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Designing the UI of Tomorrow - Stephen Lawes of Cantina Creative

By Adam Korenman

What is it like designing the User Interface...for Iron Man?

What's HUD got to do with it? Sitting at the nexus of Visual FX and Motion Design is the strange and wonderful world of Screen Design. In every modern and futuristic movie and TV show, characters interact with a variety of screens and devices. Someone has to be responsible for designing and animating those UIs, and Cantina Creative has worked on some of the biggest franchises of today.
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Stephen Lawes is the Creative Director and Co-Owner of Cantina Creative, a Los Angeles-based visual effects and design studio. They've worked on enormous films and TV shows, from Furious 7 and Blade Runner 2049 all the way to the films and limited series of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The team has carved out a niche in the Motion Design world and made quite a name for themselves along the way.
There are so many different disciplines for MoGraph artists to discover, and we can't wait to share some of the incredible stories Stephen has lived along his journey. If you're interested in UI/UX design, or didn't even know this was an option, you can't miss this conversation.
Get ready and grab a triple-sized slushee. We're going down the nerd bubble with Stephen Lawes.

Designing the UI of Tomorrow - Stephen Lawes of Cantina Creative

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Transcript

Ryan Summers:
Sitting at the nexus of visual effects and motion design is the weird and wonderful world of screen design. Sometimes also referred as FUIs or HUDs. And there's one place that I wanted to talk to you more than any, because their work on the most recent Marvel Cinematic Universe TV show, Loki, really stood out to me. Today, we're talking to Stephen Lawes of Cantina Creative. [inaudible 00:01:22] I found a little bit about how he found himself at this nexus of visual effects and motion design, but also to just learn more about the history of screen design, what films and TV shows influence him today, and what does it really like to work on a Marvel show? All that and more, but before we get there, let's hear from one of our alumni.
Carolyn Lee:
School of Motion courses have taught me how to have confidence and joy in motion design. I found these classes when I was at the absolute bottom of my career. And even though I was working after work and on weekends, I spent as much time as I could just taking in everything from my first School of Motion course. This course is going to save me from my horrible job and was going to tell me if I was on the right path or what I want as a career. A leader, I'm so happy to be a motion designer, and I'm still excited to learn more from the School of Motion. I definitely recommend the courses to my creative colleagues if they feel down and still in their current positions. Especially if they want a skill boost or revisit their base foundations. Thank you so much, School of Motion. I'm so glad you exist. Otherwise, I would have had to go back to school to become a patent lawyer. My name is Carolyn, and I'm a School of Motion alumni.
Ryan Summers:
Stephen, before we get into all this amazing Marvel work, and just before we get started Motioneers, if you haven't watched Loki, we're probably going to be getting into almost spoiler territory. We'll do our best not to expose anything, but the show is amazing. And if you haven't watched it, it might be worth it to just watch a couple episodes or listen to this and watch it again. But Stephen, your career and your resume is incredibly impressive. And we could probably just talk about for hours everything that you've done before Cantina, but I would just want to ask you about two films because there's some of my favorites and I've never met anybody that's worked on them. You've worked on both Speed Racer and Chicken Run. For one, that's a wild range of films to work on, but do you have any great stories or experiences from either those films that you could share with our listeners?
Stephen Lawes:
Absolutely. Just to be clear, Chicken Run was the title-sequence only. Although it was fun to work on that because I'm a huge fan of Aardman, in general. When I was an undergrad, I did an undergrad degree at graphic designed to be, but it's specialized in animation at Middlesex University in the UK where I was born and I grew up. And a few people had a couple of tickets to go see the guys from Auburn Talk, and so, we went down there and it was just so inspirational. And I thought, "Well, it'd be lovely to work with those guys after I get out of school," and never had chance to do so. And then I came to the US to go to grad school at CalArts, and then after that, this Chicken Run pitch came up, I was like, "Oh, yes, we have to do that."
Stephen Lawes:
That's when I was working at the Picturemill, which predominantly does title sequences, and I had a good few years working there and it just seemed such a fun project and the type of title sequences we were doing at the time, there was a lot of like drama movies that we were doing. We did The Sixth Sense and a bunch of other movies like that. So it was nice to come up with something a little bit more lighter in tone. So we got into that and then, did the usual thing where we pitched a whole bunch of different ideas and some that, this is one of the dangers of... Certainly when I was younger and getting into this, it was getting very precious with the designs that you do.
Stephen Lawes:
And of course, you fall in love with some of the ones you think, "This is going to be great and they'll love this one," and of course they don't, and they choose something. What you think of is like, "Oh no, it's okay, but it's not great." And then that's when they go for mistakes that certainly I made earlier on in that process, it was padding out the design pitch. So you'd pitch maybe five or six designs, or you'd want five or six in there, whereas maybe three or four of those are the strong ones, but you'd throw in one that you think, "That might make it," or it's kind of a throwaway design. And those are the worst ones to do because you know sure as hell, they're going to pick the one that is the throwaway design or the one that your least favorite bet, but that didn't really happen with Chicken Run.
Stephen Lawes:
And as I say, we throw them a bunch of signs and they were digging most of them, but they kind of steered in one direction and it was pretty straightforward process. It wasn't a very complicated title sequence and they wanted it relatively simple because it was just easing into the first scene of the movie, and it wasn't a main on end, it was a title sequence at the front, and which are great. It was great working with the Aardman guys because they were in LA at the time. I think at the time, they had to deal with DreamWorks.
Ryan Summers:
Correct. Yes.
Stephen Lawes:
So they were doing a lot of work with DreamWorks, so they were hanging around in LA a lot, which was perfect.
Ryan Summers:
That was such a crazy time for animation because Pixar was coming up. Disney was trying to do more movies with them. So everybody is scrambling to find more partners in, and Aardman was kind of like the flavor of the month at that time, at least across Hollywood. They were setting up all kinds of productions, that I still have a dream project in my mind of Edgar Wright, directing an Aardman film.
Stephen Lawes:
That would be perfect.
Ryan Summers:
It's like stereo 3D, just that sensibility and that kind of crazy timing and cutting with their energy and their sense of humor. I still have that in my mind. I don't know what the story would be, but I just feel like that would be the perfect mix of two sets of creatives.
Stephen Lawes:
Yeah. I think the original Edgar Wright script for Ant-Man was quite a bit different than the one that we got. I really enjoyed the one we got-
Ryan Summers:
Definitely.
Stephen Lawes:
... but the original script I had was really fun and interesting and very Edgar Wright too, which-
Ryan Summers:
Yeah. We're going to go down the nerd-bubble, but I think I was at Comic-Con when they announced it, and Edgar Wright came on stage and they showed some [prevus 00:07:18] and hits parts of that, bits and pieces of that showed up in the film, but you're right, that entire property, that character just fits his kind of sensibility so much. Okay. Before we go too far, we're going to go down the line of movies I can tell already, but that's one of the best things about these conversations. I wanted to ask you, and I think this is a situation, probably a lot of our listeners are in, the companies that you've worked at in the past before Cantina are amazing, Duck Soup, Picturemill like you talked about, Pixel Liberation Front PLF. That's an incredible journey, just on itself in terms of the type of work and the range of clients and artists you get to work with. What got you to the point where Cantina Creative became in the forefront of your mind? How did you switch that mindset?
