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Building Fiction: Storytelling as Logic

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Tali Krakowsky, WET Design.
Tali Krakowsky, WET Design.
Alex McDowell, RDI is a production designer and the founder/director of 5D: The Future of Immersive Design. He is responsible for imagining the future environments of Minority Report, the fictional environments of Fight Club, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Terminal, and, most recently, the graphic period world of Watchmen. He is also designing an opera of the future "Death and the Powers, A Robot Pageant" at the MIT Media Lab, where he is visiting artist.

David Taylor heads the Performing Arts sector for leading design engineering firm, Arup. As a theater designer and planner, Taylor is a choreographer of architecture, designing buildings such as the Kodak Theater for the Oscars and the upcoming theater for Baryshnikov and The Wooster Group.

David and Alex are dedicated to creating performance spaces that generate and facilitate storytelling. They both conceive and transform stories through their respective designs.

This conversation with the two of them begins to explore how a unique type of design methodology is changing storytelling and its processes - both in cinema and in the built environment.

Fight Club. The Paper Street house is a narrative structure. A hundred years of embedded back-story designed to enable motivated and accelerated history. The house creates a hidden logic that permits (spoiler alert!!) two sides of the same personality to exist simultaneously in this imagined architectural space.
Fight Club. The Paper Street house is a narrative structure. A hundred years of embedded back-story designed to enable motivated and accelerated history. The house creates a hidden logic that permits (spoiler alert!!) two sides of the same personality to exist simultaneously in this imagined architectural space.


In their own ways, Alex and David transform their stories into a series of performance and behavioral parameters that allow spaces to generate new narratives and experiences. Much like a set of rules in a game, the construction of these logic systems offers new opportunities for collaborations and co-authorship. Most importantly, they are transforming the way that we imagine and experience storytelling.

This entry is longer than you probably expect a blog to be, but I hope that you'll think it's worth it.

Both of you create performance spaces that tell their own stories. It seems to me that those stories whether they connect to a script for a film or a program for a building are a catalyst for a new form of storytelling that is your creative process. How does the logic of a story influence your design of environments and how does the design of these environments influence the logic of the story?

McDowell: To start with, I think it's worth stating the obvious - that storytelling is now and has always been a fundamental design tool. In fact, one could say simply that story equals logic.

Minority Report, Washington DC 2050. The influence of the Precogs has created a murder-free society within a limited radius of the city. The resulting rapid growth of population has stimulated a vertical urban expansion outside the zoned capital. This illustration by James Clyne shows an apparently benign, green, and futuristic society.
Minority Report, Washington DC 2050. The influence of the Precogs has created a murder-free society within a limited radius of the city. The resulting rapid growth of population has stimulated a vertical urban expansion outside the zoned capital. This illustration by James Clyne shows an apparently benign, green, and futuristic society.


There is a common misconception that film begins and ends with a script. In reality a designer often starts conceptualizing environments prior to a script, and even when there is a script it generally helps only minimally in defining the logic of the world. There is a real question as to whether a script can fully define the potential of story, in the context of any narrative media. Instead, I would say a film's narrative is the product of the interactions between the story, its characters and their environment, and that the development of narrative is much more intuitively attained in a fluid exploration of characters in their environment, with dialogue added as the characters come to life.

Minority Report: The PreCrime white model of the narrative structure that supports the metaphor of water. The ripples of the dramatic story start at the center of this set with the Precogs, and spread through the narrative.
Minority Report: The PreCrime white model of the narrative structure that supports the metaphor of water. The ripples of the dramatic story start at the center of this set with the Precogs, and spread through the narrative.


Minority Report - PreCrime Headquarters: Transparency with a hidden secret at its core - the Precog Chamber - the pebble dropped.
Minority Report - PreCrime Headquarters: Transparency with a hidden secret at its core - the Precog Chamber - the pebble dropped.


Film makes this process clear since every film requires such an obviously different set of rules to be in place for it to develop. So one can see that designing an 18th Century story of intrigue in the court of Marie-Antoinette requires a very different set of rules, or logic, than a story that unfolds in Washington DC in the year 2050. This has not changed. What has changed is our ability to immerse ourselves in that logic driven space, to set the rules in motion, and to fully test them - not in rough edit after shooting, or at test screenings, but in early design and creative development, with the creative participants as both world-builders and audience.

