Graphics VS. Design, and what I learned from video games

24 01 2011

A few weeks ago I posted a blog asking for critiques on some 3D models components I had made.  I posted it on IGN, WordPress, and Land8Lounge.  The response was fairly low, and I tried posting it as a discussion thread on Land8Lounge as well.  This got some helpful comments, but it also possibly inspired a thread that brought up the issue of rendering VS. design in Landscape Architecture.  This question came up a few weeks ago at a networking event for NYC landscape architects, and I talked to a few different people about it.  It made me wonder: Why is it that designers often have a negative reaction to “high end” renderings?

If I said I had never seen a rendering and assumed that the graphic quality was hiding something I would be lying.  I think this often comes from past experience, either in firms as CAD monkeys, or in school.  We, I think, have all had a presentation where we worked our ass off to the last minute perfecting a design, leaving little time to get perfect graphics, so we go out with what we can, trusting our peers and other trained professionals to see through the pencils lines to the heart of the design beneath, only to be disappointed.  We have also all had the time when we have seen the person slap together a half-assed design, but with pretty pictures, and when we are counting on our bosses and teachers to see it, they instead get “blinded” by the crisp lines, hypnotized by the texture work, and in a trance from the shadow quality.  I think it’s this shared experience that leads so many of us to distrust pretty drawings: we all know just how easy it is to lie with graphics.  Whether it is drawing a plan that doesn’t show steps because they client didn’t want them – even though it’s not physically possible, screwing with perspective sizes, or hiding views that you don’t want noticed.  We know the tricks all too well; in part because we use them to some extent ourselves.

We choose a rendering style based on what we want to show and not show: Computer graphics traditionally show a Utopian version of everything – where it all looks fresh from vacuum -packaging, but it makes the space look more contemporary to clients; Hand graphics hide views by simply not drawing the far background, but show more flow and life in the space.  We choose views that may not show the space in the best ways, but show a feature we want to emphasize over others.  It’s a limit of non-physical models – you have a finite window onto the world, you are going to be careful about what you choose to show to show off what you want to be seen.  The problem is, we need a way to easily communicate to clients, and in forms other than physical models, and clients who have not been trained as designers get the best feel for a space through perspective drawings.

-Utopia?

So the issue becomes not graphics VS design, because it never really was outside of designers’ heads.  The issue is how can we make graphics that communicate effectively, and manage to not fire off alarm bells in designer’s and client’s brains.

Personally, I choose to concentrate on computer graphics over hand graphics not due to a lack of skill (believe me, if I put the time into drawing that I have put into rendering I’d be pretty good with a pencil), but because in my mind, it is the most honest form of representation.  If I model everything the way it is – which I can with no extra effort – I know exactly what I will see from a given view.  I can put a camera inside your eyes when you are sitting on a bench, and if you would actually see a sliver of that utility box, it’s going to be in the rendering.  The problem is, it would still set off alarm bells, all because of an effect that is becoming well-known in the media worlds of movies and video games.

The “Uncanny Valley” is an issue that became most well-known a few years ago when the movie “The Polar Express” came out.

The Uncanny Valley

It’s the theory that as things become more realistic, they become more familiar, but only to a certain point.  Once things become TOO realistic, small things that are wrong make us cringe and react negatively.  In “The Polar Express” the thing that set people off was the eyes.  For all the realism the characters had, from mannerisms created by directly copying from actors in Motion Capture suits, to careful texture work, the fact that the eyes didn’t glisten correctly gave them a dead look, and made some people instantly see, instead of a heartwarming children’s story, a movie about a train filled with zombies… (note to self – Make a movie about a train full of zombies.  “Brains on the Orient Express”?)

IGN.com

In the ensuing years movies, and video games, have dealt with this issue in one of two ways.  Some have gone the route of making themselves, while beautiful, purposefully unrealistic.  This brings thoughts of movies such as “Up”, and games such as “Little Big Planet 2”.  Neither of these tries to be realistic – the characters look like cartoons, but with realistic flesh-tones (or woven sack-tones in the case of Little Big Planet), elements.

Little Big Planet

The other method is to continue to push the boundaries of realism.  Movies like Avatar skirt this method by having realistic aliens that we have no internal reference for as digital characters.  Where true realism is pushed the hardest today is in gaming.  Games like Uncharted 2, Heavy Rain, and Read Dead Redemption push realism in gaming past where it has been before.  As some of the best looking games widely available, they all have one thing in common.

Grime.

Uncharted 3

None of these games are set in pristine areas.  They all are set in places that have been lived in, that have wear and tear, grease and grime, chips and gashes.  I think this is one of the essential things to making a convincing 3D rendering, and one that doesn’t make you think you are being tricked by graphics.  The splinters out of the wood crate, the dirt on the boots, the powder burns on the pistol, all give it a realistic feel.

