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Engineers in the film industry

07.06.2019 | 12 min read

Engineers in the film industry

Becoming an engineer is no easy feat. It takes years of intense dedication, focus, hard work and studying to forge a young mind into a precise tool that can produce intricate designs – be it buildings, machines, engines or computer programs. Due to the diverse nature of their education, engineers receive a broad background in math, science and technology, which allows them to become masters of many trades. They are trained to act as efficient and precise problem solvers, able to view any obstacle from a variety of angles and anticipate potential complications.

Being an engineer essentially means repeatedly solving a metaphorical Rubik´s cube. Despite the complicated nature of their calling, engineers take great pride in their work. They may not always remain in the field they were trained for because of the ability to apply their talents to tackling virtually any problem – often branching out into other industries, where they can apply their diverse and potent skillset. Sometimes these shifts are driven by a competitive job market, as is the case with architects.

Not many professions have experienced such a radical technological change in recent years. With the advent of digital design tools and the technological advancement of building materials, the workflow has become quick and automized, reducing the need for human engineers in some instances, and giving them an entirely new scope of tasks in others. Additionally, even though the architectural profession had historically been a relatively lucrative one, after the worldwide financial crisis of the early aughts, architects were forced to find job opportunities beyond their field.

Not ones to shy away from new technologies, architects have utilized their considerable digital skillset. In decades past, the construction world has unstoppably swayed from drafting by hand and building physical models to incredibly detailed computer-aided design. Revit and BIM (Building Information Modelling) presented new drafting possibilities. 3D printing is on the rise in many industries. Technology is rapidly moving forward.

Architects have learned to use these programs and tools for their own work, so they are able to easily move into other industries. Their vivid imagination and experience in presentation is perfect for the film and gaming industries, those that rely so strongly on visuals. Architects go into the film industry in part because both professions make use of the same digital tools – one for representing spatial designs, the other to create entire new worlds for audiences to marvel at.

What is movie magic all about?

Complex modelling software, such as 3ds Max, After Effects or Maya are well known to many an architect. These programs are used to render images or create videos of architecture projects. The same software is also used in the film and gaming industries, notably to create stunning visual effects. Incredibly successful films, such as the “X-Men” and “Transformers” series, were made with the aid of Autodesk´s 3ds Max. Maya, another tool from Autodesk´s impressive portfolio, is used to create animation – as evidenced in the “Harry Potter” series, the “Kung-Fu Panda” trilogy and the “Prince of Persia” video games. It can´t be a coincidence that Revit and AutoCAD, some of the most prevalent architectural software worldwide, also stem from the House of Autodesk – a company that rules the visual arts industries.

Another industry behemoth, Adobe (the company that owns both Photoshop and After Effects), was even awarded an Oscar in the “Scientific and engineering awards” category in 2019, a great honour bestowed onto the company by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Yes, that is the same Academy that doles out the most prestigious filmmaking awards every February. Even without this esteemed recognition, it is clear to any movie aficionado how incredibly important visual effects have become in one of the most powerful industries in the world. Some of the highest grossing movies of all time are, at the time of writing, James Cameron´s “Avatar”; most of the “Avengers” movies; one of the newest instalments of the decades-spanning epic “Star Wars” saga – “The Force Awakens”; and, rounding out the top 10 – Marvel´s “Black Panther”. These movies have collectively earned billions of dollars across the globe. And all of them feature visual effects – essentially making them the result of the work of engineers.

The process of using computer-aided design to manufacture a cinematic reality has become a mainstay of the film industry, having forever changed the filmmaking process as of the late 20-th century. It poses a great challenge for the actors asked to work in front of a simple green screen, interact with a tennis ball mounted on a stick as if it were a beloved creature, or a stunt performer clad in vibrant green spandex – having to imagine all that the viewer will later be able to see. Actors are required to showcase great skill with very little input from their surroundings.

