Making Of

By Lon Grohs

Assembly Studios visualizes a new London landmark

Discover how the remarkable 40 Leadenhall project came to life and the creative process behind it.

40 Leadenhall visualization Assembly Studios
As a leading visualization studio, Assembly Studios is always pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in CGI. As part of their latest project, 40 Leadenhall, their team created a stunning set of renderings, a virtual reality experience, and three films. Assembly Studios partner Jon Wells describes the challenges of visualizing such a complex building and how the team brought it to life. We also get an inside look at what it's like to work at Assembly Studios, where collaboration and creativity are key.
Where is the project located?
The project will be built on Leadenhall Street in London's insurance district. The building is surrounded by famous landmarks like 122 Leadenhall Street and 52 Lime Street. For reference, 122 Leadenhall was designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners and is better known as The Cheesegrater* because of its iconic triangular shape. And 52 Lime Street by KPF is better known as the Scalpel because of its angular design. That places 40 Leadenhall (nicknamed Gotham City by some) in good company when it comes to neighborhood landmarks.
*It's rumored that when London's Chief Planning Officer, Peter Rees, saw the model of 122 Leadenhall, he said he could imagine his wife using it to grate Parmesan! And the Cheesegrater nickname was born.
40 Leadenhall visualization by Assembly Studios
Who was the architect for the project?
The building was designed by Make Architects, founded in 2004 by architect Ken Shuttleworth. Ken had previously been a partner at the esteemed architecture firm Foster+Partners where he designed several iconic buildings, including 30 St. Mary Axe—also known as The Gherkin due to London's love of nicknaming buildings. Make Architects was founded with the mission to design the best places, spaces, and buildings in the world, and they've delivered a truly remarkable design that's soon to become one of the most recognizable structures in London.
What inspired the design?
The building's design is inspired by the Bauhaus movement as well as the classic skyscrapers of New York and Chicago. To preserve its historic surroundings, the building's design respects its Grade II listed neighbor at 19-21 Billiter Street and protects the views of St. Paul's Cathedral. The building consists of several stepped blocks with the tallest part reaching 34 stories. Measuring 909,600 square feet, 40 Leadenhall is one of the biggest buildings ever to receive planning permission in the City of London. Once complete, nearly 10,000 people will call this new landmark home.
What was your work on the project?
Our brief was to work alongside the branding agency to deliver all the CG and digital content to launch the marketing of the building. At the start of the project, we were asked to deliver a suite of content to market the building, the offices, and the amenities. The initial scope included 16 images, a VR tour, and a film. Once the project is complete, we'll have delivered almost 40 images, a VR tour, and three films.
We originally scheduled the project to take six months, but as we added more scope to include the retail and restaurant spaces, it became apparent we would need more time. We ended up working on and off the project for about 18 months. Most of our team has had some input into the project at various stages, and there's been a core team of three or four artists involved from start to finish. 40 Leadenhall was a huge project for us, and it's great to see everyone's hard work pay off in the end.
Can you walk us through how you created the nighttime aerial rendering?
We took a systematic approach to create the renderings for this project. For each image, we started by doing some research and collecting specific references. We studied the camera angles, lighting, and materiality, which helped us to produce a good set of compositions. From there, we worked on refining the details and making sure that everything looked right.
For the night aerial image, we tested nearly 30 compositions to find the best view. For each option, we studied the site, the building, and the best time of day. Then we rendered drafts of each view, showing the context in white and adding materiality just to the building's main shell. This technique helped the building stand out and let us see how the metal cladding would react to different times of day. We selected the most striking shot with the client and gave the aerial photographer specific directions to capture the background image.
Next, we prepared the background photo with a bit of straightening and post-processing. Then, in 3ds Max, we camera-matched the photo backplate with the view of the 3D model. Once we matched the view, we started lighting the scene using the new Light Mix setup introduced in V-Ray 5. Light Mix helped us quickly fine-tune the lights to replicate the look and atmosphere of the background photo. 
After we found the right lighting, we added lots of details to the context to help the photo blend with the render. The first step was to model the site surroundings, including the roads and landscape. After that, we added people and cars to activate the streetscape. In addition, we texture mapped the context buildings around the new development to help us create the correct reflections on the building. Once we completed the site, we focused on what was happening inside the building. We added 3D furniture and light fixtures to all the floors and populated the terraces with outdoor furniture and people. All of these extra details make the project come alive.
After completing the 3D work, we moved on to post-production, which turned out to be the most challenging part. Our base render consisted of several light mix layers blended together, and we used masks to fine-tune different parts of the image. To make the building stand out as a focal point, we created a slight halo around it to fade back the existing context and enhance the building.
Can you tell us about your recent presentation at 3D London?
Our team likes to stay connected with the local and broader 3D community, and we often share at industry events like D2 and 3D London. During a recent 3D London meetup, we presented a non-commissioned image we created based on a topic that's become increasingly important to us: How to feel more artistic in archviz.
Sometimes we feel like we have to compromise on the artistic side of an image to meet the clients' demands. But we asked ourselves, is this really necessary? What if we could demonstrate to our clients that daytime views that show the entire building without shadows and a fully lit façade aren't the only way to market a project?
Assembly Studios
So we worked on a hero shot of an imaginary skyscraper that we designed in-house. We imagined the building in a London setting without a client's restrictions. We then created imagery based on our own inspiration and artistry. It was a joy to have the freedom to design whatever we wanted and to see it come to life in the final image.
Next, we analyzed the results to see if it would work for our clients and if we could implement this new approach into our workflow. I’d say it was a successful experiment for our artists and marketing team that's proven to be successful with the audience as well.
What tools do you typically use?
Our everyday toolset includes 3ds Max, V-Ray, Corona, Forest Pack, Railclone, and Photoshop. We also use Unreal to create real-time experiences and interactive projects. Of course, we use photography quite a bit too. 40 Leadenhall was the first project where we used V-Ray 5 for 3ds Max and took advantage of its new light mix capabilities.
Are there any particular tools that you can't live without?
We can't live without the tools from iToo Software, especially Railclone. It helps us model architectural details fast and efficiently. For some projects, we try to model the entire building using Railclone so it’s easy to make changes when clients give us feedback.
What’s it like to work at Assembly Studios?
At Assembly Studios, our company culture revolves around a few key principles. 
  • We are creative in everything we do. 
  • We are passionate about the work we produce and the industry as a whole. 
  • We deliver amazement to our clients with our ideas, work, and commitment to the project. 
  • And we create a culture of team spirit and have fun along the way. 
Assembly Studios
Assembly Studios
Assembly Studios
Assembly Studios
Assembly Studios
Are there open opportunities at Assembly Studios?
At the moment, we are looking to expand our team and are searching for skilled artists. Ideally, we would like to find artists with at least two years of experience in the architectural visualization industry. If you or anyone you know might be interested, take a look at our CGarchitect job posting.
What's Next?
We're excited to be working on several interesting projects at the moment. Our team is currently working on commercial projects in London, a new resort in Montenegro, and a luxury residential project on the Palm in Dubai.
Our team will also be presenting at the D2 Vienna, and we hope to see you there.

