Monday, 23 May 2011

Telling the Story

When I took part in Autodesk's Superuser Tour of Southeast Asia and Australia in 2009 the other speakers on the tour were Chris Ruffo, Senior Design Visualisation Industry Manager Media & Entertainment (now there's a catchy job title!) and Nicolas Aithadi, Visual Effects Supervisor at Moving Picture Company (MPC) in Soho. Their presentations had quite an affect on me.

Chris was presenting his view of the future, suggesting that the days of gaining an edge with an impressive image were numbered (as discussed in my previous blog) and that the direction industry leaders were taking was to create short movies to tell the story. Chris was careful to distinguish between a standard fly-through, as so many of us have created in the past, and a carefully directed piece produced by cutting a series sequences edited together.

Nic's presentation was perhaps somewhat more dramatic and 'sexy'. MPC are responsible for many well known Hollywood effects including sequences from James Bond, GI Joe, The Watchmen, and Harry Potter. Indeed as we spent much of our time together on planes during the tour I had the chance to see some of the pre-vis work for the "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" which Nic was working on at the time. Much of Nic's presentation focussed on how they like to blow things up (because it's cool!) but the meat of it explained how individual sequences are built up - from the moment of pitching for the work to the final cut. I was struck not only by the number of people involved and the complexity of the process but also by the parallels with the design process in architecture - the main difference seeming to be the scale of budget, resource, and number of different focussed specialisms involved. However, what interested me most was the opportunity between events to learn more about the tips and tricks of Hollywood production, including the basics of how to direct cuts between scenes smoothly.

On returning to the UK I felt keen to apply some of Nic and Chris's ideas and workflows into some of my own work. My first attempt combined sequences of a Revit model for a proposal for a leisure centre on the coast in North East England with footage of swimmers, canoeists, and someone sliding down a water flue taken from YouTube in order to try to capture some of the fun element of the building proposed. The opening sequence included some dramatic footage of the north sea at night with the building slowly appearing in the background through rolling fog. Due to potential copyright issues I don't feel able to post this one in full but a still from the opening shot is shown at the bottom of my first blog, "The Beginning..". Below is a more recent link to a video I put together (while working at Dyer) about 18 months ago to "tell the story" for a proposed mixed use library, college, and university building in southeast England. The building design and video was produced using Revit, 3ds Max, Photoshop, After Effects, and Premier.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Changing Technology

In preparing for the presentation I gave for Excitech (see earlier post "A Canvas for Design") I looked through some images from work I produced over the last 5 or so years. I was struck by the change in quality of the images and the amount of effort required to produce them over this relatively short time. I find it quite amazing how swiftly technology progresses and yet how easily we all seem to adjust and adopt to it and to almost immediately take the new capabilities for granted. This ever changing situation has always fascinated, excited, and concerned me in equal measures. I love gadgets and I love experimenting with new software to see where I can push it to. I've always seen technology as something which can provide me with a competitive advantage over others who are not so technology savvy and which can help me to create better more considered designs in less time. In the past the ability to harness software in this way was really limited only to those who took a particular interest in it. However, thanks to the likes of companies such as Apple, who focus on the user experience rather than mere specification, technology is maturing into something which operates "in the background" and is becoming more accessible to all.

2006: Modeled and Rendered in 3ds Max (©Dyer)
2006: Modeled and Rendered in 3ds Max (©Dyer)

A good example of the demystification of technology in architectural design is the progress made in rendering engines over the last few years. I always thought that the ability to create a good image from a 3d model was something of a black art in which I dabbled. To do so you had to first learn how to create a 3d model bearing in mind the limitations of processor power, combining careful decisions on the level of detail to model against the scale of the final image with the ability to represent the detail in your scene with advanced mapping techniques. Next you needed to master the techniques required to produce believable materials, including understanding the processes and software required to make accurate maps and images to place in your scene. Then you would experiment with how to light your model - something I always found particularly difficult with interior scenes when rendering without ray-tracing or global lighting solutions. You would then fiddle with a whole list of rendering parameters, run a series of test renders, before finally pressing the button for the production render and sitting back and waiting, often overnight, before coming back only to discover that you forgot to switch that one light back to cast shadows that you disabled during the test rendering stage. Eventually you would finish off in post production compositing the image in Photoshop or an equivalent image editing application.

To be fair if you wish to create high end results the process described is broadly the same still today. However, the ability to create good looking, repeatable, and believable scenes with almost a single click of a button has been possible in Revit using Mental Ray since Revit 2011 was released. The images produced are good enough for most requirements and can be produced fairly simply by the architect in charge of the model without help from specialist visualisors.

2009: Interior modeled and Rendered in Revit, view added with Photoshop (©Dyer)
Now I have merely focused on the process of rendering as an example to make a point, but it brings me to identify the healthy concern that I have with this ever changing technology: the need to continuously advance yourself in order to maintain a competitive advantage. This thought opens a whole series of questions such as "how does the shape of architectural practice respond to ever more powerful design tools" but that is an issue I probably want to address in another post in the future. For now the question I ask is probably the one that has driven my interest in technology the most throughout my career: "what is the next thing I can learn in order to continue to give myself an edge?".

2011: Modeled in Revit, Rendered in 3ds Max (©Dyer)

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

iPad and Adobe CS5.5

Last week we bought an iPad 2 for the business to use as a marketing tool when meeting potential clients and networking. We felt it was much better than lugging around my 17inch lap top and it would be possible to pull it out and switch it on (instantaneously) naturally during a conversation over lunch or a drink without having to wait 15 minutes for my Windows machine to load. We also believed that the tactile nature of the iPad would be better suited to conversation and akin to flicking through a brochure rather than the more formal PowerPoint presentation.