Engineers in the film industry - CGI city

All that glitters is not gold

Sometimes the use of visual effects requires more effort and much more money than traditional world-crafting methods would – those that are rooted in physical reality. Movies and TV shows that make use of VFX famously have enormous production budgets and sometimes fail to make a return on investment for the production company.  If not done exceedingly well, visual effects can have the opposite of the desired effect, taking the viewers out of the film and reminding them that all they are seeing are smoke and mirrors. Due to budgetary constraints and a strong artistic vision, many filmmakers are shifting back to more traditional moviemaking. The contemporary “Star Wars” trilogy, mostly directed by renowned filmmaker J. J. Abrams, has famously been made in a similar fashion as the original movies (that were shot in the late 70´s). Hand-built models and sets are meant to give the movie a more real feel and unburden contemporary audiences – who were deemed to have become fatigued by the excessive use of computer-generated imagery. It turns out that visual effects are not the only aspect of the film industry that needs engineers.

Before there were visual effects, the only way filmmakers could transfer their vision to the silver screen was by building film sets. These are physical environments, constructed out of modern materials in short time spans, meant to simulate age-old locations. A problem only trained professionals can tackle. A team involving location scouts, production designers and construction workers envision and execute intricate film sets, often requiring months to get everything done just right, and offer moviegoers the immersive experience they are looking for.

James Cameron famously had an entire ship – complete with a giant water tank – constructed to house the production of his masterpiece “Titanic”. The ship was reportedly only 10 percent smaller than the real one that had sunk in the Atlantic Ocean. The retro epic “Cleopatra”, starring Elizabeth Taylor, featured a replica of the Roman Forum three times its real size. The authors of the “Lord of the Rings” saga built an actual hobbit village in Matamata, New Zealand. It can still be visited. The epic trilogy also featured other enormous sets – the city of Men (“Minas Tirith”) and elven stronghold “Rivendell” – built full-scale.

Those movies were made fairly recently. But the filmmakers of the Golden Age of Hollywood didn´t shy away from epic sets. The 1959 classic “Ben Hur”, starring Charlton Heston, was filmed in Italy and featured a set that used more than 1 million pounds of plaster, making it the largest set in film history. The film´s chariot race sequence required the construction of a 2000 feet long Roman arena, carved out of a quarry over the course of an entire year.

Even the filmmakers of the silent film era, at the very dawn of cinema, made use of grand sets. “Intolerance”, filmed in 1916, used a 1000 feet high replica of the Great Wall of Babylon. There was enough room for 3000 extras. The production of that movie was so grand that it makes Fritz Lang’s 1927 “Metropolis”, a movie famous for its depiction of architecture, look small in comparison – which of course is not exactly true. That movie used miniature sets and movie-making magic to create the grand scale of the final product. Nonetheless, construction and engineering were involved, albeit on a smaller scale.

Even some film stars have an engineering background. The protagonist of many classic Hollywood movies, Jimmy Stewart, graduated from Princeton University with a degree in architecture. Other engineers who have become production designers lend their talents to world-famous programs, on the large as well as the small screen. They become world-builders and tastemakers, often birthing set designs that would become iconic and even function as secondary characters. Setting the tone for a film or tv series is incredibly demanding and requires much knowledge. A good set designer must have a deep understanding of the story, strong artistic vision and a deep understanding of the technicality of the filmmaking process. How does the director intend to film? By using close-ups or a wide-shot? Where will the lighting rig be set up, what is the tone of the story, how many actors and extras will be populating the set? How many crew members will be present, and what do they need to be able to do their jobs? What and whom exactly does the set need to accommodate?

Just as any trained architect would, a set designer starts off by researching, brainstorming and sketching; afterwards building a scale model of the envisioned set. In this way the designer starts to establish the show or film´s visual identity. What follows are discussions with the directors, producers and showrunners, conceptualizing the new setting the characters will later inhabit. Engineers are not just conduits of science, but also dreamers and visionaries, able to conceive incredible magical worlds that are nonetheless rooted in reality – all the while respecting the laws of physics, so that the viewers wouldn´t be irked by the improbability of what they were seeing. They are able to draw inspiration from real-world places and transform existing vistas into fantasy realms.

