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SKYSCRAPER

About The Production (Cont'd)
Imagining Hong Kong: Design, Cameras and Music

Crafting The Pearl
 Winston Churchill, when discussing the U.K. Houses of Parliament after they were damaged by bombs in WWII, said, 'We shape buildings; thereafter they shape us.' It was this quote that directed the approach production designer Jim Bissell took to designing The Pearl. "A building or a city plan shapes the culture that it's in," says Bissell. "It has to be steeped in the culture of the place that we want to build it. It also needs to be architecturally viable and appealing. Despite the fact that we had only five months to design everything and prep the movie, The Pearl had to look like it took years of development."

As Bissell puts it: "The building doesn't get destroyed; the building endures. It's a symbol of resilience and strength-as opposed to a symbol of hubris like in Towering Inferno, where it's a metaphor for 'we reached too far.' In that film, there were corrupt contractors and a compromised architect. But in Skyscraper, the building is amazing. It's only compromised by the forces of evil."

Bissell and his team began by researching Chinese culture, looking for a key theme around which they could build. They found the fable "The Dragon Pearl," and discovered that, in Chinese culture, pearls represent the attainment of enlightenment-or the journey of the soul toward enlightenment. In the fable, the boy turns into a dragon in the river. Likewise, one of Bissell's researchers discovered that the Pearl River estuary empties out into the ocean in Hong Kong, and that the Pearl River is often embodied as a dragon.

When the designer went to Hong Kong to scout...the more he studied the geography of the area, the more he realized he would need to situate The Pearl on the Kowloon side, not on the Hong Kong side. This would allow the production the ability to have Hong Kong form the background. It was then Bissell learned that the word Kowloon means "nine dragons." There are eight mountains behind the city representing eight dragons, with the emperor as the ninth (this idea originated with the last emperor of the Song Dynasty, seven-year-old Zhao Bing [born 1272], who ruled for just 313 days before jumping off a cliff after his army fell to the Mongols).

Working from the key images of dragons and pearls, Bissell's team began developing designs for the building. "One of the requirements was to have this large observation sphere," says the designer. "The problem was that if you create a traditional rectilinear tower and you stick a dome on top of it, it looks very phallic. So we played with different forms, and it occurred to me that to represent real strength you want a sinuous muscular design. So we started playing with that, which began the dragon-like twisting design that leads up to the pearl itself."

Initially developed by a member of Bissell's team, the design featured three pillars that twist as they rise, forming a tripod-like frame that supports the sphere, or pearl, on top. Bissell envisioned it as the mouth of the dragon, and asked, "What if we put an eyeball right here and that becomes the wind turbine?"

From there, says Bissell, "slowly but surely we started sculpting it, and we turned the building into a dragon on the edge of Victoria Harbour. We have these artificial tidal pools built around the base; as the water comes in and out it turns the turbines, and that's part of the electrical grid. Then there is the wind turbine up around the 150th floor."

Finally, they installed solar panels, and together these give The Pearl its autonomous energy system. "Once we had the idea for the tidal pools, we thought, why not develop the tidal pools into rice paddies? So that not only is The Pearl energy self-sufficient, it also grows its own food," continues the designer. "Rice is the sustaining crop of China, and so you have this metaphor of the dragon rising up out of the rice paddies and reaching to the sky for the pearl of wisdom. The whole thing came together quickly-within two weeks-and that's just luck. Sometimes that's the way art works. You get lucky and have these wonderful happy accidents."

The dragon reaches for the pearl in the sky, and so Bissell wanted to create the illusion of the sphere floating on air. Here, Bissell was inspired by the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia's famed mirror-like salt flats that reflect the sky, obscuring the horizon and creating the illusion that one is standing in infinity. "I thought," recalls Bissell, "if you're 225 stories high and you have a reflective surface, then the sky would become the floor and you would have the same effect of infinity. So we designed this big lip that comes out of the dome, and when the entrance opens you get this startling effect of infinity; you have this ethereal sense of having ascended into heaven."

