The City Has Eyes

[Image: Photo by BLDGBLOG].

In the distant summer of 2002, I worked for a few months at Foster + Partners in London, tasked with helping to archive Foster’s old sketchbooks, hand-drawings, and miscellaneous other materials documenting dozens of different architectural projects over the past few decades.

On a relatively slow afternoon, I was given the job of sorting through some old cupboards full of videocassettes—VHS tapes hoarded more or less randomly, sometimes even without labels, in a small room on the upper floor of the office.

Amongst taped interviews from Foster’s various TV appearances, foreign media documentaries about the office’s international work, and other bits of A/V ephemera, there were a handful of tapes that consisted of nothing but surveillance footage shot inside the old Wembley Stadium.

It was impossible to know what the tapes—unlabeled and shoved in the back of the cupboard—actually documented, but the strange visual language of CCTV is such that something always seems about to happen. There is a strange urgency to surveillance footage, despite its slow, almost glacial pace: a feeling of intense, often dreadful anticipation. A crime, an attack, an explosion or fire is, it seems, terrifyingly imminent.

Unsure of what I was actually watching for, it began to feel a bit sinister: had there been an attack or even a murder in the old Wembley Stadium, prior to Foster + Partners’ new design at the site, and, for whatever reason, Foster held on to security tapes of the incident? Was I about to see a stabbing or a brawl, a small riot in the corridors?

More abstractly, could an architect somehow develop an attachment, a dark and unhealthy fascination, with crimes that had occurred inside a structure he or she designed—or, in this case, in a building he or she would ultimately demolish and replace?

It felt as if I was watching police evidence, sitting there, alone on a summer afternoon, waiting nervously for the depicted crime to begin.

The relationship not just between architecture and crime, but between architects and crime began to captivate me.

Of course, it didn’t take long to realize what was really happening, which was altogether less exciting but nevertheless just as fascinating: these unlabeled security tapes hidden in a cupboard at Foster + Partners hadn’t captured a crime, riot, or any other real form of suspicious activity.

Rather, the tapes had been saved in the office archive as an unusual form of architectural research: surveillance footage of people milling about near the bathrooms or walking around in small groups through the cavernous back-spaces of the old Wembley stadium would help to show how the public really used the space.

I was watching video surveillance being put to use as a form of building analysis—security tapes as a form of spatial anthropology.

[Image: Unrelated surveillance footage].

Obsessed by this, and with surveillance in general, I went on to write an entire (unpublished) novel about surveillance in London, as well as to see the security industry—those who watch the city—as always inadvertently performing a second function.

Could security teams and surveillance cameras in fact be a privileged site for viewing, studying, and interpreting urban activity? Is architecture somehow more interesting when viewed through CCTV?

To no small extent, that strange summertime task thirteen years ago went on to inform my next book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, which comes out in October.

The book explores how criminals tactically misuse the built environment, with a strong counter-focus on how figures of authority—police helicopter crews, FBI Special Agents, museum security supervisors, and architects—see the city in a very literal sense.

This includes the specialty optical equipment used during night flights over the metropolis, the surveillance gear that is often deployed inside large or complex architectural structures to record “suspicious” activity, and how even the numbering systems used for different neighborhoods can affect the ability of the police to interrupt crimes that might be occurring there.

I’ll be talking about all of this stuff (and quite a bit more, including the sociological urban films of William H. Whyte, the disturbing thrill of watching real-life CCTV footage—such as the utterly strange Elisa Lam tape—and what’s really happening inside CCTV control rooms) this coming Friday night, May 8, as part of “a series about spectatorship” at UnionDocs in Brooklyn.

The event is ticketed, but stop by, if you get a chance—I believe there is a free cocktail reception afterward—and, either way, watch out for the release of A Burglar’s Guide to the City in October 2015.

They Come From Everywhere: An Interview with Mike Elizalde

Many of today’s most original and bizarre visions of alternative worlds and landscapes come from the workshops of Hollywood effects studios. Behind the scenes of nondescript San Fernando Valley offices and warehouse spaces (if not outside California altogether, in many of the other nodes in the ever-expanding global network of cinematic effects production, from suburban London to Wellington, New Zealand), lurk the multidisciplinary teams whose job it is to create tomorrow’s monsters.

Mike Elizalde of Spectral Motion applies make-up to actor Ron Perlman, as Hellboy.

Spectral Motion, the effects house responsible for some of the most technically intricate and physically stunning animatronic creatures seen in feature film today, is no exception. Based in a small strip of anonymous one-story warehouse spaces squeezed in between a freeway and rail tracks, and overshadowed by a gargantuan Home Depot, Spectral Motion has developed monsters, effects, and other mechanical grotesqueries that have since become household nightmares, if not names.

Since its founding, by Mike & Mary Elizalde in 1994, the firm has worked on such films as Hellboy & Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Looper, Attack the Block, Blade 2 & Blade: Trinity, X-Men: First Class, The Watch, and this summer’s highly anticipated Pacific Rim.

This winter, while out in Los Angeles on a trip for Venue, I had the enormous pleasure of stopping by Spectral Motion with Nicola Twilley in order to interview Mike Elizalde, CEO of Spectral Motion, on a cloudy day in Glendale to talk all things monstrous and disturbing. To a certain extent, this interview thus forms the second part in a series with BLDGBLOG’s earlier interview with Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, and the present conversation, reproduced below, pairs well with Mignola’s thoughts on what we might call landscapes of monstrosity.

Our conversation with Elizalde ranged from the fine line that separates the grotesque and the alien to the possibility of planetary-scale creatures made using tweaked geotextiles, via the price of yak hair and John Carpenter’s now-legendary Antarctic thriller, The Thing.

Mike Elizalde behind his desk at Spectral Motion.

Elizalde, a good-humored conversationalist, not only patiently answered our many questions—with a head cold, no less—but then took us on a tour through Spectral Motion‘s surprisingly large workshop. We saw miniature zombie heads emerging from latex molds (destined for a film project by Elizalde’s own son), costumes being sewn by a technician named Claire Flewin for an upcoming attraction at Disneyland, and a bewildering variety of body parts—heads, torsos, claws, and even a very hairy rubber chest once worn by footballer Vinnie Jones in X-Men: The Last Stand—that were either awaiting, or had already performed, their celluloid magic.

The visit ended with a screening of Spectral Motion‘s greatest hits, so to speak, with in-house photographer and archivist Kevin McTurk—a chance to see the company’s creations in their natural habitat. We walked back out into the flat light and beige parking lots of the Valley, a landscape enlivened by our heightened sense of the combination of close observation and inspired distortion required to transform the everyday into the grotesque.

• • •

Geoff Manaugh: I’d love to start with the most basic question of all: how would you describe Spectral Motion and what the company does?

Mike Elizalde: We are principally a prosthetics, animatronics, and special effects creature studio, but we are also a multifaceted design studio. We do a lot of different kinds of work. Most recently, for example, in partnership with one of my long-time colleagues, Mark Setrakian, we built anthropomorphic bipedal hydraulic robots that engage in battle, for a reality show for Syfy. It’s called RCLRobot Combat League. It’s pretty astounding what these machines can do, including what they can do to each other.

Battling it out in Robot Combat League with two robots—”eight-feet tall, state-of-the-art humanoid robots controlled by human ‘robo-jockeys,'” in the words of Syfy—designed by Mark Setrakian of Spectral Motion.

Nicola Twilley: Are the robot battles choreographed, or do you genuinely not know which robot will win?

Elizalde: Oh, no, absolutely—it’s a contest. It really is about which robot will emerge as the victorious contender.

RCL is not only one of our most recent projects, but it also shows that, here at the studio, we can do everything from a very delicate prosthetic application on an actor, to an animatronic character in a film, to something that’s completely out of our comfort zone—like building battling robots.

I always tell people that, if they come in here with a drawing of a car, we could build that car. It is a very diverse group that we work with: artists, technicians, and, of course, we use all the available or cutting-edge technologies out there in the world to realize whatever it is that we are required to make.

Mike Elizalde of Spectral Motion shows us a creature.

Manaugh: What kind of design briefs come to you? Also, when a client comes to you, typically how detailed or amorphous is their request?

Elizalde: Sometimes it is very vague. But, typically, what happens is we’re approached with a script for a project. Our job is to go through the script and create a breakdown and, ultimately, a budget based on those breakdowns. We take whatever we think we should build for that script and we make suggestions as to how each thing should look—what should move, what the design should be, and so on.

Other times, we’ll be working with a director who’s very involved and who maybe even has some technical knowledge of what we do—especially someone like Guillermo del Toro. He’s completely savvy about what we do because he used to own a creature shop of his own, so working with someone like him is much more collaborative; he comes to us with a much more clear idea of what he wants to see in his films. Lots of times, he’ll even show us an illustration he’s done. He’s the first one to say, “I’m not an artist!” But he really is. He’s quite gifted.

The creature known as Wink from Hellboy II: The Golden Army, designed by Spectral Motion, including a shot of the mechanical understructure used inside Wink’s left hand.

So he’ll bring us his illustrations and say, you know, “You tell me if it’s going to be a puppet, an animatronic puppet, or a creature suit that an actor can wear.” And that’s where our knowhow comes in. That’s how it evolves.

There are also times—with the robot show, for example—where they know exactly what they need but they don’t know how to achieve it. In those cases, they come to us to do that for them.

Twilley: Can you talk us through one of the projects you’ve worked on where you had to create your vision based solely on what’s in the script, rather than more collaborative work with the director? What’s that process like?

Elizalde: Well, I’d actually say that ninety percent of our work is that way. For most of the projects we work on, we do, in fact, just get a script and the director says, “Show me what this looks like.” But we love that challenge. It’s really fun for us to get into the artistic side of developing what the appearance of something will end up looking like.

We had a lot of fun working with a director named Tommy Wirkola, for example, who directed Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. He was the director of Dead Snow, a really strange Norwegian film that involved this group of young kids who go off to a cabin where they’re hunted down by a hoard of horrifying zombie Nazi monsters. It’s really grisly.

Anyway, although Tommy did have really good ideas about what he wanted his characters to look like for Hansel & Gretel, there were certain characters whose descriptions were much more vague—also because there was such a broad scope of characters in the film. So they did rely on us to come up with a lot of different looks based on loose descriptions. In the end, the principal characters in the film were total collaborations between Tommy, myself, and Kevin Messick, the producer, and the rest of my team here at Spectral Motion, of course.

I’d say that’s a good example of both worlds, where you have some clear ideas about a few characters, but, for another group of characters, there really isn’t a whole lot of information or a detailed description. You have to fill in a lot of blanks.

Mark Setrakian, Thom Floutz , and Mike Elizalde of Spectral Motion pose with Sammael from Hellboy.

Twilley: What kinds of things do you look for in a script to give you a clue about how a character might work—or is that something that simply comes out when you’re sketching or modeling?

Elizalde: In a script, we basically know what we’re looking for: “Enter a monster.” We know that’s what we’re going be doing, so we look for those moments in the script. Sometimes there’s a brief description—something like, “the monster’s leathery hide covered in tentacles.” That kind of stuff gives us an immediate visual as to what we want to create. Then we explore it with both two-dimensional artwork and three-dimensional artwork, and both digital and physical.

