by Daniel Hruby
The architectural visualization community has good reason to be excited about Luxology’s latest incarnation of its flagship CG application, modo 601. A veritable Swiss Army knife of 3D goodness, modo provides essential tools necessary to produce compelling architectural animations and still renderings. modo provides very tidy workspaces dedicated to specific tasks such as modeling, UV mapping, animation, or rendering allowing you to tackle pretty much anything an arch vis project will demand.
As an architect who has spent a 20 year career building 3D architectural models in various “BIM” (Building Information Modeling) applications like ArchiCAD and Revit, I found these CAD-based workspaces to be lacking in the visualization department. Sure, they provide basic rendering features to get the idea across, but they are not really meant to produce sexy photorealistic work. Instead, they are meant to build 3D models that can be documented for construction. Personally, I have always been interested in taking my 3D models a bit further toward the realm of “photorealistc,” where light and material begin to convey a mood to the architectural spaces. I just couldn’t accomplish this inside the BIM world.
In 2009, I launched a dedicated 3D rendering service, Visualize It Built. I was determined to bring my keen interest in rendering into my day-to-day work. The company’s objective is to provide specialized BIM visualization services to architects, contractors, and developers, helping convey their designs in a photorealistic manner and by directly leveraging the 3D models they have already developed in ArchiCAD, Revit, or even SketchUp. In the course of making this transition, I discovered modo 201 while looking for a “post-BIM” software package to animate and render architectural models.
BIM applications effectively bridge the 3D virtual building model and the 2D construction documentation gap, which is essential to build a real building. There are several problems that come along with BIM/CAD modelers like ArchiCAD and Revit. Clean CAD drawings are, by necessity, simplified representations of 3D elements. Components in the 3D model often have a minimum number of sharp edges that will generate a single 2D line in a 2D detail or elevation drawing. This is good for 2D drawings that are automatically generated from the 3d model and later require a single vertex to snap a dimension string to, but bad for photorealistic renderings, which require more complex surfacing geometry to convey detail.
Unlike modo, which is a polygonal modeler, a fundamental characteristic of BIM applications is that most 3D components are parametric objects. You can change them over time without the need to push around polygons. While this is a great benefit for the vast number of design revisions that can occur on an hourly basis, components such as curtain walls, window / door systems, and equipment and appliances tend to be limited to a set of parameters that will get you a moderately detailed component. They often are not to the level of detail necessary for compelling, photorealistic visualization.
Yet another drawback is that organic content is scarce in BIM environments and often limited to crude 2D symbols, such as a circle on a site plan to represent a tree. Building lush landscapes to give life to a building in 3D is near impossible to pull off in a BIM application. A complex building in ArchiCAD usually will have less than 1 million polygons while a single tree could have 2 million polygons. A modest site plan for a small project could have at least 20 to 30 trees. Do the math and you will see that the sit entourage can potentially account for a 100 fold increase in rendered polygons. This is where the world of BIM comes to a screeching halt, as these applications just can’t handle the high poly count that comes with trees and grass. Enter modo 601...
While a large part of the 601 upgrade is geared toward character animation, there are many new features useful to arch vis projects, as well as general enhancements that improve workflow and performance. In this review, I will attempt to shine some light on the features important to me and my typical workflow. Some features have been in modo’s previous versions, but have seen enhancements in 601. Some are new and are surprisingly welcome. That is, however, by no means all the new features. In fact, other industry-specific tools, such as character animation and rigging, are worthy of an entire review on their own. So let’s dive in and I will go over some key features that I find useful in my every day workflow.
I typically start my projects by importing BIM models into modo via Wavefront OBJ format from ArchiCAD, FBX from Revit or DXF in the case of 2D DWG files from AutoCAD. Once I complete a few clean up operations, such as deleting Surface Normal maps and assigning some material masks, I usually dive right into working on the terrain model for the project. A new, dedicated set of “re-topology” tools added in 601 are seemingly geared toward character modeling. However, they do have some useful application to arch vis workflows. Tools in the Topo workspace, including slicing, inserting, or sliding edge loops, all behave in a similar fashion in that they are predefined with the geometry constraint and are always looking for a background mesh to stick to. The Topology Pen allows you to essentially trace rows of modo polygons over imported geometry much like strips of paper mache. The background constraint is built into the tool effectively gluing the strips to the surface of the subject mesh. The goal is to have a clean modo mesh with more efficient poly flow and polygon count.
