The Chicago Spire is designed by artist-architect Santiago Calatrava and funded by developer Garrett Kelleher. When completed in 2011, the spire will be the tallest building in the western hemisphere. The massive film “Inspire” was commissioned to showcase the building. We spoke to director Sheena Duggal, an extremely experienced VFX supervisor, about the making of the film.
The Chicago Spire is an enormous residential development project on Chicago’s Lakeshore Drive, designed by one of the world’s most celebrated architects, Santiago Calatrava, and funded by developer Tycoon Garrett Kelleher of Shelbourne Development Group. Kelleher commissioned Sony Pictures Imageworks to create an animated film in order to showcase the building in a highly artistic environment, an unprecedented approach in the world of architecture.
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The film Inspire, conceived by Imageworks’ Duggal, was to break the mold of architectural sales tools – a landscape usually filled with non-emotional, sterile sales videos. Duggal explains that the film was “challenging technically, as the building was being designed while we were making the film”. Inspire’s premiere, at the unveiling of the Chicago Spire in September of 2007, was the first time anyone saw the building, so accuracy was vital. While the visual effects industry will easily distort reality for a good shot, the building’s dimensions needed to be modeled with precision – as much as was possible during the continuing design phase – and faithfully rendered.
As such, the team needed to build the 3D model. They worked off traditional blue prints and some DXF files but generally the 3D model needed to be built by hand. Luckily, as the building is built around the Fibonacci Sequence, the artists could procedurally model the building’s complex floors and rotations. The film, which is four minutes long, took four months to produce at Sony Pictures Imageworks in Culver City. Clearly for everyone involved, the technical considerations were almost secondary to doing the building’s design justice. Duggal clearly admires the architectural design issues. “It is going to be a beautiful addition to the already stunning Chicago skyline”, she explains.
What is the Fibonacci Sequence? Ater two starting values, each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers, so starting at 0 and 1: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610, 987, 1597, 2584, 4181, 6765, 10946. The Fibonacci numbers are named after Leonardo of Pisa, known as Fibonacci. A Fibonacci spiral is created by drawing arcs connecting the opposite corners of squares in a basic tiling pattern. The number sequence has great significance and prominence in nature.
This aspect of the project fascinated and intrigued Duggal. “It is found everywhere in the universe from the spiral in a nebula to the spiral of a shell, from musical harmony…to breeding patterns of rabbits,” she says. “You can see it in the physical behaviour of atoms and wall street analysts see it in the rising and falling of the market. In this day and age when we are starting to get concerned about our relationship with nature and the environment, having an artist like Calatrava, who is designing buildings around the way things grow in nature, is really remarkable”. Calatrava describes the project as “having importance to live in harmony with the elements of nature.” At the launch of the Chicago Spire, attended by 500 VIP’s in Chicago, Calatrava was introduced as the “DaVinci of our time” and developer Garrett Kelleher described the Spire as a 2000 foot piece of sculpture.
The Nature of the Project
Duggal was introduced to the project and Kelleher via the “Inspire” film producer Jacquie Barnbrook. Kelleher also owns L.A. based Lightstream Pictures. “When I became involved in the project, acclaimed Australian director Paul Currie was going to direct and I was going to VFX supervise it,” explains Duggal. “However, once I pitched my ideas for the art film, Paul decided I should direct while he remained involved as an Executive producer.” Currie was also the director of the documentary companion piece on Calatrava and the Chicago Spire.
“When I first became involved in the project I looked at examples of a typical architectural visualization and realized immediately that I had a lot to offer. The first thing that struck me was the fact that architectural visualizations had no narrative and were driven by unmotivated camera moves, says Duggal. She set out to create an art piece that reflected the artistic nature of the Spire. Elements from nature were used to drive the camera around the building and show the spire as a backdrop to these natural elements, ultimately revealing it in its future location of the already impressive Chicago skyline. Duggal notes “this not only pays homage to the inspiration of the Spire, the Fibonacci sequence represented in these elements upon which the building’s mathematics are based, but also to the idea of expressing growth and creation”.
