L.A. Designer: Alex McDowell and Students “World-Build” New Island City

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Production designer and teacher Alex McDowell has been working with students, architects, movie and game designers and many others on the creation of an island city named Rilao, a fantastical hybrid of Rio de Janeiro and Los Angeles. What would an LA/Rio fusion look and sound like? What is the point of the project?

AMcDowell Headshot

Alex McDowell is a longtime production designer whose credits include Minority Report, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fight Club. Now he maintains a design studio named 5D Global Studio @ Wondros — current projects include a refresh of the animated player introductions for the Chicago Bulls (first created by the Wachowskis) — and he teaches at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, bringing together game designers, architects, theater and film writers, set builders and many other creatives in his “5D Institute” for “world-building:” the creation of imaginary worlds driven by narrative, rendered digitally and in hand-built models.

For the last year around 20 students have been working on the creation of an island city named Rilao that is a fantastical hybrid of Rio de Janeiro and Los Angeles; models and renderings will be exhibited to the public next week at USC, culminating in a Friday night “Rilaoan Immersive Musical Universe” dance party and weekend Science of Fiction conference, where students, experts and, in a separate workshop, kids, will all get a chance to play at world-building Rilao. The conference is sold out but we have five pairs of tickets to share with KCRW/DnA followers (see below). 

DnA talked to Alex about what world building means, how it applies to the real world and whether he’d like to live on Rilao.

Science of Fiction screen

DnA: How would you define “world building?”

Alex McDowell: World building is a new way of thinking about building stories or the space for stories from the ground up, where something like a script may no longer be appropriate. The principle behind the 5D institute is that design is a knife that slices through the silos of these different media spaces so that as designers we can talk to one another even if one of us is in theater and one of us is in film and one is in architects and one is doing experience design. There’s a common language through design so we’ve used that as a starting point to build a new sort of language around the idea of world building that is applied to storytelling.

DnA: Can you give us an example of how that expresses itself?

AM: We’re currently working on a fictional violent city called “Rilao.” The idea of it was, what if we were to build a city from the ground up, a new city, within which thousands of stories could be told? And so we took the DNA of Rio de Janeiro and the DNA of Los Angeles and have them encounter one another on a small island in the Pacific.

So we’ve set up a tension between two quite radically different cultures that have, in different ways, developed in parallel with one another and then we place them in a constrained space, an island, that is too small for the population growth.

Rilao Image 1 - LaoChapters

That was the prompt we used to kick start the class. And then what we discovered was that this city became kind of inspiration for a whole range of projects by the students. Robotics, architecture, cinematic narrative, game design, procedural interactive media, all sorts of projects started evolving that were being triggered by the idea of solving what might happen if a city like this actually existed in our world but had disappeared and then had just recently been rediscovered. It allowed us to have this insight into a city that’s continued to evolve in real physics and real gravity and real social, political space, but in a kind of parallel way so that it wasn’t constrained by the same rules necessarily as cities in the world that we know. Because we were asking questions of this city like, “what if television had never been invented in Rilao? How would media have developed? How might storytelling be different? Or what if there are no roads, and no cars in Rilao?” Or the population growth is so extreme that they’ve had to find ways to appropriate terrain in very steep areas or to literally terraform between the islands to create more land?

Rilao Image 4 - Tetraform Process

DnA: This is all taking place in the virtual realm, correct? You said you have architects for example but the architects aren’t going off and making 3D tangible models of this environment?

AM: Actually there are quite a few tangible projects coming from this. For example, one student has developed a new form, of a script in the shape of a suitcase. So he populated a suitcase with stacks of artifacts from this world and then built a conceit around that that this suitcase had been found in the depository of lost suitcases in Dallas, Texas. And it had been opened up, and it turned out to be evidence of a mysterious city that nobody knew existed. All of the artifacts in the suitcase contribute to a narrative which one can unfold just by looking at the theater bills for a new play, there’s a whole range of tattoos which are part of the immigration process in this island. There’s evidence of a plague that occurred in the 1920’s and they all become a part of the story, essentially a kind of living script that somebody could piece together.

DnA: This sounds something like the convergence of Treasure Island meets Sims City. Is it fun?

AM: Yes, that’s a good way to put it. And yes, it’s huge fun, and I think a big part of the fun is that it’s almost impossible to track its outcome. I’m most interested in this idea of the chance encounter, the one thing that is stimulated by another that is unrelated. That creates a third possibility that you couldn’t have expected. I’m very interested in surrealism and I think that there’s a surrealist tendency that combines with kind of when the sum is greater than the parts, so a very smart group of students in a room together spark ideas that develop organically and really go in radical directions that none of us could’ve anticipated and it’s really, it’s a living breathing organism now and it does take on that kind of life of its own.

