Time Travel In TV and Film

Did you see this one? It’s a timeline of all the time travel plots from TV and film.

In all, we ended up doing 36 drafts of this. It’s one of my favourites from the book. I’m a total perfectionist and I really wanted to get it right.

I had around 250 concepts for infodesigns when I started the book. I couldn’t do all of those myself. So I sent a list of ideas around to some information designers I liked. New York-based Alice Cho was one of those.

I really love Alice Cho’s stuff for Seed Magazine – beautiful and dataterrific at the same time.

She plucked timelines as one of her choices.

I created a preliminary concept sketch out of the data.

(How cool is that?)

With that done, we started work.

A time and place for everything

The first draft was a digital schematic based on my sketch. Always useful to do with a dataset as it can reveal where any possible bugs might be. We thought it looked cool.

There was quite a lot of data to squeeze in. Not just the journeys but the direction of the time travel, the method and the motivation (saving the world, exploration etc). Given that much data, we thought a banding method might work to suggest the motivation. Alice did a quick approach sketch of how she saw it working.

As we progressed the next version, we quickly hit a technical difficulty – the sheer scope of the data. The timeline ranged from 1184 BC (Time Bandits) to 3978 AD (Planet Of Planets). This forced us to use a pretty wide zoom. That meant that the most dense portion – the 20th century – was crunched into a mush of too much detail.

It was readable to a point. But still too much…

Urg. Stupid twentieth-century bias in time travel plots. How could we solve that one?

Not enough time

The solution seemed to be to telescope the timeline. Making the 20th century higher resolution and the farther flung years coarser. Zooming in, basically.

(I even thought for a moment we could make it 3D to get round the problem. I get these mad ideas from time to time. In retrospect, it probably would’ve worked. But working in 3D opens up a whole other can of arse. Probably was best to “push back on that one” (as they say in the trade).

So we ploughed on with a telescoped timeline. Looked great.

We were pleased. We could get all the data on the timeline now, but… dunno. To me, it still seemed a little ‘griddy’.

Also, the difference between journeys forward and backwards was being lost. We tried a few devices – dotted lines, arrows for destinations – but none seemed to work.

In the end, Alice ran out of time on the diagram, so a great London-based designer, Dominic Busby came in to help.

Better luck next time

So I felt it looked great but too technical. I went back to the subject matter for a solution.

Time travel. To me, there’s something wild and chaotic about time travel. It’s not A to B like teleportation. It’s winding, dangerous, looping. In the movies, it’s often depicted with contorted tunnels and wormholes (sometimes with lame grandfather clocks and watches flying around’).

Curves seemed the obvious direction, the obvious metaphor. I came up with this.

Clearly there was just too much going on in the image. We were trying to do too much. It’s an easy trap to fall into. You’ve got so much data and you’re so enraptured with the idea that you just want to cram as much in, really exploit the medium. But design, I’m learning, is about simplification. How much can you take out and still make it work?

So, on reflection, the ‘motivations’ seemed less interesting. Who really cares why you’re time travelling? The cool thing is that you’re doing it and how you’re doing it.

That helped prune the complexity and get the curves going.

(Admission: I couldn’t actually draw curves in Illustrator at this point. So a drew a crude rough with a Wacom pad and Dom poshed it up. And, yes, we hand-drew every single curve.)

Time to call it a day

We were getting excited. It was beginning to really look nice. Especially when we switched to a black background, which seemed more sci-fi to us.

And a neat polish of the curves later…

There. After 36 versions. Job’s a good’un.

Thanks again to designers Alice Cho and Dominic Busby for their creativity and patience in the face of pathological perfectionism.

If you have any comments or recommendations, please drop me a line.