The recent BBC4 documentary series Dreaming the Impossible: Unbuilt Britain explored several extraordinarily ambitious UK architectural visions that never quite made it into development. One of these, the 1945 Bruce Plan, was a radical proposal to demolish Glasgow city centre in its entirety and rebuild from scratch. In this feature, Jonny Harris of the Glasgow-based Playdead Ltd, the company tasked with providing graphics and animated content for the series, tells us about the challenge of recreating creative visions from limited source material.

The creative challenge

Working on Unbuilt Britain was a fascinating project for us. The graphic visualisations were an integral part of the series, so Playdead were heavily involved from the early stage of development. Overall, we worked on over 50 sequences spread across the three programmes.

When dealing with the theme of the ‘Unbuilt’, there are obviously limited physical references, so we worked closely with Timeline Films to gather as much information as possible. In the case of the Great Victorian Way, featured in the first programme in the series, there was only one remaining illustration from which to build a huge 3D model from. This presented us with both creative and technical challenges. Our aim was to stay as true to the original plans as possible but also to design them in a way that really captured the viewers’ imaginations.

A unique visualisation

The Bruce Plan, which featured in the third and final programme, was a particularly exciting visualisation to work on. As far as we’re aware, no one has ever created a 3D CGI version of this plan before. Playdead’s studio is based in Glasgow, so we know the city really well. This 1940s Utopian vision really made us question and think about how different life in the city would be if the plan had gone ahead. It would be strange to think of the city without iconic Victorian and Georgian buildings such as Glasgow’s School of Art, the City Chambers and Central Station. The current Victorian grid plan of streets would have been almost completely rearranged into a structured series of zones.

The first stage in our creative process was to research as many existing visual references for The Bruce Plan as possible. When the plan was being developed by the Glasgow Corporation, an actual model was built, which can be seen in a 1949 documentary available at the Scottish Screen Archive.

Unfortunately, the model no longer exists, which is a real shame, but the footage of it gave us some key visual references. In particular, we focused on details such as the structure and design of the proposed buildings, so we could recreate these accurately in 3D. A distinct feature of The Bruce Plan is high-rise housing and concrete office buildings, using symmetrical shapes and layouts. We also used the original drawings and plans as references, which all combined to give us a stylistic vision of what the city would have looked like had the plan been fully accepted.

Depth, colour and atmosphere

When we had a good understanding of the details, our next challenge was to accurately set out the formation of the streets. Bruce’s plan didn’t just address buildings; another key aspect was the transport and road structure. We decided that the best way to approach this would be to use the original bird’s eye view plan of the city as a very specific reference point for the visualisation. We laid everything out so that it matched the original drawing with exact accuracy. In the final animation, there is a seamless transition from the paper plan into the animation.

Once we had constructed the whole city in 3D, the next job was to stylise and colour the animations. Again, we took the original plans as a reference, using muted greens, greys and blues as an overall theme. As a nod to the original model, we decided that we’d make it look like the 3D visualisation was sat on top of an oak table, as if in a museum, which added to the atmosphere and depth of the animations. Overall we created four 20-second fly-throughs of the city, each with its own distinct camera move, from flying high above to swooping down one of the streets.

A montage of the final animations can be seen here:

We were really pleased with the end result and feel like the CGI animations encapsulate Bruce’s vision for Glasgow, though we’re perfectly happy that we’re not walking to work through an ageing concrete jungle!

Playdead logoMore images and details for the design work Playdead did on Unbuilt Britain can be found on their website