In fact [gestures at desk], these are some examples of two-dimensional artwork that we’ve created to show what a character will look like. This [points to statuette above desk] is a maquette for one of the characters in Hellboy II—the Angel of Death. This was realized at this scale so that del Toro could see it and say, “That’s it. That’s what I want. Build that.” This actually began as an illustration that Guillermo did in his sketchbook, a very meticulous and beautiful illustration that he came to us with.

The Angel of Death from Hellboy II: The Golden Army.

But that’s the process: illustration and then maquette. Sometimes, though, we’ll do a 3D illustration in the computer before we go to the next stage, just to be able to look at something virtually, in three dimensions, and to examine it a little bit more before we invest the energy into creating a full-blown maquette.

The maquette, as a tool, can be very essential for us, because it allows us to work out any bugs that might be happening on a larger scale, design-wise. Practically speaking, it doesn’t give us a lot of information as to how the wings are going to work, or how it’s going to function; but it does tell us that a human being could actually be inside of it and that it could actually work as a full-scale creature. It’s essential for those reasons.

Simon, the mechanical bird from Your Highness, before paint has been applied, revealing the internal workings.

Because you can show a director a drawing, and it might look really terrific—but, when it comes to actually making it, in a practical application at scale, sometimes the drawing just doesn’t translate. Sometimes you need the maquette to help describe what the finished piece will look like.

Manaugh: You mentioned animatronics and puppeteering. We were just up at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena yesterday afternoon, talking to them about how they program certain amounts of autonomy into their instruments, especially if it’s something that they’re putting on Mars. It has to be able to act on its own, at times, because it doesn’t have enough time to wait for the command signal from us back on Earth. I’m curious, especially with something like the robot combat show, how much autonomy you can build into a piece. Can you create something that you just switch on and let go, so that it functions as a kind of autonomous or even artificially intelligent film prop?

Elizalde: It really depends on the application. For example, when we’re filming something, a lot of times there’s a spontaneity that’s required. Sometimes actors like to ad lib a little bit. If we need to react to something that an actor is saying via a puppet—an animatronic puppet—then that live performance really is required. But we always have the option of going to a programmable setup, one where we can have a specific set of parameters, performance-wise, to create a specific scene.

For live performances on a stage, we’d probably want to program that with the ability to switch over to manual, if required. But, if it’s scripted—if it’s a beat-by-beat performance—then we know that can be programmable. We can turn on the switch and let it go. In the middle of that, you can then stop it, and have a live show, with puppeteers in the background filling in the blanks of whatever that performance is, and then you can continue with the recorded or programmed performance.

It really goes back and forth, depending on what it is the people who are putting on the production need.

The mechanical skull under structure of the Ivan the Corpse from Hellboy.

Twilley: That’s an interesting point—the idea of how a live actor responds to your creatures. Have there been any surprises in how an actor has responded, or do they all tend to know what they’re getting into by the time you’re filming?

Elizalde: They do know what they’re getting into, but it’s always rewarding to have an actor go over to the thing that you built, and stare at it, and say, “Oh, my God! Look at that thing!” They can feed off of that. I think they are able to create a more layered performance, with a lot more depth in their reactions to something if it’s actually there—if it’s present, if it has life to it, and it’s tactile.

A lot of times people turn to digital solutions. That’s also good, if the application is correct. But, you know, a lot of directors that we talk to are of the mind that a practical effect is far better for exactly that reason—because the actor does have a co-actor to work with, to play off of, and to have feelings about.

That’s one of the things that keeps us going. And, the fact is, with this business, no matter what walks through that door we know that it’s going to be a completely different set of challenges from the last thing that we did.

Mechanical puppet of Drake from a Sprite commercial. Scott Millenbaugh and Jurgen Heimann of Spectral Motion are seen here making mechanical adjustments.

Manaugh: About six years ago, I interviewed a guy who did concept art for the Star Wars prequels, and he had a kind of pet obsession with building upside-down skyscrapers—that is, skyscrapers that grew downwards like stalactites. He kept trying to get them into a movie. He would build all of these amazing 3D models and show them to the director, and the director was always excited—but then he’d turn the model upside-down and say, “Let’s do it like this!” So all the upside-down skyscrapers would just be right-side up again. In any case, this artist was then working on the recent Star Trek reboot, and there’s a brief moment where you see upside-down skyscrapers on the planet Vulcan. It’s only on screen for about a second and a half, but he finally did it—he got his upside-down skyscrapers into a film.

Elizalde: [laughs] But, ohhh! For half-a-second! [laughter]

Manaugh: Exactly. Anyway, in the context of what you do here at Spectral Motion, I’m curious if there is something like that, that you’ve been trying to get into a movie for the last few years but that just never quite makes it. A specific monster, or a new material, or even a particular way of moving, that keeps getting rejected.

Elizalde: That’s an interesting question. [pauses] You know, I’d have to say no. I’d say it seems like the more freely we think, the better the result is. So it’s quite the contrary: most of the stuff we suggest actually does make it into the film, because it’s something that someone else didn’t think about. Or perhaps we’ve added some movement to a character, or we’ve brought something that will elicit a more visceral reaction from the audience—bubbly skin, for instance, or cilia that wiggle around.

I don’t think I’ve really encountered a situation where I thought something would look great, but, when I brought it to a director, they said, “Nah—I don’t think that’s going to go. Let’s not try that.” They always seem to say, “Let’s try it! It sounds cool!”

Mike Elizalde applies some last-minute touch-ups to actor Ron Perlman on the set of Hellboy.

We really haven’t had a whole lot of frustration—maybe only when it turns into a very large committee making a decision on the film. Then, I suppose, a certain degree of frustration is more typical. But that happens in every industry, not just ours: the more people are involved in deciding something, the more difficult it is to get a clear image of what it is we’re supposed to do.

Manaugh: When we first spoke to set-up this interview, I mentioned that we’d be touring the landfill over at Puente Hills this morning, on our way here to meet you—it’s the biggest active landfill in the United States. What’s interesting is that it’s not only absolutely massive, it’s also semi-robotic, in the sense that the entire facility—the entire landscape—is a kind of mechanical device made from methane vents and sensors and geotextiles, and it grows everyday by what they call a “cell.” A “cell” is one square-acre, compacted twenty feet deep with trash. Everyday!

But I mention this because, during our visit there, I almost had the feeling of standing on top of a mountain-sized creature designed by Spectral Motion—a strange, half-living, half-mechanical monstrosity in the heart of the city, growing new “cells” every day of its existence. It’s like something out of Hellboy II. So I’m curious about the possibilities of a kind of landscape-scale creature—how big these things can get before you need to rely on CGI. Is it possible to go up to that scale, or what are the technical or budgetary limitations?

A Tyrannosaurus rex in a bathtub in the back prep rooms of Spectral Motion.

Elizalde: We can’t build mountains yet but, absolutely, we can go way up in scale! Many times, of course, we have to rely, at least to some degree, on digital effects—but that just makes our job easier, by extending what is possible, practically, and completing it cinematically, on screen, at a much larger scale.

For example, on Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s new film that comes out this summer, we designed what are called Jaegers. They’re basically just giant robots. And we also designed the Kaiju, the monsters in the film. First, we created maquettes, just like the ones here, and we made several versions of each to reflect the final designs you’ll see in the film. Those were taken and re-created digitally so they could be realized at a much larger scale.

To that degree, we can create something enormous. There’s a maquette around here somewhere of a character we designed for the first Hellboy movie—actually, there are two of them. One of those characters is massive—about the size of a ten-story building—and the other one is much, much bigger. It’s the size of… I don’t know, a small asteroid. There really is no limit to the scale, provided we can rely on a visual effects company to help us realize our ultimate goal.

The animatronic jaws and bioluminescent teeth (top) of the alien creature (bottom) designed by Spectral Motion for Attack the Block.

But going the opposite direction, scale-wise, is also something that interests us. We can make something incredibly tiny, depending on what the film requires. There is no limit in one direction or the other as to what can be achieved, especially with the power of extension through digital effects.

Manaugh: Just to continue, briefly, with the Puente Hills reference, something that we’ve been interested in for the past few years is the design of geotextiles, where companies like TenCate in the Netherlands are producing what are, effectively, landscape-scale blankets made from high-quality mesh, used to stabilize levees or to add support to the sides of landfills. But some of these geotextiles are even now getting electromagnetic sensors embedded in them, and there’s even the possibility of a geotextile someday being given mechanical motion—so it’s just fascinating, I think, to imagine what you guys could do with a kind of monstrous or demonic geotextile, as if the surface of the earth could rise up as a monster in Hellboy III.

Elizalde: [laughs] Well, now that I know about it, I’ll start looking into it!

Twilley: Aside from scale, we’re also curious about the nature of monsters in general. This is a pretty huge question, but what is a monster? What makes something monstrous or grotesque? There seems to be such a fine line between something that is alien—and thus frightening—and something that is so alienating it’s basically unrecognizable, and thus not threatening at all.

Elizalde: Exactly. Right, right.

Twilley: So how do you find that sweet spot—and, also, how has that sweet spot changed over time, at least since you’ve been in the business? Are new things becoming monstrous?

Elizalde: Well, I think my definition of a monster is simply a distortion: something that maybe looks close to a human being, for example, but there’s something wrong. It can be something slight, something subtle—like an eye that’s just slightly out of place—that makes a monster. Even a little, disturbing thing like that can frighten you.

So it doesn’t take a lot to push things to the limit of what I would consider the grotesque or the monstrous. At that point, it runs the gamut from the most bizarre and unimaginable things that you might read in an H. P. Lovecraft story to something simple, like a tarantula with a human head. Now there’s something to make me scream! I think there’s a very broad range. But you’re right: it’s a huge question.

Mark Setrakian of Spectral Motion working on the animatronic head of Edward the Troll from Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

And sometimes the monstrous defies definition. I guess it’s more of a primal reaction—something you can’t quite put your finger on or describe, but something that makes you feel uneasy. It makes you feel uncomfortable or frightened. A distortion of what is natural, or what you perceive as natural, something outside what you think is the order of things—or outside what you think is acceptable within what we’ve come to recognize as natural things—then that’s a monster. That’s a monstrous thing.

Do you recall seeing John Carpenter’s The Thing?

Manaugh: It’s one of my favorite movies.

Elizalde: My goodness, the stuff in that film is the stuff of nightmares. It really is brilliantly executed, and it’s a great inspiration to all of the people in our industry who love monsters, and to all the fans all over the world who love monstrous things.

Actor Ron Perlman gets make-up applied for his role as Hellboy, as director Guillermo del Toro and Mike Elizalde from Spectral Motion stop in for a visit.

Twilley: Have there been trends over time? In other words, do you find directors look for a particular kind of monster at a particular moment in time?

Elizalde: I do think there are trends—although I think it’s mainly that there’s a tendency here in Hollywood where somebody hears a rumor that someone down the street is building a film around this particular creature, so that guy’s now got to write a similar script to compete. But sometimes the trends are set by something groundbreaking, like The Thing. Once that movie was released, everybody paid attention and a whole new area of exploration became available to create amazing moments in cinema.

Those are the real trends, you know. It’s a symbiosis that happens between the artistic community and the technological community, and it’s how it keeps advancing. It’s how it keeps growing. And it keeps us excited about what we do. We feed off of each other.

