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Computer interfaces in cinematography – evolution of imagination
Due to our perfectionism and love of detail, this article turned out a little bit too long, but hopefully informative. It is perfect for people inclined to nostalgia.
Interfaces in pop-culture have their own history and deserve special attention from people interested in interfaces design. Today, we are going to discuss the ways people imagined and depicted interfaces in cinematography. In this context, computer interfaces will get a priority over others (from PCs to onboard computers, however it should be understood that every system, with which a person interacts with another system can be called an interface).
It was a beginning of the 20th century, when a sci-fi genre first started making its way to the big screen. The first sci-fi movie was “A Trip to the Moon” inspired by a Jules Verne’s masterpiece.
Now, it is unbelievable that this space sci-fi pioneer did not use any talking holograms in a spaceship cabin, rotating 3D maps, flickering here and there data projected on the glass of a «smart helmet» – all that without which we can no longer imagine science fiction.
A movie “A Trip to the Moon”, directed by Georges Melies, 1902
By that time, the genre had not yet accumulated its own «knowledge base», set of traditions and cliches that would later help to create dozens of fantastic movies, books, cartoons and videogames.
Just like every other fictional system, sci-fi had to have some base. While the main fantasy’s base and source of inspiration was the European mythology, sci-fi was inspired by the technical progress.
Every genre of fiction literature is based on its own meta-universe: a set of cliches that all authors “agreed” to use as the basis. In a fantasy genre – it is orcs, elves, grey-bearded sorcerers in canonical hats, fictional continents as an essential place of action, new (unknown before) languages, magic, etc. In science fiction – it is teleportation, superluminal speed, time travelling, holographic connection, laser weapons, human-like robots, futuristic computer programs …
The 20th century is a century of calculating machines and electronics, nuclear weapons and the first space flight – belligerent, energetic, future-oriented. It was the scientific and technological progress that encouraged authors to create high-quality science fiction. And the world of sci-fi started to gradually absorb the inventions of the century and embellish them by adding new unreal functions.
On the images below you can see some of the inventions of the 20th century that became the main sci-fi inspiration sources: a hydro-locator (sonar), radar, electrocardiograph, hydro-compass, thereminvox, Geiger counter, iconoscope…
The first science fiction films surprise us with a bold flight of imagination. A typical computer here is very similar to a grandma’s retro cupboard with different valves, verniers and switches. And the display shows (if anything) something that looks like constructivism art.
Shots from a movie Raumpatrouille Orion, 1966
Main space sci-fi themes can be clearly seen here: a big round table in the spaceship cabin with the projection of some data on it. This interface was really unbelievable at that time, because people have not yet used real computer interfaces themselves.
Green console of the 80’s
When the first PCs were created, people had once again a chance to learn how “today is the future” feels like. A hacker took the place of a space captain and became a new hero, who was depicted as some kind of a computer magician – a magician that just by typing html tags in a command line could make a simple text OS show colorful photos, lines and polygons – and, of course, secret information of intelligence agencies.
Characteristic attributes of computer interfaces for the movies of that era:
• Green command line on a black screen.
• Symbols and letters emerge one by one, as if instead of a PC there is a slow typist girl in front of us.
• Creaking and grinding noise — a computer should give out a sense of mystery and danger.
• Extremely fast keyboard typing (to show off the virtuosity of a hacker).
• Loading screens look more like screensavers that indicate something is definitely going to go off right at this moment.
• Epic ACCESS DENIED and ACCESS GRANTED (must be in uppercase!!!) as a way to show some activity in the background of rather monotonous lines of symbols.
• Exploding monitors. If the 80’s taught us something is that if you do not type in the right password, C4 explosives (built in every monitor) will detonate by default.
Cliches with access denied/granted became such an integral part of sci-fi that it is still used in cinematography and fiction. Here is a shot from TV series «Revolution», 2012-2014. It is said that the code is real and taken from github, and is also about fingerprint recognition.
Interfaces — typical representatives of the era:
It is interesting that the creators of LOST TV series, which storyline takes place in 2000s, put “the same terminal” with green letters in a bunker of Dharma Initiative that had a military base on the island in the seventies.
In the game Fallout that recreates the atmosphere of «cyberpunk of the 50s», the stylistics of a green console is also actively used.
Fantastic interfaces of the 80’s did not cease to exist. One of the most important representatives of the era, a sci-fi movie «Tron», was courageous in implementing interfaces design. Here we can see not just a computer interface, but a virtual reality that is built on a different level of interaction.
Great interface with Pac-Man in «Tron»: do you recognize the rotating circles? Choose any modern sci-fi movie and wait for the depiction of computer technologies 😉
The movie determined how futuristic interfaces were depicted not only in 90’s cinematography, but also in our time.