The Need for Accuracy
The film is the first representation of the Chicago Spire, which itself won’t be completed for a number of years. So it was important that the team make all the designs accurate, down to the very last detail, which included the interior material palette as well as the structural design.
“I can say that what we created is as accurate to the actual spire as possible in this phase of the design,” relates Duggal. “In order to achieve exactness, we needed answers on design decisions that had not yet been made and so we had a running list of questions referring to: the landscape and pathway design; lighting design; floor plans; door locations; window walls and structural spacing; and many other questions about materials and how to interpret the architectural information and blueprints”.
Many of the artists who worked on the project at SPI were inspired to work on this project because of the architect Calatrava. The fact that some of the team actually had an architectural background was very helpful to the VFX process when interpreting the architectural information.
Working With a Different Type of Client
“I very much enjoyed working on this project because of the faith the client had in our creative talents,” says Duggal. Both Mr. Calatrava and Mr. Kelleher liked the concept from the first pitch and very little changed creatively during the process. It was a great experience to have this much creative freedom, it rarely happens in feature film VFX. Paul, who is a director himself, was very helpful because of his understanding of the process and his experience.” Overall, the client’s biggest concern was that the team represent the Chicago Spire project faithfully. “I think Mr. Kelleher has amazing insight and he expressed that he felt we had captured the essence of the Spire which is hard to articulate in words,” says Duggal.
One of the issues Duggal and her team faced was interfacing with the real building designers. There were several architectural teams involved in the project, as there normally are with any building project of this size. The architectural teams were from all over the world, and the “inspire” team needed to work with people in four different locations, NY, Chicago, Zurich, Ireland and the UK. “Generally Thomas Hollier, CG supervisor, and Jacquie (producer) and the production team were on the technical conference calls with Calatrava’s architects. Jacquie and I were also interacting with the creative teams.”
Creating the Spire model from a Maya point of view was interesting because SPI could use the fibonacci sequence to help create the model using a procedural process. Eugene Jeong created the base Spire building model procedurally using a Maya mel script. Each floor rotates on average 2.44 degrees from the one below, with a total rotation of 360 degrees as it reaches its 2,000-foot height. The mel script took into account the height and rotation of building and the script processed this basic information which the artists could then manually modify to fit to the visual drawings and DFX files.
According to the Shelbourne website, the Chicago Spire has a base-to-height ratio approaching one to ten, making it the most slender super-tall building in the world. It will also shatter the record for the longest continual elevator lift by 500 feet.
The team pre-visualized, modeled and animated the Spire in Maya and used in-house software to render, colour, light, and composite. They used Houdini for the effects animation. All the individual “scenes” then hook-up into a single four minute long shot and the team then used Flame to create the final tweaks. Approximately 75 crew-members worked on the project in some capacity. The animation piece took 2 man-years to complete and approximately 23 processor years (reference: one laptop equals one processor).
Role of Music
“The music was the most challenging aspect for me since it isn’t my area of expertise,” says Duggal. “Having said that, I chose Rachmaninov’s piano concerto #2 as the music that I liked. I felt it had the right emotional tones to represent the essence of the Spire; a place where people live, eat, sleep, laugh, cry, raise their families etc. I wanted something that conveyed all these emotional feelings without highlighting any single one, essentially to have flow and balance.”
“We hired a composer Chance Thomas with the intention of adapting the Rachmaninov piece but in the end decided to create an original piece of music for the Spire,” Duggal explains. “Chance did a great job and we worked on a very tight schedule, he would work at night and I would listen to the music in the morning and give him feedback before doing digital dailies. I was careful to musically stay away from anything that felt masculine and in my brief I asked Chance to compose a piece that was the yin to the yang of the images, feminine all the way. I wanted to layer the piano with the other instruments so that it felt emotionally balanced, as if the piano was accompanying the orchestra, and to not crescendo until we see the Spire revealed on a large scale. I directed Chance to create emotions such as joy when we first enter the building and I had a very strong feeling about using choir voices to emphasize the viewer’s connection to the people living in the building.”
