No Architectural Media Communicates Atmosphere and Ambiance as Compellingly as Film

No Architectural Media Communicates Atmosphere and Ambiance as Compellingly as Film

Today, the overlap of the tools and software products utilized by filmmakers and architects reinforces the historical bond between the two disciplines more than ever. In one of their design studios, Master of Architecture students at the Melbourne School of Design try to master the techniques and methods of filmmaking and employ them in their architectural films and animations.

Led by Hamid Khalili, the studio, called Studio 35mm, adopts different genres of film, animation, and VR to represent architectural qualities that are impossible to be articulated through traditional architectural visualization techniques. By research into film and architectural theory, weekly filming and editing exercises, and, most importantly, applying filming techniques within an architectural context, students in Studio 35mm endeavor to comprehend, dissect and communicate a spatial theme associated with an architectural element (termed “a species of space”). 

As the final product of the studio, each student makes an architectural short film about a concept rooted in the present, past, or future of one of the species of spaces. These range across different genres and styles of film including architectural documentaries, speculative 3D realistic animations, hybrid films, live-action, cutouts, and architectural video-essays and essay-films. 

Read on for a short interview with Hamid Khalili, the studio leader.

ArchDaily: When and why did you decide to develop a studio focused on the relationship between architecture and film?

Hamid Khalili: The main motivation for proposing Studio 35mm is rooted in what is happening in the architectural academy and industry. When we look closely at the universal constellation of visualizing and representational tools, there are significant indications implying that some changes are about to happen in the ways that architectural media, techniques, technologies, and the processes of architectural image-making are operating: architects are already using films and animation in the form of walk-throughs, fly-throughs, and other types and formats; we all always carry our ubiquitous small cinema-cameras (smartphones) in our pockets; and more importantly, today, the software packages and tools utilized by architects for model-making and rendering are the same or very similar to the ones used in film, animation, and the game design industry.

Urban Below - Camera movement design. Authorship: Han Wu & Studio 35mm (Hamid Khalili – University of Melbourne)

In spite of all the signs conveying that filmmaking is getting closer than ever to the discipline of architecture, there is no proper education regarding film, filmmaking, and animation in architecture schools.  This lack of education is the fundamental reason why many architectural animations with well-rendered and hyperrealistic images appear to be incomplete and unrefined. 

It reveals that architects are untrained and unpracticed when it comes to effectively deploying film and animation. If we, as architects, intend to use the powerful medium of film, we have to learn how to use it appropriately! In order to successfully employ film and animation, at least to the level that is required for architectural films, architects need to familiarize themselves with film and its complexities and potentialities.

There have been design studios in elite architecture schools with a focus on cinema, but their emphasis has mostly been on the theoretical and historical symbiosis between film and architecture or on the design of spaces presented through films rather than the actual processes and techniques of crafting an architectural film and its cinematic form per se; the results of these sorts of studios are usually too speculative, pompous, and inaccessible to a public audience. Therefore, it was very clear from the very beginning that we were not going to run a studio similar to other film and architecture studios. We put forward the proposal of Studio 35mm, and the Chair of Architectural Design in the Melbourne School of Design, Professor Donald Bates, was very supportive and positive about it.

AD: Besides adding time and movement to the representations of architecture, film (videos, animations, etc.) can foster a deeper sense of emotion, atmosphere, and ambiance of architecture. Can you talk about it?

HK: Emotion is tied to motion. Unsurprisingly, these terms have the same Latin root. The experience of architectural spaces and buildings is a kinaesthetic experience. We cannot feel the spatiality of places and things without moving through, around, behind, before, above, and below them, and a moving camera is an apparatus that captures the emotions of spaces through its motion. Dealing with emotions and feeling is intrinsic to cinema: Robert Bresson once said that an encounter with a good film “arises feelings before intellect”. Film by nature is able to engender a sense of atmosphere, ambiance, milieu, and mood. All of these concepts are very architectural, and from this perspective, the role of a filmmaker is very similar to what architects do: they both are involved in the business of creating atmosphere and ambiance.

Archway: Odyssey Enigma - Camera choreography design. Authorship: Marissa Wong & Studio 35mm (Hamid Khalili – University of Melbourne)

Film renders the communication of the qualitative and atmospheric aspects of architecture possible. This is the unrivaled power of film that is not comparable to any other architectural technique or media of any kind; no architectural media can communicate atmosphere and ambiance in the compelling manner that film does. Of course, filmic elements such as temporality, movement, sound, montage, lighting, complexion, tone, texture, materiality, and above all, narrative and storytelling, reinforce the potential of film. 

AD: In your opinion, what are the major contributions the act of filmmaking can bring to architectural design?

HK: Working with film allows architecture students to break away from the conservative and conventional understanding of architecture that is rigidly static. Filmmaking helps architects imagine spaces in movement, as sequences of action/events and in the form of narrative dispositions. 

The Window - Concept diagram and narrative flow. Authorship: Jia Ping Ang & Studio 35mm (Hamid Khalili – University of Melbourne)

In the process of architectural design, film can also operate as a tool for thinking and speculating. Highly intricate architectural ideas and concepts can be tested and articulated in a tangible and legible fashion by animated diagrams and drawings in an architectural video essay.  

Historically, film is a medium of making political and social commentary as well.  This characteristic makes film a practical device that can be infused into different stages of research and design at architectural and/or urban scale.

AD: What other art forms not commonly used in our field right now could contribute to the architectural design process?

HK: Being absorbed in art nourishes and stimulates creativity and imaginative thinking. Painting and sculpture are the old companions of architecture. Other arts such as literature, music, and poetry, however, are not distant from architectural design as they all entail varying extents of narrative, creation (poiesis), structuring, idea generating, composing and compositing, virtual and real image production, crafting, conceptualizing, balancing form and content, rhythm and framing.

6PM - Cinematic plan and camera staging. Authorship: Su Ke & Studio 35mm (Hamid Khalili – University of Melbourne)

In general, participating in any non-architectural activity whether it is art or science will not be harmful. Rather, it can be an underpinning force supporting architects’ designing and thinking abilities.

Interview by Romullo Barrato. Introduction by Lilly Cao.

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Cite: AD Editorial Team. "No Architectural Media Communicates Atmosphere and Ambiance as Compellingly as Film" 11 Jul 2019. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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