I have found this concept to be quite useful in “re-topologizing” 3D site models. Exporting site meshes from ArchiCAD often gives you a triangulated, chunky mess of a model and only roughly approximates the terrain contours based on the resolution of a civil engineer’s survey data. These meshes are difficult to UV map and nearly impossible to sculpt. By using this rough mesh as a proxy, I can trace out a new quad mesh with a regular array of polygons and “push” this mesh down and against the original site, essentially shrink wrapping the quad mesh onto its surface. It allows for cleaner UV maps and with subtle application of modo’s sculpting brushes, you can smooth or sharpen the resulting mesh into a more believable landscape. My process is as follows:
Fig. 1. Export a site mesh from ArchiCAD in Wavefront .OBJ format.
Fig. 2. Import the triangulated mesh into modo
Fig. 3. Create a new quad mesh above the imported mesh.
Fig. 4. Using Transform with Snapping set to Constrain to Background, push the mesh down over the imported mesh to “shrink-wrap” the new mesh to its surface.
Fig. 5. The resulting mesh now matches the ArchiCAD mesh. You can now hide the ArchiCAD mesh and work with the new modo mesh.
Fig. 6. Using sculpting tools, smooth and shape to taste.
While on the topic of landscape modeling, one my favorite modo features is Replicators. Replicators allow you to randomly (or precisely) array a large number of trees, shrubs and rocks around your site using only a few “prototype” Mesh Items. They can be randomly scaled and rotated for a truly organic looking landscape and they are by nature more efficient with memory at render time. When used in combination with Mesh Groups, with a few variations of prototypes, you can create a very believable landscape.
Fig. 7. Paint points onto mesh surface.
Fig. 8 Use the Replicator Item to place a tree at each particle location. Adjust render density as necessary.
While the Replicator functionality has been around for a while, the concept has been extended to texture mapping through the implementation of Texture Replicators. This new 601 feature solves the repeating texture pattern problem that so often makes renderings look CG. I often hunt for textures online using Google Images to find a specific stone texture. It might only be of an image of a 12” square piece of stone, but it is what the client expects to see in the rendering. If that texture is just mapped to a wall as-is, it will render in a predictably repeating pattern known as “Tiling.” (Fig. 9) modo 601‘s Texture Replicators will randomly rotate, scale and blend the map across the surface geometry, ensuring that no discernible pattern is visible (Fig. 10), Great for stucco, stone woods and other organic patterns that need to look random in character. One could also layer a secondary texture to randomly introduce imperfections across an otherwise homogeneous surface. Some very luscious textures can be made using the power of this technique, also known as “Texture Bombing.”
Fig. 9. A “Tiling” Texture. See the repeating pattern? Not so good.
Fig. 10. Texture Replicators help create a random texture.
Another common problem to deal with is unrealistically sharp edges. CAD/BIM data usually is made up of boxy primitives with 90° hard edges. In reality, most edges have some degree of roundness to them. For instance, the edge of a kitchen countertop is usually an “eased edge” with a 1/8” or even 1/2” inch bullnose on all edges. New in modo 601 is the “Rounded Edge” setting found in the material properties setting. It allows for all edges of the assigned material to be rendered with a user-defined radius. In the previous versions of modo, one would have to do some additional modeling work to select and bevel the offending edges, but with this Material parameter one can very quickly knock down the sharp edges. Even a fraction of an inch can make edges pop with highlights, as light sources will reflect at some angle off the rounded edge toward the camera.
There are a couple drawbacks with Rounded Edges, which I hope to see improved in future releases. First, architectural wall surfaces often have rounded or “radius corners.” However, those are typically limited to the outside (convex) corners in a room. Inside (concave) corners, such as where a wall meets the floor, should have edges that remain sharp. It would be good for this feature to offer the user the option to define these convex and concave corners independently.