“Once Chance had created a synthetic track, we recorded the music live with the Northwest Sinfonia Orchestra and the 2 choirs in Seattle with Chance conducting and mixing the Inspire piece. ” Duggal believes that talking about things visually and talking about music are very different beasts, “even the vernacular you would use; for a visual you say enhance, for audio you say accentuate”, she says, commenting on the different language used in music to describe specific things, “I’m afraid I was describing things in terms of feelings and emotions and Chance had the job of interpreting this into music.”
Approximately 200 musicians were used. This included the 70-piece Northwest Sinfonia orchestra, Simon James concert master, 24 voice SATB choir, featuring singers from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the 20-voice International Children’s Chorus.
The Helicopter Shoot
There is one live action shot at the end of the piece in which one sees the famous Chicago skyline. This was a plate shot with the CG Spire composited into it. Paul Currie directed the documentary footage for the Spire Launch and “since he was in Australia at the time, I became 2nd unit director for the aerial shoot, which included the VFX shot over Chicago, together with all the aerial footage for the documentary” she explains.
“The VFX shot required that we fly out 3 miles over the lake at night. We were matching to an already pre-visualized CG camera move, so we used GPS co-ordinates to orientate ourselves at the start and end positions of the camera move and Nic Nicholson and myself eyeballed the rest,” says Duggal. In post, they used a take that was shot pushing into the Spire location, then retimed and reversed the action in Flame to create the illusion of the camera doing a pull-out. 2D reflections of the city into the lake were added to create a more magical shot. Shooting with the Genesis camera, mounted on a Spacecam platform, allowed Duggal to capture some beautiful low light footage of the city at twilight and night. Dave Norris was the aerial DP for the helicopter shoot.
“I was very clear about how I wanted the Inspire piece to look,” says Duggal. “In reality, magic moments of light are hard to capture but are almost always the best, the type of low-angle light and backlighting a photographer will wait for days to capture. So in creating something synthetic I decided that I wanted to recreate this magical lighting for the entire piece.” The camera move was designed to move around the building during the course of one day, while keeping the lighting backlit with a lot of atmospheric lighting effects when inside the Spire. For some of the CG artists it was counter-intuitive to blow out the background and silhouette the foreground, but once they got the idea of the look, everyone was really excited. When audio and visual are combined, “the beauty of the images, music and building itself are really quite special.”
Laurence Treweek and Alan Chen were instrumental in implementing the in-house renderer to get the best ray tracing on the building, which consists mostly of glass and steel. Chen created the atmospheric effects that add “that little bit of magic to the piece.” One of the other things Duggal wanted to do was to create a unique view of the Spire environment. “The client wanted to highlight the surrounding parkland and I decided to do this by showing it in the reflections of the building. Which was perfect as the Spire is designed to be in harmony with it’s environment so what better than for the Spire to reflect it. The environment is seen in the building reflections as a dove soars around the exterior, in a rain-droplet falling in front of the Spire, in one of the water pools at a foot of the Spire, through the interior lobby windows and a final time-lapse from day to night shows how the spire will live and reflect its environment.”
Duggal is currently working with Ridley Scott on “Body of Lies”. “I noticed that both Ridley Scott and Santiago Calatrava have something in common, other than of course their obvious, amazing vision. It is interesting to note that they both draw illustrations of their ideas as they are describing them to you and a pen and paper are essential tools to their communication. In fact, Santiago actually carries a paint brush and water colours with him!” she adds.
Duggal feels “extremely privileged to simultaneously work with people whom I consider to be such great artists and innovators in their respective fields. I am especially happy to be doing to what I love: creating art.”
You can see sections of the Inspire art piece on the website www.thechicagospire.com.
There is a traveling road show for the building, which can be seen in the following cities around the world:
Singapore – March
New York – March
Kuala Lumpur – March
Hong Kong – April
The road show will also visit Shanghai and cities in India, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, and South Africa — dates to be announced.
Images courtesy of Shelbourne Development/Santiago Calatrava
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