Skyfall, Shanghai and Jellyfish: Bending the rules when designing architecture for the screen

Coming away from watching Skyfall last weekend, the imagery that stuck most in my mind was that of the Shanghai office interior where James Bond intercepts the assassin, Patrice. Looking at the clip below from Trailer Addict (scroll to 35s) reveals that the scene is filmed entirely on set at Pinewood Studios and comprises a stylised, partially completed office interior.

The design of this set immerses the characters within multiple layers of reflections of a set of animated lights and displays that adorn the buildings exterior. The unfinished raised floor, the frameless glass partitions and the lay-in ceiling grid all serve to reinforce and multiply the reflections. Lay-in ceiling tiles are a cheaper alternative to a clip-in ceiling tile system, and not what I would normally expect to see in a high spec office space (frameless glazing says high spec to me). Lay-in tiles do however have the benefit of an exposed aluminium grid, which is exploited to the full for its reflective and linear perspective defining properties here.

In purely architectural terms, the layout of the glass office cubicles doesn’t appear to make any sense, and it wouldn’t pass Part N of the Building Regulations (in the U.K. at least) without some sort of manifestation on the glazing. But this misses the point, as it isn’t the U.K. nor is it the real world; this is a film set and it is designed to be visually stunning on screen. The layers of reflections and lights in this scene are mesmerisingly beautiful and remind me of Bladerunner, a favourite of architecture students for decades. If I have learned one thing in designing architecture for the television, it is to start with something tangible and based upon real world criteria, but then to bend those rules to achieve something that looks great on screen*. This set epitomises this approach for me and I’m eager to soak it up once more when the Bluray of Skyfall is released.

The upcoming issue of American Cinematographer will feature the work of Roger Deakins on Skyfall, something which no other publication has sufficiently covered yet and something that I am very much looking forward to.**

Adding to the visual qualities of this set are a set of large format Shanghai backdrops by Rutters, and a pair of animated jellyfish. The choice of jellyfish is interesting not only because of it’s visual properties, but because it is a predator with no brain. A metaphor for Bond and his ’00’ status perhaps? Possible symbolism aside, I find these animated jellyfish quite beautiful. I was surprised to discover that the animation is stock imagery entitled Jellyfish Nightlights by Bass Visuals and available from iStock.

*One exception to my rule breaking that I must confess to, is that in all of my designs, the staircases comply with building regulations. There is something about this section of the rules that I can’t bring myself to break and I think it comes down to the fact that they are based upon a common sense approach that I feel always looks better and more credible on screen.

Addendum 5/12/2012

** I do now have that December 2012 issue of American Cinematographer and there is an interesting section on this scene. The scene is lit almost entirely by the spill from the large format 11m pitch LED screens which are positioned over 20m away. The story behind the Jellyfish is also interesting, Roger Deakins had this to say.

“We needed images for the monitor, and the art department found this footage of jellyfish floating through the frame. When it came time to discuss what we really want to put on those screens, Sam and I looked at each other and said, ‘Well, why don’t we just leave it as jellyfish?’ It looked interesting and it was a really deep blue, and we wanted the whole Shanghai section to feel quite cold. So thats how the jellyfish got in the film. They were just stand-ins really!”

Roger Deakins interviewed in American Cinematographer pp38, Vol 93, No 12