Peter Frankfurt from Imaginary Forces contaminates us with stories of collaborations between filmmakers and architects.
images clockwise from top left: Minority Report (dir. Steven Spielberg), New City, Transformers (dir. Michael Bay), Seven (dir. David Fincher).
suckerPUNCH: We’re a site that has primarily an audience of architects, but we like to bring in people from other fields to contaminate that and to get a bit of dialogue going. That said, we wanted to talk to you about your work and perhaps some of the collaborations you’ve had with architects like Greg Lynn.
peter FRANKFURT: Sure, I love to contaminate.
sP: Perhaps we can start with a little of your background—what led you to start Imaginary Forces—and then we can talk about the collaborations.
pF: Well, my background has nothing at all to do with architecture. I am the child of an advertising guy—my father was a really accomplished art director and my mom was a designer—so I was exposed to a constant stream of interesting people. I think that formed a sort of taste and curiosity for all things visual and interesting or subversive. Along with that, I had studied history at Columbia [University] and had a job as a production assistant at a very interesting company called R/Greenberg Associates (R/GA), which was just starting out. That job was really how I started my career working in film graphics. Two brothers, Richard and Robert Greenberg, were always a real influence for and champions of technology serving design. They had the first computerized optical printers and the first nonlinear editing systems. All of that brought technology and digitally driven design, and storytelling, together. At that point I was doing movie advertising, trailers, and that kind of stuff. So I was hired first by my dad, then by R/GA, and finally by the studios, where I ended up an associate producer and soon produced my first movie. After I produced my first film (Juice, 1992), which was a success, and yet didn’t have any money in the bank, I was like, “Hey, how can I pay rent?” Being a producer is often not a business but a thing of love. At that point R/GA had opened an office in L.A., and so Bob Greenberg invited me to work at R/GA as a producer. And of course I jumped at the chance, because it gave me a salary and a home, and I was interested in what he was doing—I don’t know if you are aware of Bob, but he continues to be a force in digital advertising. When I came back to R/GA in Los Angeles, I met Chip Houghton, who I had known from R/GA in New York, and Kyle Cooper, who had also been in New York. We fiddled around with the question, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” and we decided to make our own company. Soon after we came up with the idea of Imaginary Forces, we produced the opening of Seven, directed by David Fincher, which sort of shot us out of a cannon. Then we were able to make a management buyout of R/GA’s L.A. office, and that’s how Imaginary Forces started. Seven immediately made us cool—it was just one of those culturally weird intersections, where motion graphics and editorial, being attached to a movie that was a hit, and having an “in” with the cachet and caliber of David Fincher all coalesced to make us a cool office. So we had a lot of opportunities. Very quickly we decided that we wanted to go beyond just doing title sequences, to include anything that we could bring motion design and storytelling to bear on. You’re in New York, right?
sP: Yes, in New York.
pF: New York City is still the crossroads of the world. But L.A. has a very different energy—it feels like it is much more in a state of becoming. Los Angeles has gone from being a company town to a place with a lot of technology, experimentation, and art making. There are a lot of young architects and software designers who come out here, and you can meet some really interesting people. We were able to, just through our reputation as motion designers and through what we were doing in the movie business, expand our network. I guess the first job that we had which blended architecture into the equation was for IBM. This was during the first technology bubble—we’re in the second or third technology bubble now—right at the turn of the century, and IBM needed to prove that they were young and agile. This was when Razorfish stock was going through the roof. IBM wanted their product briefing centers to feel hip, agile, and light on their feet, so they asked us to do films for screens. In response we said, “You know, we could do that, but that would be sad. It wouldn’t be right. It would be worse than having nothing, because you’d be in this awful conference room with the U-shaped cable and these shitty monitors, and then you’d have a cool video on the walls. And you’d look silly. We think that we should look at the whole experience, from the media itself, to the delivery of media, to the space itself, to the meals that you serve clients, to what the hosts wear—the entire thing. So let us do the proposal for your whole experience.” We did a proposal and they said, “Okay, you should probably do this.” And we said, “We had better come up with an architectural partner,” since they were going to allow us to design a space. We did the project with George Yu, who had a small office and taught at SCI-Arc. The project took the better part of 18 months, but it was an incredible experience. In terms of account management, we ended up dealing with a giant company, with its own real-estate divisions, multiple marketing groups, and brand managers. It was crazy. Making something like an interior space is obviously very different than doing a commercial, title sequence or film, as is creating interactive content to populate different scaled screens. The majority of the design, furniture, and all the floors, ceilings, and so on were all custom built. It was a huge learning experience for us and for George. After that project we said, “Hey, we should do this. We should turn this into a practice.” And we’ve been stopping and starting doing it ever since. George passed away a few years ago, but we collaborated with him on several projects. I really miss him.
