July 1, 2005
Made in Hollywood
The Warner Bros. set shop has become an invaluable resource for a generation of young L.A. designers pushing the boundaries of fabrication.
The big movie studios are like fantastic walled cities, enterable only by royal fiat. But instead of gaining passage with a signet ring and galloping off on a noble steed, you present a valid photo ID that is cross-checked on a half-dozen lists and, if you’re lucky, a little golf cart trundles up to whisk you past hundreds of employees—shouting into walkie-talkies, carrying racks of costumes, or whizzing around in golf carts of their own.
On a 120-acre lot that spreads from downtown Burbank to the green foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, Warner Bros. runs an enormous operation that has, in recent years, brought us the Harry Potter movies and The Matrix. This summer Charlie and the Chocolate Factory comes out with scenes set in chocolate rivers and between candy walls.
All of these were created in the studio’s own shop, which provides the majority of the artwork used in Hollywood productions. Few of the other studios still run any sort of set-building division; Warner Bros. is the only one with a scenic-art department.
The shop feels like a saner version of the puppet maker’s loft in Blade Runner. Located in a large silo that houses a maze of high-ceilinged work areas, it is lined with wooden catwalks crammed full of 75 years of plaster dust and discarded props—giant faux glaciers peek out from behind a stack of plastic sheets, gargoyles and a stuffed Tweety Bird perch overhead. In the scene shop a 30-foot-tall canvas is held up by an antique-looking elevator pulley system, and four artists are spread out along its 100-foot width painting an eerie pastoral backdrop for a sci-fi remake. In another workshop, reproductions of the original iconic black, red, and gold doors for the recently renovated Mann’s Chinese Theater are propped up next to archival photographs. The fiberglass room, whose interior is so coated with splinter-size shards that it looks like it’s wearing a deadly pelt, is in one corner of the architectural molding library, a floor-to-ceiling repository of columns, brackets, friezes, and more. Long used by architects and interior designers—and especially popular with Las Vegas casinos—the moldings can be vacuformed in plastic or cast in fiberglass, plaster, or concrete.
Four years ago an architect approached the shop with no thoughts of Georgian columns or classic Greek balustrades. Greg Lynn was looking for a place to fabricate what would become his seminal project, Predator. With its software-enabled birth and
B-movie bravado, Predator gave corporeal shape to the binary dreams of a generation of young architects enthralled with new technology, and pointed them toward the place to make their own creations into reality. Now in Los Angeles a loose band of thinkers and coconspirators—most of whom discovered one another’s work while teaching at UCLA and SCI-Arc, and all with the mathematical acuity to push the software beyond a world of easy curves—are engaged in figuring out this next step to real digital design: fabrication.
If architects really are the new rock stars, then Lynn is the group’s lead singer and its drummer is the intense, intellectual David Erdman and his compa-triots at Servo, driving the beat and pounding out nervy variations (see Metropolis, “Defining Speed,” November 2004). Its electric guitarist, given to brilliant and occasionally bewildering solos, is Hernan Diaz Alonso of Xefirotarch, winner of this year’s MoMA/P.S.1 Young Architects Program. Facing down a glowing bank of synthesizers, filters, and keyboards are Marcelo Spina of Patterns (who is designing a new café for SCI-Arc), and Heather Roberge and Jason Payne of Gnuform. Looping in ideas on landscape and botany, these inquisitive exper-imental designers push the concerns of the group onto un-expected side streets.
After Lynn’s Predator was fabricated at Warner Bros., a connection was forged between the studio shop and the designers, who also began looking to other local set shops. “I think it’s the reason architecture is good in town right now,” Lynn says. “It’s the proximity to these shops…they’re hungry enough to try something new with us. And schools here have to have a CNC mill, a laser cutter, and a vacuform machine.” It’s a serendipitous combination. The local architecture schools provide space and support to experiment. A set of innovative local industries—film, auto, and aerospace—are constantly developing new technologies. And, crucially, the film and auto industries have a high demand for props, sets, and prototypes, which has given rise to a satellite industry of shops that often do work for both worlds. There are places like CTEK, a car-prototyping shop that made the futuristic vehicles in Minority Report and did glasswork for Eric Owen Moss’s Culver City buildings, and Spectrum 3D, another industrial-design and car-prototype shop that worked on I, Robot. Directors and set designers are in turn enamored of architecture, looking to people like Lynn and Diaz Alonso to consult on films that depict futuristic worlds.
Experimental architecture and film sets both deal with impermanent structures, which means much looser tolerances. “We’re doing a lot of one-offs,” David Erdman says. “They have to be done very quickly and relatively cheaply, often on a large scale. All of those things are inverted everywhere else—it’s expensive, the parts are small, and they take a long time.” Industrial fabricators are used to doing enormous runs for big companies; traditional architecture needs to worry about perfection down to the millimeter. But here the tolerances are about an eighth- to a quarter-inch, and the projects call for a limited run—say, five or ten pieces—which make the prop shops an excellent resource.
