Architectural Visualisation – From Drawing to 3D to Printed Page

There is perhaps the misconception that architectural visualisation is something of a dark art when in fact it is not; as a result this article intends to inform of the ways and means that the discipline brings two-dimensional drawings to life.

The process of creating a finished 3D rendering is much the same as its reason for being in that it is a communication-driven dialogue between all parties who have an interest in the final product. Sometimes it is left in the hands of a single body and at others it is a cross-discipline exercise.

The very first plank with which to create a successful rendered image is a drawing. More often that not these take the form of digital files from applications such as AutoCAD or MicroStation and contain a vast amount of technical data which is of little relevance to the visualiser; the first task therefore is to remove the information that will have no influence on the final model(s), thus making the drawing a simplified version of its original self.

Before we move on to the next stages it should be clarified that whilst digital files are commonplace in this day and age, it is by no means a statutory requirement; indeed, a visualiser should be able to work from hand-drawn plans using a scale ruler or even sketches supplied by the client, the latter being where important aspects of dialogue takes place as it is through this conversation and interrogation that specific and important details are revealed.

Returning to the assumed path of supplied digital file and its simplification, the next step is to bring the file into the modelling software. Most commonly this will be 3D Studio Max (also called 3DS Max, Max and Studio Max) but other applications such as Cinema4D and Maya proliferate.

Tangential to this, it should be noted that clients are also supplying visualisers with digital models to supplement or replacement a drawing. Products such as Google SketchUp have simplified this process and it is now the option of choice for a number of practices and studios. Perhaps the only drawback of this is an ‘unclean’ model whereby what appears acceptable to the naked eye is in fact a mass of broken and co-planar (two separate planes of geometry sharing the same three-dimensional space) faces which require tidying up or, in a worst case scenario, complete remodelling which sadly obviates the usefulness of their original submission.

Returning to bringing the file into the modelling software, if the visualiser is using 3DS Max then the file will often be imported and then placed in its own layer which is frozen so as to protect it from inadvertent modification or editing. Thereafter the visualiser will begin to create all the elements required to complete the shot, perhaps by tracing the drawing and extruding to the desired thickness or by starting with a flat plane and manipulating it to suit – modelling techniques are myriad it has to be said.

When the basic model is completed – the principals described above applying to all elements of the scene – cameras and lighting will be added and the project will begin to become rationalised. This process will involve drafts of the image rendered at low resolution and also at lower quality than will be used for the final image; at this stage the most important aspects are to resolve the camera and lighting positions, nothing more.

This development brings us quite neatly to the rendering engine: a rendering engine is the software which is used to create the final visualisation. VRay is one, if not the most, common product although others such as Mental Ray, Brazil and Maxwell are used, along with several others – each has its own advantages and niche and for the purpose  Okinawa Flat Belly Tonic  of this article we will be using VRay as our example.

The rendering engine uses mathematical algorithms to calculate how light and materials interact with one another. The visualiser can have a direct effect on the quality of the calculation by way of increasing or decreasing a number of settings related to how seriously the renderer will interrogate the scene – in short, lower settings give a broad-brush overview which will not pick up detail whilst higher settings will use a much finer brush to pick up each and every nuance, albeit at the cost of rendering time.

Going back to the set-up of the scene in preparation for the next step, this is where one of the most important stages of dialogue occurs. Prior to this point the visualiser has been able to work relatively remotely, on the assumption that the package of drawings and/or models is suitably comprehensive. However, now is the point where the client or clients become involved and comment on their vision for the finished shot and how that relates to the sample(s) provided so far. It is not a one-way street though – the visualiser will offer comment on what is achievable and the ramifications of pressing too far with a specific demand for instance. This segment of the process may take a number of iterations until a mutually-agreeable position is found but it is undoubtedly a vital part of the project.

Once the camera and lighting have been fixed the visualiser will then progress to texturing the model. Texturing, put simply, is the application of image files to specific areas which imitate the actual physical finish. These files may be based on resource photographs of the actual material or be purely digital files which have been created using a reference. More often than not it is actually a combination of the two; this is because a reference photograph will ’tile’ – the same detail repeated over and over again throughout the scene and therefore belying its origins – and it is one of the visualiser’s greatest tasks to eradicate that occurrence in order to make the texture appear seamless.

As we have touched on, textures can comprise many sources, be that a direct referential photograph, an entirely digital interpretation or a combination of the two. There are a number of different ways to produce textures, with the three mentioned above often carried out in an image editing application such as Photoshop, whilst there are also specific applications to create textures such as large-scale versions of bricks. The visualiser will always use the most appropriate, accurate and efficient tool for the job.

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