Technician Claire Flewin uses her hand to demonstrate how yak hair looks stretched over a mold.

Manaugh: Speaking of that symbiosis, every once in a while, you’ll see articles in a magazine like New Scientist or you’ll read a press release coming out of a school like Harvard, saying that they’ve developed, for instance, little soft robots or other transformable, remote-control creatures for post-disaster reconnaissance—things like that. I mention this because I could imagine that you might have multiple reactions to something like that: one reaction might be excitement—excitement to discover a new material or a new technique that you could bring into a film someday—but the other reaction might be something almost more like, “Huh. We did that ten years ago.” I’m curious as to whether you feel, because of the nature of the movies that you work on, that the technical innovations you come up with don’t get the attention or professional recognition that they deserve.

Elizalde: I think your assessment is accurate on both counts. There are times when we see an innovation, or a scientific development, that we think could be beneficial to our industry; in fact, that happens all the time. There’s cross-pollination like that going on constantly, where we borrow from other industries. We borrow from the medical industry. We borrow from the aerospace industry. We borrow, really, from whatever scientific developments there are out there. We seek them out and we do employ some of those methods in our own routines and systems.

In fact, one of our main designers, and a very dear friend of mine whom I’ve worked side by side with for years now, is Mark Setrakian. When he’s not working here with us, he is a designer at one of the labs you just described.

So there is a lot of crossover there.

The mechanical skull of the scrunt from Lady in the Water.

Manaugh: That’s interesting—do the people who work for you tend to come from scientific or engineering backgrounds, like Mark, or are they more often from arts schools? What kinds of backgrounds do they tend to have?

Elizalde: Generally speaking, I think they’re people like myself who just have a love for monsters. That’s honestly where a lot of people in our industry come from. There are people who started their careers as dental technicians and people who started out as mold-makers in a foundry. In all of those cases, people from those sorts of technical fields gravitate toward this work because of, first of all, a love for monsters and creatures, and, secondly, a technical ability that isn’t necessarily described as an art form per se. Electronics people love to work for us. People who design algorithms love to work for us. Even people with a background in dentistry, like I say, love to work for us.

There’s really no limit to the fields that bring people to this industry—they come from everywhere. The common thread is that we all love movies and we all love creatures. We love making rubber monsters for a living.

The shelves at Spectral Motion gives a good sense of the workshop’s range of reference. Highlights include the Third Edition of the Atlas of Clinical Dermatology (in color), The National Audubon Society: Speaking for Nature, Marvel’s Fantastic Four, The Graphic Works of Odilon Redon, and a Treasury of Fantastic and Mythological Creatures.

To go back to your previous question, there are definitely times when I think we don’t get a lot of exposure for what we do, but there is also, at some level, a kind of “don’t pay attention to the man behind the curtain” thing going on, where we don’t really want people to look backstage at what makes a movie work. We are creating a living creature for film, and that’s what we want to put across to the audience. In some ways, it’s actually better if there isn’t too much exposure as to how something was created; it’s like exposing a magic trick. Once you know the secret, it’s not that big a deal.

So we do live in a little bit of a shroud of secrecy—but that’s okay. After a film is released, it’s not unusual for more of what we did on that film to be exposed. Then, we do like to have our technicians, our artists, and what we’ve developed internally here to be recognized and shown to the public, just so that people can see how cool it all is.

I think, though, that my response to those kinds of news stories is really more of a happiness to see new technologies being developed elsewhere, and an eagerness to get my hands on it so I can see what we could do with it in a movie. And, of course, sometimes we develop our very own things here that maybe someone hadn’t thought of, and that could be of use in other fields, like robotics. And that’s kind of cool, too.

Mike Elizalde of Spectral Motion sculpting an old age Nosferatu as a personal project.

Manaugh: Finally, to bring things full circle, we’re just curious as to how Spectral Motion got started.

Elizalde: Well, I became involved in the effects industry back in 1987. It sort of just dawned on me one day that I wanted to do this for a living. I had been in the Navy for eight years when it really started getting to me—when I realized I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do with my life.

I decided that I’d come back to my home, which is Los Angeles, California, and look into becoming a creature effects guy. I was totally enamored of Frankenstein’s Monster when I was a kid. I grew up watching all the horror movies that I could see—a steady diet of Godzilla, Frankenstein, you name it. All the Universal monsters, and even more modern things like An American Werewolf in London. They just really fascinated me. That was a real catalyst for me to start exploring how to do this myself.

I also learned from books. I collected books and started using my friends as guinea pigs, creating very rudimentary makeup effects on them. And, eventually, I landed my first job in Hollywood.

Cut to fifteen years later, and I had my first experience on set with Guillermo del Toro. I was working with him on Blade II. I had done an animatronic device for the characters he was using in his film, and I was also on set puppeteering. We became very good friends. That’s when he offered me the script for Hellboy and that’s how we started Spectral Motion. I became independent. Prior to that I had worked for Rick Baker, and Stan Winston, and all the other big names in town. But this was our opportunity to make our own names—and here we are, today.

You know, this is one of those industries where you can come in with a desire and some ability, and people around you will instruct you and nurture you. That’s how it happened for me. I was taught by my peers. And it really is a great way to learn. There are schools where you can learn this stuff, as well, but my experience proved to me that the self-taught/mentored method is a very good way to go.

• • •

This interview was simultaneously published on Venue, where a long list of other interviews discussing the human relationship to the virtual, built, and natural landscapes can be found.

Ball Games: The Great Escape (1963)

[Image: The Great Escape from MGM].

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley, written as part of Breaking Out and Breaking In: A Distributed Film Fest of Prison Breaks and Bank Heists.

Alongside The Dam Busters and The Wooden Horse, The Great Escape was shown on British TV at least once a month when I was growing up. It is such familiar, comforting fare that, in a 2006 poll, Britons voted The Great Escape their third choice for a film worth watching on Christmas Day (It’s A Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz were first and second choice, respectively).

A large part of its appeal, at least for me, lies in the Boy’s Own adventure-style spirit and Heath Robinson-esque ingenuity of the Allied POWs.

The movie begins with the most experienced and determined Allied escapologists arriving at the newly constructed, supposedly escape-proof Stalag Luft III. Its resistance to casual, opportunistic break outs is demonstrated in the first few minutes, as POWs unsuccessfully attempt to slip out hidden under tree branches, disguised as Russian laborers, and in the blind spots of the guard towers.

[Image: From The Great Escape, courtesy of MGM].

An altogether more rigorous approach is required, and, under the direction of Richard Attenborough’s Squadron Leader Bartlett, the entire camp is organized into a tunnel-digging machine, with a strict division of labor, assembly-line document- and clothing-production techniques, and a suite of redundant underground infrastructure (tunnels “Tom,” “Dick,” and the ultimately successful “Harry”).

As in A Man Escaped, breaking out requires “the strategic dismantling and reassembly of all designed objects that aren’t architecture”: powdered milk cans, socks, and bunk bed slats are transformed into tunnel ventilation pumps, supports, and trouser-mounted soil disposal devices.

And, as in Grand Illusion, there is a distinct sense that tunneling is a codified sport, bound to be played in prison camps. Certainly, the Allied POWs seem to be motivated as much by a boyish delight in outwitting the Germans through their own ingenuity and teamwork as by a sense of duty or passionate desire to return home. Stalag Luft III, in this view, is something like a game level, challenging seasoned players to apply their existing tunneling techniques in innovative new ways. (Intriguingly, the camp was used as the basis for Dulag IIIA in the first installment of Call of Duty).

If the design of prison camps and the sport of tunneling have co-evolved from World War I’s Grand Illusion to World War II’s Great Escape, then so, too, has the theater of war, from the defined battlefield of the trenches to a total war embedded into and dispersed throughout civilian landscapes.

The second half of The Great Escape, following the trajectories of those who successfully tunneled out of Stalag Luft III, reveals that, in fact, most of the European continent is a prison camp of sorts, booby-trapped with English-speaking Gestapo, and with its safe havens (Switzerland and Spain) ring-fenced with barbed wire and mountain ranges.

[Images: From The Great Escape, courtesy of MGM].

Finally, Steve McQueen, the “Cooler King,” provides future generations of filmmakers with an iconic image of the spatial and temporal experience of solitary confinement: a rubber ball, repetitively bounced off cell walls as if both defining and testing the limits those walls pose to free motion. From The Shining to The Simpsons to Ryan Reynolds in Safe House, the endlessly bouncing ball has since become visual shorthand, indicating that a character is trapped, whether their prison is mental, physical, or both.

(Nicola Twilley is the author of Edible Geography).

Do Black Swans Dream of Electric Sheep?

In just a few hours here at Studio-X NYC—an off-campus event space and urban futures think tank run by Columbia’s GSAPP—we’ll be hosting a live interview with Ilona Gaynor. Gaynor is a London-based concept artist, filmmaker, and multimedia designer.

As Gaynor explains it, her work “largely consists of artificially constructed spaces, systems and atmospheres navigated through fictional scenarios,” her intention being “to intensify, fantasize and aestheticize the darker, invisible reaches of political, economical and technological progress. Grounded in rigorous research, consultation and collaboration,” she continues, “my aim is to reveal these worlds by exploring the imaginary limits within them both as critique and speculative pleasure.”

Most of Gaynor’s work has a strong financial bent, as you’ll notice from her portfolio, whether it’s the photographic series “Corporate Heaven,” a research project on insurance and risk, the short film Suspicion Builds Confidence, or even a “fictional artifact designed for the corporate world of tomorrow.”

Her most recent short film, Everything Ends In Chaos, embedded at the start of this post, presents “a mixed-media collection of objects, narrative texts and films that reveal the intricate trajectories of an artificially designed and reverse engineered Black Swan event.” A Black Swan, in Gaynor’s telling of it, based on the economic work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is the idea that humans “are collectively and individually blind to uncertainty, and therefore often unaware of the impact that singular events can have on [their] lives: economically, historically and scientifically, until after their occurrence.” Her film is thus an attempt to “reverse-engineer” such an event, piecing together chaos from order; the film’s backstory, which is unfortunately quite hard to detect from the imagery alone, involves an elaborate kidnapping plot, stolen jewels force-fed to doves (which then escape from their cage and fly away), and an actuarial committee in charge of insuring against this event.

In another work, nature—that is, non-human lifeforms, especially plants—has become so expensive and, thus, so out of reach for everyday workers—in Gaynor’s future, for example, a single Ficus tree costs £450,000—that indulging in any interaction with the natural world becomes an experience of “unapologetic decadence.” That film, 120 Seconds of Future, is embedded below:

Gaynor kicks things off at 7pm tonight—Wednesday, 12 October—to be followed by an open Q&A. We’ll be at Studio-X NYC, 180 Varick Street, Suite 1610. Here’s a map.

(More on Studio-X NYC, earlier on BLDGBLOG).

Urban Optometry

[Image: From The Solitary Life of Cranes by Eva Weber].

The Solitary Life of Cranes is a short film by Eva Weber about the work performed by construction crane operators in London. I’ve mentioned it many times in various talks I’ve given over the past year, but I realized last night that I never actually posted about it—so I thought I’d correct that. It’s a great film, and it’s worth seeking out. At only 27 minutes in length, as well, it’s also quick to watch.

