Correction: “The Island” did NOT feature a Surface

Dr. Merrick’s DeskSome of you might remember the post(s) I wrote last week about the movie “The Island”, in which I claimed the interactive touch desk in Dr. Merrick’s office was actually an early protoype of the Microsoft Surface. As it turns out, it was not a Microsoft Surface. When in fact, it was just good film making and the hard work by many talented designers. However, there is still a tiny Surface connection. Here is the explanation.

Yesterday, I had received an email from Mark Coleran about my blog post on the subject which provided a definite statement on whether or not in fact it was a “Surface”. For those of you not familiar with Mark’s work, he is an amazing visual designer for on-screen production. It is almost guaranteed you’ve seen some of his work in over a dozen movies including “The World is Not Enough“, “Lara Croft” and obviously “The Island“. Check out his showreel for an overview.

Mark carefully explains the story about Microsoft’s involvement in “The Island”.

Lots of companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Dell etc, regularly place product or branding within movies. In the majority of cases it helps offset the massive outlay required to equip scenes and can be very helpful in production. In the particular case of the Island, there were numerous companies involved. Microsoft were involved and the primary part of that involvement was for a information kiosk. I think they also had some background scene branding as well.

When companies get involved, they make a lot of suggestions about how and where, their products are featured. For the most part it is reasonable and sensible. They want to have their stuff seen in the best light possible. It is rare indeed if they get to have any creative involvement, and in this particular case, they did not.

The desk scene in The Island, was inspired in part by Minority Report. So much so they contracted the same science and technology advisor, John Underkoffler from M.I.T. to oversee the futurism. Mr Underkofflers’ involvement is ensure that what is done is believable in some sense, so makes suggestions based on what he is aware of in research.

Mark even goes on to explain his thinking behind the design of the ‘desk interface’.

When approaching a movie I try and break down the computer systems by scene type, so this came under Merrick Biotech ‘OS’ The look and feel of this ‘OS’ was used in most of the city scenes. It is drawn in Illustrator, Photoshop and animated in After Effects. The interaction for the most part is very limited. What you see are linear movies with faux interactive elements within them, that can be stopped, started, looped etc.

Just to show the amazing detail and thoroughness of his work, he’s allowed me to share this screenclip of the desk interface. It’s unbelievable to see not only is it fanciful, but how much practicality and functionality he illustrates.

Merrick’s Desk - The Island

To achieve the effects of a touchable surface, Mark reveals the technicalities involved.

The majority of the screens you see in the Island were active and have the content on them playing in front of camera. Where ever possible we always tried to make it work live. The desk was one of the few exceptions. It was originally supposed to be a live projection from underneath. A combination of factors made it very difficult to pull off well. A lot of external lighting. The projector needs to be tented (so external light doesn’t interfere with the beam and spill onto the back of the screen), but not possible on an open desk. The resolution was also not high enough. The camera wanted to get very close and it just did not hold well enough at such scales.

In the end, a plain glass desk was used with a frosted surface. The strong light source underneath, to illuminate the actors and create and easy punch out for what is called a luma key. The actual desk was later composited by Blackbox LA and the animation was made to retrofit the ‘interaction’.

Boat sketch - Dr. Merrick’s DeskAnd the real people who worked the magic of the desk are,

    Mark Coleran, Design and Animation of the Interface and graphics.
  • Paul Luna, animated background.
  • Original background desktop still from Sascha Höhne at RAD.E8
  • Compositing by Max Harris at Blackbox Digital
  • Jorge Almeda, boat sketch

Mark may also have an explanation for the misunderstanding and similarities between Merrick’s Desk and Surface.

I do know that one of John Underkofflers associates at MIT went on to work at Microsoft on the Surface project, but I cannot remember his name at the moment. Perhaps this is where some of the confusion has crept in.

Michael Nguyen who I contacted originally to provide some information on the movie’s production has also admitted he’s made a mistake on his blog. I should note that whilst his information was incorrect, I do not think it was his intention to mislead me. It is still true he did work in the production of the movie, however he might have misunderstood or misinterpreted some of the information he might have come across.

Microsoft SurfaceAnd finally, Mark goes on to share his personal thoughts on the Surface.

I really like the Microsoft Surface and as a proof of concept it is great. Good design is about evolution rather than radical replacement and they have adapted and incorporated alot of good existing technology and made it work well together. I am not personally sure about how well it will work as a home system but there is great potential in vertical areas.

I’ve got to admit, this was a mistake that’s evolved into quite an insight into the world of interface design and film making. I apologize again for misleading a lot of people who relied on my blog post for a news source.

19 insightful thoughts

  1. *Drool* I wonder if StarDock now has enough info with that screen shot to make a “TheIsland” theme.

  2. It’s not a problem Long, misunderstandings happen… it’s still been an interesting topic.

  3. Well, as far as my impression, I didn’t think we were looking at a Surface prototype, but a Surface concept, and was only really confused about how much was done on set vs. post. In any event, no biggie.

  4. Just by looking at the screenshots from the movie’s “Surface”, one would not think it is really a Microsoft Surface, **especially** when the product was under Microsoft’s NDA, wouldn’t you say Long?

  5. Well, personally i dont care what company is/was/could be behind this idea – i just think its frikking awesome and i hope and KNOW this desk is soon a reality in very very near future. Its just a matter of time. Who wouldnt want one? This desk comparred is centuries ahead of surface, but im sure some other company will make it eventually. We have the technology for it.

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