Secondly, edges can often be chamfered with a simple 45° cut on the edge. An option to set a chamfer width instead of a radius would be a welcome addition to this great feature. Of course, this can also be dealt with by modeling the beveled edge using modo’s Edge Bevel tool, but more often than not, imported geometry goes crazy when applying bevels, and addressing the problem through a material mask is fast and easy.
While not specifically a 601 addition, the Render Curves option is an excellent feature found in the Mesh Item Properties. It allows for curves in that mesh item to be rendered with a user-defined radius. The curves can be drawn from the tools in the curve palette, even straight segments made with a 2-point curve. Edges can also be created from a regular mesh edges converted into curves via a script. This is a very fast way to build geometric space frames, cables and tube frame elements such as truss elements (Fig. 11 & 12) or the bent steel frame in a modern chair. (Fig. 13 & 14.)
While there are many useful applications in arch vis, there are a couple drawbacks worth noting: First, the effect is limited to a circular profile. It would be a great addition to be able to choose a Profile from modo’s extensive library of Profiles. Second, the shape cannot be scaled along the curve. Having access to a few parameters associated with Render Curves would be a nice addition, such as allowing the curve radius to be modulated with a gradient along the edge’s length or by a distance from a locator. This could allow for some very interesting tree trunks and branches.
Fig.11. Stitch straight curve segments together to make a truss.
Fig.12. Render Curves to a desired radius.
Fig. 13. Stitch Bezier curves together to build a chair frame.
Fig. 14. Render the curves to a desired radius. If more than one radius is required, just use a new mesh item with a new radius.
Within the new Volume Item list exists Render Boolean, and it provides the user a means of generating a 3D cut-away view that reveals the interior elements of a model. This is a huge feature for architectural visualization professionals, as it allows for portions of a model to be hidden or cut away that might otherwise be obscured from the camera. This eliminates the chore of slicing up the model and manually hiding bits and pieces, which are destructive to the model. The Render Boolean can be repositioned or even animated without detriment to the model. Render Booleans be used to render classic sectional and floor plan views (Fig. 15.) You can even define a unique material to define the intersection of the model and Boolean mesh to really make the cut surfaces read in a more clear and graphical manner.
Another creative use of Render Booleans is to pair them with other items in the model so that they themselves will behave as cutting elements. This is similar to how BIM applications handle doors and windows by default. For example, one could link a Render Boolean to a window mesh item and leave it’s visibility on. The window geometry will punch a hole through the host wall allowing the window’s panes to be transparent. An additional side benefit is that the Boolean cut is live. So you can enlarge the window item, move it around, or even delete it and the wall will behave accordingly. No destructive slicing of the wall to add additional geometry or patching of holes required. However, there is a basic requirement that the cut mesh needs to be a closed mesh. Not a difficult problem to deal with if you model your objects in modo, but can be problematic if you import 3D data and the resulting meshes are made up of thousands planes that do not close.
Yes, just when the pinnacle of digital rendering is nearing achievement, they go all analog on us! All kidding aside, NPR is actually a super-cool expansion of modo’s rendering palette. There are times in an arch vis project where models are better received by the client with a looser feel to the rendering, particularly before the texturing is developed. Sometimes the 3D model only needs to be diagrammatic and a sharp clean rendering feels a bit overdone. The addition of Cel, Cel Edge, and Halftone Materials now let you create a variety of hand-drawn, sketchy and typographic effects that better reflect the essence of schematic or conceptual design. When used in conjunction with other rendering layers modifying the parameters of these materials, the potential with this set of materials is so far-reaching that a new category of rendering has been established by Luxology called NPR or Non-Photorealistic Rendering. Be sure to check out the new modo NPR Kit that Luxology is offering.
Fur, while not new in 601, is a great feature for making grassy lawns, wispy wild grasses, hedges and green walls, even thick throw rugs, carpet fibers, and fabrics (Fig. 16.) It will create a ton of convincing geometry that will render reasonably fast once you get a grasp of the settings. Make sure you have a good deal of RAM though. I recently upgraded my workstation to 20 GB, and I finally feel like I have enough breathing room to put Fur to good use in a large scene. You can paint texture maps to control Fur length, density and color and with a few distinct layers, you can really create a rich landscape. (Fig. 15.)
