On Top of the Sears Tower

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To set the scene – let me start by saying I used to build the “Sears Tower” out of blocks with my grandma when I was very little. The challenge was always to get the antennae to stay on without knocking everything over. Strangely – I had a similar challenge when shooting video on top of the Sears Tower – how to get the antennas in the frame without falling off the building. It turns out that these antennas that you can see from 25 miles in any direction and on a clear day – from across the lake on the shore of Michigan. These very things that you cannot – not see – I was at the very place where they may be most difficult to show – together, namely the roof of the Willis* “Sears” Tower.

This video shoot was the fifth in a series of 10 buildings I have had the privilege of shooting for the Chicago Architecture Foundation. I’ve been working as Director of Photography for Zero One Projects on an ambitious project – a web series called Skyline Stories that will showcase the 10 most iconic buildings in Chicago. Each building is profiled with 4 video pieces, bringing the total number of videos created by Zero One and CAF during the spring and summer.

When CAF informed us that not only was the Willis Tower was offering us the holy grail of sites – the top roof of the tower – I was confounded. My initial joyful reaction was based on the excitement of being on this legendary pinnacle of the city and the world, really. But it also brought up a complex and odd mix of emotions and unknown expectations.

Emotionally – I felt that I, as many, have a strong emotional connection to this site, a building that is a symbol of the city that I love. When I return from traveling as soon as I see this tower its like a beacon that welcomes me home. It is so iconic that nearly every representation of Chicago I can think of utilizes its form.

Logistically – I couldn’t even imagine what the hell is up there or what I could expect to shoot. I’ve looked at those antennae nearly all of my life, but to judge their scale and mass from any perspective is nearly impossible. The tower itself looks completely different from every angle, how could it be possible to contextualize the top. I went to Google Earth to have a look, their recreation of the building is every bit a cartoon. It did show me a general lay of the land up there, but an above view from the top angle shows that the giant antennae are hollow and they go through the entirety of the building. Who would have thought – massive fictional open air atrium descending 108 stories :).

Day 1 – June 4, 2014
I anticipated rain and we received it in torrents. We arrived to the Willis Tower a crew of 5 – myself with the curator of digital exhibition projects from CAF, producer Nat Soti, Sound Mixer Robert Aguilar, and Camera Assistant Reggie Dyson. We were received by Brian who seemed like a very affable secret service agent with an earpiece and an appeasing demeanor, he told us we would start on the 90th floor roof. There was a single freight elevator with an operator in the center of the building. He sat on a chair and poked the floor buttons with a sawed off broom stick. The elevator took us up to the 90th floor in about 4 minutes. On arriving at 90 we could hear the rain hitting the building Brian opened what seemed to be a large steel garage door – all we could see was white with rain flying in. I finished assembling my camera rig and then joined Robert who excited to be there and already out in the strange misty rain. Yes, it was basically like being inside a rain cloud and we probably were. However, there was still some visibility, especially interesting was the ghostly view of the John Hancock. I was quickly getting soaked and returned inside after posing for what I’m sure was a horrible picture. We did shoot the door opening and closing on the rain cloud for documentation.

It was decided that we’d need to reschedule, we moved to the 108th floor to survey it for a potential shoot the next day. I believe we got off the elevator at the 106th floor to the rushing sound of what I’ve been told is a water cooling system and a large gray industrial-like area with narrow steel passages that somehow reminded me of being under the bleachers at my high school’s football field. Most everything seemed to be covered in gray dust and the slight untidiness testified to the fact that we were in passing through the guts of the building. We were led up two stories in a smallish nondescript emergency exit style stairway to what this time appeared to be a janitorial work area, smaller than the last and with the large automatic window washing machine parked in front of another garage door within this area I could see a round room with a hatch – what I would later note was the base of the largest west antennae.

Prior to this, every time Brian opened a door I anticipated seeing a majestic view of the city – we would usually just see a stairwell or walkway. When the door to the roof on the 108th floor was opened we could only see an 8 foot circular grate raised from the floor and a milky white sky. We all walked out and took in whatever views we could and I immediately tried to size up what would be interesting to shoot. I started walking around snapping phone photos for reference and almost immediately paid no mind to the surroundings – our main point of our story was to be the antennas so I really had to size up how to find a good shot of them on the roof. The main edge of the roof is composed of an auto-window washer track roughly 3 feet off the ground. I searched for a good vantage point to try to get both antennae in the video frame together. I realized immediately that having that between the track in the way cropped view from the fairly wide iPhone camera – this would be a difficult task. I went as far back as I could to take a photo. Later I put together that I had my back turned on the ledge 108 stories up with no fence – oops. That single moment of obliviousness seemed to become the standard for the rest of my time on the roof, I would need to be so focused on the task at hand that the height and views would generally be lost on me.

The rest of Day 1 was spent shooting the interview in the atrium with Randy Stancik about the roof, the antennae, The Ledge, and The Skydeck. We also did 2 time-lapses of foot traffic within the atrium and a number of crane-type shots with a jib arm of the simple and giant Calder kinetic sculptures in the lobby. An early wrap made for a good excuse to have lunch at The Berghoff to discuss the strange adventure we had that day. We received confirmation that we could do our exterior reshoots the next day, and there was much anticipation.

Day 2 – June 2, 2014
My day started with a blue sky and stayed that way throughout. I can see the Willis Tower from my balcony albeit 2 miles in the distance, the first thing that I did that morning was take a look at it – in the context of the sky. Perfect weather, blue sky as far as the eye could see. We began at 8, escorted by Brian again. This time I did take notice that he was announcing our destination in his discrete security headset and asking for entrance at each door. We began at floor 90 once again. This time one of the first things I noticed were the pair of large garden boxes on top of the roof – they contained what looked like prairie flowers. It turned out that they were placed there, as an experiment to see if a green roof would be feasible. They were watered only for the first week and have been thriving ever since.

Although I had been told on both occasions that the views on the 90th floor were the best, I was mostly there to try to get a shot of the antennas with the top of the building for context. The view at the 90th floor roof was definitely stunning and the sun was intense. The top of the building itself from the east is fairly underwhelming – the majestic top tier of the tower is appears somewhat comical first hand. It looks like a truncated version of itself with a single, centered antenna jutting out.

Jerry from the building management gave a firm warning about crossing the first rail without a harness and that he’d be happy to give us some. It had come up that this was the section that Christian Bale had either defied authority and went rogue suiting up as Batman for a shot in the Dark Night, leaving a stunt double in the cold (or alternately wouldn’t commit to stand on the roof until he weighed the potential for danger first hand). Another unique thing about the 90th floor – this is where 3 of the four top sections of the building end – there are actually 3 roofs each jetting from a single direction of the building. Two of them are almost entirely covered with lightning rods. As we left the 90th floor I was asked by Jerry if I’d like a harness to bring up to the 108th floor, I originally declined thinking that I’d rather stay away from the edge of the building. I then remembered that every inch of space would count for trying to get the antennae into frame, I’d actually have to get as close to the edge as possible to shoot them – so I requested the harness.

Back on the 108th floor we were greeted with an open garage door when entering the interior janitorial area. There is something very odd about a garage that opens to a full blue sky – it looks like a giant cyan color chip. It turns out the automatic window washer was starting a day of hard work early, it was already out on its track at the edge of the roof. After a cursory look around it was suggested that we view the auto washer in action to see if it would make an interesting subject. This was the point in the day that I had an actual moment of fear. I was instructed to walk up a few steps onto the auto window washer that was perched on the ledge. walking up to look over the side blew my mind – I had to do a double take, as soon as I got my composure the machine switched gears to begin raising the wash mechanism. The unknown noise and vibration of the machine I was standing on put the fear in me, I could feel it in a wave within my body – from my chest to me feet. I turned around yet held my ground not knowing if I should jump off of the machine – I looked to our escorts for a clue. They explained that it was the gears shifting as the wash cycle was beginning. I took one more cursory look and walked off the machine and over to my slider-mounted camera for comfort.

At first I surveyed how to show the lake in frame with the extreme morning sun coming from the east. I decided it would be best to mostly shoot from east to west instead. I dug in to trying frame up the antennae without getting too close to the edge. I even put my camera between the tracks and tried to operate from the other side. I needed to be on the edge to get my shots and had to request the harness. I removed my coat for the and noticed a spider on it. I had seen some spider webs but assumed there was one spider somewhere. As I got nearer to the edge there seemed to be spiders and spiderwebs in every section. Yes 108 stories up – and a spider colony. As I moved closer to them – they would move also. When I placed my tripod on the corner of the building I had to use it to brush the webs out of the way first. I became a big disruption to their habitat, and it made me wonder if there was reason they were there. Were they originally inside the building way back during construction and made their way from the inside to the outside over generations? Were they deposited by birds, were they marooned there as if it were an island in the sky? I asked Jerry if he know what type of spider they were. Unfortunately no he did not.