[Image: From The Solitary Life of Cranes by Eva Weber].

As the film describes itself:

Part city symphony, part visual poem, The Solitary Life of Cranes explores the invisible life of a city, its patterns and hidden secrets, seen through the eyes of crane drivers working high above its streets. (…) From their elevated positions, crane drivers are the unsung chroniclers of our ever-changing metropolis: the bulk of their time is spent waiting, looking, observing the wind, the weather, and the people down below. From their airy towers, they do not only have the best overview of the construction site and some of the most impressive panoramic views of the city but also an unparalleled insight into any of the buildings surrounding them.

Looked at one way, Weber has made an oral history of crane operators: documenting where they work, what they think about, what they see, and—perhaps most interestingly—how they view the city.

[Image: From The Solitary Life of Cranes by Eva Weber].

These operators, I would suggest, have a view of the metropolis that architects and planners have little or no access to, an optical insight into city life that often gives their job an almost mystic feel. “Many people don’t know that there’s somebody up there, don’t even think that there’s somebody up there,” one of the operators suggests. “They’re quite surprised when you tell them, ‘yeah there’s a guy up there, you know and this guy is me’.”

There are moments of both inadvertent and advertent voyeurism in the process. “You see really private moments of people’s lives… because people can’t see you or aren’t aware of you.” Indeed, “There’s a couple of people in—how can I put this now without sounding like a voyeur? There are flats right opposite me with the same people in, every day, if you know what I mean, and they’re there, you cannot not look.”

“If you did meet the same person on the street,” one of them says, “then you’d think twice… you wouldn’t introduce yourself, but you stop and think and turn your head when they walk by, you know, as if to say, look I’m part of your life but you don’t know it.”

[Image: From The Solitary Life of Cranes by Eva Weber, like a shot from Michael Wolf’s book The Transparent City].

One of them even compares the experience to living and working inside a cloud: “Coming down… it’s like coming out of a cloud. You sort of come down it, and it just disappears and then you’re back on normal ground again. You think, ‘Jesus, what a different way of life down here than what it is up there’.”

This terrestrial dislocation is not necessarily a good thing: “We’re getting operators that we all call ‘cab happy’, and they just want to stay on the cab all the time. You know, it’s hard to get them out… I think all crane operators, to a certain degree, I think they’re ‘cab happy’—when you’re on the floor you always miss being in the crane.”

[Image: From The Solitary Life of Cranes by Eva Weber].

One of my favorite moments in the film is when we hear an operator talk about storms. “You can see a storm develop,” he says, looking out over the city, “sort of 10-15 miles away, you can see the cloud shapes, you know, you can watch the rain come in,” and we see moving fronts of English weather cross over the city, “and the rain physically comes in as a wall. You can see that curtain,” he says, “moving across the town, moving across the city.”

[Image: From The Solitary Life of Cranes by Eva Weber].

When I talked about this film at an event in New York City last winter, architect Ed Keller, the event’s host, compared these crane operators to Daedalus figures, looking down into the labyrinth that they themselves have built—only here the labyrinth is London, and the there is not one Daedalus but thousands, and they are awake all the time in overlapping shifts, keeping eyes on the city from above, in perpetuity.

[Image: From The Solitary Life of Cranes by Eva Weber; the building in the lower left of this image is actually the London office of Foster and Partners].

“The sky is full of stories,” as author Sukhdev Sandhu wrote in an essay for the book A Manual For the 21st Century Art Institution. Looking at the social, economic, and even narrative implicatons of architectural verticality in East London, Sandhu specifically cites Weber’s film:

These men, perched in their metal boxes, invisible to ground-bound Londoners, speak with precision and poetry about the beauty they are afforded by their enhanced perspectives—about the pale delicacy with which the sun rises above the city, the lush greenery of far-off hills, the way streets curve and snake into the distance. They are blessed with the opposite of tunnel vision, able to spot oncoming storms at a distance of fifteen miles, and witnesses to the teeming life that takes place above pavement level: roof-garden parties, office workers taking fag breaks, pigeon fanciers chatting to their birds. London, one of them observes, consists of a series of layers.

Sandhu calls for a need “to gaze out across the callous metropolis—and conjure forth connections,” taking advantage of these unprecedented viewpoints, perspectives on the city that were literally impossible before these buildings and cranes came along, to help fashion a new understanding of how the metropolis works, how people live within it, and where it might yet go. As if the building boom brought with it a new optics of the city—a new picturesque—an angled optometry of everyday space.

[Image: From The Solitary Life of Cranes by Eva Weber].

Briefly, I’m reminded of the story of Babu Sassi, a crane operator atop the Burj Dubai/Burj Khalifa who, the legend goes, didn’t come down to earth for a full year, as it would have taken too long to make the trip. You can read more about Babu at that earlier post, but the overall question would be the same: how does your understanding of the social world change after spending time inside these massive, temporary constructs without names or fixed addresses, as if only unofficially present in the built landscape that surrounds them? They are towers that disappear, never to be seen again in the same location, and you are perched there, like some rogue landscape theorist, at fantastic height above the very thing you both assemble and secretly study.

[Image: From The Solitary Life of Cranes by Eva Weber].

More information about the film can be found at its—unfortunately Flash-based—website, and the film itself is worth seeking out.

Code 46

On Monday, November 24, I’ll be hosting a live interview at the Barbican in London with director Michael Winterbottom, for a special screening of his film Code 46. You can read a bit more about the event – as well as buy tickets – here.
This is part of an ongoing series called Architecture on Film, curated by the Architecture Foundation.

[Image: From Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46, courtesy of United Artists].

The purpose of the event is to talk about film and architecture – or, in this case, cities, urban design, memory, science fiction, landscape, globalization, and the built environment. As you can see from the list of locations used for the film’s production, Code 46 is very well-traveled, stitching together urban – and exurban – environments from London, Shanghai, Dubai, Hong Kong, and even the deserts of Rajasthan.
That the film achieves the feel of science fiction simply through a well-edited depiction of existing landscapes says as much about the film as it does about the nature of city-building today; perhaps one might only half-jokingly suggest that people build cities today in order to live inside science fiction films.

[Image: Shanghai, from Code 46, directed by Michael Winterbottom, courtesy of United Artists].

As BLDGBLOG explored the other week in a long post, “cities today are well known for popping up in the middle of nowhere, history-less and incomprehensible.”

That’s what cities now do. If these cities are here today, they weren’t five years ago; if they’re not here now, they will be soon. Today’s cities are made up, viral, fungal, unexpected. Like well-lit film sets in the distance, staged amidst mudflats, reflecting themselves in the still waters of inland reservoirs, today’s cities simply arrive, without reservations; they are not so much invited as they are impossible to turn away. Cities now erupt and linger; they are both too early and far too late. Cities move in, take root and expand, whole neighborhoods throwing themselves together in convulsions of glass and steel.

What does it mean, then, to set a film inside a mix of such spaces? And as more and more instant cities appear in the world, built from zero in less than a decade, how can cinema capitalize on the lack of recognition these historically too-new and culturally all but anonymous environments inspire?
What does it mean, as well, that the depiction of the future in Code 46 – a depiction of the future through architecture – involves no U.S. cities at all and only very brief glimpses of urban infrastructure in Europe?

[Image: Shanghai, from Code 46, directed by Michael Winterbottom, courtesy of United Artists].

This brings up one of the more interesting aspects of the film – something not internal to it, but created by the current state of global urbanization. The film makes it deliberately unclear, in other words, that it was shot in multiple locations at all; the opening sequence blurs together landscapes, buildings, and infrastructures from very different cities – yet this unfamiliar new place to which we’re being introduced might very well exist.
For all many viewers know, perhaps Shanghai really is in the middle of a desert; perhaps Dubai really does look exactly like Hong Kong.
This confusion only seems possible, however, within a very narrow window of historical time. As the skylines and iconic hotel interiors of Dubai, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and elsewhere become visually familiar to many more people, it will become much harder to do what Code 46 has done – which is to edit them all up into a convincing pastiche. They are a spatial collage, an urban cut-up – William S. Burroughs as architectural director.
In ten years, then, would this be akin to cutting from a shot of the Empire State Building to a shot of the Eiffel Tower and pretending that these landmarks are in the same city – only to find that almost no one has been genuinely tricked?
In a funny but negative Amazon review of the film, a disappointed viewer actually mocks this very aspect: “If I have to keep seeing these movies with the I haven’t a clue which Metro I’m in look I’m going to scream.”
But what does it mean that Asian cities – cinematically depicted as a kind of monolithic urban Other – are, for the time being, so visually unfamiliar to Western audiences that they can be edited into a seamless Global Metropolis, a vast agglomeration of spatial alterity that we can cut-and-paste together on film?
Where might Code 46 have been made if it had been produced fifteen years from now? What explosive urban outgrowths between now and then will be sufficiently unfamiliar to literally hundreds of thousands of filmgoers that they could be combined into one convincing location?
Will the sci-fi films of tomorrow be set in Lagos, Delhi, Rabat, or Shenzhen? All of the above?
It’s the future science fiction of global third-tier urbanism.
For instance, one of the most striking aspects of the urban environment in The Matrix came simply from the fact that many – though not all – of the outdoor scenes were shot in Sydney, a city with which most American viewers are not visually familiar. The urban world of the Matrix thus took on an uncanny sense of near-resemblance, looking an awful lot like a city everyone has seen before – is that Houston? Tampa Bay? Fresno? – but not enough like any single one of them to be clear.
The film Primer, shot in Dallas, is an amazing example of this: the whole time you’re watching it you have no idea where you are… though absolutely everything about it looks familiar.
The effect, particularly in Code 46, is almost literally uncanny.

[Image: The Shanghai skyline, from Code 46, directed by Michael Winterbottom, courtesy of United Artists].

Briefly, I’m also reminded here of Tativille, the massive film-set city built by Jacques Tati to produce his own film Playtime. Constructed solely for the purpose of hosting camera crews – and later disassembled – Tativille was a city of the image, its design shaped only by how it would look on screen. With Tativille in mind, what might future audiences think if, say, Dubai really does run out of money in the global economic downturn, its towers abandoned and eroding back to sand? It will be visible in films like Code 46 – but nowhere else. It will have ceased to exist.
It will have been a kind of Tativille of the Emirates, built only to host film crews and car commercials.
In any case, the film’s visions of desert poverty – scenes in Rajasthan – and desert opulence – scenes in Dubai – bring up the topic of uneven development. If, as William Gibson‘s oft-quoted line goes, the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed, then this also appears to be true in the context of architectural form and urban landscapes.
But which one is the future: the nationless desert of rights-deprived exiles or the golf course-filled desert of the stateless business class?
Or are these perhaps one and the same, requiring each other as the flipsides of their own formation?

[Image: The opening titles of Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46, courtesy of United Artists].

None of these questions are new, of course, going back in some form or another to Sergei Eisenstein, Fredric Jameson, and many, many others; but the opportunity to discuss all this with Michael Winterbottom himself in reference to a specific – and, as it happens, visually stunning – film, in a monumental and legendary architectural complex like the Barbican, is something of which I’m genuinely excited to be a part.
So if you’re in London on Monday, November 24, consider stopping by. Tickets can be purchased directly through the Barbican’s website, and you can learn a bit more about the film here.