Graphic shells of the 90’s
The 90’s were guided by the motto and principle “PC in every home”. Filmmakers moved away from boring monochrome interfaces to full-format (high quality) graphics. Hacker attack methods remained the same, but the way they looked became far more impressive.
On a movie screen of “Universal Soldier: The Return” an intelligent computer types in «Hello, doctor Cotner…», but instead of a green console you can see a «nice» Times New Roman on the background of a standard Power Point «green marble» texture.
Special effects’ wizards of that time did not think that it is a good taste to show real software and OS, even if all of the movies action happened in the tough reality of modern times.
Distinguishing characteristics of the cinematic era:
• Visualization of everything that comes across. If it is about password cracking, it must look like a computer game – not just a plain boring console.
• Dossier as a symbol of the era. All must remember some CIA database investigation, where one sees five flickering pictures per second. This created an impression that the base was just enormous.
• Windows, icons, animations. This all are fundamental principles of modern interfaces.
• Glitch-effect. A screen that starts glitching and flickering all of a sudden makes a user feel like something goes deadly wrong.
• Progress-bars. A window «uploading virus», which has got a status of a meme in popular culture, was supposed to set off the monitors of all of the enemies. But, by the laws of genre, right at the moment when a clock bomb timer stops at the last minute, the progress bar freezes at 98%.
The first rudiments of «modern futurism» can be traced back to the cinema of 90’s: biometrical indicators, heat maps on computer screens, rotating 3D-models. And there is another important element that defines the appearance of cinematic interfaces of the future — virtual reality («Johnny Mnemonic», « The Lawnmower Man»)
Johnny Mnemonic, 1995
Real software for modern times
The next step of the movie interfaces is the most realistic simulation or demonstration of real programs in the movies. Why do bother developing a new video messenger, browser or operation system, if there are already many other options?
This part of cinematography and culture is the least interesting – we are more interested in authentic movie interfaces.
Futuristic User Interface (FUI)
Let’s return to sci-fi – only this time to modern sci-fi. Computer interfaces development for the film industry is so popular that there is even a separate profession for it.
A particular attention should be paid to futuristic interfaces. They are very valuable, since they create that essential atmosphere in science fiction. Besides, science fiction often becomes a harbinger predicting the emergence of new gadgets and machines. How soon the interfaces from sci-fi movies can be implemented in PCs?
A Tip to Lazy People: the video below represents the outside appearance and behavior of 99,9% futuristic interfaces in modern cinematography:
Distinguishing characteristics of contemporary FUI:
• A lot of information. Monitors show statistics for dozens of indicators simultaneously. A lot of things are going on at the same time: different graphs and pie charts are drawn, some unknown code is typed in, 3D models are rotating, etc.
• Biometrics. Living organisms’ indicators are interesting from the point of visualization: heat maps, skeleton and tissue models, colorful DNA chains.
• Hyper dynamics. There is nothing static here.
• Humanization of interfaces. It would be strange if there were no talking AI on the board of a starship, when even your smart phone obeys your voice.
• Voice commands. The least expensive option that is great for a movie budget was used in Star Trek.
• Gesture commands. Virtual reality in reverse: holographic projection is fully interactive. You can rotate it, bring some parts closer and create the techno-magic of your choice.
• Bright, contrasting colors on a black background. All «interfaces of the future» are created in this gamut. Reason: a holographic 3D model is better noticed, if it is acid green or blue. The rule also works for ordinary computer software — maybe it is a tribute to the 80’s.
Great example that shows how interfaces are developed for sci-fi:
Typical representatives of the genre:
Tony Stark can be a genius, but even he has troubles with the super-abundance of data. Even Terminator with his red-black UI had it easier!
In TV series «Fringe» (2008-2013) Jay Jay Abrams, a director of LOST (and the forthcoming Star Wars), moved away from basic text OS, now interfaces deserve to be placed in a captain booth of a spacecraft.
Similar interfaces can be found in abundance in games (the place where the cliches are cherished as nowhere else).
After these pictures, when one looks at the spaceships control center from «Interstellar», one wants to cry “Boring!”:
Future interfaces are so complex and full of dynamically changing information that a typical user should look something like this:
Productivity Future Vision, Microsoft, 2009
Live, Work, Play, Microsoft, 2013
Watch Your Day in 2020, Corning
Hackers on the big screen, Habrahabr – the best Russian blog
Esthetics of futuristic interfaces
A compilation of interfaces in pop-culture: cinema, TV series, games.
A compilation of movies shots with interfaces.
A compilation FUI in cinema and anime.
Best “evil computers” in cinema.
About interfaces development, a compilation of links to books and courses.
Apple devices in cartoons of Matt Groening.