The skyscraper in ‘Skyscraper’ : Storeys of imagination and calculation

What did it take to design the behemoth building in ‘Skyscraper?’ Lead concept artist Stevo Bedford lays it all out brick by brick and pixel by pixel for the film

When Dwayne Johnson said the skyscraper itself was the most important character in the eponymous film, he wasn’t kidding. It’s an opinion with which concept artist and art director Stevo Bedford agrees as well.

For Skyscraper, Bedford, who clocked in as lead concept artist, worked closely with production designer Jim Bissell and supervising art director Helen Jarvis. The film, which takes place in Hong Kong, follows an amputee security assessor played by Johnson who gets framed for setting the astronomically tall building on fire. What follows, if you’ve seen the trailer, is a cornucopia of explosion and battle most of which takes place in the ultra-modern yet realistic high-rise.

Constructively collaborative

According to Bedford, such a mammoth project naturally comes with its challenges. Movies have to be designed in a short time frame; the process started with Bissell defining his initial vision and collecting visual reference material to illustrate that vision and communicate it to the rest of the team.

What follows is a process of exploration and design development by the concept artists, art directors, set designers and graphic artists under the creative direction of Bissell. Iconic buildings such as the 2732 feet-tall Burj Khalifa in Dubai and even art sculptures and vases were closely studied to inspire the resulting 3500 feet and 225 storey skyscraper.

The film’s researcher Peter Cummings found one particularly useful myth about a pearl and a dragon while on the hunt for preliminary inspiration. Bissell immediately realised that the tower should become the dragon, holding the pearl delicately in its jaws. Set designer Ray Garrioch was given the job of taking one ribbon of the tower and sweeping it over the ground as both the ‘tail’ of the dragon and the roof of the ground-level structure.

Stevo Bedford’s final rendered illustration of the Pearl building in ‘Skyscraper’

Stevo Bedford’s final rendered illustration of the Pearl building in ‘Skyscraper’
 
| Photo Credit:
Stevo Bedford

Bissell also worked closely with director and scriptwriter Rawson Marshall Thurber who also provided clear and consistent direction, which Bedford said he hasn’t seen enough of in the industry as a whole. More often than not, directors work off a script written by someone else.

A complex design journey

“This was an exciting project for me as I was able to combine my previous experience in both real world architecture,” comments Bedford, who has lent his creative hand to films and TV shows such as Altered Carbon and Maze Runner, “and alien spaceship design for movies such as Power Rangers and The Predator. Jim [Bissell] asked me to explore a triangular twisting structure that rises out of the water. He also wanted a tower that would transition from the earthly to the ethereal. After reading the script I drew a schematic section of the tower — not a design but a diagram of floor levels and some labels identifying what was required by the script and on what floor. For instance, it required a large park halfway up, a penthouse near the top and a sphere with a viewing deck at the very top. It was like a diagram of the script and helped me to understand the requirements more clearly.” Taking artistic license is key here; he adds that what added to the fun of his work is the freedom to create a fantastical structure, while still grounding the building in reality. The building, after all, had to reflect the enigmatic yet ultra-modern personality of its owner.

As an architect would, Bedford drew a sectional drawing through Hong Kong, illustrating how huge the tower would be relative to Hong Kong’s already tall towers. He explains that whilst it’s easy to criticise the scale of the tower in a city like Hong Kong, their primary job is to serve the requirements of the script “in the most dramatic and hopefully beautiful way.”

Quite a bit of logic and mathematics go into making the Pearl look practical enough for the film. Bedford explains the software he used let him quickly push, pull, twist and manipulate things. “I did create a series of templates within my model to ensure certain levels of the tower was conforming to the tower’s form.

I then started to explore geometries by extruding, twisting and tapering vertical forms. Jim guided the process and was keen to avoid an overtly phallic design by using gentle curves and elevating the sphere to reveal its pure form. The phase of the design I enjoyed most was inserting the large openings into the side of the tower. I felt that they were unexpected and gave the tower its own unique character. They also helped to further subvert the phallic tower typology to create a relatively feminine form.”

Bedford adds that not everything adheres to script; in fact, the script itself can be altered by design as well, explaining “Jim was keen to introduce environmentally-friendly aspects to the design such as power generating tidal pools at the tower base as well as wind turbines. So we inserted wind turbines into the upper-openings in the tower. Rawson then incorporated into the script as a setting for one of the action set pieces.”

Stevo Bedford’s final illustration of the Pearl skyscraper at night on the Hong Kong skyline

Stevo Bedford’s final illustration of the Pearl skyscraper at night on the Hong Kong skyline
 
| Photo Credit:
Stevo Bedford

Throughout the film, it was important to Bedford that the Pearl look realistic in various lighting, especially with parts of the tower being blown up. “It was always envisaged that the tower would have many different looks at various times of day and night. During the development, I produced a number of illustrations in different lightings, keeping in mind the twisting form would be catching the light differently. At night it just undergoes a complete transformation.” He chuckles as he continues, “I’ve seen the film once so far but watching it being attacked had me laughing while my wife was clinging my arm and letting out the occasional cry as The Rock swung over Hong Kong on a rope— but I knew he was three feet off the ground in front of a green screen. The effects guys did an amazing job; it was all really seamless.”

So is it possible that the world is headed in this direction architecturally? While the Pearl has already been criticised as being far too otherworldly and impractical, Bedford, a self-proclaimed optimist, comments, “I believe strongly in the power of good design. Whilst a kilometre-tall tower may not be the most optimal way of living, it does expose people to the possibilities of design in the future. Some people have quite traditional views on architecture and I’d like to open people up to said possibilities.”

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