into your next smartphone or tablet. Here’s to our holographic future.
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Front page image: FuelVFX/20th Century Fox