Engineers in the film industry - Hollywood

The crowning achievement of set production

All these classic masterpieces laid the groundwork for the grandest series of all. The pinnacle of television production and the biggest TV show of all time, HBO´s “Game of Thrones”, has employed two incredible visual storytellers – Oscar-nominated and Emmy Award-winning Gemma Jackson (seasons 1-3) and Emmy Award-winning Deborah Riley (seasons 4-8). The gargantuan job of leading the art department for a series whose finale was viewed by over 17 million people involved a year-round production schedule, coordinating set construction in 3 or 4 countries at the same time, and making sure the physically crafted worlds looked real enough for viewers to buy into the idea that dragons and ice demons are in fact real. The show reportedly had a 10 million USD budget per episode.

Growing in scale throughout its run, “Game of Thrones” ended with a bang in the spring of 2019, with a shortened series comprising of 6 episodes – each featuring the running length and production complexity of a feature film. Gemma Jackson and Deborah Riley, as leads of the art department, were responsible for the entire look of the series – from the costumes to the monumental sets. They sought inspiration from all the world´s cultures, built and natural landscapes, found incredible gems in many of their sources, mixed all that information up and developed one of the most inspiring, immersive and intricate world designs in film and tv history.

The design of any set begins with research. There are meetings during which it is decided which scenes require shooting on location, and which can be filmed on a sound stage. Then location scouting ensues. The production team looks into real-world structures, drawing inspiration from them and in turn pouring that knowledge directly into construction drawings, which are then approved by the showrunners. After the construction drawings have been completed, the cost calculation for the set has been made – then at last the building process may begin. Sometimes the sets are made from scratch, and sometimes already existing locations are meticulously adapted – all interventions must subsequently be removed. An enormous team of construction workers, artists, plasterers and painters work tirelessly on these marvellous sets. After they have been built, they are decorated and subsequently camera tested by the cinematographer. The sets on “Game of Thrones” are so incredibly vast that they have swallowed up entire quarries and enormous parking lots all over Europe – castles and artificial lakes fully constructed and perfectly functional for the task of filming a fantasy series.

The task is so grand that Gemma Jackson left the series after season 3, as the work was so demanding that it had reportedly taken a toll on her personal life. Deborah Riley has repeatedly said that work on the ambitious 8th season “nearly killed her”. For anyone who has watched the series, this statement probably won´t feel like an exaggeration. So much love for detail and creativity was poured into the sets of “Game of Thrones” that one simply marvels at the work ethic of those who have created them.

Deborah Riley famously trained as an architect in her native Australia and has been reported saying that her engineering background has served her well in her line of work. The training she had received in architecture school taught her perseverance and determination and prepared her for the realities of working in a business burdened with incredible costs and pressure, as well as mounting deadlines. Her architectural knowledge also informs her approach to set design, as she is able to draw references from real-world architecture; such as Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute, which served as the reference for Dragonstone, the ancestral home of the series heroine Daenerys Targaryen, or mining the aesthetics of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mayan Revival Period for the Palace in the exotic city of Mereen. Even going so far as looking at Albert Speer’s intimidating architecture for its sheer vastness and scale, which was meant to radiate power and utilize a concept known as “the psychology of space” – a reference used to create the interior of the show’s rich Bank of Braavos; or being inspired by Indian architecture for the look of the exotic and mysterious House of Black and White, a powerful assassin´s guild woven into the rich fabric of the “Game of Thrones” story. The set of Castle Black (the Night’s Watch grim headquarters), was built in Northern Ireland and featured a working forge. That is as real as it gets.

The incredible amount of work, dedication, speed, grit, improvisation, perseverance and skill that went into the creation of “Game of Thrones” sets earned both of its art directors accolades and recognition far beyond the entertainment industry. The show has been a mammoth hit for the HBO network and has spawned a cultural moment unlike any other in history. Millions of people worldwide watched this “television event” simultaneously, countless articles and opinion pieces have been written about the series. The elevated standard of production quality has been reached in great part because of engineers. Even the patron saint of modern architecture, star architect Bjarke Ingels, couldn’t resist the opportunity for a cameo in one of the final episodes. The show’s legacy of excellence will live on and be very hard to top.

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