Watchmen Karnak: I.M Pei meets the Cairo Museum at the Met. As with all good movie villains, Ozimandias' bunker hideaway in the Arctic is filled with media and ancient artifacts. 3D model rendered in Revit, designer Brian Sutton.


The demands of any story define the rules from which each creative participant develops the logic they require to support that story. The producer looks to the practical constraints, the director to the arc and development of the characters, the designers to how the space, costume, history, geography, social context frame the characters. If these elements are allowed to interact consistently, intuitively, and in a common creative space, then they feed each other to create a meta-logic that will drive a coherent and unique world from inception into materiality.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory -The Chocolate River Room. Final set photography showing a 20-foot translucent fiberglass boat floating in a chocolate river and carrying human passengers as well as the mechanics to drive 67 animatronic Oompa Loompas. The set included 200,000 gallons of
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory -The Chocolate River Room. Final set photography showing a 20-foot translucent fiberglass boat floating in a chocolate river and carrying human passengers as well as the mechanics to drive 67 animatronic Oompa Loompas. The set included 200,000 gallons of


While many parts of the creative process of film and architecture resemble each other, the film designer is creating a narrative machine - an environment or world whose function is to reflect and absorb light, and to transmit an embedded narrative. So the logic of the story is the sole driver of design.

Taylor: Because the buildings I plan stick around, good or bad, for hundreds of years, there are compelling reasons to make sure that the process of arriving at a successful building for the arts, works well to create a building that opens, thrives and adapts into the future. This is purely and simply the result of the right process: one that understands the narrative of the building, its context, its arts and its inhabitants, both in the now and in the future.

Our narrative is the program. The program is often misinterpreted as being just a list of events in space. For me it's about a broader story of the ecology of a concert hall, theater space or the opera house will be used, understood explored and exploited. My job is to listen, comprehend, and codify into a coherent description of what the building can aspire to be, in bricks and mortar, and beyond.

This, of course, will take on dimensionality and reality--think "reality show" with all the wonderful narrative twists and turns--once it is animated by audiences, artists and creators. The people are those that really activate the timeline from day two, once the opening gala is cleared up and the building gets on with its business.

Sony Center, Lobby Media. The HD graphics, colors and textures of light are influenced by the behavior of passersby from the outside and the inside, and by those playing video games within the building. The built environment not only interacts with its audiences, but also learns about the people who interact with it.
Sony Center, Lobby Media. The HD graphics, colors and textures of light are influenced by the behavior of passersby from the outside and the inside, and by those playing video games within the building. The built environment not only interacts with its audiences, but also learns about the people who interact with it.


Sometimes the inhabitants of the building participate in authoring and informing (not all that negatively) the ultimate telling of the story. In our building in Toronto, some of the media will be the "ghosts" of previous occupants, perhaps animated by the new (younger) audiences that will make the media-rich Sony Centre their arts and culture home. The human animation of the building and the stories that will be unfold and be created in the space will far outweigh the historical heritage of the building itself.

McDowell: David reminds me to mention that, although the film medium might be perceived of as ephemeral, we are actually engaged in a process of transferring story through light and shadows and burning it into media that will last as long as most buildings or, depending on the future of data storage, possibly longer. So there is a real need for filmmakers to take a larger responsibility for what they allow to be projected into the world.

By developing the logic and performance of a space with such rigor, are you removing the creative freedom from its inhabitants, whether they are the actors or the visitors to a building?

McDowell: Absolutely not. Developing a spatial and time-based logic in the design and engineering of environment has the effect of liberating the designer, user and audience, precisely because setting up such logic merely sets in motion a system that stimulates, and develops organically and in synchronicity with, the user's intuition.

Minority Report: The vertical 'Mall City' has necessitated a new kind of transportation that can migrate from vertical to horizontal maglev roadways. This need to navigate the vertical city, and the vertically stacked social hierarchy gives rise to storytelling opportunities.
Minority Report: The vertical 'Mall City' has necessitated a new kind of transportation that can migrate from vertical to horizontal maglev roadways. This need to navigate the vertical city, and the vertically stacked social hierarchy gives rise to storytelling opportunities. Credit: Stefan Dechant


In other words - a good logic just fires the neurons correctly. A bad logic, or no logic, or a lack of care in developing the internal rules of a space, just shuts those neurons down because the user/audience no longer believes in the space and therefore is unprepared or unable to freely imagine how to inhabit the space. By defining the rules and structure, one sets in motion a set of restraints that stimulate the story and give it a human context. A blue sky fictional space without rules actually shuts the space down and removes the imagination.