The observation deck was created digitally, but the idea is very much grounded in reality. Says visual effects producer/post-production supervisor PETRA HOLTORF-STRATTON: "This absolutely could be done in real life. Many high-rise buildings have these skywalks now. You go outside the building, and it's like an infinity pool where you think you're right at the edge; it's an optical illusion. The only reason we couldn't build it is because our building doesn't exist. But everything we created had to feel as if it were completely integrated into a live-action world. We want people who watch this movie to want to visit Hong Kong and see our building...even though it doesn't exist."

In addition to his design team, Bissell had the luxury of the filmmakers' consultations with Adrian Smith, the architect of the Burj Khalifa-the world's tallest building-during the earliest script development. Flynn recalls reaching out to Smith, who revealed his ideas, in turn, are often inspired by film. "Adrian told us that one of the many issues with building these mega-tall structures is something as simple as the elevator cables; they simply don't exist at the length required to reach that height. Adrian said something like, 'Imagine if you could you use magnetic technology to propel the elevators up and down three thousand feet.' It's pure science-fiction, and we immediately bonded over that and incorporated it into the film.

"We put Adrian on the phone with Rawson, and those guys started throwing out ideas, which led us to some basic concepts for The Pearl," he continues. "Then we hired Jim Bissell, who's one of the best designers on the planet, and he found this incredible Chinese myth that inspired the shape of the building, its texture and color...which paralleled the story of Zhao. That's how it all came to life."

Once the exterior design was decided, the next question was where in the Hong Kong landscape to place it. Currently, in real life, the tallest building in Hong Kong is the 108-story International Commerce Centre; at 225 stories, The Pearl is more than twice the height. Bissell took digital models of Hong Kong and began playing with angles. In the end, says Bissell, The Pearl "looked stunning, right in the middle."

Creating (and Burning) Jade Park
 The next challenge for the production was to tackle Jade Park. Unlike a typical building with, say, a flat rooftop garden, Jade Park is 30 stories of vertical space that first had to work conceptually, and then practically, from a shooting perspective.

The conceptual side began with research into the evolution of the dragon in Chinese artwork from about 200 B.C. onward. Chinese paintings also often feature nature, and thus a great deal of traditional Chinese paintings were referenced for Jade Park. The question was how to bring the elegance of these paintings into the three-dimensional world of the film's park. In the end, the team hired a contemporary artist who re-imagined these paintings by creating layers of light and shadow that together form a landscape. That, in essence, became Jade Park.

Shooting the opening scene, however, presented a challenge. Because the scene takes place during the day, supposedly under natural light streaming in through windows, filming had to take place outside to match the light. This created a dilemma: Should they use green screen on an exterior set and later create the whole park in the computer? Build the park outside and then bring it all inside on a massive set? Or use a real park and then rebuild the necessary parts inside for the action sequences and as the basis for the visual effects? In the end, the third option proved the most creatively and technically viable, and Cecil Park at the University of British Columbia was chosen to stand in for Jade Park.

Within the park is a 30-story waterfall, which was created at a smaller-though still impressive-scale for the film. Special effects supervisor JOEL WHIST was in charge, building what would amount to a massive fountain, its pump gushing out water at the rate of 2,000 gallons per minute. A huge reservoir beneath the stage held the water and the plumbing, which had to be, as Whist puts it, "bulletproof-whatever it took to make it safe and consistent. We had to be able turn it on and off in a heartbeat."

This was no easy feat. The rate of the water had to be sufficient to create enough opacity that we don't see the character of Georgia when she's hiding from Botha's men. This meant the pump had to feature a variable speed control that would allow for adjustments while testing. Once the rate of the water was determined, a total volume of two-and-one-half times the moving water had to be calculated, so that enough water remained in the reservoir and pumps at all times. "Between initial concept, drawings, calculations, meeting with the pump people-and then working out the dynamics of the plumbing, the scaffolding, the weights, the measures, and the art department changes-the process took several weeks," explains Whist.

The second challenge for Jade Park was setting it on fire. Some shots were too dangerous to physically shoot, and thus green screen was utilized, but there were also several practical fire shots. These required the strictest of preparations under the watchful gaze of supervising stunt coordinator ALLAN POPPELTON.

"We want the audience to feel the characters' sense of anxiety," explains second-unit director JJ PERRY, "so putting them in the proximity of real fire but keeping them out of danger was a test. Every set had to be pre-rigged before sets were built, then tested and proved. There were a lot of moving parts to our stunt team. We shot with doubles and made sure special effects and everybody were happy, but we tried to make it as practical as we could. There were real fires we lit inside, but Al and his team did a fantastic job. I don't think we did much more than pass out a Band-Aid on the show."