Red Dead Redemption

If that detail is paired with a render engine that has more than 1/30th of a second to output, it would give amazing results.

And those are the kind of results that I think we, as designers/graphic artists have to work for.  Gone are the days of the pristine landscape with rows of identical, perfectly pruned trees.  If we want buy-in from clients, and from other designers, we need to show all the blemishes on the face of our designs.  Whether it’s the ugly light industrial building that is visible through the trees, or the mottled color in the bricks, these are some of the things that A) will affect the spirit of place and B) that will create a sense of life in our renderings.

Are hand graphics still valid? Of COURSE they are.  Neither hand graphics nor computer graphics is inherently “better”.  They are just different.  The grime and dirt of the world in computer graphics is no different then adding a little of every color to a tree in a Mike Lin style render.

BeLoose.com

It adds a little depth, and a spark of randomness that is what makes the world what it is.

Uncanny Vally image from http://ntlkdesign.co.uk/blog/

Little Big Planet 2 image from littlebigplanet.com

Mik Lin image from Beloose.com

All other images from IGN.com





Looking for rendering critique

23 11 2010

Hey guys,
I’m working on getting a freelance Architectural and Landscape Architectural rendering gig going using a newish engine called Thea, and wanted you guys to look at a few of the component models I have so far. Let me know what you think. The car and bench are tweaked Sketchup components that I re-skinned, the trees are from Tree[d], which the exception of the pine, which someone shared in the Thea forums. The Stop sign is original, and the people are default SketchUp people, and I’m not sure if they are the way I am going to end up doing people or not.

I’m trying to get these set so anytime anyone needs a design with a maple rendered, I’m ready to plug this in.

First, the trees. I spend a LOT of time with these trying to get not just the right bark, the and the right shade of leaf, but the right translucency, as its what seems to give the leaves a look of life. The redbud was a real trick since when it is in bloom its a very skeletal structure, and is VERY pink, but at times it looked almost on fire.

Maple-

Ginko (Young)-

Redbud-

Next is the park bench. I used a Sketchup component, and tweaked the model SLIGHTLY, and reskinned it in thea.

The stop sign is the first piece I made 100% on my own, and I’m decently happy with. I have NO idea if you can get it to act like there is the reflective-prism film, so I just made it fairly reflective, but added a bumpmap so it doesn’t reflect straight back like a mirror.

I’m pretty happy with my car. I got the model in Sketchup, and tweaked it to smooth some edges, add depth in areas like headlights, and then got the materials nailed down. The car here has its headlights off, but I do have two IES lights in the model so I can turn them on for night scenes.

Lastly, here is everything thrown together in one mish-mash. The key thing here is that the car, for instance, will never be the focal point of a model. so while as a stand alone you see the polys, when its in a model as a set piece, the fact that it reflects the model and sits so well really makes it an asset if you ask me… but I’m not asking me. I’m asking you. so let me know what you think!

 

If you like the look of the engine (This is unlicensed version, full will not have the water marks), check out TheaRender.com





What do YOU want to know?

14 11 2009

Sorry for the break in my posting schedule, After the ASLA conference I was in bunker-mode finishing my thesis project, which I successfully defended at the end of October!  So, now that I only have a few edits left before publishing, I am going to get back into the groove.  The thing I am wondering is, what do you want to see posts about?  I have tweaked my photoshop rendering methods based on my 3D Studio Max work, so do you want to see more posts about plan renders? or are you more curious about how to bring that SketchUp model into 3DS Max to punch it up?  Maybe you wonder what type of tech might be helpful for your firm, or want more insight on how it works?  Or do you just want to see what video games I, as a member of the creative field, find to be a good creative outlit/muse.  Let me know, and feel free to suggest other ideas.

I’ll be back soon with a post just as soon as I revise some thesis text…





Tuesday Tutorial: Now in 3D!

25 08 2009

Now that you have a completed CAD base map, with all of the elevation edits needed, you have just one final step before you can Import your design into SketchUp.  If you used a construction line hidden layer, turn it on, and every other layer off.  Then delete all information off of the trace layer, and delete the trace layer itself.  The main reason to do this is because when CAD files are imported into SketchUp, if a line exists in the same spot on two different layers, the line will be assigned to one layer, and the other will have the area blank.

As a quick software note: One of the main differences between SketchUp standard and Pro is that while CAD can be imported into either version, you can only Export non-CAD files in Pro.  So if you are planning an rendering in SketchUp, or using photo editing software to tweak, either version of SketchUp will work fine.  However, if you want to export into 3D Studio Max for higher end light and material rendering, you will need the Pro version.

Now its time to fire up SketchUp and get cooking.

Step 1: Importing

Once you have SketchUp running, the actual importing of the CAD file is pretty straight forward.  Open the File drop down, and select Import.