Stephen Lawes:
Well, I think it was, for the most part, all of these things to a degree of being accidental, or a need to an end. I think Duck Soup was really fresh out of school. I needed a job, I'd just finished working on Aaahh!!! Real Monsters. And that was a fun show, but the season ended, and I think they were still figuring out whether it was going to get picked up and I honestly needed a job and they can buy... CalArts had done a talk, Martin [Adnoc 00:08:31] who was the AP back then, and so I called him out. I was like, "Hey, do you need anyone?" And I was like, "Even if it's... can I come by and show my portfolio?" And so, he's was like, "Yeah, come on by." So I did, and they just happen to have a position open, to do storyboarding on a commercial.
Stephen Lawes:
I worked with Roger Schneider who owned a Duck Soup. And then just one thing rolls on to another, much of these things have been like that. I took a break from Duck Soup, went to Picturemill, because a friend of mine, Bill [Labrador 00:09:04], who I went to school with, he's the creative director there and runs it. And so, it was just one thing to another. When it came to Cantina, it was because I had come off doing some freelancing with Rob Legato, who's a VFX soup. I loved working with Rob. He knows exactly what he wants. He's a fantastic DP in his own right. And so I've been doing that mostly from home as a freelancing. And Rob happened to live in Pasadena. And for me, it was just like a 10 minute drive. So I'd often drive out to him and show us...
Stephen Lawes:
I was kind of in this zone of not really doing that, but not really having kind of specific direction or purpose. And then I'd known Sean Cushing since Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I was on production end and Sean PLF was one of the vendors. And so we had touched base, and compensations, then kept running into each other. I ran into each other on Superman Returns and then Speed Racer. And then he had called me up, he was like, "Oh, what are you doing?" I was like, "Well, I'm doing some freelance stuff, but nothing specific." And one thing led to another. He was like, Well, come on down, we'll have a chat." And it turned out Ken [Secchi 00:10:16], who was the creative director of PLF was leaving and they were looking for a creative director.
Stephen Lawes:
So I came on board and literally two days, I think, after coming on board at PLF, Sean came to, he was like, "So, I'm thinking of leaving and starting to come out." "What? I've just got here." And I think at the time, it was with a bunch of us and then ultimately, it whittled down to just the two of us. And so, we kind of had this vague idea of knowing what to do. And I think to a degree, Sean had gotten to the point with prevus, where he wanted to do something different and something else. So I think the finishing work, which predominantly I was focused on when I came onto PLF was the main thing that he was interested in. So one thing led to another and we started talking about what that would be and how it would exist. And simultaneously, another friend at Bandito Brothers had reached out about coming on board and doing some work with them.
Stephen Lawes:
And we started talking to Bandito Brothers and they were new and upcoming studio. They had the same mindset as we did as in really efficient, but small studio. And as we chatted to them, we realized they had the same kind of ideas and theories that we wanted for our studio. And so, we joined forces and they needed a VFX department at the time. So Sean and I created Cantina and we were partnered with Bandito Brothers and we were basically, they were a third partner at the time. And we started working on a couple of projects with Bandito and that just then grew because we already had a relationship with Marvel or [inaudible 00:11:58], Iron Man 1, and we'd already worked on Iron Man 2 PLF and progress the design and HUD's in that film. And then the next big thing, will end. The first big thing for us at Cantina was the first Avengers movie.
Ryan Summers:
I mean, you just name-dropped some amazing people. I think Bandito Brothers, I used to work at Digital Kitchen in LA and we were in the same like industrial park as them. And I always loved get a chance to just drop by and see what they're working on. They were always, like you said, such a great small kind of Strikeforce unit. When you actually saw the work that was created by such a small group and such a small team, it was kind of mind blowing and actually feels like it was a trailblazer for the way, a lot of production companies and effects companies are working now. And then Rob Legato, if anyone listening, who doesn't know you have to look him up because I really think he's always been and continues to be the glue between visual effects and animation and visionary directors.
Ryan Summers:
The things that he's come up with and done, you look at Hugo with Scorsese, Avatar with James Cameron, it's just... and now the whole idea of working in a Volume and working like virtual animation with Favreau, what an amazing set of people. But I want to do the opposite. I want to name drop some projects, so you can kind of show the swagger of Cantina. If you haven't gone to Cantina Creative site, you need to, because it is kind of a who's-who-of-films, but I'm just going to drop my favorites. Blade Runner 2049, for my money, has probably the best FUI and hard work, which I hope we'll dive into a lot more, but just onscreen graphics, I think it's probably one of the best in the last 20 years.
Ryan Summers:
You also worked on I think the best and one of my favorite Transformers movies, Bumblebee, that's kind of a little known gem. I don't think a lot of people have really dug into it, but it's got some great animation and screen design work. And the Marvel movie lineup, the work, that you've done with Cantina is insane. Captain America: Civil War, The Avengers is kind of sandwich of awesomeness. Infinity War and Endgame, and then pretty much everything in the new kind of modern MCU TV efforts, WandaVision, Falcon, Winter Soldier, and we said at the top of what I think is one of the best shows going right now, Loki. Did you ever think when you started your career, that you would be able to have access to these kinds of toys, like this toy chest when you started?
Stephen Lawes:
Oh, no. I mean, in high school, I had a very specific notion of what I wanted to do very young. I was lucky in that department, where it was like, I know I want to be a Disney animator, this was way back when I was like 15, 16, that was the thing I wanted to do. And I never really got to do that per se. I've done it as a vendor. So I've been lucky enough to animate Mickey, the famous five, Mickey, Donald, Goofy, Daisy, and again, the stuff when I was at Duck Soup, and also work at Imaginary, those are the two places that I wanted really specifically to work at. And I've never done that ever directly, but I've done it as a vendor, which is fun. And almost potentially more fun because I'm not tied to one specific place or one specific project.
Stephen Lawes:
So all range of visual design has been great. And that's one of the most interesting and enticing things about Cantina is that we're known for a very specific thing on our niche as motion graphics for film, but the range of design can cross the gamut between the types of movies we've done, whether it's Blade Runner or Bumblebee, which is super retro or even the Marvel Universe, there's a good range of design there. And that's what keeps us interested in it and fresh, and that's the thing that I think we look at all the time, it's like, what is the fresh approach to this? Because you always get the client saying, "We want to see something you've never seen before," which is next to impossible to do because well, what hasn't been seen before? But you always strive to do something that is interesting and fresh in that department, for sure.
Ryan Summers:
Absolutely. Well, I wanted to dive more into the whole idea that Cantina does a wide range of work. And one of the things that I love just on the front page of your site is that you lead with design. Literally, after you see the name Cantina in the logo, design and visual effects for motion pictures is that the top of the site. And I don't think that there's a lot of other studios that do this, but I feel like for our audience, some of the work that you do that sits at that perfect nexus point for a low-key term of FUI and HUD's because it sits between visual effects, motion design, graphic design, there's a long lineage of it, but there's also, like you said, this huge desire to be constantly new, constantly cutting edge, probably to the point where you have to actually look outside of just the echo chamber of motion design, quite a lot.
Ryan Summers:
Besides title sequences, there's nothing out in the world that has a higher profile. Could you just talk a little bit about what Cantina brings to this whole world of design based film the effects that maybe different than other studios? Do you have a set of guiding principles or things that you think about what can and should be done for this kind of work?
Stephen Lawes:
Yeah, I think the big one or the first major one is story. I can't tell you how many clients will come to us and was like, "We have this problem with story and we need to tell it through motion graphics," and whether that's monitor displays, heads up display, a hologram or whatever that ends up being, and it doesn't necessarily need to be those either. It could be CG, it could be, whatever. We always pride ourselves in the fact that we're somewhat tool-agnostic in a way, right? We're not using one specific set of tricks or tools for a project, we'll come to a project and look at and go, "Okay, what is the best way of telling the story?" And really that is, there's a big thing for us, it's story. How can we tell the story in a way that solves the filmmaker's problem, is clear to the audience, interesting, visually? It is the story thing that is the most important thing for us is because ultimately, we are storytellers and what design approach we take is very dependent on the story that we're telling.