The Heliocentric Pantheon: An Interview with Walter Murch

[Image: Inside the Pantheon; via].

Through both film editing and sound design, Walter Murch has worked literally behind the scenes of Hollywood to give shape and structure to the films we see. In the process, he’s won three Academy Awards; he’s directed his own feature-length film, the creatively subversive Return to Oz; and he’s worked with some of the greatest directors of modern times, including Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, on some of their greatest films, from The Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now to The Conversation and THX-1138.
But it is due only in part to Murch’s stellar career in film that I wanted to talk to him for BLDGBLOG.
As it happens, Murch’s interests go far beyond the reach of cinema, encompassing architecture, astronomy, music theory, and mathematics – among an almost impossibly broad range of other subjects. When a friend of mine casually mentioned that Walter had “discovered” something about the Pantheon, in Rome, and that this discovery had something to do with Nicolaus Copernicus and the origins of heliocentrism in Western astronomy, I was determined to write about it for BLDGBLOG. Within only a few weeks, Walter and I were in touch.
Of course, Murch is already very well-known as an interviewee; as only one example of this, novelist Michael Ondaatje recorded an entire book’s worth of interviews with Murch, later published under the title The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film.
That book is never less than fascinating, if frequently enigmatic; at one point Murch claims, for instance, referring to his sound work for film: “If I go out to record a door-slam, I don’t think I’m recording a door-slam. I think I am recording the space in which a door-slam happens.”
Or, continuing that thought:

I spent a lot of time trying to discover those key sounds that bring universes along with them. I tend not to visualize but auralize, to think about sound in terms of space. Rather than listen to the sound itself, I listen to the space in which the sound is contained.

Murch and I spoke for roughly an hour, and we continued our conversation through email; we managed to discuss the Pantheon, Copernicus, the Mithraic religion of the ancient Mediterranean, urban acoustics, the music of the spheres, Brian Eno, Single Speed Design, the architecture of film, and whether CCTV surveillance of city streets should be considered a new cinematic avant-garde.
It’s worth noting, finally, that this interview goes online only a few hours before Murch is due to speak at an event in San Francisco, co-organized by BLDGBLOG and Chronicle Books; there, he will be discussing his thoughts on Copernicus and the Pantheon in more detail.

• • •

[Image: Exterior view of the Pantheon].

BLDGBLOG: I’d like to start with your research into the Pantheon – in particular, how that building’s structure may have influenced the astronomical theories of Nicolaus Copernicus. Could you tell me a bit more about that?

Walter Murch: Well, the Pantheon still holds its mysteries: Who designed it? How was it used? What does it mean? But Copernicus still has his mysteries, too: Why did someone like him, a high official in the Church, 500 years ago, dedicate his life to the idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun? Not only did this contradict common-sense and the teaching of the Bible, but it also capsized 1400 years of Ptolemaic, geocentric astronomy. And Ptolemy, it turns out, was writing his classic book on astronomy – the Almagest – while the Pantheon was being built.

At any rate, Copernicus was born in 1473. He studied astronomy at the University of Bologna, along with medicine and law, and while he was there he became an assistant to Domenico Novara. Novara was a well-known astronomer who may have exposed Copernicus to the 3rd century BC theories of Aristarchus.

Aristarchus believed that the Sun was the center of the universe. He also believed that the Earth not only revolved around the Sun, along with all the other planets, but that it rotated on its axis once every 24 hours, and that the moon, in turn, revolved around the Earth. So – more than two thousand years ago – Aristarchus described the solar system essentially the way we conceive of it today; yet his theory was rejected at the time, and his writings were subsequently lost.

Scholars in the Renaissance were only able to learn about Aristarchus through a book called The Sand Reckoner, by Archimedes, where Aristarchus’s theory is described – but it’s used as the premise for an impossibly large universe. Aristarchus’s heliocentrism is almost certainly the source of Copernicus’s inspiration – but why did Copernicus take it seriously when no one else did?

In 1500, a Jubilee year, Copernicus took time off from his studies in Bologna and he moved to Rome. This is where the Pantheon comes in. Circumstantial evidence would suggest that if you were a young man of 27, footloose in Rome, the Pantheon would be high on your list of places to visit: it was probably the most famous building in the world at that time – the only intact structure from Ancient Rome – and it featured the world’s largest dome: 142 feet in diameter. It remains, to this day, the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the history of architecture.

The Pantheon had survived mainly because it was consecrated in 609, yet the overwhelming feeling when you walk into that building is pagan: a series of concentric circles surrounding a single bright source of light – which is the oculus in the center of the dome. It’s pretty certain that the Pantheon was designed by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and Hadrian was a Mithraist – a worshipper of the Sun.

The only writing about the Pantheon from around the time it was built appears in the History of Rome, by Dio Cassius. Dio Cassius mentions that some people believed the name Pantheon (which is Greek for all gods) came from the statues of the many different gods which decorated the building, “but my own opinion of the name is that, because of its vaulted roof, it resembles the heavens.”

That powerful image of the central source of sunlight surrounded by a series of concentric circles must have been an overwhelming experience for Copernicus, primed by his knowledge of Aristarchus. He would have been standing in a church (St. Mary All Martyrs) built 1400 years earlier as a pagan temple, looking up at Aristarchus’s theory “in the flesh” so to speak.

[Image: The dome of the Pantheon, a “celestogramme” by Wolfgang Wackernagel].

BLDGBLOG: Are there any writings or images by Copernicus that might prove he interpreted the building this way?

Murch: There is a drawing in Revolutions, at the end of Chapter Ten, where Copernicus, for the first time, schematically illustrates his conception of the Universe. It’s a series of concentric circles, the outermost being the “Sphere of the Fixed Stars,” with progressively smaller circles representing the orbits of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Earth, Venus, and Mercury. In the center, of course, is the dot of the Sun. Copernicus’s exact words accompanying the drawing are significant:

At rest, however, in the middle of everything is the Sun. For in this most beautiful temple (in hoc pulcherimo templo) who could place this lamp in another or better position than the center, from which it can light up the whole at the same time? For, is not the Sun called ‘the lantern of the universe’ and, ‘its mind’ and by others ‘its ruler’? Hermes Trismegistus calls the Sun ‘a visible god’, and Sophocles’ Electra calls it ‘the all-seeing’. Thus indeed, as though upon a royal throne, the Sun governs the family of planets revolving around it.

What leaps out from that text are the allusions to this beautiful temple, illuminated by a central lamp – and lantern was the architectural term used in Copernicus’s time to refer to the central opening in a dome – which lights up the whole. Then there are the classical references to Hermes Trismegistus and Sophocles. These are not the words of a cautious medieval ecclesiastic, but someone deeply influenced by the ancient pre-Christian world.

[Image: A diagram of the planetary orbits, by Nicholas Copernicus].

BLDGBLOG: So, in that passage, he was simultaneously describing the structure of the Pantheon and his theory of the solar system?

Murch: In a sense.

Inspired by that description, I then superimposed Copernicus’s drawing over an image of the Pantheon’s dome – and found that the ratios of the circles in his drawing and the ratios of the circles of the Pantheon line up almost exactly. Seeing that alignment was one of those wonderful moments where you suddenly feel a strong current of connection with the past.

[Image: A superimposition, by Walter Murch, of Copernicus’s diagram of planetary orbits over a celestogramme of the Pantheon by Wolfgang Wackernagel].

BLDGBLOG: Wow! That’s not just a coincidence? Copernicus actually meant for that to happen?

Murch: The circumstantial evidence is compelling, but there is no reference to the Pantheon in any of Copernicus’s correspondence or in the various manuscript versions of de Revolutionibus – so we will probably never know for sure.

Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating thought: that this magnificent temple, built 1400 years before Copernicus ever saw it, designed by a pagan, Sun-worshipping Roman emperor, and later transformed into a church, may have had secretly encoded within it the idea that the Sun was the center of the universe; and that this ancient, wordless wisdom helped to revolutionize our view of the cosmos.

BLDGBLOG: As far as the organization of the solar system goes, you’ve also been doing some interesting work with Bode’s Law, which has to do with finding a mathematical pattern in the orbits of the planets. How did you first discover that Law, and where is your research going?

Murch: Well, it was something I ran across a number of years ago in Arthur Koestler’s book The Sleepwalkers – a history of our conception of the universe from ancient Greece through Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo to Newton. Bode’s Law is just mentioned as a footnote.

Kepler, in particular, had been obsessed with finding a pattern in the orbits of the planets – his famous Three Laws were discovered almost incidentally along the way to that goal, and he would probably be very upset to find that we remember him for his those laws (which he did not number or particularly esteem) and that we’ve forgotten the planetary harmonics to which he devoted his life. But, even by the middle of the 1600s, Kepler’s harmonies were considered a lost cause.

Then, sometime in the 1760s – more than a hundred years after Kepler – a German professor of physics inserted a formula into a French book he was translating: a simple bit of algebra which seemed to indicate there was, indeed, a pattern to the planetary orbits. That professor was Johann Titius, and his formula was later appropriated and published by the director of the Berlin observatory, Johann Bode. Bode had a much bigger megaphone than Titius, so the formula became known as Bode’s Law – but it should really be named after Titius.

When I read Sleepwalkers I was right in the middle of finishing a film – and it was odd, because I was under a tight deadline, but this idea really got under my skin. So at 11:30 at night I started fooling around with the Bode numbers, and within half an hour, I came up with a formula that generated the same set of ratios, yet was different from the original – and that really made the hair on the back of my neck stand up! That was what started me down this road, about ten years ago.

[Image: The rings of Saturn; courtesy of NASA].

BLDGBLOG: What’s the specific idea behind the Law itself? In other words, what exactly is Bode’s Law?

Murch: It’s a relatively simple exponential function, sprinkled with a few arbitrary constants – you put whole numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) in at one end and a series of different numbers come out the other (.4, .7, 1.0, 1.6, etc.). It turns out that these new numbers are very close to the average distances of the planets from the Sun, measured in Astronomical Units (AU). For instance, the Earth is (by definition) 1 AU from the Sun. Bode’s Law says that there should be a planet at .7 of that distance – and Venus is actually found at .72 AU.

Titius’s formula not only correctly described – to within a few percentage points – the average distances of the six planets known at the time, but it also predicted that there should be planets at certain distances where there seemed to be empty space. Then, in 1781, Uranus was discovered – the first planet ever to be discovered with a telescope – and its average distance turned out to be 19.2 AU, within 2% of the predicted 19.6. In 1801, Ceres, the first and largest asteroid, was discovered at 2.77 AU, within 1% of the predicted 2.8.

It was a kind of astronomical apotheosis: Titius’s formula seemed to be both descriptive and predictive: the holy grail of science. It fit all the known planets – even newly-discovered ones. So, even though nobody knew why it worked, Titius’s formula was assumed to be a Law. Unfortunately for Titius, who died in 1796, it became popularly known as Bode’s Law.

Everything was fine for the next fifty years, but then disaster struck: in 1846, another new planet was discovered – Neptune – but it didn’t fit. It should have been at 38.8 AU, but it was orbiting at 30, off by almost 30%.

