City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Had a few thoughts about Los Angeles recently, which I’ll combine into this portmanteau post loosely joined to that city, starting with a few words on the Michael Mann film Collateral I didn’t get round to posting earlier. It’s an OK film in retrospect, no more. It’s set in LA, however, and this aspect is arguably reason enough to see the film anyway, as it’s beautifully shot – in fact absolutely stunning. Shot on high-definition digital video cameras (Thomson Grass Valley Viper FilmStream and Sony CineAlta), the screen fizzes with neon signs and streetlights, burnt orange skies polluted with light and smog, reflections raytraced from mirrored corporate ‘scrapers, spots of blue liquid crystal glow from mobile phones lending theatrical uplighting on characters’ faces. Sight and Sound described it better, thusly:

“Probably the first studio director to embrace digital for its purely aesthetic potential, Mann uses the high-definition technology – in particular its ability to register a rich array of colours and tones in low light and at night – to realise his vision of the city. If the LA of Heat was crisp, almost photorealist in its high-gloss intensity, here the night-time cityscape is rendered with a watercolour delicacy. Collateral’s after-hours timescale may be classic noir, but Mann’s subtle night-vision – the dark sky seems bathed in an urban glow (the pale wash of orange street lights, streaks of white automobile headlights) – softens the genre’s chiaroscuro tendencies.” [“It Happened One Night”, Sight & Sound, on Collateral]

Mann, in interview:

“(Y)ou can’t see the city at night on motion picture film the way you can on digital video … I think this is the first serious major motion picture done in digital video that is photoreal, rather than using it for effects. DV is also a more painterly medium: you can see what you’ve done as you shoot … Digital isn’t a medium for directors who aren’t interested in visualisation …” [“Paint It Black”, Sight & Sound]

Yet again, Los Angeles is a ‘visualised’ city. Twas ever thus, and with such interesting effects on our understanding of the city – and not just visually, but formally. Mike Davis’s City of Quartz is often thought of as the peerless book on LA, with respect to both the imagined city of Chandler and Chinatown and the dark movements of the political and social throughout the 20th century. Reading that means that one then engages with almost any film set in LA in terms of a far richer back-history of imagined and real corruption, beauty, horror, sensual image and vivid music, exploitation, aspiration, politics, crime, grime and so on. It’s as if each film is simply a small scene in a growing ‘meta-work’ about the city (more on this later).

With Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas just emerged and extraordinarily good, Collateral is also a reminder of how far video games still have to travel in order to visually catch up with auteurs like Mann. Whilst Mann’s no doubt right about DV enabling photoreal, the results still look hyperreal to me, or “painterly” in results as well as in process. When video games stop attempting to mirror normal movies and start looking like the extraordinary, exaggerated, hyperrealism that Mann is achieving, then we’re going places. Literally.

To be fair, I think San Andreas does steer this way. The sheer visual flair with which it imagines LA is one of the more impressive features of this episode in the series. The game itself feels no more than a gentle extrapolation of Vice City and a change of scene – and nothing wrong with that really – but the graphics of the city at night, all dreamy neon haze blurred by speed, are quite lovely. Equally, check the cold morning light filling the windshield briefly before that low trajectory of the sun lifts up to generate the shimmering heat of midday. The various zones of the city – bearing in mind I’ve explored less than 10% of the enormous map thus far – are beginning to reveal their identities, formless opaque blocks becoming distinct characters. One common complaint about the game is the small and indistinct on-screen map, though I have to say that the only real way to play GTA is to drive around endlessly, building your own mental map of the city. To me, this is just as in reality. Only tourists navigate using a map every few minutes. Games obviously shouldn’t replicate all of life’s travails – part of a game is to escape from all that – but this one aspect of forcing ‘imageability’ – as Kevin Lynch described it – seems fundamental to imagining a city. Building a coherent image of the city is fundamental to GTA, and that only comes from slowly recognising all the landmarks, paths, networks, edges, longitudinal streets, cross streets, and so on. Here’s Lynch describing how one builds up images of different districts of late-50s Boston:

“(T)he relative width of the streets, the block lengths, the building frontages, the naming system, the relative length and number of the two kinds of streets, their functional importance, all tend to reinforce this differentiation. Thus a regular pattern is given form and character.” [From Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City [UK|US]