Ryan Summers:
I love that because I think so much of this work when students are people getting into motion design, really aim for this kind of work. That's something that's never discussed is that you're not just in a support role, but you're also almost in a starring role. And I point to, there's a very specific episode in Loki that a lot of people have celebrated because it's almost a 30-minute episode of just two characters in a room talking to each other. And it's so rare and such a treat in the Marvel Universe to be able to slow down and to be able to just talk about character motivation that doesn't have to do with just explaining a plot.
Ryan Summers:
But whenever I hear people kind of elevate this scene or this episode, I always try to caution people that it's not just the two actors and the writing, the screen design and the motion graphics in that episode, the whole story leaned so heavily on a lot of work that your stew, that Cantina did because so much, like you said, of explaining the motivations behind the things they're saying and opening up the world and creating that kind of context for those characters, literally happens because of motion design. And if you guys didn't have that kind of focus on story, I think it could go into the territory where we see a lot of FUI and HUD work, where it's beautiful, but it's almost overwhelming, and it has no context to the world, the scene or the characters alongside it.
Stephen Lawes:
Yeah, I think it's interesting because we started backwards in a way. I mean, when we started doing this, this was back at PLF. And our first show when I joined PLF was Terminator Salvation and they'd done all the previous before it, prior to this. And so I was coming on the back-end and Charles Gibson, who was the VFX Soup on that, really a great guy. He came in and he was like, "Well, we need some motion graphics." And they had a whole boatload of monitors in the submarine and elsewhere throughout the show. And they were very specific about like, "How do we tell the story through these monitors?" And at the time, I was very much more focused on the believability and the composition and the compositing of these screens, as opposed to the inherent design of them. And you can even tell, I'm mean you look back at that and you're like, "It's okay, it's not great."
Stephen Lawes:
But the comping is solid, and that's really what I was focused on. Maybe because I was coming off working with Rob Legato for quite a few years where those were types of movies, or the Scorsese movies, were invisible effects. They weren't visual effects that are in the face. So it was really focusing on the believability of that. And then gradually, as we went through that, and then we worked on Avatar and then Iron Man 2, it was becoming more apparent that I need to start balancing that with, well, thinking about design, what is our design approach for this? And then we brought a whole bunch of ridiculously talented people to help solve that problem, and we're really obviously super lucky at Cantina to just be working with awesome designers and animators.
Stephen Lawes:
I mean, that's the other thing, but yeah, in a way, it was kind of a back to front approach, really thinking about honestly beyond story and the intrinsic design of the UI or whatever we're designing. Beyond that, it is the execution of it, the user experience, the science behind it. There's so many different aspects to the approach that we take, that hope give it an extra level of love or finesse or thought. But most of the time, it is story and thought. And there are plenty of occasions where a filmmaker will come to us with an idea, but there isn't a whole backgrounds, a backstory to this. And so we'll often come up with backstories for like, why does it exist? Why is it there? What is the user experience with this scenario? So we'll try and put in things that give it some sort of foundation that we can build upon, and that's really important.
Ryan Summers:
Well, I can tell you're a student of Rob Legato because I feel like every time I've ever heard him or read anything from him, one of the things he always makes a clear delineation is that it's not about making something that's photorealistic or realistic, it's always about making something believable. And he used that word so many times. It's so true. Even down to the level of screen design is that you're not trying to make it look like it was a screen on a NASA aircraft, it has to make it something that's believable to the world.
Ryan Summers:
And I wonder, because the work you do probably has more scrutiny on it than any other single visual effect because when a new trailer for a Marvel film comes out, if there's any FUIs in those trailers, those screens are being like freeze framed and noodled, and kind of studied to a pixel level way beyond the fight scenes or the prevus or any of the hero moments. It's got to be something that you have to take a lot of pride, but I wonder does it keep you up at night at all as well?
Stephen Lawes:
I try not to let it keep me up at night. I think running a studio is actually more intense than that just than those specific things. Those are a lot of fun and we know that they are going to be scrutinized. I think even to the point where there was a moment when we were doing a trailer shop for Avengers: Endgame, and the Russo brothers deliberately had us put in some misleading graphics of that.
Ryan Summers:
I love it.
Stephen Lawes:
Because they knew what was going to happen and people still find these things. And so they deliberately had us put in some misleading information in there, which they take great delight in obviously. But with the kind of design approach too, we obviously put in a lot of... If it's the MCU, there's enormous amount of MCU backstories that we can always lean into, beyond the movies they've done. I mean, there's so much comic book law, wealth of information, that you can put into these things, which, just gives it a little bit more richness, I think also.
Stephen Lawes:
But yeah, I think coming from the believability factor is super important too. It's nothing worse than watching a movie and suddenly something comes up and it takes you out of it. I'm a huge fan of really anything Rob has done, but types of movies like Chris Nolan movies, they're just the best because I'm in it for the story, I want to be taken along on that ride. I don't want anything to interrupt it or take me out of it. And so, we'll spend a good amount of time making sure that that's the case with the type of work that we work on too.
Ryan Summers:
I was going to ask you dream director or dream property, but I almost wonder if you'd just answer that because I know... I got about two steps away from being able to work on a Chris Nolan set for a couple of days. And that kept me up at night, but in a level of excitement of just knowing that you are literally... I think the word you used was ride, it is something that his thoroughness and his team's thoroughness, the art direction, everything, you just become fully absorbed by the world that gets created. I can only imagine. But do you have a dream director that you haven't worked with yet or a dream project that if it came up, you'd go all in for it?
Stephen Lawes:
I think there's always those ones that you look towards, and you're like, "I'd love to work on that." I mean, I think at one point, this was sometime ago, I love to work on a Harry Potter film. My wife did, she works at Disney at the moment, but at the time, she was working at Sony. She worked on the first Harry Potter movie, I think a Star Wars film, who doesn't want to work on Star Wars, but you know, that's basically taken up by ILM and a BLIND, that does such a great job at moving that language forward. And it's just so beautiful and so unique to Star Wars, but there's Chris Nolan, I'd love to work with him, or Denis Villeneuve who we work with briefly on 2049.
Stephen Lawes:
Would love to work on Dune probably, because that thing just looks epic, absolutely epic, and pretty sure, Territory Studios in London did a bunch of work for Dune. But those are the types of movies, they're a little bit more serious. We tend not to do too many comedies. Although we just worked on, or last year, we worked on Free Guy, which comes out in a couple of weeks. Free Guy was so much fun because, as I say, we don't work on comedies that much. And that was just such a different thing. And it was so funny to us there were moments in that movie and we'd look at the same editorial clip over and over again, because we're studying it and trying to figure out how to solve it from a design perspective or whatever the task is. And we laugh every time, every time we saw this thing, it was just funny. So it's nice to work on that variety.
Ryan Summers:
Yeah. And for some reason it seems to be really rare, like VFX-driven comedies that have like a high level of taste or high level of aesthetic, seem to be rare, but Free Guy, I mean, that's a movie that needs its entire visual language to be kind of conjured out of thin air because from a correct, it's not referencing any specific video game.
Stephen Lawes:
No, it's kind of a culmination of video games, all built into one. So it was kind of the essence of video game in one movie.