As you well know from your own site, architecture is a tiny little community. We were really lucky to meet Greg Lynn, who lives and works in Venice and who totally gets it. He’s an architect, obviously, but he’s also a furniture designer, jewelry designer, teacher, writer, and big-time thinker. He’s also a really good sailor. And he’s refreshing; he’s a lot of fun. We became friends. He suggested, after 9/11, that Imaginary Forces be a principal with a group of architects working on a response to an RFQ for the design competition for the rebuilding of Ground Zero. We answered the RFQ as United Architects: Greg Lynn/FORM, Foreign Office Architects, UNStudio, Kevin Kennon Architects, Reiser + Umemoto, and, at Greg’s insistence, Imaginary Forces. Greg wanted us to be principles, not simply the visual or graphic wingman. He really felt as though storytelling and filmmaking, thinking of different ways to the express the concept, would not only help our presentation, but also would influence the design process and form making. That actually happened. When we all sat down at the table in New York—Jesse [Reiser] and Kevin were already in New York; Alejandro [Zaera-Polo] flew in from London; Ben van Berkel from Amsterdam; Greg and all of us from L.A.—you’ve got all these big, young egos and six weeks to come up with this whole presentation. I’m as much an architect as I am an astronaut, and so I said, “Well let’s storyboard this.” And Jesse said, “Storyboard what? What are you talking about?” Well, “What does it look like when I’m walking the dog? What does it look like when I’m taking the Staten Island Ferry?” And so we started to think about making a movie. And the design actually started by suggesting the idea of storyboarding—it sort of lubricated the process and got us going. We were generating wireframes of everything, making all of these animations and renders in nearly real time. Because it was so fast and because we were making these visualizations so quickly, that speed also became part of the form making process. You didn’t have a year to do research and the master plan. It was a shotgun, crazy charrette. It turned out to be an interesting, provocative design and it was also very stimulating for us. You know, it was fun. And the film that we did was super effective—when we played it at the public presentation you could hear a pin drop. It was cinematic and it made the other presentation methods look pedestrian and out of fashion. Of course, to be fair—and to be true to what happened—[Daniel] Libeskind did this even better. He said, “I have an idea, scribbled on a napkin. Here it is.” Everybody gasped, “Whoa, genius.” That gesture or shtick was more effective than a film. But that project and process was a really interesting and amazing experience for us.
sP: It sounds like an amazing exchange. Was there anything that clearly shifted or changed in your attitude or approach after that project, or was it more part of a continuous progress in the work you were doing before?
pF: There is a lot of potential overlap between architecture, filmmaking, brand development, and storytelling. Obviously, right? Much of what has happened in the filmmaking world has been influenced by tools that have been brought to bear—whether it’s HD video, Final Cut, Shake and Nuke, Maya, or Cinema 4D—tools where you can just make all this stuff. The point of entry is nearly nonexistent and the speed at which you can do things is collapsed. Architects may be experiencing the same kind of acceleration. In film almost anything is doable—though, to be fair, it takes talent and a good amount of thinking to do something good. It’s very different than the research and thinking it takes to design a building or a master plan. And so there is a certain degree of tension that we have encountered, from the academy and from architects, and oftentimes more from architectural critics than from architects themselves, who say, “God, what you guys are doing is so plastic. It’s so instantaneous that it strips all of the effort and depth from what it is about.” And I don’t have a good answer to that. While I don’t believe that is necessarily true, you can certainly feel the new tools and methods of implementation outstripping the traditional process and timeline of how things get made.
sP: In some ways your work can also react to culture faster. Building designs sometimes, even often, don’t get built at all, or if they do, it’s ten years from when the initial idea was lifted from or fed by culture. At the same time, it seems that in the collaborations like New City or Minority Report, you were sort of rethinking the possibilities for near-future technology and culture—I’m talking about the way technology and culture interfaced with the body through screens in Minority Report or the use of visualizations for worlds like Second Life in New City. Could you talk about that kind of speculation and the sort of near-future, science-fiction thread that runs through your work?
pF: We were brought into Minority Report by the production designer, Alex McDowell. The movie was near-future science fiction and our sequences needed to look dreamlike and subjective. Steven Spielberg didn’t want the interface to look or feel “tech,” he wanted to convey that it was coming directly from your cortex in a kind of dream state. To help develop the interface we worked with John Underkoffler from MIT’s Media Lab, who had done his thesis on gestural interface. Taking the idea of building a sort of series of edgeless planes that could be rearranged, to that we introduced the idea of “dream time,” because in a dream you’re not in a familiar timeline but one that is constantly out of phase and becomes sort of impressionistic. In dreams time is totally subjective, which is what makes dreams so cool, but also oftentimes makes dreams poorly realized on screen, because they tend be more deliberately expressed. So embracing this idea of this overlap of time, and adding to it the gestural interface, was basically the idea we executed. This dream state made the idea of subjective time into something that you actually manipulate as you gather various inputs then create this sort of jigsaw of things happening in time.
