You probably didn't think about it sitting in the theatre, but all the technology in Avengers: Age of Ultron was designed by someone in the real world — from Stark's Iron Man schematics to Cho's medical scans. Who are the designers that built this world? Meet Territory Studio.
At one point in the film, Stark says to Bruce Banner, "We're mad scientists. Own it." That's the underlying premise of the whole movie — Stark's work as an engineer created Ultron, and he has to use those engineering skills to launch a counteroffensive with the help of the Avengers. It's a story that hinges on design, engineering, and technology — and that's where London-based Territory Studio comes in. They had to create a futuristic but believable lab environment for this mad science, and to do it, they drew from sources ranging from genetics research to architecture.
The results came from thousands of hours of careful research and planning. Stark's lab, with its glowing gestural interfaces, is exactly where many technologists imagine our computer systems are headed. But for the film, the tech also had to reflect the dark mood of the story, too. Pulling off that mix of realism and symbolism is why the Territory Studio team is quickly becoming the go-to source for directors who need to depict futuristic technology in their films.
I had a chance to talk to co-founder David Sheldon-Hicks about the project.
Blueprints, Bone Scans and Cell Biology
Territory's work for Ultron is gritty and dense. The floating images that the characters interact with are packed with tiny datasets and glittering animations. It's still the Avengers, sure, but it's the Avengers in crisis.
The interfaces are dark and shadowy, packed with critical-looking information in massive quantities. Gone are the days of Tony Stark throwing blueprints around his lab for fun — this is technology designed to solve more pressing problems.
As Sheldon-Hicks tells me, the darker take on Marvel's existing universe was inspired by research in the real world.
Take Dr Cho, for example. To create the medical tech we see her using in the film, Territory looked at everything from tissue scanning to the tech used in hospitals to visualise data. "It's always fascinating to see the representation of data, and how critical that is," says Sheldon-Hicks. "We did a lot of research about what's going on in genetics at the moment. How would they be doing tissue transfusions in the future? How would 3D printing help in terms of surgery?"
The screens are shown for seconds at a time, but if you slow down to look closely, you'll find an incredibly detailed syntax of visual information. At one moment, a flash of magenta curls its way through a nervous system while Vitruvian circles rotate over the body. We see a ribcage in high-def, curling with synthetic particles, while a secondary screen inspects a cell-like structure and numbers cascade by.
In Sheldon-Hicks' words, it's all about "understanding what a surgeon or a doctor might be doing, and then reflecting that back through the Marvel lens."
Even though Tony Stark's Iron Man suit had already been well-established, Territory was able to get the 3D model and elaborate on the interface that Stark uses to control it. In the movie, you'll see the familiar shape of the suit and then see it broken down into super-detailed axonometric schematics that look like they're ripped from an engineer's desktop.
Obviously, industrial engineering drawings and medical imaging aren't the most accessible visuals for the average viewer. Only a fraction of the audience would know what they were looking at, should they see the real thing. So the trick was to pull inspiration from those fields and transform it into imagery that the average movie-goer could understand in a second or less.
Sheldon-Hicks calls this "hero content," meaning a visual or animation that's able to communicate a plot point within a very short time.
For example, Banner's graphics involved a lot of research into plant structure and cellular biology — a field few among us would be able to comprehend from real-world research materials. "The reality of these activities would just be spreadsheets, and databases, and graphs," says Sheldon-Hicks. "But if we just presented those on a screen it wouldn't be clear enough." So rather than just fields of data, they added beautiful, shimmering images of plant body cross-sections and other descriptive imagery that you could understand in just a glance.
Each character has their own colour palette — when we're looking at Banner's work, the interfaces, typefaces, and animations are green-hued. Stark, of course, is red and orange, while Cho is more purple and red. The idea was to let each character have a distinct digital workplace — a window onto the collective 3D operating system that everyone works on together.
Racing Against Reality
Territory's job is to imagine what the future of technology looks like. And they have to do it in a way that's exciting to movie-goers. Even ten years ago, that wouldn't be such a huge challenge. But the rate of change has sped up, the job of impressing the public has gotten harder in surprising ways.
"We almost become desensitised to the amount of innovation that's going on," says Sheldon-Hicks. "It feels like on a weekly or monthly basis there's new technology that's quite literally having an impact on millions of lives." In an odd way, the interfaces Territory is designing in its studio are vanguards of technologies that are ultimately brought to market. That's an idea that's been around for a while, thanks to books like Make It So, which explores how fictional movie technology has influences real-life tech — think Minority Report's gestural interfaces.
But Sheldon-Hicks doesn't necessarily think that their work will change how real-world UI works. Instead, he sees it almost as a parallel version of the real market. Territory is feeding off the same ideas and movements as real-world designers and developers. But they're putting their "product" out into the world much, much faster — and in front of millions of eyes.
Still, in a world of Kickstarter and rapid prototyping, the movie makers sometimes get beat by their real-world counterparts. "Sometimes it feels like we can't film quick enough," he says. "Before the film comes out you're seeing stuff coming through and thinking 'oh, bloody hell. We thought we'd created something really ahead-of-its-time, and now someone's doing it as a little project on the side.'"
There are definite ways in which Territory's job differs from real-world design, though. One good example? They have to imagine — and design — the crappy parts of technology, too. And for film, that's often a big part of the storyline and character development; Office Space's famous montage of printer destruction springs to mind, or the ghoul-sucking Proton Packs from Ghostbusters.
"Technology isn't an extension of the human form," Sheldon-Hicks points out. Drama springs from conflict — even when that conflict take the form of a spam pop-up on your browser. In fact, Star Wars gives us a perfect example of how less-than-perfect technology can play a role in a story: The Millennium Falcon.
"There's something quite charming Han Solo kicking it around to keep it working," says Sheldon-Hicks. "We still like to physically interact with those devices and have a personal connection to them." Even in the future, slapstick humour and physical comedy still exist.
That interplay between fictional and real-world design is being torn down by both sides of the divide. The interfaces Territory built for Age of Ultron are fictional — but when Elon Musk is referencing Tony Stark's gestural interface to explain his own version of the technology, the definition of "fiction" starts to seem less important.
A Hell of a Lot More Than Motion Graphics
Age of Ultron isn't Territory's first time at the space rodeo. Sheldon-Hicks and his team created the on-screen graphics and user interfaces for many of the biggest sci-fi hits of the past year — from Guardians of the Galaxy to Ex Machina. It was actually the production designer behind Guardians, Charlie Wood, who brought Territory along to work on Age of Ultron.
As Territory has become famous for imagining the technology of the future, it's run into an interesting problem: It's being approached by the very real-world companies whose work it seeks to imagine. Now, app developers, composers, architects, and technology companies are approaching Territory looking to get their input on real-world projects. Technically, Territory is a motion graphics studio. That description, these days, is wildly inaccurate.
In our interview, Sheldon-Hicks mentioned working with NASA on an upcoming project. In fact, he was talking about Territory's work on the film adaptation of The Martian, the hugely popular novel that tells the story of an astronaut left stranded on Mars. The studio is working directly with NASA to imagine the interfaces humans will use to communicate between extraterrestrial explorers and Earth.
Last week, NASA itself launched a search for new ideas that could further along its project of putting humans on Mars. Oddly enough, a team of motion graphics designers from London might have a few.