Screening our Future - Territory


London-based creative studio Territory has been grabbing our attention with future fictional worlds in films such as Ex Machina and Prometheus as well as graphic projects for Virgin Atlantic and the Guardian. From within their glass-box studio, the team explains how they’re blurring the lines between fiction, the virtual, the artificial and the real.


Blueprint

Words Yolanda Zappaterra

Visiting a creative's studio - whether it's that of a fine artist, architect, typographer or motion graphics designer - I'm always filled with excited anticipation at the prospect of what I'll find. Sometimes it's huge white walls splashed with colour in a run-down factory in Port of Spain (Peter Doig), sometimes endless shelves and cupboards filled with different materials and arresting forms (Thomas Heatherwick), and sometimes boho spaces sporting fixed-gear bikes and pop culture figurines (most design studios I've ever been in).

Ridley Scott’s Prometheus features hundreds of motion screens and overlays created by Territory. Photo: 2012 – Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Ridley Scott’s Prometheus features hundreds of motion screens and overlays created by Territory. Photo: 2012 – Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Ridley Scott's Prometheus features hundreds of motion screens and overlays created by Territory. Photo: 2012 - Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

There is usually some relationship between space and inhabitant, so walking into Territory's east London space, I'm half expecting something that looks like a Neal Stephenson novel: Snowcrash maybe, or The Diamond Age. For, more than anyone, Territory is currently shaping our view of fictional near- and distant-future worlds in films including Ex Machina, Jupiter Rising, Prometheus, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and The Martian, Ridley Scott's blockbuster due out in November. But the space is like a blank canvas, a bright, uncluttered office with some 30 desks and a glass-box meeting room.

Ridley Scott’s Prometheus features hundreds of motion screens and overlays created by Territory. Photo: 2012 – Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Ridley Scott’s Prometheus features hundreds of motion screens and overlays created by Territory. Photo: 2012 – Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Ridley Scott's Prometheus features hundreds of motion screens and overlays created by Territory. Photo: 2012 - Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Sitting in that glass box, I reflect (sorry) that the space is perhaps perfect for the company whose work exists more than anywhere in the imaginations and abilities of the 15 core designers working within it. And that work, I soon learn, extends far beyond the already impressive motion graphics work on the films mentioned, and the other six they're currently working on. In design, there are branding and graphics projects for Virgin Atlantic, Space NK and the Guardian; in digital, there are interactives for Lord's, UI design for Microsoft Xbox Sport, iPad apps for Vogue, and website design for JJ Sweeney.

Territory designed a system of icons for the Guardian’s app and online Services. Photo: Territory Studio Ltd
Territory designed a system of icons for the Guardian's app and online Services. Photo: Territory Studio Ltd

And in the spaces between, lies a broad range of projects which touch on future technologies - including materials and how they might behave and be used from wearables to domestic appliances, new domestic product categories, and transport environments for clients such as Panasonic, Joseph Joseph and AeroMexico.

A series of credible ‘near-future’ interface designs and schematics were drawn up, too. Photo: 2015 – Universal Pictures International
A series of credible 'near-future' interface designs and schematics were drawn up, too. Photo: 2015 - Universal Pictures International

What all the projects share is a fanatical attention to detail plus the knowledge that's rooted in the experiences of the three founders who met at ad agency Fold7 in the mid-2000s and set up Territory in 2010: David Sheldon-Hicks (director - motion), Lee Fasciani (director - digital) and Nick Glover (MD).

A series of credible ‘near-future’ interface designs and schematics were drawn up, too. Photo: 2015 – Universal Pictures International
A series of credible 'near-future' interface designs and schematics were drawn up, too. Photo: 2015 - Universal Pictures International

The director of brand experience, Luke Miles, has recently joined them from Virgin Atlantic. A former industrial designer, Miles's aviation projects,' says Glover, are 'a great example of how the business comes together, as you start to see the meshing of the conceptual work being done in the physical realm with the fantastical stuff we're doing in the film area.' In an ideal world, he adds, 'we might start to get into more physical creative in the film world - by conceiving a spaceship for a production, for example.' It's this intertwining and fluidity that makes Territory and its work so exciting. He enthuses:

Elsewhere in the film, Territory created an operating system for the multi-billionaire genius programmer who designed the robot, Ava.

Elsewhere in the film, Territory created an operating system for the multi-billionaire genius programmer who designed the robot, Ava.Photo: Territory Studio Ltd
Elsewhere in the film, Territory created an operating system for the multi-billionaire genius programmer who designed the robot, Ava.Photo: Territory Studio Ltd.

'The motion side of our work has grown very aggressively; screen graphics with fantastical user interface work, HUD graphics, non-interactive cinematic stuff and the like, account for 70 per cent plus of our revenue, but the digital side of our business - user interfaces, user experience, online, apps, offline installation projects (the media through which you would connect with an audience) - has been organically growing too.'

– Screen graphics for the 2014 film Guardians of the Galaxy. Photo: 2014 – Marvel Studio
Screen graphics for the 2014 film Guardians of the Galaxy. Photo: 2014 - Marvel Studio

This mix of projects and disciplines and the concomitant sharing of skills and knowledge is increasingly valuable beyond the doors of the studio, where lines between fiction, virtual, artificial and real are blurring more and more, and where entertainment and real life are increasingly mirroring each other: 'The film world loves to plumb ideas, and then those feed into current culture.

