“The Martian” & Territory Studio: The Creative Process with Adobe Creative Cloud
Having worked together with Director Ridley Scott on Prometheus, Territory, a London-based studio with an emphasis on motion, digital, and graphic design, was asked to create the screen graphics for The Martian, currently nominated for an Oscar® for Best Achievement in Visual Effects. Although both films are set in space, The Martian is predicated on real science, and ‘authenticity’ was key to the creative.
When Territory’s team, led by Creative Director David Sheldon-Hicks and AR Director Marti Romances, broke down the script, they realized that story-led motion graphics would be a constant presence in every scene, helping to explain, clarify, or direct the dialogue and the action.
Here, Marti takes us behind the scenes, sharing the creative process so we can understand how Creative Cloud and After Effects CC helped the team achieve the stunning graphics that feature in the film.
Marti: There were 8 key sets, including Mission Control, the Hermes spaceship, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Mars Ascent Vehicle (M.A.V.), HABitat facility on Mars, Mars Rovers, NASA offices, Pathfinder, and smaller projects for the Space Suit Arm Computers and Crew personal laptops.
Each set featured hundreds of screens, most of which needed to be animated, and I created visual design languages to help differentiate each set. From there, my team of designers, animators, and 3D artists began to create content.
Adobe Creative Cloud was with us every step of the way, with Illustrator CC, Photoshop CC and After Effects forming the backbone of our creative tools, helping us to bring our concepts to life and make our time more effective.
Marti: The biggest challenge we faced was to find the best ways to combined real science, stunning design, and dramatic storytelling. Our graphics had to represent complex scientific information very clearly so that the audience could understand and keep up with plot twists. At the same time, we had to make sure that the science was still credible and met with NASA’s approval.
My approach to a project of this scale is to create all the user interfaces in Adobe Illustrator first, and then animate all the windows and widgets in After Effects. Building the graphics in a non-destructible mode (being able to scale it up and down without losing pixel quality) was key, as we knew we were going to be repurposing lots of the graphics in different aspect ratios.
We also knew that many of the screens required interactions or animations to tie into story points, so we designed the graphics with movement in mind. We looked carefully at the UX of the interfaces that we ‘reimagined’ for the story to make sure that the choreography felt right in terms of ease of use and expected function.
An authentic Mission Control
Marti: Mission Control was the biggest set and featured around 100 screens, including a bank of LED monitors 18m x 6m. Ridley and Arthur were very clear that the Mission Control screens (NASA and JPL) needed to look real and work authentically.
One of the film’s key scenes plays out in Mission Control so it was essential that we got the balance right between factual screen content and visual design. Each screen has a real purpose in that context and we needed to make sure that our work reflected that. And it was important to give a unique identity to the set, which features a lot of information, including realistic video feeds and telemetry data for the actors to react to and interact with.
Creating a visual language
Marti: To be able to create a visual language to wrap those realistic elements in, I researched NASA’s current data and interface conventions, and how data was prioritized and when, how that was organized and depicted on screen and in the Mission Control space, how crew interacted with it, what commands were given, and how that changed the data display. We also talked to NASA about how they think that will evolve over the next 20 years.
I then began to visualize how to bring all that data, which in real life is displayed in a mix of styles, formats and screens, together. I applied information architecture principles to the interface designs, and thought about data priorities and the user experience. I wanted to achieve a consistent UI design that could work for NASA in real life.
Out of the possible routes we suggested, Arthur chose the combination that was true to the data requirements and the spirit of NASA’s current Mission Control, and yet pushed 20 years forward.
The overall look of the interface is serious and authoritarian, but the hierarchy of information is clearly readable to tie in with story points. The backgrounds were black and dark blue with white fonts and light blue indicators. Red was used to highlight mission critical data and indicate warning status.
With hundreds of animations playing concurrently, After Effects played a key role in bringing the UI to life within the context of the action. I would say the best thing was the ability to export every single layer from Illustrator to After Effects and animate them as we wanted to.
The 2D graphs on the right hand side were also Illustrator paths transformed into After Effects paths so we could animate the bezier points in After Effects. The “Numbers” native effect was very useful when replicating timecodes like the countdown for the missions or (again) for the amount of running numbers in the left hand side.
Insights from Designer and Animator Daniel Højlund
Højlund: Expressions offer a great way to establish a lot of extra animation control in After Effects, and we used it occasionally to help drive certain animation like number values and relationship between different layer properties. Building a rig with Expression controls linked up to multiple layer properties, also help us ensure certain animation patterns and feel to stay consistent across screens. It was a very time efficient way to generate some of the more generic animation elements for quick turnarounds with the use of fairly simple expressions.
Also, the pipeline between Illustrator and After Effects is very useful. Designing the graphic elements in Illustrator and importing them into After Effects made it easy to go back into Illustrator to make design adjustments, and then have those elements live update in After Effects. It is a much faster way of working with Illustrator layers, which was very handy for us on more than a few occasions.
The fact the screens were not just set dressing but ‘mission critical’ and necessary to both story and credibility added to the pressure, but ultimately the satisfaction. And once the screens were programmed by our on-set playback partners, they really brought the sets to life and it was great to see the actors performing with live screens on-set.