What should designers know about Cinema 4D
Behind the scenes of movies UI designer Jayse Hansen on his career in designing holograms and advanced future technology for Iron Man, Robocop, Katniss, Spiderman and many other superheroes and characters.
Jayse Hansen remembers exactly where he was when he realized what he wanted to focus on as an artist. It was 2005 and he was listening to Fictional User Interface (FUI) pioneer Mark Coleran at a design conference like he'd like FUIs for movies Mission Impossible, Alien vs. Predator and The Bourne Identity designed. He watched intently as Coleran showed off his screen designs for mini spy cameras, FBI holotic and forensic labs and thought, "This has to be the best job ever." Although he had no idea how to start, he knew he wanted to be there.
Back home, he couldn't stop thinking about how FUI combined his favorite parts of feature films - high-tech design, advanced visual effects, sophisticated animation, and 3D compositing. So he set out to learn everything he could, which was not easy as there was never much information about it on the internet. But he continued to hone his skills, hoping that one day he could "create some little widget that can be seen in the background of a movie."
Hansen could never have dreamed that just a few years later he would be the most famous FUI designer in the world. He works primarily with Cinema 4D, Red Giant Tools, After Effects, and Illustrator, and has worked on everything from holograms and heads-up displays to advanced medical simulations for blockbuster film franchises, including Star Wars, The Hunger Games, Iron Man, Top Gun, Batman, Planet of the Apes, Spider-Man, X-Men, Guardians of the Galaxy and many more.
Today he is actually the designer of choice for numerous famous fictional characters, from Tony Stark and Nick Fury to Star-Lord and Spiderman. He was even chosen as the designer for R2D2's return to the big screen, with perhaps the most iconic hologram of them all - R2D2's holographic card for Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
We spoke to Hansen about some of his projects and how he approaches FUI design creatively and structures his workflow.
How did you get into this type of design work?
My mom actually thought I should be an engineer or an architect because I've always loved detailed schematic drawings, blueprints, and medical diagrams. But I just didn't have the patience for all the rules, regulations, and norms that you had to learn for them. Eventually I found out that I just wanted to create things that look cool, progressive, and beautiful. I wanted to do the imaginative part without being constrained by all of the rules. Fortunately, FUI Design was the perfect solution.
What software do you use?
I mainly use Cinema 4D, Illustrator and After Effects. Additional tools from Red Giant to optimize my workflow. Sometimes when I need something specific for a movie I'm working on, I just ask Harry Frank or Aharon Rabinowitz from Red Giant and they say, "Yeah, we can do that.
Please tell us a little about the tools Red Giant made especially for you.
For Top Gun: Maverick, I told Harry Frank that we had to generate a lot of screens with very special text in very neat columns that I could quickly design and animate. He developed a plugin that allowed me to do this without a lot of manual work. This plugin, called Text Tile, is now part of Red Giant Universe. And there are a few more, such as B. selective color annealing.
For holograms specifically, I needed a less tedious way to create a holographic projection beam from a light source. All of my paths so far have taken a lot of time to set up and manage. Harry then developed the Point Zoom plugin which is super useful for these types of effects.
What is your workflow like? Do you start with the script?
Yes, I usually start by reading the entire script to get a feel for the story. I make notes of the relevant points in the story, as well as the specific jargon and terminology that the actors use within the story. I'm also studying the production designer's vision for the film because I want to create something unique that matches the tone, mood and aesthetics.
I've read that you work with experts to make your designs more plausible.
Yes this is a must. The audience can tell in half a second whether something is just coincidental and thoughtless. Plus, we sometimes tell stories so far-fetched that we like to balance the designs with keeping them grounded and realistic while still being inspiring, imaginative, and unconventional. I do quite a lot of research with real world experts. For the Iron Man HUD, I took advice from an A-10 fighter pilot.
For Top Gun, I was assigned by production to a daily meeting in the depths of Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works division. I also consulted an F-18 fighter pilot extensively on other cockpit and tactical screen designs. Everyone from Tom Cruise to Joseph Kosinski [director] to Lockheed loved that the designs were as accurate and realistic as possible. They know a huge chunk of Top Gun fans are actual pilots who appreciate a cinematic yet well-researched approach to the graphics and tactical screens. I can't say much more about the movie yet as the release date has just been postponed. But it will definitely be worth seeing in the cinema.
Does the extreme attention to detail in your work sometimes get lost in the fast moving world of film?
Yes, mostly. But with "Spiderman: Homecoming"They actually wrote some funny scenes about the extreme detail I put in Tony Stark's UIs, which was funny. During the briefing, they told me that they wrote some funny scenes about how overly complicated one of Tony Stark-designed HUD would look to a naive teenager.