It was a fatal blow. Bode’s Law fell into obscurity, where it remains to this day. Now, when you take astronomy 101, if Bode’s Law is mentioned at all, it’s presented as a historical curiosity. Or a cautionary tale of wrong thinking – luring unwary astronomers into the swamp of numerology.

But, then, when Pluto was discovered in 1930, it fit to within 2% the orbit where Neptune should have been. So rather than throw the whole thing out because one planet didn’t fit, I thought it would be interesting to set Neptune aside as a renegade and see what I could learn by applying the formula to other orbital systems.

I eventually discovered that there are parts of the formula that are linked to particular and unique aspects of our own solar system – and that these particularities are responsible for some of the arbitrary constants in the formula. I found if I could purify the formula of these constants, then I could also make it simpler and more general, and yet it would still yield the same set of ratios.

[Images: The rings – and a moon – of Saturn; courtesy of NASA].

BLDGBLOG: How did you purify it?

Murch: Well, one of the unexamined assumptions in Bode’s Law is that the unit to which everything is mathematically compared is the distance of the Earth from the Sun. This seems perfectly natural – it’s the Astronomical Unit, and the Earth is where we live. But this comparison requires the formula to perform a kind of mathematical jiu-jitsu: it has to generate a series of ratios and compare all of those ratios to the Astronomical Unit.

So it seemed more logical to abandon the Astronomical Unit and just concentrate on the ratios. Once you do that, the formula gets much simpler: it doesn’t have to do two things at once. This new formula is not only simpler, but it’s also lost its “Earth-centricity.” Now you can apply it to other orbital systems – the miniature “solar systems” of the moons around Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, for instance, and you find the same set of ratios cropping up!

Of course, it’s not that the moon systems of those planets somehow duplicate the solar system – they don’t. It’s rather that, underlying all of these moons and planets, there is a pattern of ratios, like the musical ratios underlying a keyboard. Just as you are restricted to playing certain musical ratios on a keyboard, so it seems to be with the arrangements of these moons. Some systems “play” – or occupy – certain orbits that others don’t.

Applying the same formula to different systems is potentially very fruitful. By comparing orbital systems you find that, in each of system, there are a few renegades – like Neptune in our solar system – but each of these is a renegade in the same way as Neptune: all of them fall exactly at the midpoint between two adjacent Bode-predicted orbits. So there is an underlying similarity even to the exceptions.

[Image: Bode-predicted planetary orbits compared to those orbits as they are now scientifically understood].

BLDGBLOG: The “music of the spheres” is perhaps an inevitable metaphor to use here – but I’m curious if you have actually found a real, numerical correspondence between the structure of Western music and the orbits of the planets, or if it’s just a convenient metaphor.

Murch: That’s one of the startling things about this. If I wrote the simplified Bode formula down on a piece of paper and showed it to music theorists, they would ask: “Why are you showing us a formula from the overtone series…?”

In other words, Bode’s Law gives a series of orbital ratios which are mathematically identical to intervals in musical theory. They’re primarily variations on what we call the 7th chord: C, E, G, B-flat. Bode’s predicted ratio between Earth and Mars, for instance, is the same as the 5:8 musical ratio between E and C. And if you divide the distances, in kilometers, of the four Galilean moons by a common denominator you get the notes Ab, E, C, Bb. And so on.

[Image: The moons of Jupiter].

BLDGBLOG: Have you discussed these ideas with actual astronomers? How did they react?

Murch: I’ve given this, as a lecture, in various forms – at the National Convention of Digital Astronomy in Italy in 2004; at NYU in 2005; and then, last year, at the Chicago Humanities Festival. I think it was well-received in each case, but it’s still a work-in-progress, and I’m looking for feedback from people who are interested in this kind of cross-disciplinary thinking. For most astronomers it’s hard to contemplate reviving a long-discredited 18th century law of celestial mechanics, let alone the music of the spheres! [laughs] The conventional wisdom about Bode’s Law is that it’s just a fluky coincidence.

[Images: The world as a series of chords; via].

BLDGBLOG: So there are similarities between this and music theory – but what about between this and film theory? Is there a kind of Bode’s Law of film editing? The relationships between scenes and so on?

Murch: I think the common thread to both astronomy and film-editing is this search for patterns. Now, at least as far as we can tell, filmmaking is not amenable to the same kind of mathematical rigor that applies to astronomy [laughs] – there may be a mathematical rigor, but we certainly haven’t discovered what it is yet.

Think how difficult it would be to explain musical notation to someone from ancient Egypt, when they did not even suspect the underlying mathematical laws of harmonics, let alone a way of writing it all down. Instead, for thousands of years, music was the main poetic metaphor for that which could not be preserved. Music evaporates as soon as it is performed. So this idea – that marks could be made on paper, and that this paper could then be sent hundreds of miles away, allowing different people to play the same music years later – I think would have seemed very strange, even impossible, to people in ancient times.

Maybe someday, though, we’ll turn a conceptual corner and suddenly discover the equivalent of musical theory and notation in film. Maybe we are still “Ancient Egyptians” in that regard.

BLDGBLOG: When you’re actually editing a film, do you ever become aware of this kind of underlying structure, or architecture, amongst the scenes?

Murch: There are little hints of underlying cinematic structures now and then. For instance: to make a convincing action sequence requires, on average, fourteen different camera angles a minute. I don’t mean fourteen cuts – you can have many more than fourteen cuts per minute – but fourteen new views. Let’s say there is a one-minute action scene with thirty cuts, so that the average length of each is two seconds – but, of those thirty cuts, sixteen of them will be repeats of a previous camera angle.

Now what you have to keep in mind is that the perceiving brain reacts differently to completely new visual information than it does to something it has seen before. In the second case, there is already a familiar template into which the information can be placed, so it can be taken in faster and more readily.

So with fourteen “untemplated” angles a minute, a well-shot action sequence will feel thrilling and yet still comprehensible: just on the edge of chaos, which is how action feels if you are in the middle of it. If it’s less than fourteen, the audience will feel like something is lacking, and they’ll disengage; if it’s more than fourteen, so much new information is being thrown at the audience that they’ll also disengage, though for different reasons.

At the other end of the spectrum, dialogue scenes seem to need an average of four new camera angles a minute. Less than that, and the scene will seem flat and perfunctory; more than that, and it will be hard for the audience to concentrate on the performances and the meaning of the dialogue: the visual style will get in the way of the verbal content and the subtleties of the actors’ performances.

This rule of “four to fourteen” seems to hold across all kinds of films and different styles and periods of filmmaking.

BLDGBLOG: Returning to the idea of music and sound for a moment, are there any places or buildings that you’ve visited, anywhere in the world, that particularly seemed to highlight the connection between a space and the sounds that occur in it? A kind of acoustic urbanism, where how a place sounds totally transforms what you see happening there?

Murch: Actually, I had that exact experience – but it was while watching a film. [laughter] Grand Central Station had been used as a location for one of the scenes. And this was despite the fact that I grew up in Manhattan, had been in Grand Central many times, and had developed an interest in sound recording as a teenager. But I was deaf to the kind of acoustic urbanism you’re speaking of until I saw Seconds by John Frankenheimer, in 1965.

There was just a single hand-held shot gliding down the main staircase, but accompanied by this…. bwoooaaahmmmm… the sound of that great room in all its wonderful complexity. It hit me very hard, emotionally, even though in retrospect it was quite obvious: the realization that you could join a certain tonality with a certain architectural space to create an emotion in the audience. And, if you wanted to, that you could then manipulate or distort that tonality to create a different sense of the visual space and a different emotion.

I’ve been pursuing that idea ever since. On every film I try to think as deeply as I can about the implied acoustic space of each scene; I then try to tailor the reverberant quality of the sound, and the tonality, to the spaces that we’re looking at. It’s endlessly fascinating, particularly because this technique flies “below the radar” of the audience. The filmmaker can have an effect on the audience without the audience knowing where that effect is coming from. Which I would guess is something that architects enjoy playing with, too.

[Images: Grand Central Station; via].

BLDGBLOG: As far as an acoustically rich space goes, is there a specific place – or a building or a landscape – where you like to record sounds for use in a film? How does the actual space affect the sounds you can record in it?

Murch: Well, first of all, I record a sound without any atmospheric envelope around it. I then take that recorded sound and find an acoustic space that is as close as possible to the acoustical space in the film; I play the sound in that space; and I record the resulting reverberation on another device, placed to extract the maximum reverberation. Then, in the final mix, I have the ability to blend those two sounds: the “dry” sound itself, alongside a sound which is almost all reverberation.

In musical terms, you could say it’s like the relationship between the string of the violin and the reverberation and amplification added by the body of the violin itself.

By first separating and then balancing those two elements together, I can custom-fit what seems to be the right dimension of sound implied by the space on screen. If you have too much reverb, and you don’t hear enough of the original sound itself, the result is too diffuse and ethereal to be realistic – but sometimes that lack of realism is exactly what you want. On the other hand, if you play proportionately too much of the dry sound, it doesn’t seem to connect to the space you’re looking at. But maybe that’s exactly what you want – that kind of dislocation. It all depends on the dramatic intent of the moment. But these two elements give you the handles to control the final result.

Over the last forty years, this time-consuming technique of physically “worldizing” the sound has been gradually replaced by increasingly sophisticated digital techniques, though the principle is the same. Now we can record a digital “snapshot” of a real acoustic space, using tone bursts and frequency sweeps, and then impose the resulting parameters on any sound we want, back in the studio.

BLDGBLOG: In a still unpublished interview I did with a Boston-based architecture firm called Single Speed Design, I asked one of the principal designers whether he liked ambient music – and his answer was interesting. He said that he didn’t like ambient music at all because it already included all the reverb, echo, and other effects that should have been introduced by the space in which the music was played. In other words, ambient music does the work of architecture for you, on the level of acoustics.

Murch: Exactly. He was reiterating, in an architectural sense, exactly what we do as a sound recordists.

BLDGBLOG: Another anecdote I think is interesting here comes from the British composer Brian Eno. Eno once said that he would make field recordings in different parks around London, then listen to the tapes until he’d memorized them – the way you would memorize a Beatles song. So he would know exactly when the church bell rang, and the mother called out to her child, and the birds flew overhead – or a distant truck rumbled by. He memorized the space according to the sounds that occurred within it.

Murch: There’s a wonderful essay by Michelangelo Antonioni, notes for a film that he was going to make in New York. To familiarize himself with the acoustic space of Manhattan (where he had never made a film) he sat in a room 34 stories up in a hotel somewhere on Fifth Avenue, writing down exactly what he heard over a period of three hours from dawn through rush hour. He came up with the most wonderful metaphors for sounds that were mysterious and unfamiliar to him, but which would be run-of-the-mill to a New Yorker. It’s a great read: a kind of meditative poetry, or song, just like Brian Eno said. It can evoke a whole series of emotional responses if you’re sensitive to that kind of stuff.

BLDGBLOG: Speaking of which, is there a specific place, like Leicester Square or some forest near San Francisco, where you thought to yourself: I could do this better – I could make this place sound better?

Murch: [laughs] Back in the late 60s we used to think of hiding a series of playback devices around a house to improve the sounds of the doors closing, the toilets flushing, and so on. Creating a real-life alternate acoustic universe.

