Christopher Nolan’s movie INCEPTION is considered as one the greatest movies of all times. It explores a theory of dreams where a person can extract information from a subject’s mind by sharing a mutual dream with them. This procedure is taken further to a stage where a new idea can be planted in someone’s mind.

The film explores the concept of dream within a dream within another dream. Although this sounds unreal, Inception presents us a variety of environments that portray different levels of dreams. The team plants a small idea at the first level of dream, and build onto that idea at deeper levels of dreams to allow it to grow into the dreamer’s subconscious.

As it is important for the viewer to keep track of the different levels of dreams, each level is set in a different environment. Nolan has used architecture to differentiate between the changing environments. This film has used a number of special effects that have never been used before. Nolan’s aim was to shoot maximum scenes in reality and minimise the work of visual team. Computer graphics can be used to complete different scenes but Nolan tried his best to find real-world solution so that it can look more realistic to the viewers.




Inception’s basic inspiration comes from dreams. Nolan believes that in dreams there is a connection between imagination and creation. In dreams one can create anything if he can imagine that. Human’s mind has no limit of thinking and it is capable of creating and imagining things. Nolan’s ambition was to combine a number of genre like love story, action and science-fiction in one movie.

Since his childhood, Nolan was intrigued by the way he would wake up and then, while he fell back into a lighter sleep, still stay aware that he was in fact dreaming. He was even more fascinated by the feeling that he could study the place and tilt the events of the dream.

“You can look around and examine the details and pick up a handful of sand on the beach,” Nolan said. “I never particularly found a limit to that; that is to say, that while in that state your brain can fill in all that reality.” Nolan worked on the idea of management of a conscious dream as a skill that that someone can have. “And the only outlandish idea that the film presents, really, is the existence of a technology that allows you to enter and share the same dream as someone else”, he said. (1)

Nolan has been working on the idea of this film since 2002, when he envisioned it as a horror film. He realised that the film needed a really larger budget to produce the infinite feel that he wanted. After making Dark Knight, Nolan finally decided to make Inception.








The idea of making Inception arrived from 3 concepts. Dream telepathy is the ability to communicate with another person while dreaming. This theory can be unreal because there is no scientific evidence but some experiments have claimed to support this theory.

Some scientists believe that they can create any dream before it is seen. In other words, dreamer can choose his dream, e.g. by focusing attention on a particular topic or highlighting it before sleeping. This technique is known as Dream Incubation.

Nolan also takes the concept of Lucid Dreaming — a dream where the person is aware that they’re dreaming and may manipulate the dream.



We will look at the changes of different environments during the movie. Inception’s storyline containing different levels of dreams was interesting for the viewers, but on the other hand it had the potential to be extremely confusing for them. The storyline was also confusing for the producers of the movie too. As the director and writer of the movie, Nolan did not want to change the storyline to make it easier to understand. He convinced the producers that the movie will be easier to understand when every dream level is shown in a completely different environment. By presenting every dream levels in a different environment, the viewers will be clear about where they are in the movie.

Each environment was filmed in a different location to make them look different. Before directing this movie, Nolan visited a variety of location and took photographs. He then processed the images in Photoshop to visualise the type of environment he wants to create.

Ariadne, an Architect in the movie, plays a very important role of creating environments and designing new infrastructure. Ariadne gains confidence and learns to play with the structures of the landscape and different buildings in the dreamspace. While trying her new experiences of changing environments, she creates interesting mazes and bridges by her imaginations which fascinate the client.

It was important to hire a skilled architect so that she can construct different secure mazes and safe for the client where secrets can be hidden.

The directors have used a different colour palette for each environment to differentiate every dream level. This is a critical design decision which allows the viewers to keep track of each dream level. We will explore this further by looking into the design of each environment.

Although every dream environment was given a different look, Nolan wanted the dream worlds to have the feeling of reality. This is one of the main reasons Nolan wanted to use natural filming and avoid computer graphics, as he feels that computer graphics can not provide the same level of realistic scenes.




The film explores the concept of Paradoxical Architecture. The architect is the designer of the dream space similar to how a video game designer would design a game level. The architect can design different levels of dreams, including all the aesthetic and other details. The subject is brought into that dream space and fills it with details from their own subconscious and memories.

As the architect does not have to take care of real world physics, it allows them to create paradoxes like an endless staircase. Use of such paradoxes will allow the architect to create a feeling of infinite world in their dream levels. The architect will use mazes, closed loops and other tricks to create an impression of an infinite world for the dreamers.

Nolan was inspired by M C Esher’s work on Penrose Stairs. The concept of Paradoxical Architecture was demonstrated in the movie by the use of Penrose Stairs.

In order to make such a staircase in real, they worked on different handmade models. They had to create an illusion for the viewers as  this is something which can’t be built in the real world. The staircase was built in such a way that if you view them from one angle, the top most layer winds up with the bottom most layer of the staircase. They had to shoot from a particular angle to give the impression that these were Penrose Stairs.

“It’s the chance to build cathedrals, entire cities, things that never existed. Things that couldn’t exist in the real world.” says Don.




The film has a number of environments in which the first environment is where no one is dreaming. Further environments are created in the movie where characters are dreaming and are away from the real world.

The scenes for this environment are shot in London, Paris and Morocco. The shootings in Morocco is shown to be the Kenyan city of Mombasa. Some scenes have been shot in the United Kingdom, which include the use of University College London’s campus.

An important scene from Environment 1 was the scene in the aeroplane cabin during the flight from Sydney to Los Angeles. This is where the characters start their dream which leads them into other environments.