Particles have been a long requested feature and finally arrive in a formal implementation in 601. Several new items are added to the Item list. These point clouds can be used to drive the position of replicated items and the population of Volume Items, Sprites, and Blobs. All useful for creating fluffy clouds and water elements, such as fountains and shower sprays (Fig.16.)
While those might be rare elements to have in a scene, I find the Surface Particle Generator quite useful for driving the texture replicators. You can apply a Surface Particle Generator to a specific material on a Mesh Item and have the textures assigned to that material be randomly stamped, based on the particle distribution across that surface. Just tweak the particle spacing and you get very organic looking texture. I also use this approach to distribute replicated plants and grasses through Replicator Items.
There is a feature that comes free with every purchase of modo. That is the vibrant user community. The Luxology User Forum is fantastic and can be an essential part of learning how to harness modo’s vast powers. There are many knowledgeable and encouraging people willing to share information to help solve the day-to-day challenges that arise. The gallery is also very inspiring with users all over the world, posting images and animations on a daily basis. Often, top notch users will even share their files to allow newbie users to reverse engineer their rigs and shader tree. And this extends to the public contributions made by Luxology employees and even company top brass Brad Peebler, Alan Hastings, and Stuart Ferguson, who regularly partake directly in user threads, sharing transparent insights regarding the company’s direction and offering motivational feedback to user work. It is clear that they really love seeing the fruits of their labor. Very cool.
There is also the “Share” section of the Luxology website which is a user driven database of materials and objects that can be downloaded and used in your project. Luxology recently made the process even more streamlined when they created a delivery package that will auto-install into the local Content Library on your computer. This eliminates the file housekeeping required previously and makes it easy to build your library. I hope to see one day something similar to Maxwell Render’s approach to content management where the interface to the web-based library is hosted within the Presets Browser itself and would allow you to search and download current content directly within modo. Still, it works almost as well with this quick auto install feature. The ever-growing library is filled with highly detailed modo models, rich materials developed by expert “modonauts,” and powerful scripts to expand modo’s capabilities.
modo also has a Consolidate Scene feature which will gather all the assets of the Scene and save a new file referencing a folder of gathered assets. This is essential for sharing projects with render farms and other remote team members. Maybe one day, we might see a Teamwork mechanism like ArchiCAD and Revit have allowing a shared project across the internet with remote team members.
Luxology’s SDK kit for modo allows third-party developers to write plug-ins and kits to augment modo with tools tailored for specific tasks. For the most part, they behave seamlessly in the interface. A few impressive plug-ins I use regularly are Mancer’s MAZE plug-in, Neil Hayes of The Third Guild’s mARCH plug-in, and Marton Parlagh’s Maxwell Render Plug-in. They each offer new tools to the interface that greatly expand modo’s workflow and truly deserve a separate review in their own right. Occasionally, there are incompatibilities with other installed third-party plug-ins that may require the user to disable one or more conflicting packages, but the developers are generally very responsive to squash reported bugs and get their wares to run reliably.
modo 601 has been an impressive upgrade for my business. Rendering is very fast compared to other packages. It is certainly possible to render in an un-biased approach, but the flexibility of the shader tree allows you to optimize your scene for a significant speed boost without sacrificing discernible quality. It will require some effort to master and the forum with certainly help you navigate the key settings. Workspaces are well organized and the interface is quite comfortable to work in. Toolsets are extremely flexible and allow for user customization. The growing user base is contributing exceptional content to the Share site, which, in-turn, will boost your productivity.
Here, I have only touched on the key features that I find useful in my day-to-day architectural visualization work. There are entire industries apart from arch vis that harness modo as a one-stop production environment. While BIM modeling programs still offer parametric control over the model’s components, as well as the inherent 2D documentation tools, I often can’t wait to export my model over to modo to begin having some real fun developing scenes for rendering and maybe modeling and rigging some moving parts up for an animation.
Luxology offers a free demo version of the software as well as a nice cross-grade program for users ready to throw in the towel on other software packages. I encourage anyone interested in modo to visit Luxology.com and try out modo 601. You won’t be disappointed.
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