When Peter Parker (Tom Holland) first put on his upgraded Spiderman mask, they wanted the new Spidey HUD to show all sorts of functions, features, gadgets and widgets, all of which are animated in quick succession to completely overwhelm him . Later he has to choose from a holographic menu with 576 network types and accidentally activates the instant kill mode. Designing something like this was a lot of fun.
That was actually the ultimate project for me. I also did the blueprint screens for the suit so I could be a total Spiderman freak on this movie. I put together everything I had previously done on the Iron Man HUDs and added new knowledge from my work as a design consultant. I used parkour experts (who use moves from military obstacle course training) as reference and cave divers, and I read every comic and book I could find on the Spiderman suit myself to complete it.
I've even joined groups online where people are trying to create "real" web fluidity. Some of them have had amazing success. What did you do? With the mixing ratios of the different chemicals they had to use to make it work in the real world. All of this knowledge went into the HUDs, holograms, and suit blueprint screens that I designed.
When you start a project, do you work digitally right away?
I tried to switch directly to digital, but paper makes me think differently. So I first do a lot of rough sketches with pen and paper or sketches on the iPad before I continue working with Illustrator. Then I use After Effects and Cinema 4D for animation and compositing.
However, I did something new for Spidey's holographic user interfaces. I used Gravity Sketch and Tilt Brush to sketch my holographic user interfaces in 3D and in VR with my Oculus. Being able to think and draw in 3D has fundamentally changed my workflow.
How do you present your designs?
When I submit a design concept, I try to present it as it could look in the camera. So I usually run it through After Effects and use magic bullet looks and other techniques to give it a more visual, lens-filmed look. This helps the director imagine how the designs could work in a cinematic world.
It's also important to convey that the designs are more than just random lines, colors, and flashing numbers. I created an over 60 page manual for the two suits Tony Stark designed in Spiderman: Homecoming. In reality, it's just a simple leotard. But since I was also asked to design a series of 12-foot-tall animated blueprint screens that would appear behind Tony Stark and Peter Parker at the end of the film, I wanted to know the suits inside out in order to be able to do something design that looks like it came straight out of Tony Stark's lab.
The types of documents, anatomies, and diagrams I create also help everyone involved quickly talk about the same thing, avoiding endless revisions. It also helps get initial design concepts approved faster because directors know they can trust designers who have done their homework.
What do you like most about your job?
I love that the work is geared towards pushing boundaries, doing the best job ever done, and that there is never-ending diversity. I'm getting to know so many different next-generation, high-tech and cutting-edge technologies. Or sometimes even retro tech, like at The Hunger Games: Mockingjaywhere the main character, Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), sends Katniss messages to the districts by hacking into the Capitol's communications system using retro Cold War-era computers.
I took some old school hackers out to lunch and asked them how they'd do it with limited tech. They gave me the technical terms and ideas I needed to make Beetee's command center look real. Jeffrey was particularly interested in how his computer setup "worked" during filming. He wanted to know everything. So I was glad I knew enough details to explain it and even sounded reasonably intelligent when he asked me to sit down with him.
How do you get your jobs? Do the studios call you directly?
For some films I am called in by the production designer, VFX supervisor or the director and I work directly with them to support the future cast and to participate in the technical design of the film. I also work as a freelancer, always with an incredible team, at companies like Cantina Creative, Bad Robot, G-Creative, MPC, Perception and others.
Tell us a little about how you ended up with your dream film.
That would be Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It was a mixture of luck and perseverance. It was my biggest dream movie and I just had to work on it! The only problem was that it was the movie that was on everyone else's bucket list too, so I got stuck. I asked everyone I knew if they would work on it. Nobody did. I followed the film for about a year until I found out it was being shot in the UK. I figured that means they would work with UK companies and UK actors. So I kind of gave up.
One day I got a call from Andrew Kramer who said, "I know you're the hologram type and I have a couple of questions. I can't tell you what we're working on, but maybe you can guess because we have these droids ... 'I knew exactly what it was about and that this was my chance.
So, while nervously walking around my block, I answered all of his questions in the most complete, thorough, and helpful way possible. And then I kind of held my breath and said, "Can you use some help? And he replied," Can you be here next Monday?
A few days later, I was sitting next to Andrew in my new office facility at Bad Robot in Santa Monica. My first assignment lit up on my screen. There were all of the characters I was obsessed with as a kid: Chewbacca, Princess Leia, C3P0, R2D2, Admiral Akbar, and Han Solo. They were gathered around them and stared spellbound at a hologram of the Starkiller Base, which actually wasn't there yet. My first assignment was to design the hologram and reassemble it from scratch. No pressure!
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