By Jeff Mottle

Architecture as an Art Form

Inspired by great filmmakers, Italian Artist Paolo Zambrini delivers architectural visualizations that transcend design and evoke emotion

By Claudia Kienzle

Italian Artist Paolo Zambrini pushes beyond the expected, delivering archviz that tells stories and creates visual drama. Rather than just seeing the attributes of a building, he wants viewers to be drawn into a virtual experience—one that all but places them there. Inspired by the fantastical and surreal themes from filmmakers like David Lynch, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Frederico Fellini, Zambrini wants his clients to elicit strong emotional responses to his work.

Zambrini’s CG archviz renderings are a blend of painterly and photorealism but he strives to convey a particular style or mood in his projects, such as contemporary, futuristic, edgy, avant-garde, and even the gloomy, ominous overtones of an impending storm. He relies on LightWave 3D software to help tell his story.

“Architecture has a lot to do with emotions. Good architecture always works on the emotional side of those who perceive it and live it. Sadly, you can’t get this aspect of a project before it’s built, and that’s where we come into play,” said Zambrini, whose architectural visualization company Engram Studio, in Faenza, Italy, has grown from one to five artists since he founded it in 1990.

“I feel architectural illustration can become boring if it’s limited to a purely straightforward rendering approach. When the project allows, I tend to use a little sunlight, water in some form, and a subtle sense of abandonment and decay,” Zambrini added. 

Engram Studio’s CG renderings can be 3D stills, highly imaginative virtual sets, or 3D animated movie clips that take viewers on a virtual tour, flying through, around and over the architectural structures. In what he terms a synaesthetic or multisensory experience, viewers see the CG building as alive with people walking around, interacting, playing, working and living in the space. 

“My intention is to not only depict architectural spaces, but to suggest something else beyond, which is not necessarily connected with the image itself, like an emotion or a perception that can be even in contrast with the object or image,” Zambrini said. “Adjusting tonal ranges, manipulating the direction and quality of light, or connecting unrelated things to the object are just some of the ways we can use to evoke settling or unsettling perceptions.”

But Zambrini is quick to point out that CG architectural visualization is a business, and a very competitive one at that. As creative and expressive as he and his team like to be, they must still deliver what their clients—typically architects, construction companies and real estate developers—are asking for on time and on budget. In many cases, they must first participate in shoot-out competitions against other firms like his to get the job.

“Most of the projects we’ve done resulted from competitions, and presenting high-quality work is no longer enough to stand out,” Zambrini said. “Our strategy is to associate the image of an architectural structure or space with a strong feeling to show the clients a wider aspect of a building project, not just how it looks, but also how it will make you feel. Or how I imagine it will make me feel. Usually this is a winning strategy for us. I can’t say how well it helps sell buildings, but I can say it helps our clients in winning competitions.” 

Besides drawing on his painting and fine art skills—and his architectural studies while in college—Zambrini likes to blend cinematic aesthetics, environmental elements like water, rain, fog, and sunlight, and photorealistic techniques that place CG architectural structures credibly within their surroundings. He draws a lot of inspiration from his home town, Faenza—a small city near Bologna, Italy—which is rich with beautiful vistas like mountains, seas and tree-lined meadows, and weather ranging from cold, snowy winters to hot, sunny summers with rain and fog.

“One thing I always do when I start a work is to look for inspiring images, which can be photos, other renderings, movies, anything, and try to put some impressions together. This helps a lot in moving in a precise direction, instead of going ahead try by try,” Zambrini said. For LightWave artists just starting out, he says the key thing to get inspiration is to bypass what the market puts in front of you (music, cinema, media or whatever) and try to find and discover without being conditioned—in other words indulging in a process of self-discovery.

“Composition is fundamental to the process, and we use several criteria to determine if an image will look good or not. One particularly important consideration is image proportions. It can totally change what your image will convey emotionally,” Zambrini said. “Light is also extremely important. One tip is that we tend to use as little sun as possible, working instead with indirect light and its hues, which make an image emotionally more subtle.”

At Engram Studio, LightWave 3D is the primary CG system because it has all the tools and features they need to handle complex projects and do creative problem solving—which encompasses CG modeling, lighting, animation, and rendering—extremely quickly and precisely. Engram uses the latest LightWave 3D build supplemented by third-party software like Adobe Photoshop and After Effects for visual effects, matte painting, color correction, and other post processing. 

They also rely heavily upon LightWave plug-ins, like LWCAD (from WTools3D), which provides unique CAD tools for creating CG buildings in minutes; and Kray (from MindBerries/Poland), a Global Illumination (GI) renderer that allows fast, accurate rendering of scenes where indirect light, reflections, caustics, blurring, and other lighting effects play an important role. 