Ryan Summers:
That's just another one to add to the list of a heavyweight films when it comes out to your roster. You brought up a question that I've been thinking about a lot with this is that in my world, a lot of times when we were doing a title sequences, there's a fairly small group of people that you're competing with. And you're always... I was always trying to stay on top of what everyone was doing to try to kind of ride the waves and understand where things are going. Do you feel like in that world of screen design, do you feel like that's similar? Do you have a constant awareness of what everybody's doing and when that next big new movie comes out or are you getting in to see it and take notes or are you just trying to, being a true and honest to the story of each film as it comes up to your availability?
Stephen Lawes:
Yeah. I think that's a yes and no answer actually, because yeah, we were constantly aware of what everyone else is doing. I think honestly, with screen design or UI work or design work in general in the film, I don't think it's quite as cutthroat as title sequences. I remember being at PLF and we were constantly bidding against the same people all the time. And we were like, you'd almost have meetings where you'd be coming out of one and your competitor's booth rolling in, but you'd say hi and wave and that kind of stuff. And you'd be like, "Okay." So you know the usual suspects when it came to that, and it was... I don't know, I felt like it was much more cutthroat when it came to being able to get those title sequences that you knew you wanted.
Stephen Lawes:
Whereas I think where we are with screen design and design and film, it doesn't feel as cutthroat to me at all. I think it doesn't feel as many companies are in that field. We're one of a handful I think, I don't want to miss anyone's name off the list, but you've got a Perception, New York and Territory and Prologue, and there aren't many of us out there doing that, which is, I guess good because it gives us more work. But I think also just doesn't feel quite as cutthroat.
Ryan Summers:
Yeah, I wonder if it's because it has to be integrated so tightly into a whole production pipeline, whereas title sequences almost kind of, for the most part, can sit on their own. I mean, I know exactly what you're talking about. If anyone's ever heard of this, I won't say the studio that put all of us through it, but I've been in literal shootouts, where all six of the studios pitching, it's all the names you've always heard before, literally are sitting in the same waiting room as each team goes in and out. And it's quite unlike any other environment I've ever been in [crosstalk 00:29:41].
Stephen Lawes:
That's the worst.
Ryan Summers:
... design, where the most you can do is just kind of laugh about it. But imagine five of your biggest competitors who are probably also friends are all waiting to do their pitch. And some people literally have 25 ideas in their pitch deck, and some people have one and they're all going in and hoping to win it. I've never heard that further world can like screen design or even visual effects being that like pushed to the limit.
Stephen Lawes:
No, we've kind of had a couple of instances where there are multiple bidders on a show, but it's never been that bad. And I would say, 90% of the time, we'll have clients come by that specifically come by for us because they've seen something on a reel, or they were like, "Yeah, we wanted this story problem solved, and we'd like you to attack it." So it's usually focused on... Frankly, we've been really lucky and over the last 11 years, we've had very few quiet moments. I think we've had one summer where it was relatively quiet and your summers used to be much quieter than usual. Now, it doesn't seem to be quiet at all. I mean, there used to be a kind of a season as such for design of VFX, but now, it's just year-long, but we have one summer, it was quiet and we ended up doing the little Gumdrop shop during that summer just to fill in the time. And that was a whole ton of fun just to do that.
Ryan Summers:
I'm so glad you brought that up because I wasn't going to bring it up, but I love, that's another thing for the listeners to go to is that besides all the amazing screen design, the visual effects, the amazing lineup of titles, there's a little tab on your website called development. And one of those, I think there's three or four, but one of them, the one that caught my eye immediately as I scroll down that feels in the middle of like what Cantina does, but at the same time, it's heavy duty character animation that up until talking to you and hearing your love of Disney stuff, I kind of was like, "This almost feels like something different." You have to go and take a look at Gumdrop on the development page of Cantina. Can you just give us a little bit more insight in that because I thought that was a standout piece across all the work on your site, that was very different.
Stephen Lawes:
Thanks. Yeah. No, I mean, I can go on for hours just on that one alone. So I'll just give you a brief synopsis of that. So yes, I worked with Kerry on Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow and Kerry was the director of that and we'd kept in touch. We'd actually worked on John Carter of Mars or a version of it from nine months after Sky Captain, which was a ton of fun. But then it got moved from paramount to Disney, so that fell apart. But I had always kept in touch with Kerry and he'd want to do a short film and I've forgotten what the network is it. And of course that's driving me crazy as I'm thinking about it, but there was a lot of latitude let's just say on producing this. And he had come up with this character and this idea, and we were like, "That sounds fantastic."
Stephen Lawes:
It was fun, little short film, fills in this time June, that we weren't really doing anything. And then I was like, "What if we treat it in a way that it's like the old..." Of course, going back to Aardman, of course, like Creature Comforts that were produced in the late '80s, early '90s of the original series of Creature Comforts, because they did a number of series of those. And basically it was a fish out of water story. So they were taking a creature and they were putting him in a setting that was very much not their setting. So I remember there was a Panther that was stuck in a zoo cage on one of these shorts, and it was a Brazilian guy, basically recounting how he had moved from Brazil to the UK and how it was raining all the time. And it was just miserable, that paired with that character in the zoo, really was a lot of fun.
Stephen Lawes:
And I was like, "Why don't we do the same thing with Gumdrop where we take someone that's now moved and we ask them a bunch of questions and we construct a short out of that series of questions?" And he was like, "That sounds interesting." And so he constructed a whole bunch of questions. And then I roped in a good friend of mine, Venti Hristova, who I'd met on Speed Racer. And she was Bulgarian, moved to London and it was in LA and [inaudible 00:33:42] I sometime, but I was like, "Well, there you go. There's your fish out of water." And she ended up being the voice of Gumdrop too. So it was kind of the perfect marriage of all of this together, so it was a ton of fun. And we had kind of cop launch when it came to producing this thing and making it interesting. And there's some weird stuff in there, but we just went off and just had fun with it. That was kind of our main note emo.
Ryan Summers:
I love it. It looks like it was probably seven or eight years ago when it was made. And it really does... It stands up just design, composite and animation. I don't know if you know this or remember this, but even at the very beginning of it, I think it actually says, "The TikTok auditions." Did you actually just like decompose this for social media now, you could literally throw this up on TikTok and people would not know that it was eight years old.
Stephen Lawes:
I know, right.
Ryan Summers:
I also noticed that you had Ian McCaig on concept design and it never hurts to have him around. He's pretty amazing.
Stephen Lawes:
Well. Ian is absolutely fantastic. Yeah, I worked with Ian luckily on that John Carter, Mars, nine months, and I'd first met him on that and he's such a ball of energy and know so much and has very specific stories of ideas of story. And he is just story incarnate, that guy, he's just so fun to be around. And so we've worked with Ian periodically on and off, but yeah, what a great guy.
Ryan Summers:
Amazing. Yeah, the work he did on Star Wars, just his list is almost as long as your list in terms of films, that iconic things that he's designed. Speaking about iconic stuff, I really would love to get into like the details about Loki. We've teased it a couple of times, but there's a lot of different Marvel shows out there. And we talked a little bit about this, about how everyone has screened design, has HUDS, have FUIs for fighter jets and battle suits and all different things you can think of. But sometimes those become almost more than the hero element. And like we were saying, it takes away from the story, but I feel like this happens with all of your work, but especially on Loki, things like the TemPads, the TV command center, those were designs that, they don't look like anything else in the kind of MCU.
Ryan Summers:
And they were packed with story elements. Like I said, you could freeze frame and try to kind of understand our guests where the story was going, just base from that. But I think if you're watching the episode, it never was overwhelming. There was never anything in those devices or those screen designs that pulled me out of it. How do you get started on a project like this? And how do you take it through, because I know these are TV shows, these aren't films, I would assume the timeframes aren't as luxurious as maybe you'd get on a film, but the visual design for these shows is so above and beyond anything I've ever seen on television. What was your experience like getting called into the show, working with the creative teams and starting to knock these shots and these designs out?
