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12.16.2009
Construction Cinema
Once bare-bones and utilitarian, architectural animation is becoming more nuanced and experiential. In part, this development can be credited to advances in 3-D technology, but at the same time architects have embraced the art of filmmaking -- not only to create more interactive presentations for clients, but also to leverage as a tool in the design process.
Neutral's animated rendering of Herzog & de Meuron's proposed Gazprom Tower in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Courtesy Neutral

It’s easy to think of architecture as an interdisciplinary field. At its most basic level, art and science combine to create buildings that are both beautiful and functional. In much the same way, architects are now relying on a broad spectrum of professional fields for sharing their work. From film to video games to documentary photography, architects are stretching beyond their own circles to present and explain their projects in new and even entertaining ways.

Some of the biggest leaps have occurred within the realm of architectural animation. With the rapid expansion of computer rendering and 3-D modeling software, converting models into animations has become exponentially easier and an increasingly popular way to present new projects.

Amid Amidi, an animation historian and co-creator of the animation blog Cartoon Brew, said that in recent years he’s been seeing much higher levels of complexity in architectural presentations, and much more artistry in the process. “You can illustrate not just the idea, but show how people are going to interact with that environment in a way that can’t be shown with a little man in a model,” he said. “You can actually demonstrate interactions between user and environment. We’re only on the verge of what can be done.”

Architectural drawings have been given the animation treatment for years, but most fall into a utilitarian mold: a 360-degree rotation around a model of the building and a “flythrough” that takes the viewer inside. The result is a compelling visual for the client, but ultimately it’s a plain-cake approach.

“It has become completely mainstream now,” said Tapio Snellman, a director at Neutral, the London-based design and animation studio behind a string of films for such clients as Zaha Hadid, OMA, and Herzog & de Meuron. Neutral’s films tend to be impressionistic in approach, as opposed to what Snellman bemoans as the typical “hyper-realistic” film. “All they do is show the reality and the way the building’s going to be as close as possible without really talking much about the process or explaining why it is the way it is or how the design evolved,” he said.

That’s a sentiment that has invaded the field, both among filmmakers and architects. “People have become really anesthetized to architectural visualizations,” said Vivian Rosenthal, co-founder of New York–based Tronic Studio, which produces a variety of visual displays for architects, including animations. Because she and co-founder Jesse Seppi were trained as architects,  not filmmakers, they say they offer a fresh approach and perspective to architectural filmmaking. They use their understanding of the field’s scientific and artistic interplay to break away from the standard video model. “The client and the public expect more from these kinds of architectural films,” said Seppi.

Their recent film for a now-stalled Manhattan residential tower by Herzog & de Meuron gets cinematic in its display, showing columns and walls and ceilings falling down from the sky like an architectural Tetris game. As the building rises floor by floor, viewers venture into and around the residences, flying through living rooms and out over the 57-story building’s staggered balconies. In two flashy minutes, viewers watch the building grow up and blend into the neighborhood.

Like Tronic Studio, architects, urban designers, and planners make up the majority of Neutral’s staff. This experience in the design of buildings and spaces plays into their films’ focus on the context of the projects and how they fit into their urban surroundings. A recent film Neutral produced for a waterfront project in Copenhagen by OMA shows the building integrating with the city piece by piece, then shows it in its complete form from the perspective of a pedestrian touring its interior and exterior.

Snellman said he and his team are more interested in the presentation of architectural ideas than in actually designing. With a good display, he said, “You’ll be able to understand where the idea comes from and why it needs to be the way it is.”

A common frustration for Neutral, Tronic, and others working in architectural animation is that context is regularly overlooked in most flythroughs commissioned by architects.


An image of the "Manifold," a shapeless landscape in a virtual utopian world from Imaginary Forces’ New City exhibit at MoMA's Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition in 2008.
Courtesy Imaginary Forces
 

“A flythrough is as relevant to the view of something as a sketch on a napkin. No one ever sees anything from the perspective of a flythrough. Unless you’re a drone,” said Peter Frankfurt, co-founder of Imaginary Forces, a design studio with offices in Los Angeles and New York that produces film titles, commercials, interactive spaces, and a variety of visual elements and experiences.

Frankfurt and Imaginary Forces routinely work with architects, and were part of the multidisciplinary consortium United Architects, whose pre-visualization film became one of six finalists in the competition to redesign the World Trade Center. Rather than focusing solely on the proposed design, the film imagines the complex already built and tracks the reactions of people as they see it for the first time, jutting out from the skyline and peeking through the forest of skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan. He says the common thread in all his firm’s work—from the beginning of a Hollywood movie to a car commercial to an architectural visualization—is a solid and engaging narrative. “It’s really about, how do you tell a good story? That’s basically the bottom line,” said Frankfurt.

The bulk of Imaginary Forces’ film work is of the Hollywood variety; they’ve done teasers and opening credits for films like Minority Report, Terminator Salvation, and the Transformers series. But elements of architecture have found their way into much of the firm’s work, especially in the realm of experience design. One project for New York City’s Museum of Modern Art was New City, an architecturally based immersive media environment that envisioned a “living virtual world parallel and simultaneous to ours.” Frankfurt said this type of work helps to emphasize the connection between entertainment and architecture.


A close-up view of a potential new cityscape, also from the Elastic Mind exhibit.
Courtesy Imaginary Forces
 

These sorts of thematic and impressionistic displays are much more than marketing presentations. Some architects are actually using animation as part of their design methods. “It becomes part of the creative thought process,” said Kulapat Yantrasast, a principal at wHY Architecture in Culver City. “By doing the video, you learn how to communicate the idea more clearly, which sometimes refines the idea itself.”

For one residential project in the Hollywood Hills, wHY took inspiration from the neighborhood’s history in the film industry to create a sort of film-noir animation of the house’s design. Taking cues from Alfred Hitchcock and the early days of mystery movies, wHY’s film shows the house from the perspective of a private detective investigating a crime. The “investigation” takes the detective and the viewer up the drive to the home and through each of its rooms. The crime isn’t exactly solved, but the narrative style turns what could have been a drab flythrough into an engaging exploration.

Frankfurt said the growing use of animation throughout the design and marketing process is a cross-pollination between architects and filmmakers that’s likely to continue. “I think it’s just architects’ comfort level and fluency increasing,” he said. “They’re using the process of making the film as a kind of design charrette for elements of the project itself, and I think that’s where there’s real interesting push and value.”

Nate Berg

LA-based Nate Berg writes about architecture, the environment, and technology. He is an editor at the urban planning news website Planetizen.