AM: There are some ideas about the music of the city, a sense that there’s a sort of surf punk meets samba kind of evolution. We’ve also been looking at architectural development on steep mountain sides. A very interesting fact: steep hillsides facing the ocean in one city have the richest properties (Los Angeles), and the poorest in the other city (Rio de Janeiro). So we’ve been looking at the ways in which favelas exist as a form of social space, architectural space, and communities with their own rules, even over who owns land. So I think that idea of the favela has persisted on Rilao even if we are calling them something different. And I think the relationship between the land and the ocean and trade and a complex, immigrant-based society that defines both cities is there. But it has to have the structure and  history that is rich enough to be believable.

DnA: But you have been exploring what are essentially sociological, urban, political things as part of this process. 

AM: I feel that this comes out of something that I’m personally very interested in, which is a very deep and broad research that goes on when you’re evolving stories at the beginning. Perhaps it goes back to when I started designing Minority Report. We had to build out a contextual world within which a story evolved. So we didn’t really start with a script, we started with the world and we looked deeply into urban planning and governments and police systems and advertising and all sorts of things that are not maybe in people’s minds not directly associated with writing and movie script. But they directly inform the way that the story took place.

Rilao Image 2 - Camouflage

DnA: You just cited Minority Report, a very influential and memorable film. One of the memorable aspects of Minority Report was this whole transportation system that you and your team dreamed up. Now on the island city of Rilao I think you said you’re planning not to have cars. Is that right?

AM: Yes, it turns out there was a plague in the early 20th century on Rilao and the island was cut off from the rest of the world and put in this quarantine that ended up being an embargo and so cars never made it onto the island. Then the population was growing so rapidly that there wasn’t really room for roads and they had to think differently about the steep terrain and so since it consists of nine different districts, which are comprised of several islands, the water transportation is very important. And then cable cars we feel are probably important in the same way as they are in Rio, to negotiate the very steep parts of the city.

Children and 3d printer

DnA: Is there an end point for your Rilao project? Are you intending your students to go fourth fully equipped to become very imaginative game designers? Is it that you are producing people that will go into urban design? 

AM: At the simplest level, what we are trying to do is produce art-scientists. In other words, people who can go out into the world with an expectation that media is changing; that coding is a design skill, alongside the pencil and the computer and everything else that is sort of 3D design. We are trying to open people’s minds to thinking about storytelling as an increasingly powerful component in everything we do in life. If they are architects, we are hoping to do is to add the whole component of narrative to the way they think about architecture, not only narrative in a traditional sense but narrative as the space within which one collaborates around the evolution of creative ideas.

It is definitely not about producing game designers but we are teaching Unity for example, as the coding language of a game engine that can be as common now as 3D studio max or 3D tools. So people have to think about the procedural aspects of design alongside the structural aspects of design, and how both of those apply to the ways in which story sort of transcends media and becomes this powerful tool you can use in whatever medium you end up going out to work in, whether it’s government, politics or education or game design, film, or architecture or theater.

DnA: Lastly, would you like to live in the city of Rilao? 

AM: That’s a great question. Yes, it is the most unusual city in the world, I think I would.

This plague that I mentioned brought in an influx of scientists who were looking at biology as prime research, like how does a virus develop and how did this plague evolve? And when they stayed behind on Rilao, after the embargo came down, they evolved a new kind of science that was far more based in biology and developed organic terraforming, coral-based terraforming. So the whole world is permeated by a manmade coral infrastructure of housing and land mass and bridges. So just architecturally, it would be an absolutely fascinating world to be in.

TICKET GIVEAWAY FOR 5D CONFERENCE: Go to this link to find out how to win tickets for the soldout 5D Conference. Go to this link for tickets and info about the exhibition and dance party.

Photo credit and captions in order of appearance: Image one– Photographer: Derek Passmore; Image c. World Building Media Lab, Image two — 2013 Science of Fiction Keynote; Image c. 5D Institute | World Building Media Lab, Image three — Artists: Bryan Edelman, Eric Adrian Marshall, Chris Cain, Ascot Smith; Image c. World Building Media Lab, Image four — Artist: Evan Pantazis; Image c. World Building Media Lab, Image five — Artist: Omar Haque; Image c. World Building Media Lab, Image six — Artist: Behnaz Farahi; Image c. World Building Media Lab, Image seven — 2013 Science of Fiction, Kids Workshop; Image c. 5D Institute | World Building Media Lab. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.