May 6, 2010

The Iron Man Interface: Part 4

Part Four:
Instances of Interface

In the previous entry, I dealt with the political overtones in Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008) up to and including Tony Stark's kidnapping by the terrorist group the Ten Rings and his escape. That section was Tony pre-Iron Man. He had formed the rudimentary suit which Obadiah Stane would later use as the prototype for Iron Monger, and there were low-tech precursors to the Iron Man Interface, notably POV shots from under the burlap sack the terrorists placed over his head to hide their location. The film had established Stark's as the dominate personality of the film and everyone was pretty on board with him as a guy we like. The film accomplished this a couple of ways, not the least of which was gadget envy. Film's always been the perfect medium to show off the coolest, newest tech (just think of how many films have featured robots vs. how many robots you've actually seen in your life): Tony Stark's proverbial Barbie Dream House is no exception. 

In the flashback, we're introduced to Tony's house with the title card "Malibu," as if the single-named signifier coupled with the crystalline monochrome ocean/sky backdrop were enough to convey occidental luxury (it is). The interiors give a 360-view of the Pacific through spotless panorama windows. But as with everything in Stark's life, his house is not merely decorative, but functional. At 7AM, the windows come to life, activated by JARVIS, the artificial intelligence that controls all the mansion's functions, reporting the time, the weather and other essential data. 

Although aesthetically awesome, Stark's home interface belies a depressing reality. In one of the film's deleted scenes, Tony returns home from his three-month captivity to the news he has 1,713 new messages which he accesses on his window/screen interface, only to delete them all. The scene underscores the disconnect between technological innovation and the utter uselessness of that tech without a meaningful real-world application.

In an interview with Iron Man Visualization and HUD Supervisor Kent Seki, which you can and should read here, Seki underlines the importance of technology to Tony's identity, stating that JARVIS is "a virtual version of Tony" (Feigenbaum & Christmann, 2). Stark has blended science with science fiction, creating a sentient entity who's part butler and part Jiminy Cricket. Since JARVIS is a form of alter-ego, it makes scenes he is central to Stark's entire way of living. JARVIS controls the house, replies to commands as well as suggesting and conversing with Stark, and integrates all the preferences from Tony's lab/workspace into the Iron Man suit. Therefore, the HUD becomes a more naturalistic interface than it might normally have been because it reacts instinctively to Tony's commands. It is not so much Tony controlling the suit as it is a cooperative effort between man and (man's creation) machine. 

The HUD (heads-up display) occurs "when Tony has the mask on and is looking out" and consists of "Tony's face with the graphics in front" (Feigenbaum & Christmann, 2).

In fact, the entire design of the HUD and the fact that we see it at all are absolutely crucial in defining what makes Iron Man an unique superhero and essential to the success of the film as a whole. As noted in the Seki interview, the HUD viewpoint eliminates the masked aspect of Iron Man's costumed identity. It's not hidden from the viewer; we are right there in Tony's intimate space, experiencing his heroics as he does. This open-face (if you'll excuse the pun) honesty between hero and viewer sets Iron Man apart from other successful superhero films like Spider-Man, where "when Spiderman [sic] and the Green Goblin are arguing, it had a very Power Rangers feel because they're both wearing their masks and they don't look like real human beings" (Feigenbaum & Christmann, 3). The HUD helps to maintain the real world mood of the films established through loose, almost improvisational dialogue and naturalistic acting. It is invaluable in embedding Tony's dominant personality into the narrative. 

(first row) Stane's Iron Monger (red graphics) and Stark's Mark III (white graphics) HUDs during their climactic battle. (second row) Stark's POV w/physical damage to the helmet & Stane's POV after losing "optical connection."

For example, in the scene where he is first experimenting with flight, the sensation in palpable and exhilarating because the audience is experiencing his point of view. The scene is a continuation of Stark's voracious creative process. The film's main strength is that Stark is a character who makes things and we're privy to his step-by-step trial and error process. Watching people physically make things, problem-solving on screen, is one of my favorite things in a movie. Stark's creative process not only moves the narrative forward but it conveys tons of information about the man himself, how and why construction and engineering is so essential to his character. It's what endears him to the audience. 

The most striking use of the Iron Man Interface is during this sequence. Tony has just completed his first suit, the Mark II. He now has to integrate all of his home interface preferences and upload them to the HUD. There are numerous steps involved, and as Kent Seki notes, "In this movie, it's not like in other superhero movies where it's just easy to fly. Here it's hard. It's not an easy process (Feigenbaum & Christmann, 2). 