Stephen Lawes:
Yeah. I think that it's an interesting process. And then pretty much the same the process that we went through with WandaVision and The Falcon and it was like, they're very similar in that way. We had initially on Loki got caught up from the VFX soup, but Dan DeLeeuw who'd we had worked with on Endgame and Infinity War and Winter Soldier. And Dan's a great guy, just super duper knowledgeable about the MCU in general, in his own way. I mean, he really gets into that specific kind of story and, nuances and Dan caught us up. And he was like, "Hey, we've got the show. I'm going to be on it for a period of time. But then I have to jump off because I'm second unit directing different show." And so this was back in November and it was a brief kind of pitch of like, we had these initial things and like any Marvel project, they kind of exponentially grow as you start them there.
Stephen Lawes:
They always start relatively small, but you know that they're going to become a thing in the fang, after a while. But Dan initially, briefed us on the [TemPaddle 00:37:31], Sacred Timeline. Those are the two things that they really need to dissolve visually, first, because that was really important for them. Now, they've gotten a little ways on doing that, but they hadn't really figured it out to the degree that the director and the studio were happy with, I think at that point in time, so that the Sacred Timeline was a big deal, obviously, because you see it so many times in the show, as well as the... and I'll try and avoid spoilers too. And as well as episode six with the little vignettes that we did for episode six, and you can tell me how much you want me to go into that or not.
Ryan Summers:
We warned people, we'll give you a second warning. There's an audio version of a blinking red light right now, if you go 10 seconds past this, be prepared because I would love to hear more about that because I think that those are all the things you talked about. They're not only important, especially something like the Sacred Timeline for this show, but literally, all of phase four of Marvel is really built on people being able to visually and quickly understand a very complicated concept of a multi-verse based on time and based on variants breaking free of that timeline, that I could almost say all of phase four, if you had to make one key image, the image of the Sacred Timeline is really when it starts going every direction at the end of a certain episode, that's kind of the start of something completely new for all of them MCU. And that really resides on people's understanding of your work.
Stephen Lawes:
Yeah. Which we, again, we're lucky to be in situations where people will come to us and go like," Hey, we need this thing." And then-
Ryan Summers:
No, pressure. No, pressure.
Stephen Lawes:
Exactly. And you don't realize, I think at the time, how important that will be for the understanding of the story or the audience's take on it, really is only til afterwards where you watch it yourself. You're like, "Wow, that was quite a pivotal storytelling device." But yeah, that one, especially, but time travel in general is a real Pandora's box of problems. And this one is no different from that. We did the same thing on Endgame, where Tony is inventing time-travel. And we have to explain that somehow, visually, and we spent a good amount of time on that from just a logic perspective, because it's so easy to get lost in any one of the aspects of the science of it, or the logical of it, without being like, is it clear to the audience or does it help tell that story?
Stephen Lawes:
And so, that always comes back to that. I mean, we have really four big areas that we define as this is how we approach things. And number one, of course, and top of the list is story. Does it tell a story? Does it tell it in an efficient and visually-interesting and pleasing way? And then as you get into that, you go like, "Okay, production design, what is the production design of the environment? What is the world building that is going on? How can we dovetail and design something that is both complimentary and assists that?" And then you get in beyond that is to the UX, the user experience. If I was making a device like this and I was operating it, how would I want it to be? How would I operate it in a working scenario, as opposed to just being a UI?
Stephen Lawes:
How does it actually work? And then sit together with that is the science behind it, because you often get into a lot of the science between how this potentially could work. If it's just magical science, science that doesn't exist, can you give it some sort of grounding? We were doing the same thing on WandaVision with the microwave background radiation. They had a NASA person on board that we could ping questions back and forth. And that was fantastic. So we would email them and they would describe to us like how it actually was, and we were like, "Well, but can cheat this to make it work with the MCU?" And all that kind of stuff is fascinating because I always feel like we're getting a good education every time we work on a project because you're always looking partly at the science of it.
Stephen Lawes:
But the Sacred Timeline was initially tricky because it had to be very clear and it not only visually you saw it on the TemPads, but you saw it in the command center at the TVA. There were many areas that you saw this thing and every time you came to it, I had to explain relatively quickly that there was an access moment or a variant closing an excess moment. And what does that mean? And how does that visually work? A lot of this was based off the production design that was done by [Cassara 00:42:16] for Annie. And I think their initial approach was, especially for the tempo, it was like, it was all based on a Nintendo DS. And I think their whole idea was that as if digital technology had never existed, it was always... It just went from more of a kind of organic approach and like an analog technology approach as if analog technology had just continued and digital hadn't, and it just evolved more and more sophisticated to that existence within the TVA.
Stephen Lawes:
So we bounced off the production design quite a big deal because it was just so really unique and beautiful to look at. And we had quite a bit of concept art to begin with. I think on any of these projects, we always have a little bit of concept art to go on and there may be even bit of posters that has been done, and we use that. Of course, you can get into things like post-love, which opposes love, which drives us all I think a bit crazy because often, you'll do a little bit of post-fears, whether it's us or another company, just to solve editorial story problems. And the mores and the longer that lives in the edit, the more everyone's going to get used to just living with it. And so what we tend to do as much as we can is when we come onto a project, we will bang out ideas and thoughts in a relatively short amount of time, so we can get those into the edit, so, no one's used to looking at the old stuff.
Ryan Summers:
It's kind of like scratch score, right?
Stephen Lawes:
Yes, absolutely.
Ryan Summers:
I can't say how many times I've been in working on a title sequence on a film and you're sitting there and editorial and you're like, "Wait a second. Is this from Far and Away?" Or, "I know I've heard..." And it's that same thing where you have to drop something into the timeline and you get something that you think feels close, but then everybody falls in love with it. And I've heard composers have a similar kind of gripe that you, that they end up just remaking someone else's work because it's lived in situ for so long that it's almost become vapor locked.
Ryan Summers:
And it's so interesting that you say that for screen design, because this is one question I wanted to ask you, was that, do you ever get in early enough in a project because you mentioned one of those four tenants was kind of like UX of it, are you almost always just reacting to what was shot on set in terms of the physical mechanics of interacting with a screen, especially when you're talking about like touchscreens or things like that? Or do you ever get an early enough to help drive some of that?
Stephen Lawes:
Yeah, there's been instances where we've been able to do that. I mean, it doesn't happen all the time. And I think majority of the time it's a post thing because it's a story issue in editorial and when we didn't even solve that, but Avengers 1, we did a lot of on-set playback. We're not specialists in that by any stretch, but we were on early enough in that process where we were able to spend some time designing the playback and getting it set up. Same thing with Mockingjay, we did all the playback for Mockingjay as well, one and two. And so we were in the process early on that. I think one of the best experiences where you can really define the tone and be part and parcel of the well-building experience was Hotel Artemis because we were the single vendor on that.
Stephen Lawes:
And so we designed everything beginning to end on that. So that was a great experience, and the fact that we were on right from day one, right to the very last shot, and they're much more of a long-haul, for sure, but they're very much more rewarding in a way because you are the perfect marriage of filmmaking experience. You don't want to be just like a vendor in post, you want to be part of the filmmaking experience working with the people that may and helping as a group solve these problems, not just, "Can you design this thing or that thing?"
Ryan Summers:
Yeah. That dividing line video, I always bristle a little bit, because I used to do visual effects before I got into motion design and just hearing the word vendor sometimes just makes my nose crinkle a little bit, because I think the best, you use this word I think, the best experiences I think for us on our side and the filmmakers is when it can be as close to a partnership as possible. And I was very, very lucky to work some very late hours at Imaginary Forces. And I got to ask to some of the old timers, "What was it like working on Minority Report?" Because that's the kind of film and those things that you couldn't come in after the fact and build the designs.
