Thursday Salute to Originals: Designing Illusions

“Inception” as a noun is defined as a start or a beginning. In science fiction, it is instilling an idea into someone’s mind by entering their dreams. In architecture, it is designing spaces that have a suggestion of familiarity, and letting the mind create the rest of the framework.

Although the film Inception has been out for quite some time, it is one of our office favorites. Watching it again this past weekend, it spurred a frenzy of thoughts about the spatial impacts of our current projects and design for entertainment’s sake.

The production designer for the film, Guy Hendrix Dyas, was born and raised in London. He received a Master’s Degree from the Royal College of Art in London and a BA from the Chelsea School of Art and Design. He began working in Tokyo as an industrial designer for Sony. He was then invited to work for Industrial Light and Magic in California where he became the visual effects Art Director on a number of films including the most memorable, Inception.

Inception Rotating Room Design

The most complicated and defying architectural structure built on the set of Inception was a specialty corridor to serve as the stage for the fight sequence. The 120 foot by 30 foot revolving space was engineered to create the illusion of weightlessness or zero gravity during the battle. The corridor was constructed of wood and backed by steel tubing. There were seven steel I-beam rings with roller wheels every 16 feet along the length of the corridor, connected to two 55-hp electric motors monitored by a computer to conduct the rotation of the room. A single rotation spans approximately ten seconds and can go both clockwise and counterclockwise.

Inception had many challenging sets to illustrate abstract concepts, opening up glorious design opportunities. One of the visual inspirations in the movie was the Penrose Staircase – steps based on an optical illusion that was referenced in the film. According to the infamous Escher’s Drawings, the ever-ascending staircase can never be truly functional in the real world, though this illusion was formed by removing supports and executing clever camera shots.

Inception Endless Staircase Illusion Architecture

Designing for a film set seems to be a stimulating type of design, requiring a delicate balance of both imagination and logic. From a conceptual standpoint, the liberty to simply dream up a setting limited only by your imagination seems like it would be freeing. But when it comes to actually representing that dream in the physical realm, things become much more complex (a pesky little thing like gravity can really throw a wrench in things when trying to replicate a weightless environment!). That’s when the real ingenuity comes in: real-world constraints, clever building techniques, and artistic editing joining forces to capture a fictional world and bringing it to reality from concept through execution.

Kudos to those who take conceptual design to the next level by morphing dreams into reality (and for making some superb entertainment while they’re at it). We salute you!

Sources: Popular Mechanics, Guy Hendrix Dyas, Youtube