Another factor which influenced the idea for the purchase of the iPad was the recent release of the Adobe Master Suite CS5.5 which we downloaded for the free 30 day trial. A big part of the marketing for the launch of this latest Adobe update has been about the Digital Publishing Suite which includes the ability to produce digital content for the iPad in the form of Apps. The videos produced by Adobe showing this in action look impressive and I was keen to try it out so we could impress our clients with our up to date use of technology. Well, surprise, surprise it turned out not to be that simple... The tools provided are in themselves fairly easy to work out with InDesign as the basis for the design / layout of the digital content. However, publishing the App and transferring it to your iPad (or other tablet device) has to be carried out through an upload to a special Adobe account which the user has to set up. I understand that during Beta testing of the new tools it was possible to transfer the App directly to the iPad but this option has been removed from the final product. It seems this was on the premise that this prevents unauthorised copying of your digital content. However, this is where my initial excitement in the new software started to fade. It is only once you have got well into using the software that it becomes apparent that these tools have really been developed for large publishing houses and not for small scale publishers such as ourselves. Granted, when you purchase the full copy of the Master Suite you get up to 12 months access (I've not managed to check what the costs are after this period) to the necessary basic online account for publishing but you quickly discover that this is severely limited. The basic account restricts you to creating a single publication - new ones can only be produced by deleting the old, and it does not provide the abiliy to share your App with anyone else. If you wish to create more publications or to share them with others you have to sign up for the professional service which costs £1000's per year - definitely not an option for architects like us! My final gripe is that this system does not appear to be quite ready - uploading the articles which create the App is buggy and I had to upload, delete, and re-upload my articles before I could get my App to work properly.

In spite of the issues above I persevered and created my first Digital Publication for the iPad this morning. In reality what I've produced doesn't differ in appearance greatly from the far simpler process of creating a PowerPoint or Keynote show and exporting it to the iPad Keynote App. However, Keynote for the iPad does not support movies and there are some additional interactive options available through the Adobe App which aren't through a slide show which make further investigation potentially worthwhile.

Well the proof as they say is in the pudding. This afternoon we used the iPad and App for the first time for a presentation to a potential client. The result was effective (given through a projector via the AVI adaptor) and the structure of the document allowed us to be more spontaneous than normal. So the conclusion so far is that I'm impressed and pleased with the iPad whereas the jury's still out as far as we're concerned for Adobe's Digital Publishing Suite..

Screenshot from iPad App showing Document Structure
Screen Shot from iPad App

Monday, 16 May 2011

A Canvas for Design

Last week I presented at an event for the UK Autodesk distributor, Excitech. The presentation was based largely on one I had given previously on a “Super User” tour of South East Asia and Australia with Autodesk in October 2009. The title of the original presentation was “A Canvas for Design”, the premise being that as a traditional artist or architect  chooses their medium (be it fat felt tip pen, oils, clay, technical pen, etc) according to either the stage of the design / work or to the feel they want to give a piece the same should be true for those of us using computer software to design.

In the early days of computer take-up in architecture there were few of us who were really comfortable designing with this new medium. Back then the software / hardware was far less developed so freedom of expression with these tools was limited and equally few had grown up with computers and so were not fluent enough with the tools available to be able to freely express themselves. By contrast I started life in architecture uncomfortable with drawing by hand. My weakness became my strength as it forced me to learn to express my ideas, not with a single piece of software such as AutoCad, but with a range of programmes using each of their relative strengths to create my designs rather than limiting myself to concepts restricted by the ability of a single piece of software to produce them. I think dexterity between software is analogous to an artist sketching out a framework on a canvas by pencil before filling out with oils, gauche, or water colours according to the feeling he / she wish to create. Whilst the power and ease of use of modern software can reduce the need to move between programmes to create a design an ability to do so, coupled with a good knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of each, can produce an extremely efficient and powerful workflow. In this way the designer today who understands the nuances of the software packages at their disposal becomes like the sculpture choosing between clay, metal, or stone before embarking on a new piece of work. 

A personal example of this process is a concept design I produced whilst at Dyer Architects in London for a new retail mall in Russia. The clients were looking for a design of circa 100,000 square meters which they could reproduce throughout the Russian regions. It was clear to us that here was an opportunity to use the architecture of the store to create a very strong brand identity. Reacting to a sketch plan for the store by one of the directors which reminded me of a space craft I set out to produce the competition winning image using 3ds Max Design. I chose 3ds Max on the basis of its toolset which allowed forms to be molded interactively - somewhat like clay. What I found particularly interesting in retrospect was the process of achieving the image. I didn't have a strong form in mind, rather I spent the majority of my time experimenting with the tools available to see what could be used to create a fluid wing-like design. To this extent the appearance of the final image had as much to do with the way the algorithms inside 3ds Max produced the shapes as it did to my own design decisions. At some points It felt to me as if I was reduced to a spectator whose role was merely to watch the form changing shape and to decide when something looked good and when something did not. A testament to the power of the software egven then (2006) was that the design and production of the first design was created from start to finish within 24 hours. The final image is shown below, together with some images of how the design progressed once the competition was one and how it took shape on site in Krasnodar, Russia. 

The original competition winning image
The developed Concept Design - also produced using 3ds Max
The Oz Mall on site in 2010
Testing the Lights (protective film to cladding still in place) 2010
As a footnote, the first store, which is shown above, is nearing completion in the Southern russian town of Krasnodar. It is not 100,000 sqm but 220,000sqm and can be clearly seen in Google earth about 1 mile south of the airport - dwarfing the airport in size. The mall sits between two motorways and when the exterior lights were being tested many of the cars were stopping and people were getting out of their cars to take photographs.. I think the concept of the brand could be considered a success!