You can see clearly in this still the icons on the bottom of the screen. Seki & co. designed them to function like Mac icons where Tony would look at them, they would expand and he could engage their specific functions. This still also provides a good look at the "artificial foveation" and Stark's ability to target-focus with his eyes.

Stark's POV identifying, cataloguing and storing information on all of his possessions before his first flight.

The HUD is a shifting interface, here providing topographical information and isolating flight patterns outside Stark's house. 

One of the icons in the HUD's "dashboard" is the suit which he can isolate and import the schematics so that during battle, he'll know which part of the suit is damaged and/or vulnerable.

Stark ordering JARVIS to "do a weather and ATC [Air Traffic Control] check."

Stark's connection to military tech is clear in this still as the interface takes on elements of a flight simulator/fight pilot UI (note the icons still on the bottom). 

The joy of flight. Favreau shot the scenes of Downey, Jr. in the HUD on 65mm film to exaggerate the curvature of the helmet and provide extra space to comfortably integrate the viewer into the a ride-along type experience. 

Among the HUD's capabilities is to display info about locked-on objects, in this case the Santa Monica Ferris wheel. 

Via JARVIS, the HUD warns Tony of environmental threats, like the icing of the suit as he ascends into space. This specified knowledge will prove critical in his battle with Stane at the end of the film. It if hadn't been for Stark's first flight (and his natural daredevilry) he might not have survived the climax.

The exhilaration of success communicated to the viewer. What Seki and co. call a "woo-hoo moment."

The design team made sure all the HUD's elements were functional. As you can see in the above styles, the Mark II HUD's graphics are blue, whereas the more advanced Mark III has a white interface. The change reflects what Seki identifies as "one of the main themes of the film... technological progression." He continues that the white interface was meant to act as a more futuristic view because UIs in films today are mainly blue and had previously been green and might opt for a "clean white" interface "with color accents for attention" (Feigenbaum & Christmann, 2).

Another crucial technological innovation to the HUD is the concept of "artificial foveation," in other words, an ocular-activated interface that, working with the fovea in the eye, would recognize commands and contract and expand, mimicking the movements of the pupil. Seki: "Things would naturally flower open as Tony looked at the, The analogy [I used] was that the dynamic should be like a keyhole. When Tony activates a mode, it explodes open; but when he looks away, it compresses" (Feigenbaum & Christmann, 3).

In the previous entry, I outlined Iron Man's unique position as a military-industrial complex superhero. The connection between industry and the Air Force is exhibited in the film during the dogfight sequence where Tony is engaged with two fighter pilots. In the stills below, you can see the striking similarities between the two UIs, Stark's on the left and the fighter jet's on the right.

The two employ similar locking-on mechanisms, although Stark's "Supersonic Flight" capability is clearly superior. It's no wonder the government tries to co-opt Stark's Iron Man technology in the second film. In his essay "Hero of the Military-Industrial Complex: Reading Iron Man through Burke's Dramatism," Ronald C. Thomas, Jr. elucidates the connection between the public and private sectors, stating, "The Iron Man armor transformed Stark from a military manufacturer to a human fighter plane" (156-157). Consequently, Stark is potentially a very dangerous man, as this scene demonstrates. His suit is so advanced he is able to execute maneuvers more quickly than the jets; when he pulls up, he collides with one of the fighters. He is able to save the pilot by forcing open his parachute, but it's a problem that Stark himself caused. This incident represents a recurring theme in the film: that it is not selfless heroism which compels Stark/Iron Man, but rather personal and professional guilt. 

There are so many more instances of the Iron Man Interface in the film, but I feel like this entry is already overlong. Maybe after I see Iron Man 2 (tonight at midnight!!), I'll revisit the theme in the first and second films. There's still Part Five to post, which is a wrap-up of both the political and technical aspects of the films. Until then...

Works Cited
Feigenbaum, Jean, and Lance Christmann. "Inside Iron Man." User Interface Resource Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 April 2010.

Thomas, Jr., Ronald C. "Hero of the Military-Industrial Complex: Reading Iron Manthrough Burke’s Dramatism."Heroes of Film, Comics and American Culture: Essays on Real and Fictional Defenders of Home. (2009): 152-166.

Recommended Further Reading 
Helfand, Jessica. "Iron Man: The Screen Behind the Screen." Design Observer . 16 05 2008, n.d. Web. 6 April 2010.

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