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
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
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
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
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
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
"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."
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
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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