Artistic Expressions: The Future of a City


I’m the guy that gets the call to take the photograph that can’t be photographed. Basically, I create what doesn’t exist. In the case of a recent project, I was commissioned to create a shot of what the city of San Jose would look like in about 30 years.

For this project, I had to create several new buildings, a few additions to the existing museums, and a baseball park. As source material, I was given architectural renderings and city plans, but in some cases I wasn’t given much at all. There were a couple of buildings in which the extent of the information was “a building about 10 to 12 stories”—period!

Needless to say, I spent many hours at the City Planning Department looking for anything useful. The best part of the research required me to fly over the city of San Jose in a tiny, four-seat plane that was specially altered so that I could hang out the window and shoot pictures of the city. I never knew that even on a hot day it’s freezing when you’re dangling from a plane at 6,000 feet. Figure 1 shows one of the original shots before I started adding the future.

Fig. 1

Under consideration

There are many things to consider when adding elements to an existing image: first, the affect of the new object on the existing environment around it, and second, the affect of the environment on the new object itself. For example, the lighting and shadows must match the original source, and the focus and grain must also match. These points can be clearly demonstrated in this case where a building complex needs to be added in the current site of a parking lot in Figure 2. The strong shadows evident in the scene are necessary to match. More important is the fact that the existing building across the street has a facade made of glass. When the new building is added in front of it, the new building should be reflected in that glass.
The finished rendering (Figure 3) shows the new building in front casting a shadow across the street and onto the front of the existing building. The new building is also visible as a reflection in the windows of the existing building.

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

Put it in perspective

The actual creation of the buildings requires many steps to ensure that they fit into the scene as if they were there in the original photograph. One of the most important considerations is perspective. Proper perspective is crucial so the buildings will fit accurately in the three-dimensional space of the cityscape. To achieve proper perspective, the vanishing point must be established on the horizon in order to set up guides for the construction of the various structures.

Photoshop has a filter called Vanishing Point. Unfortunately, it’s not very useful in this situation. For one thing, to get the necessary detail you would have to work much bigger than the existing image—so using the filter within the image is not an option. Another factor is that the sides of many of the buildings are rounded and Vanishing Point moves objects within flat planes.

The concept behind the Vanishing Point filter is based on the basic laws of perspective. Figure 4 shows a diagram that explains how perspective works. At the horizon (eye level) there are vanishing points. All parallel lines meet at those vanishing points. If you were to draw lines that follow the angles of all the objects in a scene, these lines would be called vanishing lines and they would converge at the vanishing points on the horizon.

Fig. 4

In Figure 5 we see a close-up of an area of downtown. (To draw your attention to a point of interest, take a look at the large, grayish complex just below center right—it’s Adobe headquarters.) In Figure 6 we see the way that same area will look in the future. Three buildings have been added in this scene. The building on the bottom left is a proposed second tower to an existing structure. You would think that all you’d have to do is copy the existing building over; however, there’s additional work, such as creating the reflection of the rooftop at the very bottom of the image into the new tower.

Fig. 5

Fig. 6

The blue glass tower that appears above the Adobe complex in Figure 6 is a tall tower with a rounded left side. The first thing that needs to be established for this building before it can be created is the correct perspective. The section of this scene needs to be copied and enlarged by at least 400% to get detail. The file is then placed in an Illustrator file, and lines are drawn on a separate layer that follow the angles of the windows, the tops of the buildings, and the streets, where visible. All these lines have to eventually meet at the horizon line (Figure 7). Once the vanishing point is established, all the guidelines can be drawn for the construction of the new building (Figure 8).

Fig. 7

Fig. 8

When the building is complete in Illustrator, the document is imported into Photoshop as individual layers, as we see in Figure 9. In Photoshop, add all the details necessary to make the building look realistic, such as shadows and reflections.

Fig. 9

The final building is merged into a single layer and reduced in size to 25% to fit the final composite of the entire cityscape. The details are then rasterized to the new size. Once placed in the composite file, the tower is blurred to match the focus of the rest of the buildings in that area. Noise is added with the Add Noise filter to match the grain of the original shot. The top of the brown building in front of the new tower needs to be copied to a layer and placed in front of the new building to give the new building its proper location in the scene.

The digital tools at our disposal have opened the door to let our imaginations run wild. We must, however, still conform to certain laws of nature to make things look believable. It’s not as hard as it sounds; it’s simply a matter of experiencing life with our eyes open. Study how the world works—how light bathes a scene, how shadows dance on the surfaces they encounter, and how materials react to the lights and shadows and the other objects around them. Keeping your eyes open and taking it all in will help you make better images—it will also help you from bumping into things.

The completed futuristic view of San Jose