I began to set up to shoot some video of the spiders, finding it an interesting subject. I caught myself being distracted from the task at hand. It is pretty funny to think that here I am above Chicago, with sweeping, epic views in all directions and sure enough I want to shoot some of the smallest and most common things around. I still think there may be an interesting story about this particular urban wildlife – I’m thinking “Arachnids in the Mist” or “442 Meters, 8 Legs”.

As I was shooting, Reggie set up the jib, we elected to go with the smaller Kessler Traveller crane for ease of transport. It was easy enough to fit it within the tracks, and with myself freshly harnessed we were good to go. We triple checked any moveable elements and harnessed the jib to the rails as well. I remember hearing as a child that if you were to drop a penny from the top of the Sears Tower it would embed 3 inches into the ground. I also remember hearing that it would go straight through a person. I can’t image what the camera camera would do – best not to find out. We worked out some sweeping shots of the south view to the top of the tower and even worked the tilt over the edge. Two of us working the crane on the ledge turned out to be a real challenge, as well as leveling the camera from A to B positions. The rooftop itself wasn’t exactly level and had a few patches and seams that we needed to try to settle around. At some point I realized I’d have to begin recording with the camera over the edge, an interesting moment. In all we set up about 12 shots, and a number of panoramas in the 2 hours on the roof with a mix of jib and slider movements.

I’ve considered my thought mechanics for surveying the scenes from up there. I first used the vantage point to view some of the other buildings on our shooting schedule – especially the Chicago Board of Trade. I was then drawn to the large buildings that I had not taken a closer look at before. Most of the rest of the views I took in were so overwhelming and impossible to process while still keeping my mind on the shoot. The view was really the ultimate distraction, and I would catch myself staring at any random point that I would either recognize or not and then remind myself to pay attention to the shot I was on. There is something about viewing the city from this vantage point that is even more striking than the height. I think it is the expanse of a built environment, it spills out in all directions. Looking westward it is like a giant mess of concrete blocks that change to gravel and then sand. To the east the landscape is abruptly interrupted by Lake Michigan, the feeling though is that the lake is keeping construction at bay and it made me wonder if the lake will ever be built upon too.

After leaving the 108th floor we moved down to the 103rd floor Skydeck through what they have branded as the VIP entrance (woo-hoo). The beautiful weather brought out a multitude of visitors and the bustling Skydeck was an interesting contrast to the industrial solitude of the roof. We shot multiple time-lapses from The Ledge – the four glass window boxes that protrude 1 meter out from the building. The Ledge itself is an interesting feature in that you have to stand on the glass and can look 103 stories straight down. We finished the day at the Willis Tower with time-lapses of each entrance to the building and framing up the building from each corner.

Day 3 – July 3, 2014
We returned to document the coloring of the roof lights for the Fourth of July. There are quite a few holidays in which the lights upon the tower are festively colored. This excursion to the roof was unique as we were conducting interviews with the engineers that install the colored gels. It was interesting to be up there and gain insight from their perspective. I noticed as they worked up there that their experience seemed to be much like my working experience – being mindful of your surroundings while not being too distracted or overwhelmed by the epic view.

To shoot this we followed them from light to light. When it seemed their job was done they offered to join them on the upper level – the top of the top. I tried not to hesitate and climbed up the caged ladder with my camera with much one handed difficulty. This time I had brought a near fisheye zoom to be certain to get the antennas from any vantage point and it worked well up there. This roof section was actually the top of the maintenance garage. It was covered with a giant mess of lightning rods and smaller antennas. A very chaotic sight that kicked up the oddity level a few notches. You actually had to watch every step – it was a virtual minefield of vertical objects and support frames.

Day three was a great success and, currently, my last experience on the top of the Sears Tower. As being a Chicago based Director of Photography – shooting on the roof of the Sears Tower was a great pinnacle to my career (pun intended).

[*Most Chicagoans will forever call this building the Sears Tower, myself included. However for the sake of this job I did refer to it by its more recent, official name “Willis Tower” mostly for technical reasons, but also so I wouldn’t seem stubborn or crass.]
Additional Photos by Reginald Dyson, Nat Soti, and Anjuli Maniam