Making Of

By Kyle Ouellette

Collaborating with the Architects of the Future: Visualizing Humanity’s Return to the Moon

Tangram 3DS is a multimedia studio based in Kittery, ME that specializes in architectural visualization, marketing, and design.

This question tugs at the mind of many who stare into the night sky and are reminded of the immensity of the universe around us. It’s been nearly half a century since the Apollo 17 astronauts stepped foot on the Moon. Some dedicated people never lost sight of their lunar ambitions and now, with budgets expanding (thanks in part to private-sector space companies), political will opening up, and public interest being revitalized, those who never gave up on their dreams of lunar exploration are finding themselves at the forefront of NASA’s goal to put humans back on the moon and even establish long-term lunar habitats. 
The Exploration Architecture Corporation (XArc), which designs space exploration architecture and conducts mission planning, has long had its eye on the moon and the potential it holds for expanding humanity’s presence in space. In collaborating with 3D artists at Tangram 3DS, XArc founder Sam Ximenes wants to bring to life a vision for further exploration on the moon and eventually on Mars. His company has engineered systems for lunar landing pads constructed from bricks made of regolith (the loose dust and rock on the moon’s surface), established concepts for underground habitats where scientists can both live and conduct research, and designed spaceports to shuttle machinery and astronauts to these lunar bases and back. 
Tangram 3DS
To share that vision with the next generation of scientists, and to drum up the support to fund such incredible missions, XArc wanted to visualize their ambitions with 3D renders and animation. The XArc designers and engineers rely on their strong partnership with the team at Tangram 3DS to understand their concepts and translate them into engaging visuals. I spoke with three of the principal artists from Tangram 3DS, who created the newest trailer for XArc’s non-profit WEX Foundation, to discuss the unique challenges and creative processes in working with engineers on this new frontier of space exploration.

 Leading the charge in designing and visualizing these out-of-this-world feats of engineering in 3D is Jacques Pena, the director of VRX at Tangram. 

“Our bread and butter is architecture visualization. From the arch viz standpoint we have experience in real-world construction efforts. Industrial, residential, you name it. We visualize things that don’t yet exist for two primary purposes: to help with future problem-solving and to draw in support and funding. The same applies to lunar colonies. Of course, it comes with its own unique challenges.” 

Tangram 3DS
Normally when working in the architectural visualization pipeline, a project comes with an abundance of photos, CAD drawings, elevations, and real-world references for design, materials, and construction. Working with the engineers at XArc presented a new challenge: to model machines, structures, and technology that are 100% conceptual. The process demanded a highly collaborative effort, pairing XArc’s engineering vision with Jacque's expertise in 3D visualization. 

“If I was fortunate, I was working from engineering blueprints or one of the small models used in the foundation’s educational programs for the more complex machinery. Everything needed to be functional. I was often given a description and concept. From there I had to work with Sam and his team to settle on a working skeleton and use what I knew about architecture and mechanical design to generate the basic form and function. Once we had gone back and forth on the framework, I needed to build it in 3D as it would be constructed in real life. It required functional details, moving parts, and fastenings that normally you don’t focus on since you don’t see them. It was important to maintain an authentic design. I needed to create something that felt believable and tangible. If it is too science fiction, it feels made up. It all had to be grounded in the real world.”

Unusual new modeling considerations for outer space fabrication like weight, material, style, and modularity all pushed Jacques to overcome the persistent challenge of how to do the most with the least. XArc has crafted new methods of web-weave-style frameworks for construction to reduce overall weight and allow automated assembly on-site. Replicating those unique methods meant Jacques needed to understand more about how the machines and structures were built and what materials were being used in their construction. 

“I got to learn a lot, probably too much, about building stuff on the moon. One of the most costly and challenging aspects of any exploration into space is weight. You can’t bring everything to the moon. When discussing what things were made of, we had to always factor that in. New ideas could mean a new, lighter material. With that came redesigning. Being flexible and agile with changing designs was hugely important as we worked together. “
Tangram 3DS
That spirit of collaboration is a core value that Jacques appreciates about working with Sam Ximenes and the other designers with XArc. Working with XArc provided a chance for Jacques to bring his own design sensibilities and inspiration to the table. Much of his inspiration was pulled from minimalist architecture and classic NASA design. When developing the temporary, inflatable lunar habitats Jacques knew the construction needed to be modular, light, and functional. The body of the habitat required a rigid skeleton to maintain its shape and durability. The walls were designed to be inflatable to reduce the weight of the construction materials and make assembling them easier. Jacques used basic shapes in order to build a model that almost resembles a caterpillar, with jointed segments and soft hexagonal curves. On the inside, racks of greenhouse shelves illustrate one way in which the interior could be used while open spaces leave room for scientists to imagine how other areas could be used for research and habitation needs. 

