• Is "interactive visual special effects" just about pretty pictures or is there some black arts and science behind it?

    Noel Rubin: It’s all about both. Well, at least I think so. I take graphical interface design extremely seriously. A good designer balances form with function. As with all projects, real or fictional, I try to justify everything used in a design. No techno-grunge allowed. Every pixel has a purpose as desktop real-estate is very expensive these days. Albeit, some designs for movies are simply eye candy. I still trying to make the designs feel visually balanced.

    It’s true that pretty pictures are nice to view. However, it’s how you ‘frame’ the picture which really makes the picture worth much more. Hence, the issues of graphical interface design. I rely heavily on my scientific education to ground my designs and frame the pictures.

    Letting my artistic capabilities interact with my technical side results in what you see. I get bored rather fast, and creating special effects lets me exercise both sides of my brain.

    Where on earth do you find your inspiration?

    Noel Rubin: I find inspiration in a few places. One obvious source is from motion pictures. As far as other sources of inspiration. My all-time hero of artistic design would be Syd Mead. His designs are what drives my own style. You could even say that I'm trying to apply Syd Mead style to graphical interfaces.

    Third source of inspiration comes from the physical world. I have a true passion for finding (and sometimes buying) electronics and gizmos. Such devices are relevant to my 'day job' and all feature graphical interfaces. Watches are my all time favourite. Don't ask how many I have!

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  • What was it like working at ILM? How does it feel to see your work up on the big screen - especially for one of the biggest films of all time?

    Noel Rubin: Working at ILM was the most challenging job I ever experienced. It was a very unique experience working in the art department. Production moves very, very quickly at ILM.

    I had no clue what I was going to be working on until I actually showed up for my first day. On the new employee tour, I saw my name on the white board saying “Noel Rubin – SW1.” I was VERY excited. From day one, my instructions for doing screen graphics were rather simple. “Fill in the holes,” my supervisor said.

    Seeing my work on the big screen was rather cool as it was my first motion picture. In addition to screen graphics, I assisted with dozens and dozens of animatics for Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys and I had never done animatics before. The visual effects director was most kind in teaching me a great deal about shot composition. It’s real tricky stuff to choose the best shot which captures the action and tells the story clearly.

    One of the most memorable screen displays you did was the one for the Pod Race. This one almost becomes an actor of its own in this short sequence. Perhaps you can tell us how this came about?

    Noel Rubin: There was a great amount of storytelling in Anakin's pod race sequence. The animatic of the sequence actually used cockpit instrumentation shots from the movie Firefox to stand-in the edit. The original pod race instrumentation sequence had only a few shots, then almost all got cut. Near the end of production, more than the original number of shots were added.

    Anakin's dash board were the most functional displays in the entire movie. Each dial and gauge had a specific purpose. The left-hand gauge showed a tachometer, the right-hand guage displayed the energy binder. The binder was the pink lighting bolt connecting the two engines together. Don't ask exactly what the binder is. I don't know. The center console was a multifunction display which showed errors and schematics. The schematics of the engines were derived from reference photos of the physical models. If you look closely at the schematics, I animated the afterburner nozzle aperture. My favorite design touch.

    There were many different versions for the screen graphics. The color theme went from red to blue, to red again, and then to blue. I put my foot down and said desert 'gold' and that was that. George insisted on adding more color in designs. So some shots actually have gauges from other takes.

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  • What other shots did you work on in SW: Episode I?

    Noel Rubin: My second big task in the art department was to populate the consoles on the entire bridge of the Federation Droid Control Ship. Originally, there were three of us working on the scene, but due to extreme circumstances, I had to fill in almost all the consoles myself. My supervisor insisted on having 3D elements in most screens. I was given a 3D software package that I had never used before. So, under the gun I had to learn this new program, fast. These screens served no real function except to add life to the set so I took liberties at creating more abstract designs. Most screens were far from camera, so the real detail in the designs were unfortunately lost. There was one hero shot which required a close up of the droid activation console. This display featured an animation of the droids standing upward. This was particularly difficult as I had to fake the IK in the 2D droids.

    During the sprint at ILM to complete SW1, there were also many smaller tasks and shots which came across my desk. For example, before the final battle in SW1, R2D2 generates a 3D hologram of Theed Palace. The hologram was a rather difficult project. The biggest hurdle was getting a 3D model of the palace itself. The CG department was just developing the Theed Palace, so I was left with a very incomplete model. Furthermore, there was no model of the actual cliff. So, I painstakingly had to create a cliff which precisely matched the palace. This was very difficult. As for the choreography of the hologram. There was great debate and changes to the animation.

    Other screen graphics shots I worked on included a few on the Naboo Queenship. Most of the screens were already completed for the Queenship sequences. However, some screens needed to be designed from scratch such as the shield generator displays when R2D2 completes ship repairs.

    Such shots were full frame, hero shots. Over the course of production, I had to update several existing queenship screens as they didn't read well enough. The hyperdrive screens immediately come to mind. I also assisted in the direction of many other shots, both technically and artistically.

    Speaking of technical direction, I actually served this key role for the entire time I was there. I had the most experience in such matters and was frequently offering direction on other screen graphic inserts.

    Other miscellaneous projects included the visual effects concepts for the Gungan force fields in the ending battle scenes. My supervisor wanted me to actually do every final shot containing the shields, but recommended that the CG department take over due to the existing amount of work on my plate.

    Where did the name 'Teknoel' come from and what's 'Nubinization'?

    Noel Rubin: 'Teknoel' is just a cool name I invented one day in 1996. I realized that with a bit of artistic finesse, my own logo still reads while upsidedown. This was a sign.

    'Nubinization' came from my days at ILM. The ILM art department was great for inventing new names and new words. Just like little kids at camp. Nubinization stemmed from ‘nubin’, which came from noel + rubin. Also in Star Wars Episode One, the good guys star ships are 'Nubian'.

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  • What was the thing you enjoyed the most and the thing you liked the less at ILM?

    Noel Rubin: Well, as you already likely know. ILM is like a very well-oiled machine. Everyone at ILM does one small step. I guess you could say that being 'pigeon holed' didn't agree with me too much. A great deal of people use ILM as a stepping stone in their careers.

    The best part of my experience was the friends I made at ILM. The culture at ILM is great. I felt like I was at Summer camp. Even though I don't work there anymore, I can still experience the best by simply visiting.

    How does your experience in the film/games/broadcast industry translate into the web these days?

    Noel Rubin: In my early years, I was creating content for interactive multimedia and CD-ROMs. So, the Internet has a very similar feel to my old-school experience.

    The interesting thing about graphical interface design is that the type of delivery media is somewhat irrelevant to the creation process. I always try to apply true GUI philosophies and interactive etiquette to any project. The big difference between film and internet is that the web is an interactive media and requires real engineering and technical know-how to make functionality real. That's where 'interactive visual special effects' comes into play. I'm very happy to design for the internet these days.

    What sort of projects are you looking to do in the future?

    Noel Rubin: My new career goal is to design screen graphics and graphical user interfaces for the real world. What I mean is the development of devices we use every day. There are many devices which come to mind: dashboards in automobiles, displays on cellular phones, wristwatches, PDA's. Also, helping shape an actual computer OS would be challenging. Today's operating systems support much more lavish graphical interfaces and interactivity. Just look at Apple’s OS X. Finding such projects is another matter as they are not exactly advertised.

    Demo Reel for Teknoel (this you absolutely must see!)
    Industrial Light & Magic

    Interview: Leonard Teo
    Images: Teknoel/Noel Rubin

    Special thanks to Noel Rubin. Interview is published with permission from Noel Rubin.

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