Fiction Meets Function

Mon 30th Jun 2014, by Meleah Maynard | Production

After the tremendous response we received from last month's Concepting For the Future feature, in which Meleah Maynard highlighted the work of Perception, we happily revisit the New York studio to discover more.


Perception is known for their futuristic VFX work for film. But ever since Iron Man 2, they’ve increasingly been asked to do real-life concepting and design work for everything from smartphone screens and flight simulator interfaces to augmented reality environments. It’s a unique position to be in these days and the possibilities are endless.


When the team at Perception makes an office trip to see the latest futuristic blockbuster, they often spend days debating the film. Plot twists and climactic battles aren’t much of an issue. What they debate, often in obsessive detail, is the plausibility of the futuristic gadgets and computers that the heroes interact with. While this might be viewed as goofing off at some companies, it’s all in a day’s work for Perception. Over the last few years, the New York City-based design, animation and VFX house has become known for creating cool yet believable future-tech gadgetry for blockbuster films like Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, The Avengers, RoboCop and most recently Captain American: The Winter Soldier.



The key, Perception believes, is making something billionaire inventor Tony Stark (Iron Man) might actually build and use seem realistic and functional. And they’re not alone in their thinking. After people saw the user interfaces and gadgets Perception created for Iron Man 2, they started getting calls from companies asking if they could create real-world gadgetry too. Four years later, concepting and designing for real-life using the same techniques and tools they use for filmmaking, such as Cinema 4D and After Effects, makes up about half of Perception’s business.



I asked Perception’s co-founders, Danny Gonzalez Jeremy Lasky, and Perception’s creative director, John LePore, to talk about the sorts of projects companies ask them to work on and how they’re VFX work influences their real-world designs and vice versa.



Who are some of the tech clients you work for, and what kinds of projects do they ask you to do?


LePore: We work for a lot of different clients in the tech world including Samsung, Microsoft, Intel and SpaceX, as well as some of the major auto manufacturers and aerospace companies. It’s an honor because these companies are already being brave and imaginative and they want us to come in and push the envelope in terms of what’s possible.





These projects are usually highly confidential, so we can't always discuss specific details or share our output. Sometimes it's something as practical as animations for a phone OS that will come out next year. In other instances it's really wild concepts that won't (or can't) be realized for 15 or even 50 years down the line. More and more we are being asked to collaborate on experiential or environmental projects—whole-room interfaces or augmented reality systems for things like corporate experience centers. Sometimes, clients just want us to explore out-there ideas that may only be used for inspiring their own internal team.




Recently, we did some really fascinating work with an aerospace company that makes commercial- and military-grade flight simulators. Students use the 20-million-dollar pods on hydraulic legs to get actual hours for their pilots’ licenses. The pods had a very antiquated interface system and we were enlisted to give them something sleek and beautiful, something that matched the sophistication of their impressive hardware.




Is your team essentially using the same software and creative process regardless of whether the work is for film or real-world tech?


LePore: Mostly, yes, except with films you can have infinite render times and with other projects we have to think about the processing power of the device. Cinema 4D plays a big role. It’s very helpful to create procedural elements that translate well to a programmed environment. Using MoGraph to generate patterns and textures is extremely helpful.






We also rely on Photoshop, Illustrator and After Effects a lot. Once we wireframe out interface layouts in Illustrator, we often make a layover in C4D to create more dimensional elements or more realistic rendering approaches for environments and lighting. Our motion graphics background gives us the ability to quickly create animated demos or prototypes of these interfaces, so our clients can see how they work long before beginning the time-consuming process of programming.




Designing for film and real-world companies puts Perception in a unique position. Can you talk about what that’s like?


LePore: Everyone loves the movies, right? No matter what industry or technology you are a part of, you can always find people who take inspiration from film. We've been fortunate to work with directors who make the biggest blockbusters in film, and that's led us to project managers who lead blockbuster tech products.



We are contacted by very brave individuals within the tech world. There a ton of traditional solutions out there, but they are courageous enough to reach out to us. As a result, many of our clients are really exciting “special-ops” style teams—these unique, creative, inner-sanctums within much larger companies.





Lasky: Film companies are drawn to the authenticity we can bring to the user interfaces we design and tech companies want us to incorporate as much science fiction and Iron Man as we possibly can into their products. The intersection we’re working at makes sense, really, because we treat film work as if every screen or interface or device is real and has a purpose.




So directors specifically ask you to make sure that the VFX you design seem like they could really work?


LePore: Definitely. Audiences are savvy these days. My mother knows what an interface is, and when people see computers and other technology in movies they immediately recognize when something doesn’t work the way they know it should. Movies get technology wrong a lot and audiences are just sitting there thinking, ‘Hey, that’s not how a computer works.’




Beyond designing for functionality, what are some of the other similarities between your film and product work?


Lasky: We make it a point to tell our partners in film or tech that whatever we are designing has to tell a story, has to be entertaining, has to have a cinematic quality to it and has to have a living, breathing personality of its own. We call it a soul and you could really see that in the graphics for Iron Man 2 and RoboCop, especially the POVs in RoboCop.





Lasky: I’m consistently amazed at how often clients site Iron Man 2 as inspiration for their team. Tony Stark’s digital universe has become the benchmark for so many brands it has superseded the world of Minority Report. In fact, I think we’ve almost caught up to actual technology you saw in Minority Report.



LePore: Our real foundation is our team. Everyone brings so many skills. Our motion graphics artists have equal parts experience with motion graphics and VFX, as well as an understanding of top-level interface design. We could ask them to create anything and they have the skills and rendering power to make it happen. Our team also strikes a careful balance between a respect for traditional UI principles and a drive to push beyond the expected capabilities. We also collaborate with strategists and UI specialists.



Gonzalez: With film or other projects, clients come to us for design that’s out of the box. We always come up with a buffet, almost like a Lego kit, so there are a bunch of different pieces, some that are expected and some that are really far out there, so they can choose what they like. We like to show people things that they never thought they would see.



Meleah Maynard is a freelance writer and editor in Minneapolis.



Related links


CGFeature: Concepting For the Future

Perception's Robocop Case Study

John Koltai on Robocop's HUD design

Experience Perception Site

Perception NYC

Driving Innovation: CGSociety's UI Design Challenge

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