interview: mark coleran

Mark Coleran’s visual, screen and interface designs appear in The Bourne Ultimatum, Children of Men, Mission Impossible 3, The Island, The Bourne Identity, Tomb Raider, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. View his reel at

How did you transition from graphic design to visual design for film?
Working with people in video got me interested in it. This was long before desktop motion graphics took off. I taught myself by doing a couple of initial test items, then did a second project that was a real job. It was learning by doing.

Once you’re hired on a film, what happens next? What are some of the main considerations?
Video and graphics in movies are handled by a video supervisor. Generally, they’ll have their own companies and I subcontract to them. Once I’m involved, we’ll meet with the production designer and talk about the style, setting and feel of the film. The script can dictate everything. If it’s very realistic, you’ll want to keep the look of it realistic—although that doesn’t mean 100 percent real, because as you know, your computer screen doesn’t do very much when you sit in front of it. From a story point of view, and visually on film, that’s not particularly engaging, so we jazz it up a bit, make it work to tell the story. The animation is actually a tiny part of it. Most of the work goes into design and production in Illustrator and Photoshop. Only the last five to ten percent involves animation.

How much is done on set and how much in post?
Most of it, 99 percent of it, is done live on set. If it’s on set you can get it all in a single take, everything works and looks right, and the actors have something to respond to. Later scenes can be shot first and might include video or screen imagery from scenes that haven’t been shot yet, so we’ll put something in to just hold it in place, or give the actors something to work with, or we’ll blue screen—though it’s very rare that we do blue screen, and if we do, it’s usually more to do with a technical limit of what can be played back.

From the first meeting to delivery, how long does it take to do what you do?
It varies massively. For Children of Men, I had two weeks to deliver everything. For The Island, we had three to four weeks pre-development, and three months to get it done and on set. It’s usually about four to five weeks for pre-production. After you get the initial look and feel of it done, production of the elements happens in stages, so you’re working on upcoming scenes all the way through the film.

Do you do any of the programming, or is that someone else’s job?
That’s someone else’s job, though software for playback exists, which makes it very easy for the artist to do. Some of the playback is done using custom-built QuickTime players and it is sometimes programmed in Director. So, we’ll be on set and do the control ourselves because we know the animation and we know the sequence. But we’re generally on set anyway, in case changes are made and we have to rework the screens to get them ready for the next shot.

Does your work vary a lot, or does it tend to be the same on every project?
Elements within a film can be very different, but for the most part, the work is very similar from film to film, even if it’s a completely different style. We spend the most time on the hero screens, which are larger, or have elements specific to the film or a particular sequence. We put the most effort into them, making sure they stand out—you do have to allocate your time and budget proportionately. When I started, you might do 20-40 screens for a film, but now you can do over 200, it’s grown a lot. But at the same time, budgets are lower.

Are you able to find more economical ways of doing things, or is it a matter of minding budgets and being careful?
It’s a bit of both. I spotted this happening quite a long time ago. It’s like a lot of design over the years in one field or another, it becomes fairly commoditized and people tend to pay per item rather than for a creative service. So you need to be very efficient. I’ve found ways to re-use my previous work, making it into templates that can be easily adapted, changed or re-tasked.

That’s very smart.
It’s good to recycle—as long as nobody knows it. I can save out layer styles in Photoshop, apply them to previous layouts, and have a new look very quickly. I’ve used one little animation—a map of the earth with some satellite lines and blinks—in seven films. But the whole look and framing of it is changed, so it looks very different. With the sheer volume you have to deliver, you can’t always create from scratch anymore.

Do you ever get bored with doing the same process?
Sometimes. It is like a great many tasks and repetition can set in, although there are great moments and a lot of satisfaction to be had from seeing the final product. I guess I should say yes, really, because I have actually moved on from doing the films, looking for a new challenge.

You’re doing something different now?
Absolutely different. Well, kind of absolutely different—I’m now working in software design. Instead of designing for the script and to a brief, I’m designing for a real product that works, so the audience is slightly different. But there are similarities with the film work, and I can use many of the same techniques I’d developed.

As a designer, what inspires you?
It’s ironic, but part of the reason I got into user interface design isn’t from a like of the subject, but from dislike—so much of what I see around me is so awful. Being involved in changing that is a wonderful opportunity.

I draw inspiration from all kinds of sources. A lot of it away from my machine, but a lot of it from work being done with motion graphics and information visualization—everything from airport signage to maps. I also love drawing and photography.

Have you read Edward Tufte’s books?
Yes, I’ve read them all, I do like his work. It’s very, very nice stuff. It’s inspiring to see someone articulate why things work in information design—and why they don’t. He’s almost created an industry out of it.

In the context of working on a project, how do design ideas come to you?
I develop an overview first, so I have an idea of how I’m going to present something. That’s quite a quick thing, initially. To hammer it out and make it a reality, I start with broad strokes, then build it in layers. It’s almost like painting—you develop the form, shape and color, and then add the detail.

Do you continue to stay involved in the motion picture industry?
Absolutely. Even though my current work is in the area of software design, I stay actively involved in the motion graphics community. This fall, I will be speaking at motion08. In my session, The Art of Screen Graphics, I’ll deconstruct a project. We’ll look closely at the screens and how they’re developed, with a focus on projects from The Bourne Ultimatum. I also decided to offer a second presentation How to Do a Creative Job without Going Nuts, as I think it is a challenge many creatives face on a daily basis.

mark coleran

screen interface designer