Adding to the seriousness of the situation was, of course, the presence of the children. The two, however, handled it like pros. For Cottrell, the experience was a bit like an amusement park ride, one part fun and one part absolute terror. "The elevator scene in Jade Park, that was my favorite," he says. "That was fun. We had the green screen behind us, and the fire was blazing. But the scariest part was that we had this weird little plaything underneath us, and it rocked us around, and we were going all crazy. I actually got scared. It was pretty realistic. Dwayne has this line where he says, 'You can't be brave if you're not scared,' which was an inspirational line for me."

It was then up to ERIK NASH, visual effects supervisor for Motion Picture Company (MPC), to marry those practical shots with his digital fires. "Whenever you have a big green space like this," says Nash, "the trick is to have lighting that is dictated by what is ultimately supposed to be there. In this case, we had a lot of firelight effects under the glass deck that represented the light from the fire that is dozens of stories below our characters.

"As well, there is moonlight that is supposed to be coming in through the windows," the VFX supervisor continues. "You have to be able to envision the end result and light accordingly. Robert Elswit and his team did a great job lighting that environment and giving us a nice firelight. It really looks like our characters are surrounded by fire."

Star Ferry in Vancouver
 With so much of the action taking place indoors, the narrative did not provide many opportunities to showcase the exteriors of Hong Kong itself. The first high-action scene to take place outside is the robbery, and originally the script called for Will and Ben to be eating at a noodle hut in a nondescript alley somewhere in the city. But production designer Bissell saw an opportunity to use the city as a backdrop by relocating the scene onto Hong Kong's famed Star Ferry (passenger ferry service). He pitched the change to the director, who immediately agreed with Bissell's instincts.

Then, reality set it. The whole idea of dressing a boat in Vancouver and reconstructing a dock that still wouldn't quite look like the Star Ferry-not to mention shooting an action sequence-seemed to sink the idea. Soon it was, 'We just can't do this; let's go back to the noodles,' laughs Bissell. "Then I was just sitting and looking at a shed, when I thought, 'Why don't I use the edge of the shed as a dock and we'll build the top portion of the Star Ferry?' I knew if we put it on tracks, we could just roll it in and put the ferry terminal in the background. It'll feel big, especially if we get some great helicopter establishing shots of Hong Kong. It'll also be very controllable so we wouldn't actually have to have a boat and worry about tides and docking and everything else. We'll just roll it back to position A. And it worked!"

The Star Ferry was then pieced together in post under the supervision of Holtorf-Stratton. "The biggest challenge for the ferry set," he says, "was that it was shot along Vancouver's Fraser River, with actual boats and trains going by. So the reduction and sound for post-production was challenging. What we had there was just a quarter of the ferry; we built only enough so that we could have our main actors on there and some extras; we added the front and back of the ferry digitally. We built a digital model using photo references of the iconic Star Ferry, and we went to Hong Kong and made texture references of actual ferries there. Then artists at ILM and Iloura built a digital model of the ferry, which we placed into the scene."

Star Players and Second Unit
 The ferry, the waterfall, the practical fire scenes-these are but a few examples of the approach that Thurber took to Skyscraper. "Go big or go home," says Thurber. "Yes, it was a technical challenge and certainly a creative challenge-we had to shoot half on location then the remainder on set, making sure it all matched and it all worked. It was a big movie with big sets on a big scale. But I had an incredible crew. I had the Oscar-winning Robert Elswit shooting my movie, which was a dream come true for me, and I had one of the biggest production designers in the world in Jim Bissell bringing this whole story to life."

For second unit, Thurber had JJ Perry, here given his first opportunity to direct after years working his way up the ladder. "I was in the army before I did this, and I didn't go to film school," says Perry, "but I've worked over 400 episodes of TV and 150 features. When I was in the army I didn't know what I would do with that training in civilian, but now I know. I fit in here. You lead by example and create an opportunity for your team to succeed. A good leader knows when to lead, when to follow, and when to stay the hell out of the way. I've been very fortunate on this movie having a crew that would probably follow me into a real burning building."

