Before people arrive in the Emirates, they often try to picture the cities here, frequently conjouring up a cinematic skyline somewhere between Blade Runner's frenetic warren and the 1950s futuristic cartoon The Jetsons - all shiny, space-age buildings and elevated trains.
It's perhaps not surprising that film references spring to mind: while Hollywood is not known for its sense of down-to-earth reality, its techniques of visualisation and imagination have much in common with those of the UAE's property developers. One company though, aims to bring these two worlds even closer together.Aya Experience, a small Dubai-based business, connects real estate firms with the graphic masters behind some of Hollywood's most impressive CGI (computer-generated imagery) projects. Aya links a collective of world-class graphic artists and technicians called Alpha Vision to its property-developer clients in the UAE. Alpha Vision then creates the interior rendering for building projects to entice customers to invest off-plan.
The company's computer renderings can frequently be seen on the big screen - they created the epic desert landscapes of 300 and the dark, sinister cityscapes of Sin City, in which they employed their extraordinary "matte painting" technique. No less impressive though is the work these animators are creating for some of the UAE's biggest property companies, including IFA Hotels and Resorts, Dubai Pearl and Arzanah, an "urban oasis" in Abu Dhabi that is Mubadala Real Estate's first project with the Singapore company CapitaLand. Now, with the help of cutting-edge movie technology, potential buyers are able to imagine themselves walking around projected developments at any time of day or night, exploring the decor, right down to the finest, beautifully rendered detail. They won't see that super-clean computerised effect of virtual reality or video games: this is almost impossibly photo-real.
To tell viewers that these are not photographs or well-directed pieces of short film is to prompt double-takes and disbelieving stares. In one animation (for a development that Aya cannot name), the "camera" wafts through a tranquil, sun-filled house, homing in every so often to take a closer look at the soft plaster embellishments on a fireplace, the glinting crystal chandeliers and the delicate tracery of a wrought-iron stair balustrade.
There is a soothing, uplifting soundtrack - it's Lascia Ch'io Pianga, an exquisitely sad aria from Handel's opera Rinaldo - that establishes this house as the future home of a highly cultured, sophisticated type. As the soprano's voice soars, a whole day passes in just a few seconds, the dawn rays beaming through the muslin curtains before hitting noon, setting and being replaced by blue-tinged moonlight. Moments later, it's dawn again. This is a feat of imagination indeed, because while this room looks as real and solid as the room the viewer is in, the chances are that the foundations had barely been laid when it was designed.
"We create these augmented reality rooms, with layers of projection for property developers, showrooms, retail applications and events," says the Aya Experience managing director, Micha Grundman. "We've grouped together several companies to offer products they wouldn't have offered stand-alone, such as renderings and animations. Then we can go all out and create an immersive experience for retail and architectural applications, blending light and video."
Draw the discussion away from the marketing spiel and what becomes evident is that this is a passion-driven project. "We call it 'architainment'," enthuses the creative director Kalman Dreisziger, a grizzled veteran of advertising. "We're using architectural backgrounds as entertainment, designing streetscapes, scenarios, event locations, but using the background as a canvas to play with. The art and the technology are merging so fast it's scary. I keep thinking of art as not technology but it is, very much so - so in this sense of things, renderings and animations and all that sort of stuff are very much interesting art."
It's the technology that really astounds: that computer aided design can be used to plan interiors is nothing new, but the sheer realism of these animated home tours is hard to believe. They work with floor plans in CAD, sections and elevations, specifications for furnishing and mood boards - collecting as much information as they can get - and use a "white box" to choose the camera angle. Then they explore colours, textures and light shading, and after fine-tuning it, they send it in to be rendered. Grundman explains why the images look so real. "It's funny: we spend quite a bit of time rendering them dirty, because they're too clean. They're too perfect. So making them look lived-in is what stops them looking like computer images and makes them seem real.
"Another interesting technology is a proprietary software for lighting: we change the lighting in the room, and it actually mimics the exact light that the architect has specified in that room, based on the geographical position and how the sun interacts in that room, which we study over a 24-hour period. Alpha Vision uses software generally reserved for the film industry. They have two companies: one in Berlin called Pure, which focuses primarily on interiors, creating some of the most captivating stuff in the world; and the other in Montreal, called Meduzarts, which makes virtual sets, matte painting - a mix of 3D and what they call 2.5D, which is matte painting and camera projection technology - and VFX for the Hollywood industry, so it positions us at the crossroads between architecture and Hollywood." Of course, it is the glamorous, movie industry work of Alpha Vision that brings in much of the talent that benefits the interiors side of the company, blending creative, dramatic, almost narrative design with the technical expertise required for an architectural rendering, and the result is phenomenal. "With the cinema division we can render virtually anything," Grundman says. This is all very interesting and impressive, but is it actually useful? Dreisziger explains: "You might say sure, it's glamorous, it's great that you've done 300, it's great that you've worked on Sin City, but how does it benefit us? Well, what this model allows the developer to do is that it offers the integration through brand identity to the visualisations to the ad campaign, to the launch event, so it trickles down as one singular vision, as opposed to what's happening now. It has been traditionally an investor's and developer's market, so it hasn't made that much difference. But those days are over. Because the point of view has very much been the owner's point of view of - 'I want to see the grandiosity of my vision in the rendering' - whereas you and I might want to see the bathroom in one of the units, or to have it from humanised angles so we can 'walk' through it. We try to take very much a humanised view and to have it be as real as possible. It's really trying to immerse the buyer into the development, to feel the lifestyle, to feel it as if you were living there." Given that these renderings are often designed well before the building is completed, though, the savvy buyer would do well to take them with a pinch of salt - they are, after all, more about an overall mood than an accurate evocation of the final building. "Renderings have been done since architecture was architecture," says Dreisziger. "I remember, when I graduated in architecture, doing two and three-point vanishing point renderings, but now all of that stuff is computerised and we've found ourselves several times in positions where we're actually asked to design bits and pieces of interiors, because the interior planning hasn't been done yet, but 'we gotta see what the thing will look like, so can you guys just render something?'." Grundman goes even further: "We've been approached to design, I would say, 85-90 per cent of the masterplan, on occasion. When we're designing, we're not designing from a build perspective, we're designing from a creative perspective, but it's filtered down into the build team and the project management. Looking back at the history of some of the projects, they change so many times before they're actually built, and often we're redesigning and re-rendering the project as we go along." Whether customers seduced by the beautiful graphics will be just as delighted with the final product has yet to be tested: "We don't really know what will ultimately happen and whether customers will come back with that sort of stuff," says Dreisziger. "We'd much rather work with well-defined plans. But hey, life is never easy."