Reaching For The Sky
June 7, 2012

Reaching For The Sky

An original concept by developed Engine Room, National Geographic’s “Empire” is the fascinating story of two iconic architectural projects, the Empire State Building and the new One World Tower. For the unique project, Engine Room teamed with Director John Joseph and First Television to produce a documentary special that weaves modern-day interviews with re-created historic sequences and CG animation that transports viewers to time that forever changed New York’s world famous skyline.
Empire’s original perspective, as told through the developers and ironworkers responsible for these massive accomplishments, reveals an important historic continuum in New York’s development. The story of the Empire State building is a fascinating record that can never be matched: In the face of the Great Depression, using no hard hats or nets, ironworkers risked and lost their lives to build the Empire State Building in a mere 13 months. “Empire” also brings witness to One World Tower, where many of the ironworkers have a lifeline to the Empire State Building built by great uncles or grandparents in the ironwork trade.

“For many people, the Empire State Building is an incredible monument to achievement and a symbol of a great city built by many unsung heroes,” says Engine Room’s Dan Schmit. “For Engine Room, the project marks an exciting expansion into original property development.”

To bring this story to life, Engine Room utilized animation and visual effects to painstakingly re-create historic sequences that bring the viewer back in time and to the 82nd floor of the Empire State Building. Drawing inspiration from Lewis Hine’s historic photographs, EDan Schmit cast the historic actors and shot the re-creations against greenscreen. His team built set pieces and produced all of the digital elements needed to depict the many facets of the Empire State Building construction team using Autodesk Maya and Adobe After Effects.  Engine Room tapped Zach Kenny to produce and design the show’s beautiful, deco-inspired main titles and interstitial graphics.

The story of the Empire State Building is interwoven with that of One World Tower, a potent symbol of triumph over adversity built on a sacred site of one of the nation’s most tragic events. Through revealing interviews directed by John Joseph, modern-day ironworkers—recipients of a relatively unchanged craft handed down generationally—provide the living links to the experiences and accomplishments of the men who built the Empire State Building. Little documentation remains for the past workers who created one of the most enduring symbols of architectural beauty and form; here, their contemporaries forge a new architectural wonder with reverence for a structure built over 80 years ago by grandfathers and great uncles of some of the men forging New York’s newest architectural landmark.  

“A documentarian drops into people’s lives and is then challenged to translate their experiences for an audience,” says Joseph. “With ‘Empire,’ the original voices are long gone, as is most of the historic documentation, but we are able to illuminate the experience through today’s elite ironworkers and with the amazing recreations by Engine Room.  The beauty of documentary is taking viewers on a journey to previously unexplored ideas and places. In this case, the world of the premiere ironworker and the extraordinary feat of building these rising towers.”