In the futuristic world of “Her,” tech is designed to be invisible
Jul 10, 2023

In the futuristic world of “Her,” tech is designed to be invisible

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the romance and science-fiction film "Her." K.K. Barrett, an award winning production designer of the film, discusses all the high-tech details in the movie.

The 2013 movie “Her” depicts a near future world where a lonely divorcee, played by Joaquin Phoenix, falls in love with an artificially intelligent operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

This month we’re taking a closer look at the Spike Jonze film and how it resonates 10 years later as we find ourselves in a real life AI boom.

Production designer K.K. Barrett walks Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino through his process for imagining the world of “Her” as almost a counterpoint to the science fiction dystopias we’re used to. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

K.K. Barrett: I think what we often see is technology forward. Let’s say it was 20 years in the future, we’d see technology from 10 years in the future already falling apart and being replaced by something else. And there’s usually a cycle of replacement. And none of that was really necessary. And rather than try to make things tech, we wanted to de-tech things.

Meghan McCarty Carino: It’s interesting, because the heart of the movie is essentially a piece of technology. But you’ve said in the past that you and Spike Jonze really didn’t want this to be a movie about technology. Why is that?

Barrett: Because technology gets in the way of, of humanity. I think that when the futurists think of another time and what we will have, they always think of devices rather than connections. And I think it’s completely backwards. So one of the first things [we said was], it’s not about technology. If it’s about technology, we’re going to be paying attention to the technology, let’s erase the technology and go back to the humanity. The technology is right there in our face, because it’s about an intelligent operating system that is growing exponentially faster in her education than we can.

McCarty Carino: So how did you think about designing this world where technology is clearly very advanced, but also sort of invisible?

Barrett: In keeping with wanting it to go away, we wanted to take away things that we’re familiar with. So we got rid of keyboards, we got rid of the familiar frame of the computer, and just made it look like a frame from a piece of art, which Samsung has a TV like that now. And I’ve often said the only thing that existed in the film that we don’t have was the holographic projection of the game, which is pretty hard to do without atmosphere, and the fast growing operating system.

McCarty Carino: Tell me about the design of the little handheld device that the main character Theo uses to communicate with his operating system, Samantha, because it does look somewhat familiar to things we have now, but also kind of unfamiliar. How did you settle on that design?

Barrett: That was a lot of fun. It was the first thing we thought about because it was such a portal into her voice and connectivity. And it was the last thing that we landed on and decided was the way we wanted it to be. Of course, it started with technology. And we went through all the joyful hoops. Everybody does, “oh, we get to design the future, what can it be.” And then I’d start thinking about, I looked at all of the other versions in the past, whether it was a clear piece of glass or a holographic image that floated above your hand and all these things, and they looked too sci-fi to me, they looked too fabulous. And I think that everybody would be focusing on that rather than on what came through it, which was the human voice and [Theo’s] comedic failures at dating. And so we didn’t want it to be like a phone that we have now, which is very, very familiar. And so we started thinking about what you used to carry in your pocket or what you used to have, and that you’d like to hold. What was tactile? What was nice? And we thought about a Zippo lighter, which I don’t think anybody’s familiar with it any longer. But it was a nice chrome piece of steel that was cool to the touch and rounded and slipped in your pocket. and it was fun to play with. And then we started thinking about what came before a phone. And that was an address book where you’d have everybody’s address and you’d write in and you’d cross out and change as they changed their phone number or moved from place to place. And so that became the basis of it was the address book, the little, black book, and he was also dating, so it was kind of a joke on it.

So it was the address book, and then when we went to China to look for locations, because half the film was shot ultimately in Shanghai as Los Angeles, and Los Angeles as Los Angeles to make a different futuristic statement. Everybody had business cards, and they had business card holders, the little pocket thing that opened up very much like an address book. And you would share business cards. And there were so many of those in the stationery stores. It was great. And then we went to an antique store here in Los Angeles, in Silverlake, and looked at a bunch of cigarette cases that also sprung open and address books. And the distillation of all those is how we landed on that. And we didn’t want something that anybody would covet. And so he wanted it to look old. Like he’d had this thing in his pocket a long time and it was worn. And it was comfortable and he didn’t think anything about it.

McCarty Carino: This design choice to make the technology sort of more invisible, it really has the effect of making this world feel more human-centered. I mean, even the the built environment, the urban environment, feels certainly more human-centered than the Los Angeles I live in. I mean, I don’t think we ever see a car.

Barrett: It’s funny when everybody said “I want to live in that world,” and I said “you can, all you have to do is just clean it up.” One of the things that I wanted to get rid of right away was graphics. I didn’t want any graphics on clothes, which becomes a visual noise. And I didn’t want any advertising. Our current technology is filled with advertising, you can barely open his screen without having five or six pop ups that you have to ignore. And they’re all trying to get your attention because they think they know you, they think they’ve learned you from your habits.

McCarty Carino: I did notice that a lot of the technology that is visible in the film — like the little earpiece that they use to communicate with the OS; obviously, the way that the video game and the entertainment kind of projects into the room isn’t this giant presence in the room when it’s not on; the way that they navigate the desktop computers — it does all seem to be geared to facilitating interaction with the real world. Not tying people to the device or to a screen. Was that intentional?

Barrett: That was very intentional, very, very intentional. I think that you want to be free. You don’t want to be tethered. Even being in a zone is distracting. I remember that the best thing I would do after I finished a job where you’re connecting with so many people for so long is to leave the phone at home and just go for a walk and not be reachable. Being on a plane, before for they got internet on planes, which is still pretty dicey, was a haven of escape, because nobody could reach you. So being able to disconnect is such a wonderful thing, even though the connection is also wonderful, and it’s better than it’s ever been.

McCarty Carino: To what extent does it look like technology today is following that philosophy of allowing us to disconnect and to connect with the real world?

Barrett: I don’t know. I think it’s got its own designs. A lot of technology wants to put more and more things in front of our eyes…

McCarty Carino: Including literally goggles. (laughs)

Barrett: Yeah, exactly, which disconnects you from everyone. I still wish there was less technology, but I like the way it’s going to the extent that it is helping us keep hands free, and be more intuitive.

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The team

Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer