Using film as research method for students to creatively explore Hong Kong’s urban spaces – Nikolas Ettel

(Title image credit: Federico Fellini, 8 1/2, 1963.)

The art of motion picture is a fascinating medium. Derived from the Greek word κίνημα, cinema describes movement, as films fundamentally move twenty-four images per second, while the stories they convey emotionally move us. Beyond the common feature of films as entertainment, they can also be seen as narrative libraries. Personally, I have started early to integrate my fascination of storytelling into my architectural studies. Undoubtedly, film and architecture are two disciplines dealing with the realization of an idea. As long as an architectural idea is not built, it exists in the architects’ mind. This idea can be visualised by various tools, yet it exists merely as a narrative. What follows is my attempt to discuss films as a creative research method in order to experiment with students the productive interplay of filmmaking and their architectural studies. Driven by students’ short films, this method creates new grounds for discussions on everyday urban life while enhancing our understanding of existing ones. The aim here is to focus attention on works of quality to elaborate on the creative potential of cinematic studies in higher education. Here, students learn visual communication skills by experimenting with short films in order to interpret their daily urban environment, and find inspiration through classic films.

The similarities and differences between film and architecture have been long investigated, and famously brought to a wider public by Maggie Toy’s edited volume Architectural Design ‘Architecture & Film’ in the early nineties’. This ‘Architecture & Film’ edition invited scholars to contemplate on both disciplines, such as Murray Grigor’s paper ‘Space in Time; Filming Architecture’, which focuses on the aspects of time and space, and how different techniques help the act of storytelling. His essay starts that ‘[a]t its best, architecture is a celebration of space. Cinema, on the other hand, as Jimmy Stewart so well put it, gives people ‘tiny pieces of time’” (Grigor, 1994).

Furthermore, François Penz’s paper ‘Cinema and Architecture; Overlaps and Counterpoints: Studio-Made Features in the Film Industry and Studio-Based Experiments in Architectural Education’ investigates the implication of films in education and focuses on student work dealing with the cinematic aspects of architecture. Here, students from the Department of Architecture at the University of Cambridge experiment with different visualizations of story lines through film, video and physical models in order to represent ‘spaces, streets, cities, not yet built.… This world of illusion is, of course, even more poignant in the world of architectural education where architect students very rarely get the chance of seeing one of their projects built’ (Penz, 1994). Given the fact that this edition was published in the early 90’s, Penz’s paper concludes on the new craft of digital illusion, to contemplate about the emergent changes and possibilities of computer-animated design, and the possible implication on both disciplines. A quarter-century later, it can be argued that architectural students are nowadays completely immersed by computer-animated design tools, so much that it became their second language. Given the recent amount of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) in films during the last decade, this argument can be easily made for today’s film industry as well. Taken Mark Kermode’s argument about Disney’s new adaption of The Lion King; in which they were ‘… using cutting-edge technology to create something that looks absolutely real while remaining absolutely unreal…. I’m still not sure what the point of it all is, but it does offer a vision of a future in which the traditional distinctions between live action and animation have dissolved into nothingness.’ (Kermode, 2019)

Digital tools allow us for a further step into the world of ‘architectural essay films’. The architectural essay film, a term established by Penelope Haralambidou in arq (2015) tries to establish a new form of storytelling, ‘a genre between architectural design and filmmaking, theory and practice’.(Haralambidou, 2015, p.234). By defining this sub-genre, she explores the cinematic potentials of architecture through student work of her design Unit 24 (Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, 2017). In her unit, students have the existing possibility to learn to communicate and visualize spatial ideas in the form of films and animations.

