Designing Sci-Fi Hack Chat

The future isn't going to design itself

Wednesday, October 9, 2019 12:00 pm PDT Local time zone:
Hack Chat
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Seth Molson joins us for the Hack Chat on Wednesday, October 9, 2019 at noon PDT.

Time zones got you down? Here's a handy time converter!

Join Hack ChatWe all know the feeling of watching a movie set in a galaxy far, far away and seeing something that makes us say, "That's not realistic at all!" The irony of watching human actors dressed up as alien creatures prancing across a fantasy landscape and expecting realism is lost on us as we willingly suspend disbelief in order to get into the story; seeing something in that artificial world that looks cheesy or goofy can shock you out of that state and ruin the compact between the filmmaker and the audience.

Perhaps nowhere do things get riskier for filmmakers than the design of the user interfaces of sci-fi and fantasy sets. Be they the control panels of spacecraft, consoles for futuristic computers, or even simply the screens of phones that are yet to be, sci-fi UI design can make or break a movie. The job of designing a sci-fi set used to be as simple as wiring up strings of blinkenlights; now, the job falls to a dedicated artist called a Playback Designer who can create something that looks fresh and new but still plausible to audiences used to interacting with technology that earlier generations couldn't have dreamed of.

Seth Molson is one such artist, and you've probably seen some of his work on shows such as Timeless, Stargate Universe, and recently Netflix's reboot of Lost in Space. When tasked to deliver control panels for spacecraft and systems that exist only in a writer's mind, Seth sits down with graphics and animation software to make it happen.

Join us as we take a look behind the scenes with Seth and find out exactly what it's like to be a Playback Designer. Find out what Seth's tool chain looks like, how he interacts with the rest of the production design crew to come up with a consistent - and believable - look and feel for interfaces, and what it's like to design futures that only exist - for now - in someone's imagination. 

  • Hack Chat Transcript, Part 1

    Lutetium10/09/2019 at 20:04 0 comments

    Hi everyone, welcome to the Hack Chat. Bit of a departure today, but one I think you'll all enjoy. Seth Molson is a Playback Designer on TV and movie productions, and he creates the control panels and interfaces seen in sci-fi and fantasy productions. We'll be talking about "Designing Sci-FI" today.

    Welcome Seth! So, how did you get into Playback Design?

    seth molson12:01 PM
    Thanks Dan, Hi everyone!

    seth molson12:03 PM
    I kind of fell into this position during an internship at a VFX studio. I was interning on the TV show Stargate Universe and found my skills to be most useful in the playback department designing the UI for the ship

    seth molson12:03 PM

    So coming from a graphics design background? Or VFX?

    Alex Kade joined  the room.12:04 PM

    seth molson12:05 PM
    I studied mostly design with a bit of VFX and originally wanted to get into VFX

    seth molson12:05 PM
    so I knew after effects and illustrator, and a little bit of lightwave 3d and Maya

    seth molson12:06 PM
    9 years later, I am still designing UI for film and I love it :)

    Pranshu Chaudhary12:07 PM
    how do you approach a project ? how do you begin your inspiration etc ?

    Nicolas Tremblay12:08 PM
    Are the interfaces tactiles, or for show only?

    seth molson12:08 PM
    It starts with a script. Usually there are key points written into an episode which highlight the use of a computer terminal or a screen on a spaceship. Then I have a meeting with the director, production designer, producer and VFX of the show to talk about how things should look

    seth molson12:09 PM
    after that meeting I get right into designing. Sometimes references are provided from other shows or movies but a lot of the time I am asked to create something unique

    seth molson12:11 PM
    in some cases, the interfaces are indeed touch interactive so actors can change the display and interact. Most cases, the screens are being triggered off set by an operator and the actor is just pretending

    Always wondered what a production designer does. Is he or she kind of the boss of the look and feel of everything?

    seth molson12:13 PM
    Yes, the production designer leads the art department and designs the look of each set, artwork, logos, and the look and feel of everything

    anfractuosity12:13 PM
    What programs do you use to create the graphics out of interest? Are they vector based, so they scale, or..?

    seth molson12:14 PM
    I started off using photoshop, but switched to illustrator so everything could scale. I usually program the interactive elements in adobe animate so the graphics stay vector and can scale

    seth molson12:15 PM
    for larger, complex sequences I use after effects

    Cool. It always seemed to me that the people running the show we're just like, "Gimme something futuristic" and didn't care if the end result was technically plausible. Has that changed lately as directors and designers - and audiences - have gotten more tech-savvy?

    jess.t.moody joined  the room.12:17 PM

    seth molson12:17 PM
    Most productions I work on today ask for realistic designs. Even if let's say, we are on a different planet reading a device attached to a space suit, it still must look like something we would use in real life

    seth molson12:19 PM
    every now and then you get a show that just wants something futuristic and they don't really care how plausible it is. for Example, Continuum the series, they had a lot of time travel and wanted the most advanced looking UI I could come up with

    neotechni joined  the room.12:19 PM

    Alex Kade12:19 PM
    How is the work-life balance?

    Tom Nardi12:19 PM
    @seth molson That's definitely the quality of your work that I think stands out the most. When I see an interface you've done, it's not just random numbers or glyphs flying around. It looks like something that would actually be practical.

    jess.t.moody12:20 PM
    When a UI isn't quite looking as slick as you'd like, is there something simple you like to add that usually does the trick?

    seth molson12:21 PM
    @Alex Kade while working, it's very intense!...

    Read more »

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