The same experiential approach is required in GTA, and the fictional city feels all the more real for relying on you to conjure it into existence – form and character inferred from seeing the fabric of the city, rather than being pinned down by an abstraction, a map. Echoes of Lynch’s theories in Sight and Sound’s review of Collateral, navigating the city via landmarks and distinct neighbourhoods:

“In Mann’s portrait of the megalopolis, the beaches, bikinis and eternal sunshine of celluloid California are replaced by a tenuously interconnected set of zones containing black neighbourhoods, Korean nightclubs and Latino gangsters. Our journey back and forth across the city is so well mapped – with the glass spires of downtown providing a point of orientation – that no matter how incredible the plotting, one’s sense of location is always spot on.” [“It Happened One Night”, Sight & Sound]

This detailed sense of location is common to Grand Theft Auto too, generated from painstaking research. According to an article in Blueprint, game creators Rockstar start with a “long, 80-person research trip, and carries on throughout the project with more trips, as the team refines new locations needed within the maps, such as nightclubs, garages and restaurants.” Despite lifting this aspect of imaging real cities – creating detailed districts from street furniture to typography to sound design – GTA’s cities are deliberately not real, relying on a form of ‘closure’ (cf. Scott McCloud) to construct the city. Rockstar’s Dan Hauser says:

“We could a real city in the game, but we chose not to. We create an approximation, an abbreviation of a real city, carefully designed to support all the visual and typographical variety we want. It’s more like a 3D set than an actual city. This games is about creating a reinterpretation of the US, a socially and visually distorted prism of the real thing … Experience has taught everybody that it’s better to make something that looks good, seems real, and carries a punchline in what it says. We try to make a world that, at first glance, seems completely normal, and then reveals its absurdity as you play it. It looks better, and works better within the medium.” [“Game of Life”, Blueprint, December 2004]

This call-and-response, shuttling back and forth between fiction and reality is immensely powerful, creating enjoyably unsettling experiences. For example, GTA’s fictional LA recently pranged my recent memories of real LA in an almighty high-speed mental pile-up. I was exploring a bit of beachfront in the game, named Santa Maria, idly driving around (in between missions, I could take my time). And I had this sudden, vivid sense of deja vu. I realised they’d recreated the Santa Monica beach almost exactly, which I’d briefly visited a couple of months earlier. I wandered around, in character, retracing my steps. Up on to the pier, on to the beach, along the curious mixture of expensive postmodernist homes and tatty old huts facing the beach. It was a very odd feeling indeed. It wasn’t exact – the pedestrian bridge spanning the freeway wasn’t there, disappointingly given its claustrophobic feel, nor were the cafes on the pier present. The lifeguard’s huts were a bit abstracted, nor were the beachfront houses exact analogues. But they were accurate gestures towards the houses that are actually there. And given the experiential nature of this imagined city, the gestural approach, requiring a certain amount of closure from the player, generated a far more powerful feeling of being in two places at once and yet in neither.

You can check these photos of me in the game, hastily snapped from off the telly – apologies for the quality – and compare with photos I took of the real Santa Monica, a couple of months earlier. However, without the similar construction of memories and experiences around the photos, you may not feel the same spooky resonances I did. In-game ‘me’ at Santa Maria to the left; me at equivalent in Santa Monica to the right:

Santa Maria Pier Santa Monica Pier
Santa Maria Sign Santa Monica Sign
Santa Maria lifeguard hut Santa Monica lifeguard hut
Santa Maria beachfront, end house Santa Monica end house
Santa Maria beach front house Santa Monica beach front house

Perhaps this is even an example of where the real world encroached perhaps just a little too closely, counter to the gestural approach described above. Rockstar’s art director Aaron Garbut:

“Converting a real city into a game is restricting. As soon as you label something ‘real world’, people’s perception of it changes. I don’t think it’s possible to be completely immersed in a game if you’re constantly making comparisons.” [“Game of Life”, Blueprint, December 2004]

As mentioned previously, the fictional cities in GTA are a riot of architectural fakes and extrapolated reality. I’ve really only explored Los Santos (Los Angeles) thus far, but I’m still getting a real sense of the Los Angeles I briefly discovered over a couple of days there earlier this year. It’s a truism barely worth stating that Los Angeles is a city constructed from images entwined with fake histories, and as noted, the best book exploring this terrain would be Mike Davis’s City of Quartz (see also Celluloid Skyline, by James Sanders, on New York). And the best film would appear to not be Collateral or Chinatown or Heat, but Thom Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, a collage-like movie constructed of hundreds of unlicensed clips of LA on film, with a central premise outlined in this early part of the voiceover:

“If we can appreciate documentaries for their dramatic qualities, perhaps we can appreciate fictional films for their documentary revelations.”