Ryan Summers:
And they were really heavily involved on the kind of... I don't even know if it was visualization or more just like conceptually trying to work through like what does looking through a pre-crime history? What could that feel like in it? They somehow stumbled into the idea of a conductor and that translated into things that feel very trite now, but at the time, be able to control a screen in that elegant, kind of poetic way really changed that film. That's why I was curious to hear if you get that chance to do it.
Stephen Lawes:
Yeah. I mean, Minority Report, I mean, it's such a movie that constantly gets referenced too. I mean, there are movies that you're like, "Oh yeah, okay. Yeah, we get it." Because you almost kind of fed up looking at it now. But I mean, I love that movie as a movie, for one thing, because again, no one moment in that movie takes you out of it. You're along for the ride and it's such a great Spielberg doing the Spielberg thing and you're really getting into the story and having fun with it. But from a design perspective and from something that no one has ever seen before, that was such a great moment as well. And that's why it keeps getting referenced because it was something no one had ever seen before.
Ryan Summers:
Yeah. You mentioned that at the top that we get asked for that constantly. And sometimes we get asked for that and when people actually see it, they don't actually want something that no one's ever seen before, but that's right, that is probably one of the last few... I feel like that film, Avatar, the whole idea of being able to have this fully realized world, that's purely animated. It could basically be a Pixar movie, but you believe it as if it's real. There's not many of those moments now when they do come, they stick for a long time.
Stephen Lawes:
Yeah, they do. They do. And we were lucky enough to work on Avatar as well. I mean, I'd love to have worked on Minority Report, I think, but yeah, those are moments just in VFX history in general, I think are a kind of watershed moments, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, the first Star Wars, Jurassic Park, those moments changed the way people view movies or filmmaking.
Ryan Summers:
Yeah, exactly. Well, I was going to ask you what your screen design hall of fame might be, but I feel like you already answered that.
Stephen Lawes:
Yeah. Funnily enough, 2001 came up-
Ryan Summers:
Oh my gosh, yeah.
Stephen Lawes:
... when we were working on the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie and James Gunn, we would look at like, I think Territory had done a bunch of work on that movie and it was so great. We were doing some against specific storytelling moments on that. So some of that stuff was taken... We took some of Territory design and the development of specific these story moments, but then we had this one sequence, which was the [Strategerian 00:49:36] sequence, where they were trying to figure out how to get onto the Dark Aster and destroy it, and so it was a whole planning sequence. They had a whole room of very interestingly [poganized 00:49:50] shaped glass monitors.
Stephen Lawes:
And we had to tell that story all throughout these glass monitors, and there were tons of them. And so when we were initially approaching that, James Gunn brought up and like, "You should take a look at the 2001: A Space Odyssey." It was like, "Yeah, I know that movie." And then if you look at it again from a fresh, wow. That stuff was just amazing from its simplicity, because they were restricted from what they could actually do at the time. But just also from a design perspective, absolutely beautiful. But yeah, 2001, for sure. Star Wars, you can't, I mean, you have to name Star Wars, you cannot name Star Wars.
Ryan Summers:
But that's another movie in your mind's eye that until you actually go back and look at it, I think quite like, the first Alien, the first Blade Runner, 2001, you don't realize how strong and simple the visual design language is for the interface design and the screen design. In your mind, you kind of mix it up with all the other stuff that's going on, but going back and studying that, there's some really just strong design principles on display for all four of those movies.
Stephen Lawes:
Absolutely. And they are simple. And sometimes the hardest thing to design is simple. We will have a lot of design that we do is pretty fussy to be quite honest. But you know that the hardest thing often is stripping all that down and going, like, "What is the essence of this design, that is the simple version of this?"
Ryan Summers:
I mean I will say, I think one of my favorite things that Cantina has done is there's a very specific sequence in Bumblebee. I think it's on Cybertron and there's this own kind of interface design. And it feels very much like the echoes of work we talked about, but it's so clean without feeling sterile that it was almost shocking watching it because I'm like, "I haven't seen anything like this in so long that it gave it its own place and its own vibe almost immediately from seeing it on screen and a matter of frames."
Stephen Lawes:
Yeah. I think I'd be remiss to say that actually both on that project Bumblebee and Loki, they were supervised by Andrew Hawryluk and Tony Lupoi. Andrew was the design supervisor and Tony was the VFX supervisor on both of those projects. And Andrew is just like a king of a retro design. And so, Bumblebee was going to so up his alley, he loved that so much. And Loki, in a similar way, I mean the production designs from the '60s, and then you've got echoes of '80s, eight-bit design in there and it was kind of the marriage of the two. You can see there art similar in approach in a way.
Ryan Summers:
I'm so glad that that worked out because in my mind, looking through all the work, those are the two that I felt, I didn't know that there was any connection in terms of talent, or [crosstalk 00:52:36].
Stephen Lawes:
Yeah. That's the connection right there.
Ryan Summers:
They feel very like sister-projects in terms of just the [estaque 00:52:42] that they're trying to approach. We've talked for a long time. We've nerded out so much. I feel like I could talk to you, like we said, for hours about movies and we would probably almost should just record the after show after this for a whole other podcast, but I wanted to ask you, because I love... Whenever I meet people who have such a rich knowledge of just cinema and animation together and implants and implant and ask this, but I'd love to know, do you have a guilty pleasure or a hidden gem film that you think people listening to this should just check out? Whether it's screen design centric or visual... It's like just a movie that you've always championed that you think people would get a kick out of it hey may not have heard?
Stephen Lawes:
The types of movies I actually end up liking to watch are non VFX-movies because we're so in it all the time. And it's just nice to kind of look at a movie just purely from story and not even have to think about it because as soon as you see something, a visual facts' nature come up in a scene or a shot. You start thinking about... you can't help yourself. You start thinking about, "How was that done? Who did that? That looks awesome. Why did they approach it that way?" So the types of movies I actually like from a story perspective, I liked the Nolan ones because I'm not distracted by things like random movies, like The Descendants of War, Michael, let's see other George Clooney movie. I mean, George Clooney, I like his movies in general, but those types of movies so I'm really into character.
Stephen Lawes:
And in a way, I guess you could argue that a lot of the stuff we do are... It's all their own characters. Tony Stark HUD is a character in the movie or the TemPad is its own character. And so, often when we approach these things, we're developing them as if they are a character in those movies. But from an unknown UI perspective, I mean, I'd have to be raking my head about... I think some of the early ones that I was inspired by, certainly when I studied doing this when we're starting doing the seriously Terminator Salvation and Avatar and Iron Man 2, I'd look at a lot of the work Mark Coleran did. Mark was like a trailblazer for that stuff. And his design was just so on point with both story and aesthetics, setting it in the right locale or hitting the right notes from a production design sense. So I was a big fan of anything that Mark was doing, I think at the time. I think some of the design work he did on The Island.
Ryan Summers:
Oh, you nailed that one I was going to tell you about. I was literally like, "If he doesn't say it, I'm going to put it up," because it's a movie that I think people roll their eyes at, just because it's a Michael Bay film, but it's a really good Michael Bay film, if you like what he does. For some reason, it's kind of under the radar for people, but it's really super nitrous oxide, just like everything we adrenalized, but I always loved the screen design and I, for a long time, didn't realize that Mark did that, but it feels so, the word where you were saying before believable, it feels so believable. It's not showy, but it feels really believable.
