Hollywood's Computers: Telling A Story In A Flash

Mark Coleran's Fantasy User Interfaces

Graphic interface designer Mark Coleran has created computer screens for blockbuster hits like The Bourne Identity and Mission Impossible III. He says his screens are designed to tell a story in two seconds or less.

[Interactive:Mark Coleran's Fantasy User Interfaces]

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Computer screens designed by Mark Coleran for use in movies.

Picture this: a tense scene in a movie — it could be any thriller you've seen in the past 15 years — and there's an actor, looking serious, clicking away at a computer keyboard.

Maybe he's trying to hack into the big evil corporation's database to save the day. Maybe he's stealing a sensitive tidbit of information from the government. Then, a big red "ACCESS DENIED" flashes across the screen with a flourish of beeps and bleeps.

One thing's for sure: What he sees on that monitor looks nothing like what you have on your home computer. That's because it wasn't designed to surf the Internet or do your taxes.

"The entire point of those things is to tell a story," graphic interface designer Mark Coleran says. " 'I can't get into the computer.' How do you tell somebody in two seconds, onscreen, that they can't get into that thing?"

Coleran designs the fancy-but-fake graphics that flash across computers in the movies. He has worked on a laundry list of blockbusters: The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Ultimatum, Children of Men, Mission Impossible III and many more. He says a lot of the inspiration for computer screens comes from video games.

"The 'Game Over' thing, it's a very big word that splashes across the screen, and it tells you exactly what's happening," he says.

In addition to designing the graphics for our hero's computer, Coleran operates them on the movie set — because our hero, of course, isn't actually using the computer.

"They're not doing anything at all other than acting," Coleran says. The actors need to concentrate on their lines, not on typing, so they click away at dummy keyboards while Coleran and his team trigger the monitor's responses. He calls it pseudointeraction.

"It looks like they're interacting with the device," Coleran says, "but what's really happening is we are watching them do what they do, and we have ways of controlling it and firing it off and cueing it up so it looks like they're doing stuff in real time."

The interfaces Coleran creates can seem fantastically futuristic — he gets a lot of inspiration from university software labs and prototypes from companies like Microsoft. But occasionally a product hits the market that bears an uncanny resemblance to one of his fantasy designs. "And unfairly," he says, "sometimes we get credit for it."

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