“The canister design of the cavern habitat is one that I believe most strongly in. It’s simple, modular, and functional. It felt the most tangible to me when all was said and done.”

Tangram 3DS
Tangram 3DS
Tangram 3DS
Tangram 3DS
Tangram 3DS
Tangram 3DS
In contrast to the conceptual design challenges of the habitats and technology being deployed to the moon and its caves, the moon’s surface presented aesthetic challenges. With a single light source and very little in the way of visual variety, Jacques needed to capture the detail of the surface and make it visually engaging while keeping in mind practical considerations like file size and rendering time. 

"I wanted to make something that looked like a shot from the film ‘Moon’ starring Sam Rockwell. We had a lot of angles, some very wide shots of the landscape, and trying to get a well-balanced displacement to cover all of it at once was far too demanding on the scene. To prevent repeating textures or having to settle on something low-resolution I had to pivot to a more modular technique.”

Jacques created a low poly environment as the landscape’s base to provide the backbone of the scene. Referencing 3D storyboards, Jacques modeled separate pieces of the background with varying levels of geometry in order to achieve high levels of detail at various camera distances as the storyboards dictated. Details had to be localized with high-resolution maps that could be relocated and edited specifically for different shots. Once the modular displacement sections were completed, Jacques relied on the use of the Forest Pack plugin (IToo Software) to populate the terrain with rocks and debris. Of course, modeling the moon is only half of the battle as Jacques discovered a new lighting challenge before him. 

“Here’s what sucks about the moon…there is no atmosphere, there is no GI, and only one key light: the Sun. I had to find the right compromise between what is realistic and accurate lighting on the moon with creating something more visually appealing.” 

Tangram 3DS
Leveraging Vray as his rendering engine, Jacques needed to both recreate the reality of the moon’s surface and give it a cinematic edge that captured the imagination of viewers. Starting with the sun as the key light he needed to fill where normally the atmosphere and global illumination would help balance the lighting. Jacques strategically placed filler lights where necessary, pushing beyond what is realistic for a more striking look.

 “Of course realism is always our goal...this was a situation where reality surrendered to practicality.” 

The end result is one that shares the hard shadows and one-directional light you would see on the moon, without becoming flat.
Tangram 3DS
While lunar landing pads and research habitats for astronauts are something XArc is designing for modern lunar missions, they also need to sell their dream of what expansive and high-level lunar colonization might look like in the future. Jacques had to visualize concepts for automated robotic arms zooming along scaffolding, constructing the domed research base in the Marius Hills Skylight crater, a massive underground warehouse where crops are grown and harvested by cranes, and even a futuristic apartment complex showing normal people thriving with creature comforts in a lunar cavern. None of those locations or constructions were drafted or designed. 

“For the apartment building, Sam knew he liked the imagery of simple, minimalistic boxes so I took that and got to experiment with an architectural design that normally I am not a part of. For those renders, I had to fill in a lot of empty space between the concept and the final execution. It is always a treat when you aren’t just trying to deliver the client’s vision but also adding your own ideas to the broader picture.”

Tangram 3DS
Tangram 3DS’ goal with all of their XArc projects has been to create a vision of space exploration and lunar habitation that feels exciting and aspirational but also attainable. After all, Ximenes’ WEX Foundation’s mission is to inspire and be a springboard for the next generation of astronauts and engineers who will continue to carry humanity further into the stars. 

 “I had a lot of creative freedom to create an exciting story. Each frame was originally storyboarded in 3D, so I was able to help frame the content in a dramatic way. Sam didn’t give much direction aside from a concept and the goal: inspire aspiring scientists and attract funding. I didn’t have a lot of time in the animation to explain how things worked, all the explanation needed to be in the visuals.” 

For the engineers working at XArc in cooperation with NASA, we play an important role in the process of early problem-solving and funding. By visualizing designs and construction in 3D, engineers save time and money without having to mock up something that will need to be rebuilt. The visuals created in 3D can also help sell the dream of people like Sam Ximenes and inspire investors and drum up support to help make those dreams a reality. I asked Jacques his thoughts on the scope and impact of Tangram 3DS’ work on this extraordinary vision and he had these final thoughts:

“...the future of how we gather resources, colonizing new places to live beyond our planet, and continuing expansion of human exploration into the stars begins with what we do on the moon. Technology is evolving and the direction it takes us not only as a species but as 3D artists in the future is astronomical. A much grander experience than the standard arch viz project. It’s vital. The possibilities are endless."

Tangram 3DS

Tangram 3DS

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Tangram 3DS artists go into detail on the process of translating conceptual designs for lunar exploration to 3D in a stunning new trailer for X-Arc and the WEX Foundation.

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About the author

Kyle Ouellette

Senior Architectural Visualizer & Project Manager at Tangram 3DS

placePortsmouth, US