ImportMenu

Now navigate to the area where you saved the CAD file, change the file type to import to .dwg, and import your file.  If you get a message about your CAD file being invalid, its possible that your CAD release is newer then your SketchUp, so just save your CAD file back to 2004 or 2000.

One of the nice, and not so nice, things about SketchUp is that it imports layer states along with the layers, so if you had all of your layers turned off when you saved your CAD file, they will all be turned off now.  To turn them back on, go to the Window and select Layers.

layerdropdown

This is your layer navigator.  This will be a window you want to keep open, as what ever layer has the radio button checked is the layer that what you are drawing will be on. Turn on all your layers, and then zoom to extents and select the top view, and you should see something like this:

newimportallon

Congratulations, you now have an Imported SketchUp model, its time to save, and move on to the topography.

Note: Save early and often in SketchUp.  For as fun, quick, and easy, as it is, it is buggy as all hell, and crashes fairly often, so save yourself the grief of losing 45 mins of work.

Step 2: Let the technology do the work

The first thing to do is turn off all your non-topography layers.  Once you do that, Take a quick look around in your model.  You should be able to get a good feel for the topography you have created, and the type of landscape you have.  You may notice a few areas that you want to tweak.  You should do that now.  I noticed, when looking out from what would be my train station, that the two hills that flank my view are lower then I would like, and that the topo is not going to carry as far out as I would like.  You can either jump into cad, fix the problems, and re-import, or add and move lines to fit your needs.

needtofixlines

You also may notice problems like I did, where I have a hill top that is supposed to have two peaks.  I made two separate contour loops as seen below (blue are the higher contours).

needtofixvalley

The problem is that SketchUp will simply create topo straight across between the two, as there is nothing pulling the form back down between them.  This can be fixed by quickly adding a line or two that will outline where you want the low point of the pass to be.

Now its time to have SketchUp do some work.  First open the Window drop down, and select Preferences.

PrefMenu

Then in the left side select “extensions”, and turn on sandbox.

ExtentionMenu

That will add the sandbox toolbar to your display.  ensure that you have all layers off except topo, and that you have the topo layer selected with the radio button, and do a quick save in case the program crashes during the next step.  Now click on the button on the far left of the toolbar- “From Contours”.

sandboxtoolbar

At the bottom left edge of the screen, there will be a progress bar.  Depending on your processor and the size and detail of your model, it may be quick to fill, or take quite a while.  If you notice the bar suddenly stop moving, don’t touch anything.  SketchUp is very touchy, and its likely that your computer is using so much power to create the topo that it doesn’t have enough left to move a —->—- further to the right.  I know, it sounds scary, but in SketchUp, if something starts to freeze up, don’t start clicking, just put the mouse down and go get a sandwich.  If you click you may cause a crash, but if you leave it alone, you have a good chance of the computer catching up with itself and then you can save ASAP. Once its done, turn on shadows to get a little better lighting, and it should look something like this:

newlytopoed

Step 3: That shouldn’t look like that…

Now take a close look at your model.  You should be able to see all on the topo lines you drew, with a surface in between them, but you will likely see some areas that look… off.  Two key things to look for are places where you see to many lines (Red), or topo lines disappear for no reason (Blue).

topoproblems

As you can see with the shadows turned on, missing lines come from an area where SketchUp arbitrarily decided to skip sections of topo lines and take a shortcut.  The extra lines happen when SketchUp forgets how to draw a flat surface in a small area, so it freaks out and starts throwing lines across the area.  Go to the View drop down and turn on “Hidden Geometry”.  You can now see all of the polygons created by the software.

Double click the topography you created, and you’ll notice that the hidden lines now highlight when you mouse over them as you are in component editing mode.  the first topo fixes you are going to do are the quick and easy ones.  You might notice an area where a topo line or two are covered, like this:

needtoturnhidden

Now you are going to use the tool on the far right in the “sandbox” toolbar- “Flip Edge”.  This takes a diagonal line and rotates it to the opposite diagonal.  Here is an animation of flipping the lines, one by one, to correct the topography.

turnani

Note: For some reason I cannot get the GIF to play, even though it does in the wordpress blog text window, so I don’t know what is going on.  Check it out here.

Once you go around and fix all of the areas you can using this method, you will have the more complicated work to do of manually adding and removing polygons, but that will wait for next week.





Tuesday Tutorial: Building your base

20 08 2009

When you start your 3D model, you start with a cad base, just like you have for your plan graphics and for your Bid Set.  However, there are some tweaks that need to be made, and things you have to pay more attention to then normal.  In this tutorial I’m going to take you up to the point of bringing your model into SketchUp.  Next time we will get into tweaking topo and base modeling, and then after that, the fine modeling level, and adding plants.  But for now, we are focusing on the base, as without a good base, the modeling process will be much more difficult and time consuming.