Assembly Studios

We create interactive experiences for the built environment
About Assembly Studios
Assembly Studios is a creative agency based in London and Abu Dhabi that works on a wide range of projects, from local independent design briefs to large-scale international campaigns. The company works alongside architects, interior designers, design agencies, and real estate developers worldwide. Notable clients include OMA, U+I, Chelsfield, and the Berkeley Group. Among the many well-known projects the team has completed are the London 2012 Olympics, Battersea Power Station, Cargo, Mayfield, and 30 St. Mary Axe (aka The Gherkin designed by Foster+Partners).
Assembly Studios
Assembly Studios
Assembly Studios
Assembly Studios is a team of 18 creatives who produce computer-generated images, animations, real-time applications, and interactive experiences for the built environment. These CG artists, designers, developers, strategists, and client services reps all work together to create content that brings the architecture of new places and unbuilt spaces to life. The studio aims to produce the highest quality visuals and experiences to help clients visualize and build excitement around upcoming projects. Some recent examples of their work include an immersive application for a new mixed-use development in Manchester and a virtual reality experience that allows users to explore a renovated office tower in Canary Wharf. 
With their deep understanding of the latest technology and strong collaborative approach, Assembly Studios continues to create groundbreaking work that shapes how we experience the built and unbuilt environments.
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About this article

As a leading visualization studio, Assembly Studios is always pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in CGI. As part of their latest project, 40 Leadenhall, their team created a stunning set of renderings, a virtual reality experience, and three films. Assembly Studios partner Jon Wells describes the challenges of visualizing such a complex building and how the team brought it to life.

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About the author

Lon Grohs

Director of Creative & Communications at Chaos

placeLos Angeles, US