New City grew out of the visualizations that we did for the World Trade Center competition and out of projects that we had done with Greg, with Alex McDowell, and with George Yu, and also out of being invited by Hernan Diaz Alonso and Greg to be a part of the juries for their studios at Columbia, UCLA, or SCI-Arc. To spend time with all these guys, along with seeing and reading their work, made it seem like, god, the odds of them getting work made or built . . . You know, if I think a baseball player is a great hitter because he gets a hit one out of three times, then an architect is a superstar if he gets something built one out of ten. But there is all of this unbuilt work that architects create. Wouldn’t it be cool to value all that work and build a world that was solely virtual, and that was its point? Virtual building becomes just as relevant as the data that buzzes through our world. And it’s beautiful and fanciful. Once you go there, you’re burying the idea of being in a physical place where there’s zoning and you have to go through all the endless rigmarole—to get an engineer, the budget, and so on. That thinking became the goal or starting point for New City. When Paola Antonelli was putting together and designing “Design and the Elastic Mind,” (Museum of Modern Art, 2008), she called, asking “Do you guys have an idea for the show?” I said, “Oh yeah! Greg and Alex and I want to build ‘New City.’” New City was really conceived as a napkin sketch, the start of a conversation. And I think that New City is just starting to happen around us. We had a great time thinking and researching. It wasn’t about what’s real, it was about the fantastic. We’d imagine the entire world’s population living on a manifold, this crazy form that revolves through itself, and whether or not, say, New Delhi and Des Moines could conceivably be passing through each other at a moment in time. And if so, what does that mean? Does it mean anything? It gives you a whole front end, a recipe, mainly, of considerations. And then there is the question of how you are actually going to design and build the installation. On a jumbo flat screen hanging on a wall? Boring, right? So we built this kind of cave that immersed the viewer. Instead of using conventional monitors we constructed irregularly shaped trapezoidal scrims. We projected onto them using short throw projectors that were arrayed according to a CG previsualization. Again, the whole process was a lot of fun. Greg has taken many of the forms created for New City and turned them into physical models—He exhibited them at the CCA (Canadian Center for Architecture) in Montreal. So we’re all sort of still dancing around with it. At some point, hopefully, there will be an opportunity to take it to the next level.
sP: Do you see anything coming down the pipeline in film effects and experiential design? It seems there is an audience today that is demanding new sensations from their pop culture. People are willing to spend 40 dollars to see a 3-D movie because they want a new kind of depth or a new sensation. Even the gestural video gaming that has taken off with Microsoft’s Kinect is an example of that desire. These things that 10 years ago were a little more sci-fi are now, with the iPhone and gestural gaming, everyday and part of a heightened experience people seem to crave.
pF: “Experience Design,” a practice that Imaginary Forces engages in and promotes, is exactly that: workable options for brands, spaces, and the sort of sponsored sensation you are talking about. A lot of what is out there is really lame. You’ve no doubt seen a lot of bad video projections, and I think most 3-D is kind of lame. But I think it goes beyond those ideas to the fact that, with mobile technology and apps, increased downloading speeds, and wireless capabilities, there are going to be these physical networks—they could closed or they could be open—where there are fiefdoms of connectivity that become part of how architects or developers might conceive of their project. This holds true as long as you can get some initial work— we had a couple of opportunities: one project in Dubai, another in Korea—where the act of place making itself becomes a physical and abstract experience. Here, a space can change because, essentially, it’s designed as a giant canvas—it can be programmed through software to be different things at different times, for different reasons, clients, or sponsors. I think that is an interesting possibility. We’re part of the team designing a potential stadium in Los Angeles, and we were brought in because at some level it’s seen as a giant media object. That could be great, or it could be horrible. And so that’s the kind of tension that you have to negotiate. And architects work with cultural resonance. When we work on a film or TV commercial they’re like soap bubbles: they’re here and gone. We worked on all the Transformers films. They were enormously successful. Everyone talked about Transformers for one, maybe two weekends, right? And then they’re gone from the conversation. But Greg is doing work, work that hasn’t been built, which is outside of the accepted aesthetic. Some people laugh or say “That’s ugly. What is that? I don’t get it.” Frank Gehry’s work was first dismissed, then embraced by the establishment, and now it’s become totally of our time. And I think there is a different timeline that exists there. Film and advertising have to make something that is literally sensational, that makes you go, “Oooh, it’s cool,” and gives you the rush that makes you want to buy something or go somewhere. Architects oftentimes have their own standards and ways of seeing things. Sometimes the world catches up to them and embraces them, and sometimes it doesn’t. But that, to me, is real relevance. That is resonance. One reason it’s so interesting to work with architects is because they’re on a different timeline. It’s funny, Greg’s 40-something now. If you’re 40-something in the advertising or film business you’re getting ready to be put into a home, so it’s nice to work with people who, no matter their age, are still considered young in their field.