Cabin in the Woods Designers Talk Lo-Fi Sci-Fi Interfaces

By Wesley Fenlon

Cabin in the Woods' control center looks both high tech and well-worn, which isn't an easy combination to pull off.

If you haven't seen Cabin in the Woods, go watch it before reading this post, because 1) It's a total blast and 2) This post will spoil the film's mysterious premise.

Now, onto Cabin in the Woods: Even though the movie reveals its meta premise right away, with Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins preparing for a night of scientifically controlled sacrifice, it takes awhile for the film to fully reveal how controlled every element of its world is. Some of the most fun moments in the movie come when Whitford and Jenkins toy with their prey with their computers, and the set design provides the perfect balance between a drab (but also high tech) government-looking control room and the horror-flavored cabin that serves as the primary setting. This is where smart interface design comes in, and sci-fi blog Make It So recently published an interview with the two designers who gave Cabin in the Woods its look.

Impressively, Coplin Le Bleu and Chris Kieffer designed everything for Cabin in the Woods remotely under tight time constraints. Their interview with Make It So offers an interesting perspective into how movie interfaces are designed. Cabin in the Woods is also a bit of a special case, since it's a mixture of fantasy and sci-fi and horror that is still, at least in terms of its electronics, very grounded in real-world tech.

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"I started designing the interface with the idea that it was an older system set up, that might have looked high tech in it’s prime but had 'weathered' a little bit," said Le Bleu. " So I tried to add a lot of terminal and DOS style elements that would imply a lower, underlining level of programing. I also felt it needed to have a utilitarian and mechanical feel to the design as it would be controlling and monitoring the different parts of the house."

The Make It So Blog's analysis of sci-fi films often points out design elements that add visual flair to a scene but don't make practical sense. And that's part of moviemaking--these elements are often only on screen for a few seconds at a time and aren't supposed to be given much thought. But that doesn't necessarily make them easy to design:

"It was very challenging for me to display a lot of 'nondescript' information to make the screens look busy without tying that graphic to what ever pertinent plot point might be going on at the time," Le Bleu said.

Kieffer added to that by explaining that realistic functionality just doesn't work in movies, a lot of the time:

"Then we have the make it bigger, and red or green' problems. This is when we have to make some text on the screen very large and red if bad and green if good. We try very hard to avoid things like that but sometimes it’s out of our control. They need to get a specific point across to the audience quickly, and even though your computer wouldn’t say something like 'Access Denied' in RED 72pt FONT, some of these just might."

Check out the rest of the interview for some cool discussion of trying to fake the look of a CRT on an LCD screen. My favorite anecdote: The designers worked on a "monster select screen that showed all the monsters and their stats." Where's our Cabin in the Woods sim game?