Stephen Lawes:
Yes, it is. Yeah. As I say, I was really inspired by his work for sure. But yeah, you can get inspiration from a lot of different places. We try actually not to... We're always very conscious about everyone else that's producing this type of work around us, but we'll try not to look at it too, too much because it's easy to get subconsciously built into your own work. So we'll try and look at other things that aren't specifically that and bring that to the table, that hopefully is different in a different way of looking at things.
Ryan Summers:
Yeah. I think it's a funny echo-chamber now because I feel like a lot of car UI design, real-world cars, is really starting to try to reference film UI design and screen design in a way that seems almost strange. But I love going back to looking at really old, mechanical instrument panels. There's a series of reference books from like Japanese art book stores, where they go into like factories and all kinds of pressing plants and the UI design in that, I mean, it wouldn't even called you. There's an instrument panel. You got to move something, here's the button to do it. And I feel like there's just a wealth of places to refer and reference from that stuff while the real world's pulling from our work now.
Stephen Lawes:
Absolutely. Yeah. There's actually... I listened to as many podcasts because again, it goes back to the story thing. I love being told a story, nothing better than being told a story, but one of my favorite ones is a Cautionary Tales and that, there was an episode on that about the a flub of... I can't remember what movie they call during the Oscars, they call it The Wrong Movie and for best movie.
Ryan Summers:
That's right.
Stephen Lawes:
What was it now? But that was all about that there's a great podcast on Cautionary Tales about why it was the design of the actual card was at fault, not the people that were reading it. And it's a lovely analysis of that scenario. And so, I definitely recommend anyone listening to that.
Ryan Summers:
That's one to look for. And the other thing I'd love for people to look for this is the moment Stephen, when I knew that the work you guys did on Loki is going to be something to be referenced for a long time. There was a meme that almost came out immediately as whatever episode it was in Loki, where Sylvie drops the bomb and the secret timeline starts going bananas. And within minutes, maybe, online people were automatically screen-capturing that at one o'clock in the morning. And literally trying to ascribe, which multi-vessel timelines that we already know about in the MCU were being represented, like this one was chinchy and this was... That's when I knew that you guys crack the nut on it, a very difficult tact to be able to express something very complicated in a very simple way and pique people's interest and keep them guessing going forward, which is kind of the ultimate ask for these jobs.
Stephen Lawes:
Yes, and that one, especially, I think, as we were talking about earlier, that was one of our first tasks, but also one of the most complicated tasks. I was taking a quick look, actually, I think we had 49 different iterations of understanding how that could work. Some that are super complicated, some that are simple and it's always is figuring how simple can you make it before it becomes just a little, almost too simple? But then we had versions that had things like the little miss minutes as a little like logo branding type thing on the TemPad, as if it was more Nintendo DS branding type thing, which ultimately went away.
Stephen Lawes:
I think even on the big chronometer, which is in the TVA command center, where you see the larger version of the secret timeline. We had a whole bunch of emotions that had a little bit more complexity to that, which in a way, you look back on these things and go like, "I kind of prefer that version. They never made them." Ultimately, the filmmakers are going to choose something that tells a story in an ideal way. And as you say, that has popped up a ton of times, same with the spoiler stuff here with episode six and He Who Remains, I mean, the amount this work, we started that one off. I know we're going over here, but I'm just going to continue on when you tell her to stop.
Ryan Summers:
No ones going to be upset about that.
Stephen Lawes:
When we were talking to Dan back in November about that, Dan DeLeeuw and Sacred Timeline was one aspect of that. He had teased episode six and He Who Remains. At that point in time, he was like, "I've got this thing coming up. We don't know really what it is at this point in time, but we might need your help on it." I was like, "Oh, that sounds interesting." And then he spent the next half an hour talking about what it is without any visuals at all. And so, we were trying to get our heads wrapped around what that actually meant, but as he was talking about it and in a way the substance that he was talking about, because it was a physically solid substance, but maybe it comes from light. Maybe it has a liquid base, or maybe it has a gas base, and trying to figure out what it is and what it looks like. It reminded me of some of the work we had done on Captain Marvel on the concept stage, that never made it into the movie.
Stephen Lawes:
We came in early on that project and we'd done a lot of just fantastic work that never made it into the movie. And for one reason or another, because it was editorially and story wise, they got cut up. And so, we had done all these studies where the scrolls were operating the kind of the mind-fracking device, where they had the Captain Marvel in that device. And they were trying to go through our mind to figure out her past. And we had this kind of, this dough thing that was malleable, but it was a controller device. And we've done a lot of really interesting concept work. And of course, with any kind of good idea, never dies. You might not see it in that film or that project, but we'll resurrect it somehow. And so I minded Dan at that and he had never seen it. And I sent over these images and he then was jazzed about them and showed them to director and she seemed really intrigued about it.
Stephen Lawes:
And then, we got into the science behind that specific form and how work and how it connects with He Who Remains, that ultimately is caring in some form. And I think the earlier versions of that work much more a light-based approach that turned into a gas, that turned into a solid. So it kept moving the entire time and had much more of a fluid feeling to it. The end result was much more connected with his environment and had that kind of like purple-ass shade, a feel with that gold veining in it, which was very reminiscent of just like, as you entered the scene, his environment was basically that. But that scene, I can't tell you how many times I've seen that scene in various YouTube shows now, because it's all talking about the what-ifs. What of this happens and how does it go from here? And that's the fun part, when you see our work then reiterated in these forms, because it is such a specific storytelling device.
Ryan Summers:
It's amazing to be having this conversation with you, because I think back to the 12 year old me embarrassingly buying What If...? and Avengers and stuffing them under my shirt, when I was going into school to be able to read them during recess, not wanting anybody to know. It's amazing to me that we all have the possibility and the opportunity to like partner with a company like Marvel, that isn't telling you directly what to do, but through the lineage, through all the different people that they're actually really relying on people who love this source material and have these imaginations that are melded with real scientific discoveries and things that are going in the world. It is pretty amazing time to be a working artist who also has to be a pretty big geek at this point, to be able to have all of these things coming together and this consulates. At this time, there's probably not been a better time to be in the mix of VFX animation and motion design.
Stephen Lawes:
Oh, no, it definitely feels like renaissance period of this type of visual. It's just... Yeah, it's fun. There's things actually that we're on, are talking about the 12 year old, 12 year old self. I mean, that's how we approach most things actually. But the things that aren't on our website are the projects that we worked with Disney Imagineering on, that again, I could talk for hours on those things alone. And those projects, we worked on Flight of Passage, which is the Avatar ride. [crosstalk 01:04:39].
Ryan Summers:
... best rides that I've been on.
Stephen Lawes:
That ride is phenomenal. And we were so lucky to work on that.
Ryan Summers:
I never experienced the ride... People lament the fact that so many rides and experiences now are built off of IP. And I'm the kind of person, I saw Avatar seven times in the theater. I'm an apologist. I love the film. I'll argue till my dying day of what the power of that film is all about. But I will say, I've never experienced a ride anywhere, where if you stand at the exit, the amount of people that either have never seen the movie, didn't care about the movie, don't remember the movie, literally come off of the ride in tears and can't explain why. It is such a powerful experience. And nobody... Even having talked, I've had conversations with Imagineers that have worked on it. An it's a mystery to them, why it's as powerful as it is.
Stephen Lawes:
Yeah, and it was hard to know how this was going to work out when we were working on it as well. That was a really long project, for us. It was a year and a half. Most projects for us, I'm not sure they're like anywhere from a couple of months to six months, but that was a year and a half for us. So we had to pace ourselves a little bit differently, but yeah, it was hard to know when we were working on it how was it going to pay off? And like you said, I've been on it maybe a couple of times now. And I think when we came off of it, the first time, I remember seeing people, they had guests coming off of it and they'd been waiting in it for four hours quite happy to turn around and get on it again, which is just astounding-
Ryan Summers:
Astounding.
