How do Marvel film designs inform our future? What can we learn from imagining the future of tech? Read on to find out.
John and his team at Perception design the futuristic tech that you see in many superhero films. From Tony Stark’s high-tech phone to the vibranium sand that powers the Black Panther universe, John had a hand in it all.
His team also works with the actors themselves, to help them understand the visuals that will ultimately end up on the screen. For Iron Man 2, that meant creating video prototypes of the tools the characters use in the film.
John particularly praised Robert Downey Jr. for his tech-driven performance as Tony Stark, which helped make the film a hit! Here's an excerpt from our conversation:
“Nothing's set in stone. It’s not like you have to be positioned exactly like this, otherwise, the content won't fit. It [the video prototype] allows the actors to sort of improvise and then bring something to it as well.
Particularly, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, he's great at this stuff. He just shows up on set. They say, Hey, there's gonna be a hologram in front of you, or there's going to be a screen that you're interacting with. And he goes wild, he does this incredible blend of gestures and actions that are very precise and totally arbitrary but are precise enough that they feel like, Okay, this is a dial, this is a gesture box or whatnot.”
Initially, the team at Perception was tapped to work on just one visual effect shot for Iron Man 2. This small project ballooned into the bulk of their business thanks to their initiative and quick thinking. During a call with film director Jon Favreau, they overheard a comment from one of the executive producers saying that the concept reminded him of Tony’s glass phone. John’s team decided to take the initiative and create a phone prototype to send to Favreau themselves.
Their bold move paid off when Favreau liked their test and asked them to work on the visuals for Tony Stark's glass phone and coffee table. As they continued to work on the film, they received more and more requests for their expertise.
John shares his insight on taking risks as a team in order to achieve success:
“As the film [Iron Man 2] transitioned months later into the post-production process when they really begin thinking seriously about the visual effects incorporated into the film, we got a call from them and they said, Oh, Jon Favreau liked your phone test. Would you guys like to work on Tony's glass phone?
We were losing our minds. Instant party in the office, unbelievably exciting. We said, Absolutely. And then they said, Oh, and he's also got a glass coffee table that needs some graphics on it. We said, Absolutely, we will do that as well.
As we were working on these things, we started getting a couple more requests that would pop up and it would be, Okay, well there's actually a window in his [Tony Stark’s] bedroom and there's another window in the living room that needs graphics and he's going to the Monaco Grand Prix and that's going to need graphics. There was one thing after another, it kept stacking up. I think by the time our work on the film was finished, we ended up delivering 125 visual effects shots for Iron Man 2.”
While talking to John, we discussed the different types of end users for a film: the characters within the story and the film viewers, who are there for a good time. Both need to be taken in consideration when creating visual effects.
Here’s a selection from our conversation that delves into the art of designing with the end user in mind:
“I don't expect everyone that sees the film to walk away from it being like, Did you see that vibranium interface? But there are a few people who I think get really fascinated by these things and when they notice these little details and these little nuances, they become so much more curious about the technological world and how it shapes that society within the film.”
“You're always supposed to design for your end user. In this case, we have two end users. We have a character in the film who often is supposed to be the smartest person in the world and who is able to use the most complex system ever seen anywhere. And then we have the person, the other end user, which is the person sitting in the very last row of the movie theater, munching popcorn, maybe not even hearing all the dialogue, loosely paying attention while glancing at things on their phone. We need to make sure that it [the tech within a movie] communicates just as clearly to them as well. And that presents all sorts of challenges and interesting things.”
John shared the unique way his team challenged themselves in their design and film work. When designing the technology behind the Black Panther universe, vibranium, they built a sand table in their office.
John emphasized how important hands-on, tactile learning and experimentation were for them when they started working on the interactions in Black Panther:
“One of the things that we did to challenge ourselves was build a sand table in our office. We got 50 pounds of sand, we were little kids playing in a sandbox. We literally had little toy trucks that we glued sand to and everything.
I feel bad on the days that I would bring my kids to work with me and I would show them what I do, and there are toys and superheroes everywhere. There are toy cars on the floor, and I'm realizing that I need to send my kids to work with somebody else so that they can understand that work is not just playing around.”
We got a chance to hear about one of John's first experiences working on a vehicle. He spilled the beans on his instrumentation work for the Ford GT in a secret underground bunker at Ford's product development center in Michigan. He was part of a tight-knit team of top-notch designers using cutting-edge computers and milling machines to craft clay models and bring their vision of the car to life. Here’s what he had to say:
“It was really exciting to be deep inside of Ford. And when I say deep inside of Ford, there's literally a secret underground bunker that the people above this bunker didn't know that this car was being worked on down below.
There was a long corridor in the basement that you walked down that was just old castaway prototypes and styrofoam models of full-size vehicles with sheets over them. You'd get to the end of this corridor and there was a little card swipe, and then they'd bring you in and it was just eight dudes in a room around computers who were working on it and working up the visualizations.
Then attached to that room was this bigger studio space still totally in the basement, indoors, where they had the milling machine sculpting the full-size clay models and everything. And that experience and that collaboration just from being a supercar geek is something I'll never forget.”
As a little kid, John often found himself wondering why every car couldn't look like a Lamborghini Countach. Little did he know that this particular supercar would eventually shape his foundational understanding of design itself. And it all started with his dad, who used to regale him with all the nitty-gritty details about the Countach, sparking a lifelong love affair with supercars and the world of design. Here it is in John’s own words:
“[The Countach] is wider at the back so that it can fit this enormous V12 engine, and had all of those things that make it actually perform better as an exotic sports car. I was very fascinated by this and he [John’s dad] continued to kind of poke me a little bit and say, You only are excited by it because it looks wonderful.
But I am deeply overwhelmed by it because it is this blend of the way that it functions better, the way that it's able to achieve its goals better, that are impacting the way that it looks. And both of those things are benefiting in the process. And for me, that became my foundational understanding of just what design is."