Initially, the plan for second unit was to follow first unit and clean up, but the schedule proved more challenging, and so Perry's duties increased. Luckily, says Perry: "Rawson was so descriptive about what he wanted. He wrote the script, so in his mind he could see the movie, and he articulated his vision for us to translate for him. He's a great director and writer and a tremendous talent; it's just fun watching him do his process."

Perry, who first collaborated with Johnson on The Scorpion King, was also pleased to be working again with the actor. "He's a gem," raves Perry. "I jump at every opportunity to work with him. Dwayne was a football player, and because he played team sports he understands the filmmaking process. There are a lot of facets on a diamond and everybody is one of the facets; a diamond with only one facet doesn't shine. So you have to be able to harness and work with all those different facets to make the diamond shine, and that's where I relate to him."

Virtual Realities
 The ability to describe his vision to others served Rawson well on a film that takes places largely in virtual reality. Johnson's longtime work with his director gave him the trust to film Skyscraper. Nowhere was this more important than in the battle scene in the sphere. Here, the only real part of the set was the floor; everything else had to be imagined by the actors. The sequence was shot with five cameras at different angles, their images to appear later on the virtual high-resolution screens created in post. The result is a complex sequence, a masterful marrying of live action and a completely digital environment.

Still, says Holtorf-Stratton, "If you have the right companies you can achieve anything now. The technology has become so advanced with the commuting power. You used to have to wait maybe 20 hours to see one frame of rendering; now it's 20 seconds. So you see results much faster, which allows you to make changes much faster. Rawson was very open for us during post-production; we had trips to ILM to sit with the artists, and if we needed to make a change, we could. ILM was accommodating of our director's vision. We were very happy and lucky to have them for this job."

Producer Flynn reflects that the VFX that went into the creation of The Pearl was a masterpiece in and of itself. "Our incredible VFX team gave us the ability to make it seamlessly feel like you're floating thousands of feet in the air," he notes. "It's breathtaking, and the execution was brilliant. Our visual effects supervisor, CRAIG HAMMACK, and producer Petra Holtorf did a magnificent job. It will stun the audience when they see the film, as well as inspire a lot of future design and development of buildings."

Music of Skyscraper
 To capture the themes of Skyscraper, Thurber turned to celebrated composer Steve Jablonsky. The composer shares a bit of his time on set: "Working with Rawson on Skyscraper was terrific. He's such a good communicator, really creative and gave me great ideas. We had a lot of discussion about the style-as Dwayne Johnson's character is a wounded hero, but not a superhero. Rawson and I also talked about the pacing of the music and how it progressively becomes more intense and more edge-of-your-seat; we wanted it to be energetic and keep the audience's attention on the screen.

"We also wanted to keep the music more realistic. The family theme that I wrote is a simple guitar sound, which felt more personal and appropriate for the story," Jablonsky continues. "But as the film gets tenser, we start to use tenser versions of the guitar and put effects on them; so it's sort of surreal, but it's still playing the family theme. I had fun experimenting with different guitar sounds and how to weave them through the emotional family theme...even in the darker more intense scenes."

Production wrapped, Thurber and Johnson take a moment to reflect on the film the team made, and what it means to all of them. Concludes the writer/director, what his labor of love ultimately comes down to is that: "nobody runs back into a burning building to save their iPad. The only thing you would run back for is something or someone you love; your wife, daughter, son, husband, or dog. You risk your life for those who you love. That was the underlying premise, and why we made Skyscraper."

Flynn feels that this visceral passion to do whatever it takes to save your family is what makes Will's story so deeply relatable to audiences. Ultimately, this pushing yourself to the edge is what gives our hero the energy to survive. "This man is willing to stop at nothing, including sacrificing his own life, to rescue his family," wraps the producer. "That's such a cool idea in terms of how far you would push yourself to protect what you love the most. What heights would you reach to? How high would you climb? Would you jump off a super-crane into a burning building?"

"In today's world, there are big superhero movies, big movies that are franchises and big commercial popcorn movies," ends Johnson. "I know, because I make them. But what I also like about Skyscraper is we are a big summer movie; we're fun, and we're supposed to be. But there's also something really gritty and down-and-dirty about it that sets it apart from everything else out there. I'm very proud of it."

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