Stephen Lawes:
... I've just spent four hours waiting for this ride, but it was such an experience for them that they're quite happy to turn around and do it again. [inaudible 01:06:17] did just like the ride stuff was all done by [WeDo 01:06:19], it's just phenomenal. We ended up doing all of the pre-show work on it because of our experience and our work on the first Avatar film. But those things are just like such a different ask too. And story-wise, they are slightly different when you approach them as well, because they're going to live there for much, much longer. Movies and TV shows these days can live on in infamy on YouTube and you can watch them back and forth a million times, and it wasn't always like that.
Stephen Lawes:
You go see a movie in theater and you come away with that experience. And that was good, but special venue staff, especially the ride stuff that we do with Disney has to live there for a good 10 years or stuff, and feel fresh and interesting. And [crosstalk 01:07:02]... exactly you've got to put enough information and enough fun stuff in there where the guests will come back and see something new the next time or the time after that, or the time after that. And that's often the trick is to keeping it interesting and fresh.
Ryan Summers:
Yeah. I think experiential design that has to live in the world of futurism is if not the most difficult, one of the most difficult assignments for any designer, because there's nothing worse than going to the first time, and then returning back to it two or three years later, and it looks cartoonish or cliched or [inaudible 01:07:35], or you did too good of a job. And now everyone's just riffing on it to where it just becomes commonplace and try, and it doesn't feel fresh and it doesn't feel special.
Ryan Summers:
So Stephen, we could talk forever and we probably should have you come back on and especially to talk more about this experiential kind of special venue design because I think that's another world that motion designers aren't aware that it is a venue for their skills and their ability of design animation and storytelling combined. But until then, I just want to say, thank you so much for the time that you spent with us today.
Stephen Lawes:
Thank you. No, this has been fun. I'd love to do this more. It's fun, really fun, talking about the experiences we have on these. And sometimes we can't because there are certain NDAs in place that we were like, "Yo, don't talk about that. You can't to talk about that." So a lot of that type of work is restricted, but older projects we can talk about till the cows come home, which is great. And, as I say, we periodically do some, we get out there and talk about this stuff. I think in the past, we've done a couple of Siggraph chit chats and NAB, but not to a great degree. I mean, we've been in that lucky position of like, we've just got a ton of work and we don't honestly have time. So it's nice to make time and do this and get out there and chat about it because it's really fun stuff to do.
Ryan Summers:
Well, it's worked to be celebrated and it's work that we should afford ourselves more time to look back on, because I think we forget how much, like you said, you had all this cool stuff from a previous film that never showed up. So many motion designers have that, they have a laboratory file or folder somewhere on one of their drives of just experiments or ideas or pitches. Like we said before, you pitch eight things, they pick one, you just throw those seven into the graveyard and never revisit them. But sometimes even just having these conversations sparks up the memory or sparks up the inspiration for where those other ideas came from. I think is because we move with the speed of light, most of the time, it's super valuable to just take an hour to like pause and celebrate it or think back on it.
Stephen Lawes:
Yeah. Actually I always end up looking at, I'll be on podcast, those types of interviews with my peers out there because I find them equally as fascinating to listen to like, "That's how you gave him about that." I'll give you one last story because I love this so much was I was the end of my first year at CalArts and there was a interim position going on up at ILM, and it was an animation intern position. I was like, "Oh man, I got to get myself into that." And so I went up there and I interviewed, and I'd never done this kind of thing before. I ended up in a room interviewing in front of 12 people, ILM. I'm like, I was showing my demo reel, which was at a time, pretty damn crude. It was all about animation, hand-drawn animation, at the time. And so, I was showing that and then they were so lovely and nice.
Stephen Lawes:
And then I ended up meeting Steve 'Spaz' Williams and Wes Takahashi. And they were all down in the sink called the pit at the old ILM offices back in the day. And they're just were finishing off Jurassic Park, [crosstalk 01:10:44]. And they were showing me some of the work they were doing on that. And I was like, just jazzed about this whole thing. I was so mind blown about it. And I remember Steve Williams totally making fun of my jeans because I had no money at the time. So I was patching my jeans with this cloth and they would just look like patchwork crap on my jeans, and he was totally making fun of me on that. And then he took me out to lunch. And so the whole thing and the thing I never got the intern job, I never got that.
Ryan Summers:
The story pretty amazing.
Stephen Lawes:
I had such a good experience with them and they were so nice and fun to be around, it really-
Ryan Summers:
I mean, I can't imagine that experience because I mean, you talk about watershed or game-changing moments, whatever cliché, we want to use. I don't think people understand how Jurassic Park really even happened because it was going to be ticket driven, Dino Input Device, stop motion, and almost on their own. I do remember seeing somehow like videotape of a Gallimimus test that I think was just skeletons. I don't even think it was surfaced yet. And it even just seeing that, the fidelity of the movement, not even the rendering or the believable, just the fidelity of the movement that you get of everything on ones, all moving in a way that just did not feel like... And I love 2D cell animation, but it just immediately felt like you were seeing something that, again, you've never seen before. I don't know if it felt like this for you, but for me, it was almost like my brain had a hard time processing what I was even seeing the first time.
Stephen Lawes:
Yeah, and again, it was like the perfect marriage. You never separated, There was no moment in that movie that took you out of it. You were like, "Hey, what about... that doesn't look right. Or that looks odd." It was as the perfect scenario from Spielberg framing, you can go into studies on just that. I mean, there's some pretty good podcasts on YouTube over just how Spielberg creates water in Jaws, and just absolutely fantastic stuff that everyone should go and look at, because how he does his craft, how Nolan, any of the great directors, filmmakers, it's just really fun stuff to learn about.
Stephen Lawes:
And that's the thing, other thing, I think in this business, you never feel like you ever stop learning. You're constantly learning and that's the beauty of it. You don't feel like, "I've come to the point, I know that, I'm good to go it." Every day something comes up and you're like, "How about that?" And whether that's like on a broader fundamental moment of a filmmaking, or whether that's just like, "I didn't know after-effects could do that," or whatever it is, it's just amazing how much you constantly learn.
Ryan Summers:
Yeah, to extend the Loki metaphor even further, it does feel like in this industry, you're at a fixed point in time. The future's racing past you because there's so many new things, and the past seems like it's always expanding. Every time you think you knew everything about an artist or about a project, you find out who it was that influenced them. And then you just go one step back in a timeline and then that just spiderwebs into, "Oh no, actually, this person is influenced by eight people, and now I need to go study those eight people," and you can go one more... And it never ends. It's something you almost have to just come to terms with that. Like, you just are part of this stream of art being made professionally and you will contribute to it and you will take from it and you just have to kind of close your eyes and go along for the ride.
Stephen Lawes:
Yeah. You feel very lucky to be kind of in this position doing this type of work.
Ryan Summers:
Motioneers, you probably know by now that Stephen and I are a little bit of kindred spirits. We love the same movies. We both started in 2D animation, and we're very interested in the intersection of storytelling and design through the tools of animation. And I think that's something that's really great to take away from this podcast is that there's a world beyond just title sequences and advertising explainers, that you can actually leverage your love for things like comic books and films and animation, still using the tools of the day-to-day motion designers. Well, that's it for today folks, but as always, we are here to inspire you to open the door to new possibilities as motion designers and to elevate people's voices and expose you to new people you may never have heard of before. Until next time, peace.