Greg Lynn used Maya, a suite of software initially created for the film industry, to render the grotesquely beautiful Predator, then bought a room-size CNC milling machine—larger, he says, than his old Venice office—to cut the oddly shaped molds out of high-density foam. For the next step Lynn went to Warner Bros., which already had experience translating computer-generated forms into reality; they printed collaborator Fabian Marcaccio’s images onto sheets of plastic then vacuformed them around the CNC-made molds, which were joined together to create the menacing sculpture-meets-structure, an installation big enough to walk inside. The work that the shop did was an odd combination of computer and craft. “It’s almost a third medium; it’s a fantastic collision of worlds,” Lynn says.
“That’s something I appreciate,” Heather Roberge says. “The majority of their work is handcrafted, more old school. Despite the fact that it’s firmly rooted in new technology, it’s not pure—there’s a lot of handiwork.”
Roberge and Jason Payne, both professors at UCLA, fabricated one of their first Gnuform projects at the Warner Bros. shop. Creating a bar/reception desk for the offices of a risqué new cable channel, the pair went for a highly tactile design, making a geometric model inspired by the undulating red velvet curtains that would hang behind the bar. “All the curves are strategically located,” Payne says. “It makes people want to get up against it and massage it.” The bar’s panels rely on friction to hold together, with folds that provide rigidity and structure. “A lot of work going on in contemporary architecture is related to the study of surfaces,” Payne explains. “Heather and I have become increasingly interested in the spaces between the panels—we want to design the most beautiful, interesting joint.” They turned to botanical illustrations, especially the work of Arthur Harry Church, to examine organic joints—for example, when a leaf and stem connect, they mold into each other. There are no discrete architectonic joints in nature. Without the current software and fabrication processes, Gnuform would have found it impossible to re-create these joints in plastic. By milling the shapes on UCLA equipment and using the Warner Bros. shop to vacuform the panels, Roberge and Payne were able to do what they estimate could have been a $28,000 job for just one-third of that amount.
“When they get to know you, they care about your projects and are accommodating in terms of price,” Roberge says. All of the architects now regularly use the studio’s shop for class work, sending students to Brian Surpernant, the head of the “staff shop,” who oversees the vacuform equipment. “They encourage students to watch what’s going on, why something is heating at the rate it is, what’s good about the geometry of your form and what’s bad,” Payne says.
“I’ve noticed [the students] more and more in the last couple of years,” says Surpernant, a soft-spoken man who clearly relishes his inadvertent role as teacher. “It’s always the day before it’s due that they’ll come in asking, ‘Do you work on Saturdays?’ Mostly four or five come in together because they want to put all the projects on the same pull.” Each pull—in which molds are laid down on the vacuform machine and covered with a sheet of plastic that is heat-shaped around the forms—costs from $55 to $250 depending on the thickness of the material; students working on small-scale projects can go in on a pull together. “That’s what makes Warner Bros. such a great asset,” says Erdman, who teaches technical seminars at UCLA with a Servo partner, Marcelyn Gow. “They’re willing to experiment with it. You’re not going through a huge belabored engineering process.”
Rejecting the straightforward cleanness and modularity of that perennial Southern California architectural trend—Modernism—this architecture of complexity has a sense of showmanship influenced by its proximity to Hollywood. Hernan Diaz Alonso, who echoed Lynn’s Predator in a 2002 installation, Emotional Rescue—a weblike tunnel of copper tubes partially covered in an inner layer of plastic formed at Warner Bros. and an outer layer of shrink-wrapped plastic, and filled with slowly decaying roses—shows a decidedly un-Modernist romanticism. For his P.S.1 installation, which will be fabricated in part at Spectrum 3D, his usual melancholy becomes lighter and more playful. There is an ease to the design, the payoff from all those earlier experiments. “People are developing their own signatures,” Lynn says. “Three or four years ago the stuff looked almost the same. Like software, you need experience before you can finesse it.”
For a 2004 exhibition at L.A. architecture gallery M&A (Materials and Applications), Marcelo Spina wanted to use the combo of computer and craft—“technology plus concrete”—to produce Land.Tiles, what he calls a microlandscape. “We’re looking into a notion of landscape that didn’t exist, trying to produce the effect and representation of landscape by creating contour and terrain out of 144 aggregate pieces,” Spina says. Using today’s CNC machines it’s possible to create a series of varied parts, each with small modulations; it’s a step beyond the blob that all of these architects are taking. Land.Tiles uses this idea of a geometric system, as does Spina’s café for SCI-Arc. “There I’m also working on a microarchitecture, but one that will play in close relation to the body. I’m interested in that possibility of hybridity between things that are more designed, that are continuous but offer diversity—a rhythmic fluidity between systems.”
By creating geometric systems where each variation grows out of the previous one, these computer-rendered designs are able to achieve an unexpected sense of life—but without the local set shops they would have been very difficult to build. “It’s great being in L.A.,” Spina says. “It’s not just by chance that it happened here. When you go to the lot, it’s a big trip, it’s all so secret. It’s like you’re entering into another world where anything can happen.” At the intersection of architecture, art, film, and fabrication, for a moment a few of the city’s many worlds become one fantastic kingdom.