Taylor: In most circumstances not at all, since the rigor of responsive-to-program planning means that we ensure design and construction decisions are made in accordance with rules, industry standards and safety codes. Assuming we understand and record the main drivers for the project what would make the company work well in their new space the built environment will support the ways we expect the users of the building to create or experience it. Good design will encourage creativity to flourish.

The very best design will allow the building to become a creator or character alongside the artists and audience, as in the case of the Kodak Theatre, which is itself a chameleon in live and broadcast modes.

Kodak Theater. Many drivers for the design of the Kodak were unusual for the normal process of theater design, including eye lines to talent, nominees within four seat of a row, and a walk-along technical infrastructure. But the core design premise was that the theater would be a character a Hollywood Star.


I have been asked a number of times to help make the building we are designing into a character perhaps for a reality show, perhaps for the web-presence for a company. Developing a clear, linear narrative helps but, ultimately, reating an evolving and transforming narrative requires a thoughtful, responsive, creative rule set (a program) which is logical and accountable. I like rules and structure. They encourage and energize me to think about subversion and they make our brains grow.

The kind of environments that you both create greatly depend on successful multi-disciplinary collaborations. Does this creative process shift the role of authorship from a single creator (director/architect) with a predefined vision to be more collaborative and bottom-up?

McDowell: First, it's the collaborative process that has always most interested me. As much as I admire the auteur/artist, it's not a creative space that I inhabit. I consider myself a designer because my process is collaborative, and only exists when it has external problems to solve. An artist has a one-on-one relationship with their material; they create their own set of problems and have to take personal responsibility for every solution. Although there are many people in the film industry who assume the pretension of "artist," it is fundamentally inaccurate.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Painted directly over a lens-accurate 3D model, this impressionistic concept art by Dermot Power presents a data-accurate visualization. This level of artwork allow cinematographer, visual effects supervisor, designer and director to collaborate on the look of the film.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Painted directly over a lens-accurate 3D model, this impressionistic concept art by Dermot Power presents a data-accurate visualization. This level of artwork allow cinematographer, visual effects supervisor, designer and director to collaborate on the look of the film.


Both in nature and by definition, film is a result of a deep and broad collaborative process that makes it impossible for any individual to own the work. I work alongside as many as 1,000 people to help create a single film. A large part of the creative skill in film-making is properly harnessing the enormous potential of that vast a collaboration, and having the sophistication to navigate the dangers of many strong voices in a single sandpit.

I take particular delight in the increasingly multidisciplinary nature of narrative media. I thrive on the adrenaline of juggling in time and space - the more balls in the air, the more fun to be had! And the more intricate the collaborative relationships, the more sophisticated and rich the final product can be.

Cat In The Hat. A highly distorted environment conceptualized in architectural software form-Z and executed using traditional sculpting techniques creates for a highly experiential environment.
Cat In The Hat. A highly distorted environment conceptualized in architectural software form-Z and executed using traditional sculpting techniques creates for a highly experiential environment.


Film, like architecture, is inherently a shared discipline. Despite the auteur theory, there is no possibility of creating a film without a sophisticated and integrated team. I am fascinated by the social and hierarchical networks that are involved in building a story from idea into being. The unique society created around every film is intrinsic to its success or failure, more than a change in script or actor. New technology is allowing these social structures to become ever more intricate but at the same time better connected.

Taylor: The nature of the practice we have grown at Arup is inherently multidisciplinary and is the reason I joined Arup. Unlike each of us specialists fighting our discipline's corner, I like the credo for additive collaboration that was put in place by Ove Arup's key speech in 1970. Any building is created by many, many people with unique talents and crafts. In the recent past we have seen cultural buildings, especially performing arts buildings, become the aggressive focus of starchitects who look for buildings that are driven by being looked at! Such narcissistic auteurism normally ends in tears. More insidious, however, is the new proposal for the design process to be automated into one giant three-dimensional database. The motivator here is to place all the consultants and contractors into service of the database, under the architect. This is a poor way indeed to design a building, especially for the arts, as it removes collaboration and is reduced to the lowest common denominator. Much better is to celebrate the amazing and unique skills of everyone in the creative supply chain, and to add value at each step, including design, construction and operation.