Note: When you use CAD, use Polyline, for the love of god.  It is only in EXTREMELY rare cases that line works BETTER than poly line, and this is NOT one of them.

Step 1: Clean up your normal CAD base

To start, open your normal CAD base and save a copy of it in a new folder.  Once you have your copied CAD file, there are a few fairly simple things you can do to clean up your base.  The first is to carefully go through and create new layers based on the different materials you will have in your model, and you should name them based on what material they will be to reduce confusion.

cadlayers

A key point here is to make sure you have a unique layer for each of your materials, as the layers will carry over to SketchUp.  Once you put everything on the correct layer, make sure all your corners are square and your polys close.  You are going to have to close them eventually anyway to make them into surfaces in SketchUp, so you might as well do that now in the friendly confines of CAD.

linebase

Step 2: Topography- think like a computer, one triangle at a time

Now its time to add topography.  There are two main issues you are going to have to address with topo: thinking about how the computer will create the surface, and thinking about making what goes on those surfaces.  This is the basic topo for the fictional park design I am working with.

topolinebasic

The first thing to realize is how SketchUp (or any other program) will create your topography.  As a quick intro/refresher- all 3d models are comprised of polygons- more precisely, triangles.  That is because 3 points makes a plane, and computers, as amazing as they are, cannot make true curves.  They can make thousands of tiny angles, but not an actual curve (there are ways to fake it more, but its still really a post production fake).  That is why when you make a curve in CAD and then zoom in it is suddenly angled lines that are kind of in the wrong spot.  Getting back to the point- your computer will make the smooth, rolling landscape by making a bunch of triangles and “softening” the edges, but it is still made up of triangles. These triangles are made by drawing lines from intersections on one line to intersections on another line.  For example, with these lines:

topoexample

This is (hopefully) where the triangles would be made:

topoexample2

This means 2 main things for your drawing.  First, and easiest: the further the camera is, the less detail that you will see, so by simplifying the lines that the triangles are made from, you reduce the number of triangles, and decrease rendering times.  So, when you are getting to areas that are far out of your model, and don’t need a lot of detail because they will act simply as context, you can often get away with making those smooth curves into sharp angles, and get nearly the same result for far less CPU power.

The second, and more tricky point: if you have a flat terrace, on your topography map that is shown by an area with a bigger spread in its contours, because we interpolate a steep slope suddenly being flat as essentially a level slope, even if the contours imply a 5% slope, because the slope is likely steep beyond the last “steep” contour.  However, the computer only sees what you put in, and cannot interpolate unevenly spaced contours, so it will have a slope that is steep from one contour the next, and then makes a hard turn to a 5% slope, and then a steep drop again.  Because of this, you have to edit your contour layer, and break one of the cardinal rules of topography- you are going to have a contour line split and then rejoin.  to create a truly level area you are going to have to surround the entire level area with equal contour lines, forcing the computer to see the contour lines your mind is reading between the lines on the map.

Level area the way its drawn on a map:

terracebadblank

The way that would be interpreted by a computer:

terracebad

The “fix” by breaking the rules:

terracefixedblank

The new triangle map (level area skipped for clarity):

terracefixed

Step 3: What is that path going to look like exactly?

The last big complication to 3d modeling on topography is getting your paths and areas that overlap topographic changes to look right on the slope.  The problem is, again, the fact that the surface of the ground will be made of triangles.  this becomes an issue because your triangles may not line up with the edges of materials.  There are a few things you can do to address this.  First, you could simplify your topography so that a minimal amount of it intersects site amenities, as I was able to do in my thesis project, as there are not many large grading changes other then wetlands.

university

At times, however, that is not a viable option, and you need to be able to control what your slope looks like on a given face.  To do that you need to ensure that a given section of slope is laterally level.  The first step for that is to edit the contours so that the slope crosses the area in a straight line perpendicular to the slope.  This is what my topography looks like after I add my loops for level ground:

curvingtopopath

You want to change all of the sloping areas here:

curvingtopopathhighlight

To look like this:

curvingtopopathfixed

Once you do this, you wait for further fixing until you are in SketchUp, and that will come next week…

Step 4: Elevate to a New Level

The next thing you have to do is elevate your topography and items to the levels they will be at.  In AutoCAD, you want to open the properties window for each contour line individually.  Once there, you will see an option for “elevation”.  This is where you input the height of a given contour line.  Go through each contour line, and object and assign them to the appropriate elevation.  I personally like to also change them to a set color, like magenta, so I know what I have moved.  Then once everything is adjusted you can select all and move the color back to “by layer”.

elevation

magenta

magenta3d

Once you have everything moved to the correct elevation, you can change the color back, and finish the fix for uneven paths.

Now its time to import into SketchUp and let the real fun begin…