Certainly the dominant thing that’s happened over the last hundred years is the universal spreading of white noise – just the general mush of traffic, air-conditioning, and jet planes. Whereas if you were in Leicester Square a hundred years ago, it might have been just as noisy – but the sounds would be more specific, less mushy and ill-defined because of the lack of the internal combustion engine and the constant whir of rubber tires on asphalt. For a number of years Aggie and I lived very near a freeway, on a Sausalito houseboat, and that constant mushy sound eventually became a kind of water-torture for me.

So I don’t have a specific answer for your question – but, generally, it would be to try to find some way to eliminate the white noise and to make people more sensitive to the individual sources of sound and reverberations within the space. Church bells can do that: they attract the ear with their tonality and reverberation, making you aware of the space between you and the church, and making you less aware of the underlying white noise.

[Image: Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) gets to know his surveillance equipment; from The Conversation. Courtesy of American Zoetrope].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, I’m curious how you, as a film editor, see the rise of video surveillance – CCTV – in cities around the world. It seems that cinema has become the default condition of urban security. So I have two questions: do you think that a new kind of cinematic avant-garde is evolving in the control rooms of private security firms? In other words, these epic, nine-hour shots of parking lots seem more Warholian than Andy Warhol. And, second: if you were suddenly faced with all of the surveillance footage generated in a city for a day, do you think you could edit it into a convenient, albeit imaginary, narrative? You could take all those non-events and edit them into something – with action, and a storyline, and rhythm?

Murch: Well, there was a short film made a few years ago where the filmmaker had worked out the location of all the surveillance cameras along a cross-section of London, and how many of those cameras were operated by the municipal authorities. If the cameras were operated by the city, then he could get access to the footage. So he mapped out a pedestrian trip for himself across town knowing that, at every moment he would be on CCTV: as soon as he was out of range of one camera, he would come into focus on another. So he walked the walk, wrote to all the relevant authorities, got the footage, and then edited it all together into a continuous narrative. It’s very amusing in a dystopian, Warholian kind of way. You only “get” the joke after a few minutes of watching.

But George Lucas’s THX-1138 was kind of like that, except it was made in 1971. Much of the action takes place on video surveillance cameras. In fact, the job of the girl in the film is to monitor banks of surveillance cameras. She eventually gets fed up, stops taking her Prozac, or whatever, and tries to escape this completely video-monitored world – which, it turns out, is completely underground because of some disaster that had happened on the surface many years earlier.

Also similar, in some ways, is The Conversation – which is about audio surveillance – made around the same time. Part of the visual style of that film was a dispassionate “surveillance camera” look. There are a number of moments in the film where Gene Hackman walks into the shot, lingers for a moment, and then he walks out – but the camera doesn’t follow him or cut, as it normally would. Until, maybe five or ten seconds later, it slowly pans left, in a very mechanical way, over to where he is, and then it watches him for a while. But then he gets up and moves out of range again, and so on.

This is all in 35mm, not video, but the effect is disorienting just the same – perhaps even more so. It’s as if the camera has a motion-detector behind it, not an intelligence. It will stay still as long as there is activity – but then, if it detects a lack of activity, it will wait five seconds before searching out where the activity might have gone. The film both begins and ends like that – a long slow mechanical zoom at the beginning, then ending on an oscillating camera that pans back and forth mindlessly. And there are a number of scenes in the middle that are shot similarly.

[Image: Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) realizes his apartment is bugged; from The Conversation. Courtesy of American Zoetrope].

BLDGBLOG: So do you think that video surveillance is a kind of unacknowledged form of cinema, or even a counter-Hollywood on the rise? The next avant-garde?

Murch: Something may be emerging. For instance, Mike Figgis’s Timecode is similar in its use of the simultaneous action of a four-way split screen telling four stories which sometimes interconnect.

You know, the other aspect of this is that these CCTV images are recycled and abandoned regularly. They are preserved for a certain length of time, and then they’re obliterated if there is no call for them. There is a temporality to it all which I think needs to be taken into account. It’s amazing, when you think about it, how rapidly this technology has spread – for economic reasons that have nothing to do with creativity. Insurance companies will now put cameras up at intersections where there have been lots of accidents. Then, if there is an accident involving one of their clients, they can use the footage to prove that the other person is at fault. Even when their client may be dead. Especially when he is dead.

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

Murch: There’s also footage now being made available, showing the July 7 London bombers rehearsing their terror plan two weeks ahead of time – all caught on publicly-operated CCTV cameras – and it is almost like the first example I mentioned, of crossing London on foot – lots of continuity of action. Except that it was real, and many lives were lost.

One hope I have is that someone will put a HiDef camera into orbit, giving a full-frame view of the Earth spinning below, and this will be made available to everyone on HiDef cable channel 427 or whatever. Then, when plasma screens – or liquid crystal, or digital wallpaper – get large enough, this image can then occupy the entire wall of a room in your house. You’ll be able to go into that room and do other things – read a book, or listen to music, and occasionally look up – and one entire wall of the room is the Earth as it actually is at the very moment that you’re looking at it. It would be as if your room were in orbit.

You’d begin to see Earthly events in context – a volcanic eruption in Peru, or the pollution coming out of New York harbor, or the hurricane threatening New Orleans, floods in Bangladesh – and it will begin to change our awareness of our relationship to the Earth in a profound way, the way the mirror changed our relationship to ourselves, and deepened our sense of identity as individuals. Given the technology that we have today, I’m interested that it hasn’t already happened yet. Given the state of the world at the moment, I hope it happens soon.

[Image: The Earth; image courtesy of NASA].

• • •

I owe an enormous thank you to Walter Murch, both for taking the time to do this interview – even following up via email from London – and for speaking at BLDGBLOG’s event, co-organized by Chronicle Books, tomorrow afternoon in San Francisco. If you’re anywhere nearby, be sure to stop in.
I also owe a huge thanks to Lawrence Weschler for first putting me in touch with Walter, and for introducing Walter to BLDGBLOG; and to Anne-Marie Cowsill, Chad Keig, and James Mockoski at American Zoetrope for sending me images from the filming of the The Conversation. Finally, I want to thank my wife, Nicola, for helping edit all this together while we drove up to San Francisco – it was also Nicola who suggested the interview’s title.
Meanwhile, I would urge anyone even remotely interested in the topics covered by this interview to pick up a copy of The Conversations. It’s compulsively readable, and well worth the time. Murch’s own book, In the Blink of an Eye, is particularly useful for anyone working in film.
Finally, Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen: How Walter Murch Edited Cold Mountain Using Apple’s Final Cut Pro and What This Means for Cinema is a detailed look at the film-editing experience itself, focusing on Murch’s decision to use an off-the-shelf software package in the editing of Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain.

Planet of Slums: An Interview with Mike Davis (pt. 1)

I first discovered Mike Davis’s work about a decade ago, through his book City of Quartz, a detailed and poetic look at the social geography of Los Angeles. Perhaps most memorably, City of Quartz describes the militarization of public space in LA, from the impenetrable “panic rooms” of Beverly Hills mansions to the shifting ganglands of South Central. Not only does the Los Angeles Police Department use “a geo-synchronous law enforcement satellite” in their literal oversight of the city, but “thousands of residential rooftops have been painted with identifying street numbers, transforming the aerial view of the city into a huge police grid.” In Los Angeles today, “carceral structures have become the new frontier of public architecture.”

A more wide-ranging book is Davis’s 2002 collection Dead Cities. The book ends with an invigorating bang: its final section, called “Extreme Science,” is a perfect example of how Davis’s work remains so consistently interesting. We come across asteroid impacts, prehistoric mass extinctions, Victorian disaster fiction, planetary gravitational imbalances, and even the coming regime of human-induced climate change, all in a book ostensibly dedicated to West Coast American urbanism.
Of course, Mike Davis’s particular breed of urban sociology has found many detractors – detractors who accuse Davis of falsifying his interviews, performing selective research, deliberately amplifying LA’s dark side (whether that means plate tectonics, police brutality, or race riots), and otherwise falling prey to battles in which Davis’s classically Marxist approach seems both inadequate and outdated. In fact, these criticisms are all justified in their own ways – yet I still find myself genuinely excited whenever a new book of his hits the bookshop display tables.
In any case, the following interview took place after the publication of Davis’s most recent book, Planet of Slums. Having reviewed that book for the Summer 2006 issue of David Haskell’s Urban Design Review, I won’t dwell on it at length here; but Planet of Slums states its subject matter boldy, on page one. There, Davis writes that we are now at “a watershed in human history, comparable to the Neolithic or Industrial revolutions. For the first time the urban population of the earth will outnumber the rural.”
This “urban” population will not find its home inside cities, however, but deep within horrific mega-slums where masked riot police, raw human sewage, toxic metal-plating industries, and emerging diseases all violently co-exist with literally billions of people. Planet of Slums quickly begins to read like some Boschian catalog of our era’s most nightmarish consequences. The future, to put it non-judgmentally, will be interesting indeed.
Mike Davis and I spoke via telephone.

BLDGBLOG: First, could you tell me a bit about the actual writing process of Planet of Slums? Was there any travel involved?

Davis: This was almost entirely an armchair journey. What I tried to do was read as much of the current literature on urban poverty, in English, as I could. Having four children, two of them toddlers, I only wish I could visit some of these places. On the other hand, I write from our porch, with a clear view of Tijuana, a city I know fairly well, and that’s influenced a lot of my thinking about these issues – although I tried scrupulously to avoid putting any personal journalism into the narrative.

Really, the book is just an attempt to critically survey and synthesize the literature on global urban poverty, and to expand on this extraordinarily important report of the United Nations – The Challenge of Slums – which came out a few years ago.

BLDGBLOG: So you didn’t visit the places you describe?

Davis: Well, I was initially anticipating writing a much longer book, but when I came to what should have been the second half of Planet of Slums – which looks at the politics of the slum – it became just impossible to rely on secondary or specialist literature. I’m now collaborating on a second volume with a young guy named Forrest Hylton, who’s lived for several years in Colombia and Bolivia. I think his first-hand experience and knowledge makes up for most of my deficiencies, and he and I are now producing the second book.

BLDGBLOG: I’m curious about the vocabulary that you use to describe this new “post-urban geography” of global slums: regional corridors, polycentric webs, diffuse urbanism, etc. I’m wondering if you’ve found any consistent forms or structures now arising, as cities turn away from centralized, geographically obvious locations, becoming fractal, slum-like sprawl.

Davis: First of all, the language with which we talk about metropolitan entities and larger-scale urban systems is already eclectic because urban geographers avidly debate these issues. I think there’s little consensus at all about the morphology of what lies beyond the classical city.

The most important debates really arose through discussions of urbanization in southern China, Indonesia, and southeast Asia – and that was about the nature of peri-urbanization on the dynamic periphery of large Third World cities.

BLDGBLOG: And “peri-urbanization” means what?

Davis: It’s where the city and the countryside interpenetrate. The question is: are you, in fact, looking at a snapshot of a very dynamic or perhaps chaotic process? Or will this kind of hybrid quality be preserved over any length of time? These are really open questions.

