The re­al­i­sa­tion of a dream in just two min­utes

The National - News - The Review - - Round Up - Nick Leech Nick Leech is a fea­ture writer at The Na­tional.

Some­times the In­ter­net can act in a dream-like man­ner, help­ing to res­ur­rect for­got­ten pieces of in­for­ma­tion when un­ex­pected links and new con­nec­tions are made.

That was cer­tainly the case at the start of this year when a short film was given a new lease of life thanks to its re­post­ing on a Face­book page ded­i­cated to Dubai.

The film be­gins with a black and white still of the city from a time, just be­fore 1979, when the road be­tween Abu Dhabi and Dubai was the only sig­nif­i­cant man-made mark vis­i­ble in the land­scape.

Within sec­onds, how­ever, the ac­tion be­gins as tow­ers be­gin to sprout along the road’s length and as minia­ture cranes whirl like the hands on a stop­watch, more than three decades of devel­op­ment un­fold in minute de­tail floor-by-floor, build­ing-by-build­ing and block-by-block.

The re­sponse to the film since it was re­posted on Jan­uary 7 has al­most been as re­mark­able as the devel­op­ment it de­picts, and, thanks to 1.7 mil­lion views, more than 2,000 shares and more than 5,600 likes, it briefly earned it­self a place in Face­book’s trend­ing list, a chart nor­mally re­served for comedic videos and celebrity an­tics. The ap­pear­ance brought the film back to the at­ten­tion of its maker. “We thought, ‘Re­ally, has no­body got any­thing bet­ter to watch? Surely the UAE has got bet­ter tele­vi­sion than watch­ing YouTube?’” laughs Nigel Hunt, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Black Rab­bit Agency Group (Brag), a Lon­don-based me­dia com­pany that spe­cialises in com­puter-gen­er­ated vi­su­al­i­sa­tions.

In 2010, Brag had been asked to “make a city” for the two-minute show reel of a new BBC TV mini-se­ries Su­per­sized Earth, that would tell the story of how hu­man­ity has “re­designed our planet to build the mod­ern world”. Hunt turned in­stinc­tively to a city he knew well, Dubai.

“We looked at cities in Asia, but from my ex­pe­ri­ence in the Gulf, Dubai was the most eye-catch­ing be­cause in just 20 years plus you could look at it and see what it had achieved,” the New Zealan­der ex­plains.

Delv­ing into the BBC archive, Hunt’s team tried to find out when each build­ing along the Sheikh Zayed Road was ac­tu­ally built and in what or­der to show Dubai’s build­ings ris­ing as ac­cu­rately as pos­si­ble.

Orig­i­nally trained as an ar­chi­tec­tural de­signer, Hunt’s team now spends more than 50 per cent of its time visu­al­is­ing the dreams of UAE de­vel­op­ers such as Emaar, for whom Brag re­cently pro­duced a Dubai Creek Har­bour time-lapse, us­ing pow­er­ful com­puter tech­nol­ogy and dig­i­tal ver­sions of one of cin­ema’s old­est vis­ual tricks.

“The tech­niques are the same that you see to­day in Hollywood fea­ture films,” Hunt says, de­scrib­ing the dig­i­tal matte paint­ing tech­nique that al­lows Brag to clothe crude 3-D com­puter-gen­er­ated cityscapes with pho­to­re­al­is­tic 2-D fa­cades.

“That al­lows you to put a cam­era in­side the [dig­i­tal] model, and as long as you aren’t re­veal­ing any of the faces that aren’t clothed you can ac­tu­ally move the cam­era around,” he ex­plains.

Used since the ear­li­est days of cin­ema to fool au­di­ences, phys­i­cal matte paint­ings were orig­i­nally placed be­tween a cam­era and the live ac­tion to add il­lu­sory and fan­tas­ti­cal scenery to mod­est lo­ca­tions and sets. Ralph McQuar­rie’s matte paint­ings for the orig­i­nal Star Wars movie are of­ten held up as mas­ter­pieces of the art, but the tech­nique was also used on ear­lier films such as The Wiz­ard of Oz, where they formed the ba­sis for much of the Emer­ald City.

The ar­chi­tect Adrian Smith, de­signer of the Burj Khal­ifa, has ac­knowl­edged his debt to the 1939 movie pub­licly. “That was in my mind as I was de­sign­ing Burj Dubai, al­though in a sub­lim­i­nal way,” Smith told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2005.

“I didn’t re­search the way it looked – I just re­mem­bered the glassy, crys­talline struc­ture com­ing up in the mid­dle of what seemed like nowhere.”

That im­age of imag­i­nary tow­ers, ris­ing mirac­u­lously in a place that knows no lim­its also haunts Brag’s film, whose power stems not just from its tech­ni­cal wiz­ardry but from its fidelity to an ex­ist­ing vis­ual gram­mar that’s wide­spread.

Dubai’s self-con­structed iden­tity rests on a mantra of un­bri­dled am­bi­tion, devel­op­ment and progress that fre­quently em­ploys “be­fore” and “af­ter” im­ages of its ur­ban land­scape to com­mu­ni­cate and le­git­imise its key idea: here is a place where vi­sions are not only promised but de­liv­ered.

“Vi­sion drove am­bi­tion” and “vi­sion drives a city” pro­claims a re­cent Dubai Tourism ad over us­ing con­trast­ing shots of the Emi­rates Golf Club as it stood in 1990 and the same scene to­day, herald­ing Dubai as a place “where vi­sion is tra­di­tion”.

But that vi­sion is not only pred­i­cated on an im­age of the desert as a blank slate upon which even the most ex­per­i­men­tal schemes can be de­vel­oped without con­straint, it also rests on a spec­tac­u­lar no­tion of re­al­ity that’s in­fused with il­lu­sion. When Su­per­sized Earth’s pre­sen­ter, Dal­las Camp­bell, climbed to the top of the Burj Khal­ifa, he did so to clean the tower’s win­dows and to take in a view that leaves no room for the city’s ear­lier his­tory or its land­scape from the time be­fore the lat­est “vi­sion” ar­rived.

For Nigel Hunt and the other fab­ri­ca­tors of Dubai’s mod­ern iden­tity – the ar­chi­tects and plan­ners, de­vel­op­ers and es­tate agents – im­ages and sto­ry­telling are the only mean­ing­ful way to en­vis­age the fu­ture and to vi­su­alise the emi­rate’s most grandiose ideas.

“It’s more than just ar­chi­tec­ture,” the spe­cial ef­fects man in­sists. “This is about sell­ing dreams.”

Black Rab­bit Agency Group (YouTube)

In­ter­net sen­sa­tion: a still from the mini-se­ries Su­per­sized Earth.

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