Arup. The buildings we build for the arts listen to their users through us. We have the responsibility for receiving, processing and prioritizing the drivers for new-build and renovated theaters and concert halls. Our role is to be the eyes, ears, feet and conscience of the artists and audiences who will bring our buildings alive.
Arup. The buildings we build for the arts listen to their users through us. We have the responsibility for receiving, processing and prioritizing the drivers for new-build and renovated theaters and concert halls. Our role is to be the eyes, ears, feet and conscience of the artists and audiences who will bring our buildings alive.


With the rapid cultural and generational changes that we're seeing today, perhaps most intriguing are the ways in which visitors to arts buildings become much more active parts of the creative timeline of the buildings they inhabit. We all know that buildings learn; they take on the music and footfalls of the artists and dancers like a cask of maturing malt whiskey. But that contextual growth is brought to life by their occupants - a new generation of interactive users.

How do you see this type of design methodology changing the way you approach your respective practices?

McDowell: We stand on the edge of a new kind of sensory space, resulting not from a change of media or environment but from a far deeper tapping into human perception. We can use the advances of technology to set up a non-linear immersive workspace that more closely resembles the way the creative mind works. It is fed by and feeds the collaborative participants with design data that builds additively and intuitively. Visualization technology, with motion tracking and performance capture, in a real time virtual design space, gives the designer and his creative collaborators the ability to sculpt dimensional narrative worlds. Ironically, the more sophisticated and transparent the technology becomes, the closer we return to core human methodology, sculpture and performance in theatrical fictional space.

Minority Report. The Precog Chamber is an anechoic chamber for the brain. The Chamber takes the brain patterns of each Precog and projects them as physical intersecting ripple patterns. This was the first film set to use a CNC manufacturing process to translate a digital Maya model into the physical surface of an entire set.
Minority Report. The Precog Chamber is an anechoic chamber for the brain. The Chamber takes the brain patterns of each Precog and projects them as physical intersecting ripple patterns. This was the first film set to use a CNC manufacturing process to translate a digital Maya model into the physical surface of an entire set.


The key to this is that the designer feels free to navigate the membrane between the virtual and the real, with new interfaces that allow one to enter and become immersed in virtual space.

Minority Report, Mall City. Targeted advertising personalized communication in consumer-driven public space. In our narrative, the technology is appropriated by PreCrime law enforcement to track future perpetrators.
Minority Report, Mall City. Targeted advertising personalized communication in consumer-driven public space. In our narrative, the technology is appropriated by PreCrime law enforcement to track future perpetrators. Credit: Mark Goerner


Taylor: As we experience greater previsualization and higher realization resolution we have many more options to design and create interactively. We bring musicians and architects together in our SoundLab (below), where we can simulate acoustic and architectural environments and move walls and finishes around in real-time to see and hear the differences to the ultimate performance experience. As we extend pre-rendering capabilities to more disciplines, we will be able to experience greater freedom, collaboration and interactivity with the key stakeholders. This, in turn, allows the creative team to remain connected to the building and the very concepts and dreams that inspired it.

Arup SoundLab. In all the networked SoundLabs Arup has created around the world, collaborators can be spirited instantaneously between music venues or theaters to hear and compare acoustic experiences.
Arup SoundLab. In all the networked SoundLabs Arup has created around the world, collaborators can be spirited instantaneously between music venues or theaters to hear and compare acoustic experiences.


Beyond the design processes, buildings with more open systems can capture phenomenal data clouds that can give us a richness of analysis that we only dreamt of a few years back. For example, gesture recognition in our current Sony Center project will recognize audience members and morph the building in response to their behavior. As data resolution, capturing capabilities and processing power increase, we can start to make building transform and respond really respond to a new generation of co-creators; the audience.

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Tali Krakowsky, Director of Experience Design, heads a think tank at WET. Working closely with design, research and production, she focuses on developing new ideas, technologies and business opportunities for the short- and long-term future of the firm.
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