Robyn Haddow talks about her recent Marvel Cinematic Universe collaboration with Cantina Creative.
By Meleah Maynard
Vancouver, Canada-based motion graphics artist Robyn Haddow has specialized in creating fantasy user interfaces (FUI) for years. And the future tech, screen graphics and holograms she has designed have been featured in a long list of high-profile films, including The Suicide Squad, Black Widow, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man Homecoming, Thor Ragnarok, Mile 22 and Bumblebee.
As a longtime freelancer, Haddow was already used to working remotely when the pandemic forced people home in 2020. One of the many projects she worked on during lockdown was Marvel’s WandaVision. Collaborating remotely with Los Angeles-based Cantina Creative Founder Stephen Lawes, Haddow used Cinema 4D to create concept designs for the miniseries, which is set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Early hologram concept of the “Hex.”
Cantina designed, animated and composited many different graphics for devices used by the series’ characters; most notably the futuristic holographic light table S.W.O.R.D. used to monitor Wanda and the town of Westview.
We asked Haddow to tell us about her work on WandaVision, as well as her approach to concepting contemporary and futuristic FUI.
Have you worked with Cantina Creative before WandaVision?
Haddow: Yes, I’ve been working with Cantina on a whole bunch of different projects, most of which I can’t talk about yet. Stephen asked me to collaborate with him on concept designs for WandaVision, and that was great because ideation—the ‘let’s throw some paint on the wall and see what sicks’ whiteboard phase—is the most enjoyable part of the job for me. Being able to focus on something that’s heavily driven by concepts and design allows you to just think about cool ideas and play around.
Tell us about your collaborative process.
Haddow: Stephen told me his ideas, especially for S.W.O.R.D.’s light table. That was the most complex thing we did. The premise was that the table was supposed to visualize data from the town of Westview where the show takes place. Wanda took over the town, kind of like a puppeteer, so she could have the life she wanted with Vision.
The town is shaped like a hexagon, so Stephen thought the hologram should have a hexagon shape with a ton of dimension to it. I really liked Stephen’s logic that we should create a grid-based system showing all of their surveillance and tracking, so it was clear when someone was trying to get in or out of the town.
Top view of the table as Wanda is being tracked in Westview via heat signature.
Tyler Hayward (Josh Stamberg) trying to get visuals from Westview.
S.W.O.R.D.’s tech was a mashup of human, Skrull (a technologically advanced race of reptilian humanoids), Kree (blue-skinned humanoids from planet Hala) and Guardians of the Galaxy design language. The Skrulls used alien fonts and a humanistic approach that was very grid-like and orderly, even slightly militaristic.
Stephen and I mashed all of those design languages together. The biggest challenge with this design was to focus the eye and organize the database so it read clearly. Commonly, you design for a single surface but for this we had to design for three layers of information displayed on glass. Images and important text can get muddy and messy looking very quickly.
Stephen’s eye for color and balance blended everything together so beautifully. When he sent the final comps to me, it was like opening a present. He blended the elements together just perfectly. The table revolved around its mechanics of parsing information at the root of the brain and having the results elevate through the layers to the top and, in early development, hover around in the hologram.
That was the most fun part to think about and design because we had to come up with how things would move and how we would pull focus. We were always asking ourselves ‘What would that look like?’ It’s a fun way to work because you can try things and experiment to see what works.
Building the “Hex” in Cinema 4D.
What’s was your process like when you were concepting on your own?
Haddow: I took a few days to delve into the three different design languages and think about how we could use them. At the same time, we tried to think about things at a higher level, like art direction, tone, feeling and mood. We wanted to come up with a concept and build everything so it would be production ready.
So I opted to set everything up in organized render layers and build assets using Cinema’s Procedural Noise system in combination with shader layer masks. That way, I could create complexity in the materials by stacking different hexagon tiles and creating details to play with alongside C4D’s visibility tags. I also used Mograph tracer objects to create nice, controllable connector lines and tags to ground elements to the table.
I used X-Particles to generate a volumetric point grid to give a sense of space and some curl noise as an option for visualizing some of Wanda’s magic emitting off the surface of the Hex. Setting everything up in that manner offers a lot of stability and ease when you need to modify or iterate art direction when optioning your elements.