I’m yet to see it [update: see comments below], but it’s on at London’s ICA at the moment. It’s also the subject of a fantastic piece in last week’s Guardian by John Patterson.

Finally on Los Angeles, I’m yet to find the doppelganger of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Wouldn’t it be a delicious irony that the computer-generated buildings that Gehry’s studio knocks out are the most difficult to render in computer-generated faux cities like Los Santos? Perhaps this why it isn’t there. The buildings in GTA are often complex, but not that complex. I managed to fire off a few photos of Gehry’s building, as the cold blue LA night began to drape downtown’s glowing skyscrapers.

[This, after an odd ‘Englishman-in-Los-Angeles’ afternoon of getting a bus from Santa Monica – yes, a bus, LA residents! The 50 dollar taxi fare downtown seemed a bit hefty – heading for downtown; the bus was quick, cheap and a good way to see the city; I was the only non-Latino/non-African American on the bus, until a couple of German tourists got on; getting lost as I didn’t know where to get off; ending up out past Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, walking – yes, walking, LA residents! – for some time back towards town; realised that LA was jolly large and distinctly non-European city in urban form, despite walking through an area which seemed to be 100% Russian in population; getting a taxi towards downtown, with a hugely entertaining and warm Iranian emigre cabbie (“So, how is my friend Mr Tony Blair?”, “Er…”) at a cost of 40 bucks; spending 15 minutes forcing the Walt Disney Concert Hall to twist and pose in response to my direction (like David Hemmings in Blow Up, with Gehry’s building played by the equally glacial and unresponsive Vanessa Redgrave); then back to Santa Monica with my new Iranian/American friend, at the cost of another 40 bucks. Ahem.]

Gehry’s building, as with the MIT Stata, seemed fabulous, complex, beautiful, and problematic in terms of integration with the surrounding environment. But this being downtown LA, integration with the surrounding environment is a problematic notion whatever the building. But I didn’t really have time to do anything other than fire off these photos. Couldn’t find a way to sneak in, as a concert seemed about to start and LA’s finest were stepping out of taxis around me, taking in a brief 1-minute inhalation of the outside world before entering another hermetically-sealed culturally-gated space.
[click thumbnails for full-size – full set].

Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA Close-up of skin, Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA Neon light sculpture on Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA

Below, some other quick snaps from that one day in LA. Last words to Michael Mann, who starts with an odd first sentence, given Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, but goes on to make a fascinating point about the topography of LA, as compared with the internet. I saw what he means when I was on that bus getting lost in LA. Most people don’t see LA. As Thom Anderson says: “Who knows Los Angeles best? … The people who walk. People who take the bus.” The 39 out of 40 LA residents who don’t work in the movies. There is a real Los Angeles buried underneath the weight of celluloid, and now digital, history. How ironic that Michael Mann, a filmmaker obsessed with surfaces, points it out:

“Los Angeles is relatively undiscovered as a location for pictures. It has its own pattern of culture which is almost like travelling on the internet – when you visit websites you journey through some kind of interstitial space and the domains are not contiguous. I think LA is the most exciting contemporary city in the United States, but you have to know where to go, and most Angelinos don’t.”

[click thumbnails for full-size – full set]

Graff, bridge over freeway next to Santa Monica beach Modernist house, Santa Monica beachfront Lifeguard's hut, Santa Monica beach Tide warning sign, Lifeguard's hut, Santa Monica beach Santa Monica beach Surf View Cafe sign, Santa Monica pier Postmodern houses, Santa Monica beachfront Sign above entrance to Santa Monica pier Sign for Al's Tire Supply, Santa Monica On the bus, Los Angeles "Jones". Signage, Los Angeles "Liquor". Signage, Los Angeles "Taxco Mexican Restaurant". Signage, Los Angeles "Nude". Signage, Los Angeles "Cleaners". Signage, Los Angeles Cleaners sign, Los Angeles Signage collision, Los Angeles "Emserve". Signage, Los Angeles