Screen graphics for the 2014 film Guardians of the Galaxy. Photo: Territory Studio Ltd
Screen graphics for the 2014 film Guardians of the Galaxy. Photo: Territory Studio Ltd

Big organisations are keen to get involved in a film's potential selling power, too,' says Sheldon-Hicks. Being able to draw on such organisations and their research is very helpful with near-future projects, like the recently released Ex Machina. 'On these projects we do a huge amount of research,' says Sheldon-Hicks. 'We go and look at what NASA's doing, or MIT's doing, and extrapolate along a curve to figure out how they might be applying some of these theories in ten years' time. And, because industry is also looking at these things, we're only slightly ahead of the curve when we're presenting our ideas in films, where you have to play to an extraordinary level of detail.'

Motion graphics showcasing Land Rover’s Vision Concept technologies such as Terrain Response Photo: Territory Studio ltd
Motion graphics showcasing Land Rover's Vision Concept technologies such as Terrain Response. Photo: Territory Studio ltd

This was particularly true for Ex Machina, where the film's surface level of beauty was propped up by an underlying interface of quickly accessible real code. The studio strived for the same authenticity in the film's delicate schematics; not just because 'the client was the art department, which draws out schematics day in, day out, meaning there had to be a real rigour and care around making it feel authentic', but also because, says Sheldon-Hicks, 'film doesn't like that pause moment, where the geeks go "nuh uh, it wouldn't be like that". And that was heightened on this film, where the interface was being used as a narrative functional device'.

Zero Dark Thirty required computer screens depicting aerial surveillance created from scratch. Photo: 2012 – Zero Dark Thirty, LLC
Zero Dark Thirty required computer screens depicting aerial surveillance created from scratch. Photo: 2012 - Zero Dark Thirty, LLC

It's in areas like this that the team's different skillsets come to the fore. 'You can have a quick conversation with someone across a desk and know you've got something right, or are on the right track,' says Sheldon-Hicks. 'We get a variety and amount of learning from dealing with different people's skills - so, if I'm working with Luke, say on a total branding project, I can bring something different to it.' 'Or on a film like Jupiter Rising, we can create a bespoke font that brings a unique element to the graphics,' adds Fasciani.

The isometric lines used to show spaceships in Jupiter Ascending were inspired by weather maps. Photo:  2015 - Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc
The isometric lines used to show spaceships in Jupiter Ascending were inspired by weather maps. Photo: 2015 - Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

And it cuts across all their work and design strategy, he believes: 'We can do things like go into a boardroom and take the chairman of an airline into a physical environment that they're completely immersed in through digital media. It's a moment - to see someone at that level, with a headset on, getting such a childlike reaction, and engaging and understanding, but it's also a very quick way for us to test design thinking, provoke a response, and gain some insight into what that experience is going to feel like. It's a powerful proposition within Territory because we can create a 3D environment based on concepts and research that we've done, and we can put someone in that environment virtually, from the digital aspect of the business, and we can overlay graphics that the motion guys have done, and when you put all those aspects together, that's powerful.'

The isometric lines used to show spaceships in Jupiter Ascending were inspired by weather maps. Photo:  Territory Studio Ltd
The isometric lines used to show spaceships in Jupiter Ascending were inspired by weather maps. Photo: Territory Studio Ltd

This kind of crossover and experience feeding back into Territory's film work neatly dovetails with a growing desire for on-set graphics, something performers can play to. 'What we strive to do is figure out how to bring performance to someone working with data, which ultimately is visually pretty boring, to make a more interesting movie,' says Glover. It's seen to great effect in Zero Dark Thirty, where 'Kathryn [Bigelow] wanted a very real-world perspective, because she believed the drone camera views of Osama Bin Laden in front of the actors would make it authentic and real, and create a performance that relates to the content of screen, and a dialogue between actor and screen graphics,' adds Sheldon-Hicks.

The isometric lines used to show spaceships in Jupiter Ascending were inspired by weather maps. Photo:  Territory Studio Ltd
The isometric lines used to show spaceships in Jupiter Ascending were inspired by weather maps. Photo: Territory Studio Ltd

Anyone who's seen the scene will remember the gut-churning tension emanating from the screen and the actors, illustrating nicely a point that Glover makes: 'Sometimes technology can forget the necessity we have as humans to be sensorially touched in all kinds of different ways. It's not about streamlining things so that it's all just happening and you can't actually feel anything. It's the experiential stuff, the physical interactivity.'

The isometric lines used to show spaceships in Jupiter Ascending were inspired by weather maps. Photo:  Territory Studio Ltd
The isometric lines used to show spaceships in Jupiter Ascending were inspired by weather maps. Photo: Territory Studio Ltd

The experiential stuff is clearly where Territory's heart lies. Its film work and the emotional connectivity it offers translates to other areas because, as Sheldon-Hicks puts it, 'the ability to grab someone's attention and hold it quickly is a constant, whether applying it to a physical product or a virtual world'.

Animations for Virgin Atlantic show customers how to use its on-board entertainment system. Photo: Territory Studio Ltd
Animations for Virgin Atlantic show customers how to use its on-board entertainment system. Photo: Territory Studio Ltd

So, while current studio work is still firmly focused on films, including an opening title sequence for a Twentieth Century Fox thriller and work on Joss Whedon's Avengers: Age of Ultron, it's safe to say we can expect Territory to be involved in some pretty out-there work in the coming years. And the beauty of it is, that neither they nor we can possibly imagine what it will look or feel like, or how we'll engage with it. 'Technology will push things out there for humans to organically engage with or not.

Screen graphics for the military control room in the film Miles. Photo: Courtesy Oliver Daly
Screen graphics for the military control room in the film Miles. Photo: Courtesy Oliver Daly

Something might sound amazing, relevant and applicable, but it takes real, everyday interaction to know if it's going to stick. It's about tone of voice too, not what you're told, but how you're told. And it's also about process, materials, making things lighter, thinner, more economical... Now that things can be connected, it might be the right time,' says Glover. Even if it isn't, I can't help but feel that when it is, Territory will be more than ready for it.





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