There are several different discussions here: one on larger-order urban systems – similar to the Atlantic seaboard or Tokyo-Yokohama, where metropolitan areas are linked in continuous physical systems. But then there’s this second debate about the spill-over into the countryside, this new peri-urban reality, where you have very complex mixtures of slums – of poverty – crossed with dumping grounds for people expelled from the center – refugees. Yet amidst all this you have small, middle class enclaves, often new and often gated. You find rural laborers trapped by urban sweatshops, at the same time that urban settlers commute to work in agricultural industries.

This, in a way, is the most interesting – and least-understood – dynamic of global urbanization. As I try to explain in Planet of Slums, peri-urbanism exists in a kind of epistemological fog because it’s not well-studied. The census data and social statistics are notoriously incomplete.

BLDGBLOG: So it’s more a question of how to study the slums – who and what to ask, and how to interpret that data? Where to get your funding from?

Davis: At the very least, it’s a challenge of information. Interestingly, this has also become the terrain of a lot of Pentagon thinking about urban warfare. These non-hierarchical, labyrinthine peripheries are what many Pentagon thinkers have fastened onto as one of the most challenging terrains for future wars and other imperial projects. I mean, after a period in which the Pentagon was besotted with trendy management theory – using analogies with Wal-Mart and just-in-time inventory – it now seems to have become obsessed with urban theory – with architecture and city planning. This is happening particularly through things like the RAND Corporation’s Arroyo Center, in Santa Monica.

The U.S. has such an extraordinary ability to destroy hierarchical urban systems, to take out centralized urban structures, but it has had no success in the Sadr Cities of the world.

BLDGBLOG: I don’t know – they leveled Fallujah, using tank-mounted bulldozers and Daisy Cutter bombs –

Davis: But the city was soon re-inhabited by the same insurgents they tried to force out. I think the slum is universally recognized by military planners today as a challenge. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there’s a great leap forward in our understanding of what’s happening on the peripheries of Third World cities because of the needs of Pentagon strategists and local military planners. For instance, Andean anthropology made a big leap forward in the 1960s and early 1970s when Che Guevara and his guerilla fighters became a problem.

I think there’s a consensus, both on the left and the right, that it’s the slum peripheries of poor Third World cities that have become a decisive geopolitical space. That space is now a military challenge – as much as it is an epistemological challenge, both for sociologists and for military planners.

BLDGBLOG: What kind of imaginative role do you see slums playing today? On the one hand, there’s a kind of CIA-inspired vision of irrational anti-Americanism, mere breeding grounds for terrorism; on the other, you find books like The Constant Gardener, in which the Third World poor are portrayed as innocent, naive, and totally unthreatening, patiently awaiting their liberal salvation. Whose imaginination is it in which these fantasies play out?

Davis: I think, actually, that if Blade Runner was once the imaginative icon of our urban future, then the Blade Runner of this generation is Black Hawk Down – a movie I must admit I’m drawn to to see again and again. Just the choreography of it – the staging of it – is stunning. But I think that film really is the cinematic icon for this new frontier of civilization: the “white man’s burden” of the urban slum and its videogame-like menacing armies, with their RPGs in hand, battling heroic techno-warriors and Delta Force Army Rangers. It’s a profound military fantasy. I don’t think any movie since The Sands of Iwo Jima has enlisted more kids in the Marines than Black Hawk Down. In a moral sense, of course, it’s a terrifying film, because it’s an arcade game – and who could possibly count all the Somalis that are killed?

BLDGBLOG: It’s even filmed like a first-person shooter. Several times you’re actually watching from right behind the gun.

Davis: It’s by Ridley Scott, isn’t it?

BLDGBLOG: Yeah – which is interesting, because he also directed Blade Runner.

Davis: Exactly. And he did Black Rain, didn’t he?

BLDGBLOG: The cryptic threat of late-1980s Japan…

Davis: Ridley Scott – more than anyone in Hollywood – has really defined the alien Other.

Of course, in reality, it’s not white guys in the Rangers who make up most of the military presence overseas: it’s mostly slum kids themselves, from American inner cities. The new imperialism – like the old imperialism – has this advantage, that the metropolis itself is so violent, with such concentrated poverty, that it produces excellent warriors for these far-flung military campaigns. I remember reading a brilliant book once by a former professor of mine, at the University of Edinburgh, on British imperial warfare in the nineteenth century. He showed, against every expectation, that, in fact, most often for the British Army, in imperial wars, what was decisive wasn’t their possession of better weapons, or artillery, or Maxim guns: it was the ability of the British soldier to engage in personal carnage, hand-to-hand combat, up close with bayonets – and that was strictly a function of the brutality of life in British slums.

Now, if you read the literature on warfare today, this is what the Pentagon’s really capitalizing on: they’re using the American inner city as a kind of combat laboratory, in addition to these urban test ranges they’ve built to study their new technologies. The slum dwellers’ response to this, and it’s a response that has yet to be answered – and maybe it’s unanswerable – is the poor man’s Air Force: the car bomb. That’s the subject of another book I’m finishing up right now, a short history of the car bomb. That has to be one of the most decisive military innovations of the late twentieth century. If you look at what’s happening in Iraq, it may be the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that are killing Americans, but what’s just ripping that country apart is these fortified car bomb attacks. The car bomb has given poor people in slums – small groups and networks – a new, extremely traumatic kind of geopolitical leverage.

What’s happened, I think, at the end of the 20th century – and at the beginning of the 21st – is that the outcasts have discovered these extraordinarily cheap and horrific weapons. That’s why I argue, in Planet of Slums, that they have “the gods of chaos” on their side.

BLDGBLOG: Beyond a turn toward violence and insurgency, do you see any intentional, organized systems of self-government emerging in the slums? Is there a slum “mayor,” for instance, or a kind of slum city hall? In other words, who would a non-military power negotiate with in the first place?

Davis: Organization in the slums is, of course, extraordinarily diverse. The subject of the second book – that I’m writing with Forrest Hylton – will be what kinds of trends and unities exist within that diversity. Because in the same city – for instance, in a large Latin American city – you’ll find everything from Pentacostal churches to the Sendero Luminoso, to reformist organizations and neoliberal NGOs. Over very short periods of time there are rapid swings in popularity from one to the other – and back. It’s very difficult to find a directionality in that, or to predict where things might go.

But what is clear, over the last decade, is that the poor – and not just the poor in classical urban neighborhoods, but the poor who, for a long time, have been organized in leftwing parties, or religious groups, or populist parties – this new poor, on the fringes of the city, have been organizing themselves massively over the last decade. You have to be struck by both the number and the political importance of some of these emerging movements, whether that’s Sadr, in Iraq, or an equivalent slum-based social movement in Buenos Aires. Clearly, in the last decade, there have been dramatic increases in the organization of the urban poor, who are making new and, in some cases, unprecedented demands for political and economic participation. And where they are totally excluded, they make their voices heard in other ways.

BLDGBLOG: Like using car bombs?

Davis: I mean taking steps toward formal democracy. Because the other part of your question concerns the politics of poor cities. I’m sure that somebody could write a book arguing that one of the great developments of the last ten or fifteen years has been increased democratization in many cities. For instance, in cities that did not have consolidated governments, or where mayors were appointed by a central administration, you now have elections, and elected mayors – like in Mexico City.

What’s so striking, in almost all of these cases, is that even where there’s increased formal democracy – where more people are voting – those votes actually have little consequence. That’s for two reasons: one is because the fiscal systems of big cities in the Third World are, with few exceptions, so regressive and corrupt, with so few resources, that it’s almost impossible to redistribute those resources to voting people. The second reason is that, in so many cities – India is a great example of this – when you have more populist or participatory elections, the real power is simply transferred into executive agencies, industrial authorities, and development authorities of all kinds, which tend to be local vehicles for World Bank investment. Those agencies are almost entirely out of the control of the local people. They may even be appointed by the state or by a provisional – sometimes national – government.

This means that the democratic path to control over cities – and, above all, control over resources for urban reform – remains incredibly elusive in most places.

(This interview continues in Part Two. For another, recent two-part interview with Mike Davis, see TomDispatch: Part 1, Part 2. All drawings used in this interview are by Leah Beeferman, who was also behind BLDGBLOG’s Helicopter Archipelago).

Mars Rover: A New Film by BLDGBLOG

While editing a recent post about the Mars rover, I got to thinking – as you would – about how to make an animated, feature-length children’s film, starring another such rover, set in the immediate future…

In the film, the rover would go tootling around in its cute little animated way, wheeling across unbelievable landscapes, snapping Ansel Adams-like photographs of alien tectonics, volcanoes and basins, systems of canyons that redefine the sublime.

Hills, arches, gorges; mountains surrounded by clouds of methane. Erosion; windstorms; evidence of ancient floods.
Plus, it’s a cute little rover. Kids love the thing. They pressure their parents to name family pets after it. Burger King sells a small plastic version of it with their happy meals, or whatever they make there. T-shirts. Pajamas.

In any case, our erstwhile hero, the little rover, is Artificially Intelligent – and he’s funny. Maybe his voice is by Paul Giamatti. And he gradually sort of wakes up, comes to consciousness, and falls head over heels – monitor over wheels – in love with the world, in love with landscapes, with everything – with emotion and memory – in love with love, and hope, and fear – and he starts to wax poetic over a radio-link back to mission control, his friends and creators, they’re cheering, and to television viewers sitting on sofas at home, going on about how wonderful everything is.
How beautiful that world, in which he travels alone, can really be. It’s not lonely, see. He’s on fire inside. His own little robot mind is as deep as the canyons he explores.
He smiles.

Kids in the cinema aren’t blinking at this point; it’s too amazing. Everyone’s in love with this little rover. It’s like bloody Dead Poets Society out there; everyone’s feeling it. Everyone’s alive. Cynics are vomiting into popcorn boxes.
But then the Martian seasons change, and the rover has to shut down – to be shut down, by mission control. The kids in the cinema start to worry. Frowns appear. Dads grow nervous, re-crossing their legs, only vaguely reassured that the film is rated PG.
You see people on-screen, back at mission control, wringing their hands, preparing to remotely shut off the rover – but the rover loves life, damn it, he loves what he’s seeing, he wants to see more! He wants to live – and he’s funny – and he’s got a friend back at mission control who has to push the button, but she can’t because she loves him – what do you mean shut him down?! – she loves his silly robot eyes, and his enthusiasm, and his stupid voice, and these amazing things he’s been showing to everyone back on earth, and she can’t do it.
She can’t kill the little guy.

Some kids are crying now; she’s crying. Not the little guy! With his tiny wheels pushing further into life and alien landscapes.
Not him!
Enter some sinister, technocratic boss figure – with a voice by Robert Duvall – and he forces her: the button is pushed, mission control sends the command, and our friendly, naive robot hero of off-planet landscape exploration, in the midst of a sad why are you doing this to me? weepy monologue, his AI-eyes wide and worried and scared of that darkness into which his circuits will go – overlooking the most beautiful canyon he’s discovered so far – suddenly he is no more.

The rover’s little eye-lights fade. Martian winds erase his tracks. Grown men wipe away tears before their wives can see them.
The credits roll.
Kids leave the cinema howling. Moms give out hugs left and right. Oscar nominations roll in. I retire to Arizona on the proceeds and begin carving strange topological forms into the desert floor.
Movie producers: you know where to find me.