The Guardian: Ghost town (on Los Angeles Plays Itself)
Sight and Sound: It Happened One Night (on Collateral)
The Observer: Philip French reviews Los Angeles Plays Itself


17 responses to “Journal: Los Angeles: Grand Theft Reality”

  1. Alex Avatar

    Great post Dan – very interesting on the analogues between GTA’s LA and the real one – I’d assumed it was pretty much all made up. I’m really interested in how game makers twist reality in order to make a good game. And Rockstar really have with San Andreas. It’s such a powerful and layered representation of LA, proud and strong enough to assert its influences. A lot of it is shallow and little is truly original, but the sheer sprawling size of the game world and the fact you’ve never seen it represented in this medium before like this absoutely compensates.


  2. Dan Avatar

    (Thanks Alex!)
    So I took myself to see Los Angeles Plays Itself tonight. It’s showing at the ICA in London till mid-January 2005. Do go and see it if you can, as it’s absolutely fantastic . Completely brilliant. I’d love to get hold of the text, as there were some very wise things said about cities and the way we construct them. It’s a 3-hour (almost) collage of film clips (little of it licensed, I imagine, so this is one of the few chances to see it, I guess) ‘about’ Los Angeles, taking in popular film, radical cinema, black cinema, noir, SF etc., with a smart, witty, provocative, occasionally cranky, and wide-ranging voiceover … Kind of like Godard’s Histoire du Cinema, though not as densely layered – it’s more sequential collage, rather than montage … It’s a very individual view, not that there’s anything wrong with that – we need more of this! – and there’s some odd ommissions … But a film about a city formally constructed out of film itself? Brilliant.
    Some more info here, in addition to above links:
    Berkeley PFA: Los Angeles Plays Itself
    Reverse Shot: Bringing it Back: An interview with Thom Anderson
    Cinema-Scope: Collateral Damage: Los Angeles Continues Playing With Itself, by Thom Anderson


  3. ted mills Avatar

    Interesting post–I’m curious to play San Andreas for just this reason–and also interested in the linkage twixt Collateral and Thom Anderson’s film. (By his criteria, Anderson would approve of Mann’s quite faithful geography).
    I could imagine a future video game where satellite photography and pedestrian level documentation would combine to produce faithful cities to drive around and explore.
    To plug my own musings, which you are welcome to read, please see:


  4. Andrew Avatar

    Don’t know “Los Angeles Plays Itself”, but if you like this kind of thing it sounds a lot like the famous and wonderful Berlin:Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt (1927) and the also excellent remake of it Berlin: Sinfonie einer Grosstadt (2002). You might also like the urban construction-porn of Berlin Babylon (2001).
    All three of those, especially the first two, are little more than documentary footage of the everyday life of the city: bread being made, cars and people going here and there, people having coffee. They are also stunningly gorgeous and, in the first case, quite heartbreaking to see Berlin before its destruction in WWII.


  5. Timo Avatar

    Ted: I think much of what Dan is saying here is that games shouldn’t be based on real simulations of cities: much of the strength of San Andreas is the finely tuned game space, urban space as platform for gameplay, which wouldn’t work as effectively using real city space. I’ve played realistic simulations like The Getaway, and the experience is cold, strangely dislocating. Perhaps the creepiness we attribute to realistically simulated humans we also feel towards realistically simulated space…


  6. Blake Avatar

    Thanks for that post. Amazing stuff. For one, I loved the movie Collateral, though I never dug as deep as you (or Mann) has to strip down LA. Really, I loved the camera-work and acting. I loved the use of the digital medium, though you’ve pretty much summed up my take on why it looks so lovely. Also, being an avid gamer since I was 8 (I am now 24 and really don’t play much anymore) I can appreciate your talk on games like GTA which are edging ever-closer to reality. I don’t mean reality in the sense of our reality, but the notion of a game that plays out as though a real world is around you. The fact Rockstar has never tried to recreate their cities (such as GTA2 not being literally recreated to look like Miami – the city I live in) is a key ingredient to their success. Their heightened realities of certain cities lends itself to be that city, and yet not, so the player can still be in a world all his own. In terms of LA, I love your finale, describing LA as a vast source untapped. I guess LA isn’t all glitz and glam – it is grim and dirt that we haven’t seen yet, and I feel most people are more interested in that side of things.


