Like the mega-star actors who command leading roles, cutting-edge computer graphics and breathtaking effects are essential components in today’s Hollywood blockbusters. Though the creative minds behind such visual delights are rarely seen on the red carpet, they also enjoy what David Sheldon-Hicks calls their “hero moments”.
The creative director of motion at London-based design and animation outfit Territory Studio, Sheldon-Hicks and the multidisciplinary team he works alongside have carved out an enviable niche as a British go-to gang whenever top-flight movie directors need to imagine a believable future in their big-budget silver-screen outings.
“We create those fantasy computer holographic experiences that you see actors interacting with in films,” Sheldon-Hicks says self-effacingly, citing Minority Report and Iron Man as perhaps the best-known examples of such movies. “Where you see people waving their hands around in the air, and there are these amazingly detailed and technical computer-user interfaces.”
Asked to choose a “hero moment” from his impressive career so far, the 35-year-old designer does not hesitate, recalling his 2011 work on haunting sci-fi feature Prometheus, which was helmed by Oscar-winning director Ridley Scott. The prequel to 1979 classic Alien, also directed by Scott, Prometheus stars Michael Fassbender as android David and Noomi Rapace as archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw. Territory’s work frequently features full-screen in the film.
“It’s wonderful when the graphics become another protagonist in the story,” Sheldon-Hicks says enthusiastically. “In Prometheus we created an interface where David was interacting with Shaw’s dreams, and that was a critical point in facilitating the story.”
Sheldon-Hicks cut his teeth as a motion graphics designer working on pop-music videos before taking a job that – rather stealthily, as he remembers – sneaked him into the rarefied world of mainstream movie making. “I’d been working there for a couple of months before I was told that we were actually working on the computer screen graphics for a new James Bond film starring Daniel Craig,” he says, “and that turned out to be Casino Royale.”
The six months Sheldon-Hicks laboured on the 007 reboot was followed by a stint designing animated graphics for revered director Christopher Nolan’s 2008 Batman movie The Dark Knight. By 2010, however, Sheldon-Hicks and two friends felt they had garnered the experience they needed to go it alone, co-founding Territory that rapidly established a reputation for craft-led creative work in motion graphics, branding, immersive computer games and digital media. Today, Territory’s corporate clients include Virgin Atlantic and Vogue, among many others.
The cinema, however, is where those “hero moments” truly dwell, says Sheldon-Hicks, and fortunately that world’s “cloak and daggers” methods – which he had experienced when working on Casino Royale – were soon repeated.
“One day, about a year into Territory starting up, there was a phone call out of the blue from somebody who was being a little bit shady about what they wanted to talk about,” he recalls. Having signed non-disclosure contracts, the Territory trio finally discovered that they would be working on Prometheus. “It was an insane and a defining moment for Territory,” Sheldon-Hicks recalls. “As a graphic designer, something like that really is a dream come true. It was a huge privilege.”
Sheldon-Hicks says Territory’s work on Prometheus was admired in the industry, and “spring-boarded” the company towards more fantastic opportunities, including working with Kathryn Bigelow on controversial but critically acclaimed war thriller Zero Dark Thirty (2012), as well as on Marvel comic-book outing Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). One of the joys of the movie-making environment, Sheldon-Hicks adds, is working in a team of creatives that cover everything from acting, costumes, graphics, music and sound.
“Once all of our graphics work is locked in place, a sound designer will come in and add all these amazing sound effects – little bleeps and keyboard presses – and add a score and build up the emotion,” Sheldon-Hicks says. “It’s always such a privilege to see our work when augmented by sound because it adds another level, and you see your work in different light. Once set against a piece of music, and with the actors performing, emotion is added to our graphics. You think, ‘Wow, I’d not considered it in that way.’ It’s a really lovely experience, and a real surprise.
“The most inspiring part of what we do here at Territory is creating stories and visuals that hopefully have an impact on an audience. It was really beautiful to see Guardians of the Galaxy, to see Prometheus and Zero Dark Thirty, and see our work as a collective – a small part of the film – that’s integral to the whole cinematic experience.”