As soon as we enter the first layer of dream, the film’s main action starts off and viewers are given an adrenaline rush.

For this level of dream, Nolan wanted to create a high speed car chase scene in a busy city environment on a heavy rainy day. Nolan found Los Angeles as the most suitable location for this setup which in fact showed New York City. Los Angeles was ideal for a high-speed car chase in a busy environment but the weather during summer days is always sunny and bright with no rain.

Therefore artificial rain pipes were installed during the direction. It is always a very difficult thing to provide artificial rain and specially when the area of shooting is huge as in this case.

The other challenge was the lighting lighting for this rainy scene because LA is very sunny in Summers. Large black screens were placed to block direct sunlight for these scene. This helped in creating a particular environment that was needed for this level of dream.

The characters start another dream when they are in a van and there is a van chase scene for the most part of this level. Towards the end, the van eventually jumps off a bridge and falls into the water.

The whole environment is given a gun-metal grey colour which gives it a distinctive look for the viewers. This allows the viewers to remember the environment when they are brought back to this level of dream.





In this level of dream, the characters are inside a hotel where we see the hotel’s lobby, corridor and rooms. It is shown to be completely indoor and therefore is easier to identify and differentiate from the other environments.

Dream environments are connected in a certain way and each layer is affected by the actions in the previous layer of dream. For example, the movements of van in the previous layer have an effect on the gravity in this layer. When the van tilts, the direction of gravity in the hotel changes. Similarly, when the van falls off the bridge and is free-falling, this results in zero-gravity in the hotel environment.

These require two different types of scenes; one where the direction of gravity changes and the other with zero gravity. Traditionally, this could possibly be achieved with a combination of different camera angles, fast-cutting takes and clever camera movements combined with post-processing through computer graphics, but Nolan approached the gravity issue differently.

Changing Gravity

To create the scenes with changing gravity, a rotating corridor was built. It took months to create such a huge structure supported by a number of steel rings which was rotated using electric motors. As the whole set was revolving, the surrounding furniture, lighting and camera had to be fixed

permanently so that they remain in their location during the rotation of the corridor. The camera was also fixed to the floor so that people are seen revolving within the corridor.

Zero Gravity

In order to show zero gravity in the movie, a vertical corridor was built. This was identical to the other corridor but was placed vertically this time. The actors were tied up with harnesses and strings to look like they are moving in the air. They were slowly dropped from the top using strings which gave their movement an impression of zero gravity.

Before these sets were made, small 3D models of the corridors and rooms were built.

Some unusual gravity was seen in the bar scene as well. To give the impression of changing gravity, a bar was built on a steel structure which acted as a see-saw that tilted to around 25 degrees each way. The effect was to create a bar where gravity was changing and it created a great effect where water level in the glasses can be seen to change directions. These changing gravity and zero gravity scenes  catch a lot of viewer’s attention.

The lighting and the overall environment of the 2nd level of dream was set in a warm orange colour. The corridors as well as the interior of the rooms reflect the orange colour. It made this environment different from other environments and allow people to remember when they are brought back to this level of dream.




The snow fortress in the third level of dream was constructed at the Fortress Mountain ski resort in Alberta, Canada. Nolan said that this environment was inspired by the James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969).


Nolan had imagined this environment to be covered in snow. There was no snow in the area until two days before the shooting began, when a snowstorm started. A miniature model of the snow fortress itself was shown blowing up at the climax of the film.

The color palette for this environment was monochromatic – vividly white and gray. The weather in this environment was completely different than the other environments as everything was covered in snow. This gave this environment a completely distinctive look for the viewers which made them realize about the situation in this level of dream.

A key moment of the film is shot in this level where Fischer opens the safe and his father is lying in bed – this is where actual Inception takes place. Although we can see that the tone changes here as the setting becomes surreal, but the color palette stays the same.



Limbo city is the final dream space a character visits. This environment was built to be very different from the others because limbo is shown as a place far away from reality. It can get difficult for the characters in the limbo to distinguish reality from a dream. They get lost in the dream and after some time they may start to think of it as reality.

In the start of the final environment, we can see some great buildings of late 1920s taking strong inspiration from a typical Le Corbusier style. Le Corbusier was normally famous for modern-style buildings at that time. Right next to these buildings we can see infrastructures from 1950s and 60s which are slowly converting into the futuristic energy-efficient buildings of modern era. Architecture in the limbo city looks like a never-ending area which starts from the damaged buildings and moves towards the future modern buildings. Limbo city has a unique mix of architecture and it varies from century old buildings to newly built modern buildings.

Damaged buildings can be seen in the limbo city which was actually shot in Morocco. On Nolan’s visit to Morocco, the residential towers of similar height in a straight line inspired him. They used the actual residential buildings but changed them into damaged buildings through visual effects. It was Nolan’s vision to show modern structures but with pieces of it breaking off into the water like icebergs. It ended up with something that was similar to an iceberg version of Gotham City and water was added between the buildings.




Cafe Explosions

A very interesting cafe scene was shot in the middle of Paris. Here again, Nolan wanted to shoot maximum real scene and minimise the computer effects. Small mini-explosions were set to create a realistic scene. Visual effects were used to add more destruction and damage but that was kept to a minimum.

Bending City

Another interesting scene was set in Paris where the city is shown to be bent. The actors walk on a rotating set and the rest of it is completed with the use of computer graphics.




As we have seen, the director has extensively used architecture to create distinctive worlds. He recognises that giving a different feel to each environment was essential to support a complex storyline of this movie. We have seen that these frequent changes in environment do not confuse the viewers and the use of a variety of environments turns out to be very useful.