And with animation flexibility in mind, layer masks offer great control for driving your animation via gradient sliders. Coupled with combined noise parameters, you can access varied patterns, scales and turbulent settings that generate a range of looks that can be staggered when you’re building assets on and off screen. Also, having all my textures on geo in C4D lets me play with the Mograph toolset and explore ideas when animating elements on and off screen.
Creating materials using C4D’s Procedural Noise System and layer masks to build complexity.
Omnipresent Surveillance throughout the town.
With FUI, it’s always important to think about the story. Who will be operating what you create? What will the FUI do? What are you trying to show? The light table was mostly used for surveillance and calling on civilian data, so we wanted to focus attention on tracking details, like coordinates showing a breach in the town perimeter and profile data displaying personal information, like biometric data of people involved in Wanda and Vision’s life.
Wanda’s magic also needed to be visualized, and the idea was that it was picked up by cosmic microwave background radiation that caused weird anomalies and frequencies that could be detected and tracked on handheld devices and specialized computer software. The character Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) is the one who figures out what the anomaly is.
Darcy uses a lot of gadgets in the show. Talk about how you thought about those.
Haddow: Darcy’s code is very sophisticated and so is the tech she uses. I love working with Stephen so much because he notices even the smallest details, and I think that’s really exciting. So we thought about all the ways Darcy and the others were using technology to nail down who different people were, like the wife of Vision’s boss when they come over for dinner. Darcy’s algorithm gave her stats on people’s height, weight, skills and who they were related to.
Darcy using her custom facial recognition software.
We came up with the idea that when Darcy was studying political science in college. Under the mentorship of Marvel Cinematic Universe characters Erik Selvig and Jane Foster, she wrote a piece of facial recognition software that used high-end surveillance system technology.
The software extrapolated heat signatures, biometric data, retinal images, fingerprint data, heart rate and thermal readouts to match with personal profiles of everyone that lived in the town of Westview. I had a lot of fun coming up with visual representations of how the data could be shown.
A visualization of sophisticated radiation analysis software.
Darcy’s devices detecting CMBR (Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation) anomalies in the universe.
Because we were doing a lot of work revolving around waveforms, video feeds and various frequencies, I thought it would be cool to weave some sort of video manipulation software into Darcy’s tech that revolved around a timeline so she could piece events together and splice data in order to isolate particular fascinations.
Darcy’s hand-held devices were to design. Particularly the spectrograph waveform that detected the CMBR anomalies. I had a lot of fun distorting visualized audio tracks in After Effects by creating some crazy-looking displacement maps, color blending, splitting and fraying channels.
Haddow enjoyed coming up with this CMBR frequency design.
What kind of feedback did you get from the client as you worked?
Haddow: Stephen would pitch our ideas to them, and they’d let him know what they liked and didn’t like. He was working directly with the team at Marvel, so it was easy to go back and forth about different story points. Normally, I work on projects right up until final delivery because I like to see things through. But in this case, I wasn’t involved in much of the production work, just the concepting and design, which is the most exciting part for me.
I love the openness of the preproduction ideation stage because you can dream up anything. And I thought a lot of what Stephen and the rest of the team at Cantina did was pure magic. The team really pushed the envelope by creating a number of ways to build the elements and animate graphics through the multiple layers of glass.
I remember seeing some dailies and being floored at how beautiful and magical everything looked building and unfolding together so seamlessly. Working with the team on this one was an absolute dream. The show’s premise was so wild and creative my imagination was greatly fueled throughout the entire process. It’s why working in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is my favorite—you never know what you’re gonna get!
What have you been working on lately?
Haddow: Things have been busy. I was asked to collaborate with Cantina again on designing Taskmaster’s HUD for Black Widow. I also designed a number of screen graphics in the command center for Task Force X in The Suicide Squad, which was recently released.
Being asked to join the team at Cantina has been such a wonderful experience. All of the artists there are so talented and work so hard. They push me to be a better artist and really consider design. Stephen is naturally thoughtful about revolving everything around the story while keeping things grounded in reality. His creative direction for sophisticated, imagined tech feels so familiar, yet it lives in a galactic universe or alternate reality where tech is powered by the fantastic. Who doesn’t want that?
Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.