Part of the challenge was that this was an effect that continually developed during production. In the script, two characters wash up on a beach and look up at this incredible crumbling city. The city itself is definitely described as architecture, but it’s supposed to look like a natural landform.
Again, this is very easy to picture in your mind, but getting to the reality of what that should look like on film turned out to be a little more challenging. We went through the normal design process of having artists build concepts, and Chris laid out his ideal vision: Something glacial, with clear modernist architecture, but with chunks of it breaking off into the sea like icebergs.
For a long time we just couldn’t get it right — we’d end up with something that looked like an iceberg version of Gotham City with water running through it. So, what we came up with was a basic model of a glacier, and then one of the designers at Double Negative came up with a program that filled the open spaces with modernist architectural blocks. It was just a matter of methodically adding in elements like roads, intersections and ravines until we ended up with this extremely complicated (but organic-looking) cityscape.
– Paul Franklin, visual effects supervisor for Chris Nolan’s Inception, discussing the difficulties and challenges of producing this year’s (so far anyways) standout FX-heavy movie. And yet, the movie still only had about 500 FX shots — half of what most craptastic summer movies have.