  7. David Dear Avatar
    David Dear

    Great post. The talk about deja vu reminds me of an experience I had a few weeks back on my first trip to San Francisco. Exploring the city pretty much at random, I found myself approaching a fairly non-descript section of the waterfront when I was literally stopped in my tracks by a highly disorientating sense of deja vu. Standing there a few seconds I realised the reason it all seemed so familiar was because I’d played a similar enviornment in Tony Hawks Pro Skater 4 (the corner brought back painful memories of several hours trying to achieve a particularly difficult grind combo). I took some quick digital photographs and compared them when I got home – frustratingly though they don’t look quite as similar as they seemed at the time.


  8. rubber lazerband Avatar


    Great entry on the video game version of Los Angeles and the “real” Los Angeles over at City of Sound. Makes me want to make another trip down to that megalopolis to see if I can figure out what I…


  9. :: Links Avatar

    Los Angeles: Grand Theft Reality

    Los Angeles: Grand Theft Reality…


  10. M. Shagam Avatar
    M. Shagam

    I totally agree about the verisimilitude with the games. Having lived in Miami, I get the exact same feeling with GTA:Vice City. But if they tried to copy everything, there’d be something odd about it, “Stepford Wife”-ish. It’s interesting to think what kinds of architectures have the sense of place without the sense of creepiness, tawdryness, or “that’s not exactly perfect”. I swear that they directly copied the bridges down in Miami Beach – but those are locally generic, so they can be taken with the mere context, not the specific accident of location they find themselves in. It’s almost like trying to imagine someone else’s soul and what kind of qualities of personality it might have as opposed to trying to imagine their exact body and putting the qualities of personality on that.


  11. Randal L. Schwartz Avatar

    The spooky-reality of Los Santos (Los Angeles) continues throughout the game, into San Fiero (San Francisco) and Los Venturas (Las Vegas).
    In fact, as you’re driving around, it’s hard not to imagine yourself in each of the areas for real.
    And, while memorizing the map is handy, you’ll probably spend far more time doing that because you think you need it. Instead, concentrate on how to use the “map marker” most effectively, together with your in-car moving map display.
    GTA:SA is the “perfect” game for me, and is continuing to keep me occupied, even on those moments when I should be doing other things. Call me an addict, because I am.
    I’ve completed the entire mission sequence now twice (hint to everyone: save on multiple slots, because the game could eat your save!), and I’m now slowly working toward “100% completion”, which is requiring me to get very good at some competitions. Damn this game!


  12. Ashutosh Saxena Avatar

    Great post.
    Although, I was wondering how much effort goes into making these 3-D models for these games.
    Do they actually design these houses/environmets, or do they have some software that converts these images (e.g. a Villa in LA) into 3-D model to put into games.


  13. Dan Avatar

    Trackbacks sent to this post at the time (before I turned trackbacks off):

    » la from rubber lazerband
    Great entry on the video game version of Los Angeles and the “real” Los Angeles over at City of Sound. Makes me want to make another trip down to that megalopolis to see if I can figure out what I… [Read More]

    » Los Angeles: Grand Theft Reality from :: Links
    Los Angeles: Grand Theft Reality… [Read More]


  14. philip Avatar

    You’re absolutely right about Collateral. Plotting, dialogue and acting are nothing that special. But, visually, it’s astonishing. I’d like to see it on in HD (but, then, I’d have to go out and get an HDTV).
    An interesting paper could be written comparing/contrasting the L.A. of Collateral and the L.A. of Crash, or doing the same with those two films compared/contrasted with, say, the noir L.A. of The Big Sleep.
    Nice reading


  15. Andre Alvarenga Avatar
    Andre Alvarenga

    Very nice post. I would like to access the Dan Housers blueprint text that you talk about.
    I looked for it in Blueprints homepage, and it isn
    t there anymore.
    If you still have it in your backups, could you email it to me
    I really appreciate your help.
    Very thankfull,


  16. Aragond Avatar

    Thoughtful analysis of a medium few consider so seriously. Consider your site bookmarked


  17. Adrian Eden Avatar

    Nice post, happy 2009 !


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