This article will further focus on three student film projects – The Hong Kong Appetite by Mikhail Frantsuzov (2019), Day on Uber by Chak Leona Ka Yan; Fung Tsz Yan; Lam Yun Him; and Yip Tsun Yin (2019), and Cocoon by Sigo Li Xuechen; Huang Lei; and Luo Lan (2019). All these short film experiments reflect on a given director’s work discussed in the Elective course ARCH7162 – Architecture & Memory in the Department of Architecture. Through this exercise, students are asked to analyse given films, in this order The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover by Peter Greenaway (1989), Jim Jarmush’s Night on Earth (1991), and Paterson (2016). All three examples relate to a specific aspect, idea or mode of storytelling while transferring these international acclaimed films into a discussion on Hong Kong. The first example, Mikhail’s Hong Kong Appetite plays in a back alley in Central where he re-shot Peter Greenaway’s famous dining scene with HKU students as actors and local street food. Mikhail’s main sequence, a long continues shot, spans from a green-lit Dai Pai Dong, towards a red-lit dining table, while following the main protagonist into the white-lit toilet area; all to discuss the consumerist mind-set of Hong Kong’s wealthy society. Additionally, the act of re-shooting in this location refers to the undefined spaces of Hong Kong’s back alleys. By the act of defining spaces through distinctive colours, a discussion on the undefined nature of back alleys is triggered. Spaces such as a back alley in Hong Kong are used, yet often not clearly defined. Cinematically, The Hong Kong Appetite shows non-existing boundaries as the line between public and private space in a back alley is blurred.

The second example represents Hong Kong’s characteristics through a taxi drive. Referring to ‘Night on Earth’ which depicts particular taxi ride conversations in various cities in order to reflect on, mostly clichéd, aspects of territorial specificities. By following a discussion of Hong Kong born students, this student played Uber car ride turns into a reflection on chosen issues and anxieties of Hong Kong’s citizens.

Last example follows a known DJ over the period of a week, to reflect on Paterson’s issue of circular time and the appreciation of insignificant moments in daily life. Here, the closing doors of the MTR line and the well-known peeping sounds give the rhythm of the actor’s life routine. This exercise, then, provides students with a critical toolkit to understand, analyse, and re-create specific films into their own interpretation while experimenting with different forms of cinematic techniques.

Conclusively, my aim was not to focus on the distinction between the disciplines of film and architecture, but rather to use student short film experiments to go beyond the common appreciation of motion pictures, while using it as research method for their urban studies. This leads to appreciate films as a source of inspiration. Here, films are seen as narrative libraries, which can be creatively used by students to reflect on and transform the way they see everyday life in a city like Hong Kong. Therefore, this course tries to value the aspects of storytelling not limited to a single discipline, but to see space and time as potential fields of interdisciplinary teaching, a field of teaching in higher education worth exploring to be a framework for creative discussions in collaboration with students.

'Hong Kong Appetit' by Mikhail Frantsuzov, 2019.​
‘Hong Kong Appetit’ by Mikhail Frantsuzov, 2019.​

'Hong Kong Appetit' by Mikhail Frantsuzov, 2019.​
‘Hong Kong Appetit’ by Mikhail Frantsuzov, 2019.​

'Day On Uber' by Chak Leona Ka Yan; Fung Tsz Yan; Lam Yun Him; Yip Tsun Yin, 2019.​
‘Day On Uber’ by Chak Leona Ka Yan; Fung Tsz Yan; Lam Yun Him; Yip Tsun Yin, 2019.

'Cocoon' by Sigo Li Xuechen; Huang Lei; and Luo Lan, 2019.​
‘Cocoon’ by Sigo Li Xuechen; Huang Lei; and Luo Lan, 2019.


  • Grigor, M. (1994). Space in time: Filming architecture. Architectural Design, 64(11-12), 17-21.
  • Penz, F. (1994). Cinema and architecture: Overlaps and counterpoints: Studio-made features in the film industry and studio-based experiments in architectural education. Architectural Design, 64(11-12), 38-41.
  • Kermode, M. (2019). The Lion King Review – Resplendent but Pointless. Retrieved from:
  • Haralambidou, P. (2015). The architectural essay film, arq – Architectural Research Quarterly, 19(3), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL (2017). Bartlett Design Anthology, Retrieved from:
Nikolas Ettel
Nikolas Ettel

Faculty of Architecture
The University of Hong Kong
Please cite as: Ettel, N. (2019, Oct). Using film as research method for students to creatively explore Hong Kong’s urban spaces. Teaching and Learning Connections, 10. Retrieved from

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