Engram’s toolbox also contains third-party software for specific animation tasks, such as JimmyRig, which enables fast rigging and animation of CG people and other characters as well as giving artists latitude in modifying their models and motion. They also regularly use plugins by Dennis Pontonnier (DP) that allow them to create realistic skies ranging from sunny to twilight along with the realistic reflections and highlights those lighting conditions would cast on objects and surfaces. The Pontonnier series includes Sun Sky, Sky Light, and Sun Spot, among other plugins widely used in CG work, especially architectural visualization.

Each Engram operator has a I7-CPU workstation with top of the line NVIDIA graphics cards, 16GB of RAM, side-by-side monitors, and access to a central network attached storage (NAS) system and a 10 PC render farm. LightWave’s workflow lets multiple operators work on different aspects of the same scene simultaneously so the workload can be distributed efficiently between them. 

While they occasionally dabble in medical and industrial animations, most of the workload involves architectural illustration of which 30% are actually architectural CG movies rather than just stills. These animated movies—clips running a few minutes long—typically incorporate CG animated people, vegetation, rigged cars, buildings, skies, lighting, to name just a few of the elements the artists composite into the CG architectural scenes. 

“Since we rarely have time to model and rig objects from scratch, manage weight maps, and other time-intensive CG tasks, what we need are “finger-snap” solutions that let us work very fast on large, polycount scenes without quality compromises,” he added. 

Zambrini says that LightWave’s Modeler gives artists the flexibility to edit objects, polys, and points at the same time—rather than restricting them to a more procedural CG approach—and this is one of the ways the system boosts productivity. And the LightWave platform also integrates tools that are especially helpful to architectural modeling specifically including: precise and complete snapping, advanced interactive cut operations, displacement and weight maps, schematic view/scene editor, materials management and control, energy conservation nodes, among others. 

Zambrini says that nodal materials editors are critical to architectural visualization: “You cannot create energy conserving materials with legacy materials editors, at least not without a lot of effort. To get realistic looking materials, nodes are a must. LightWave’s Delta node is extremely simple and effective in creating extremely believable materials with ease.” Delta materials, one of LightWave’s many Material nodes, helps artists create physically accurate surfaces faster and easier than they could before.

Another challenge LightWave helps overcome is creating photorealistic CG grass and other vegetation. LightWave’s Instancing feature can help create a lot of vegetation, such as a grassy lawn, without imposing a computational burden at render time. But if not lit properly, CG vegetation can end up looking like paper, glass, or plastic rather than an organic substance. Zambrini says, “This is because it’s not easy to find the right balance of diffusion, reflection and translucency, and most users think that translucency works with global illumination (GI), which it does not, so workarounds are needed.” 

Zambrini uses DP’s Sun Sky, Sun Light and GI as the basis of the daylight system for the whole scene. Then for vegetation, he suggests making a separate setup where you exclude vegetation from GI—by disabling radiosity from the Object/Lights panel—so the vegetation doesn’t get any light from background or bounced light. But it will still cast diffuse shadows on the terrain since you keep radiosity ON in the Object/Render tab.

About this, Zambrini says there’s an important difference between the two types of GI switches that artists need to understand. If you disable the GI switch in the Render tab, the object will still be lighted by GI (but object will not affect GI on the rest of the scene), whereas if you disable the GI switch in the Light tab, the object will NOT be lighted by GI (but will still affect GI on the rest of the scene).

Vegetation—which should be excluded from GI—is lit by DP Sun and a dedicated DP Sky Light (a special dome light that casts the same light as Sun Sky but in a direct way). Zambrini adds, “Exclude everything BUT vegetation from this light. This trick avoids having useless GI light bouncing into vegetation and long irradiance cache computation on leaves, plus it will give you extremely precise shadows between leaves that you couldn’t otherwise get with GI. Again, DP Sky Light is a direct light, so leaves' translucency will work with it, while it wouldn’t using Sun Sky and GI unless you make a nodal setup, which will render more slowly.” Using a direct dome light with no GI is also the key to faster, better vegetation. 

Another big issue when you have a lot of vegetation is blurred reflection on leaves. If you use DP Sky Light, Zambrini said, you could totally disable reflection and use specularity instead. Since DP Sky Light is a dome light (or hemisphere), specularity will act just like a reflection. So if there are buildings or other objects blocking the sky from vegetation, specularity takes shadows into account (exactly like diffusion). So occluded leaves will not have specularity, exactly as would happen with true reflections. Zambrini adds, “This setup will give you better results than any other setups. We know because we’ve tried dozens. And it will probably render faster than any other setup as well.” 

For Engram Studio, vegetation is a key factor in making exteriors look realistic. Zambrini says the challenge is to creating very realistic, pleasant vegetation is to achieve a subtle balance between saturation, shininess and translucency, and even a small deviation from this can make the vegetation look like paper, plastic, glass or some other undesirable result.

Realistic skies are also an important consideration in Engram’s archviz compositions. Rather than composite skies into the scenes in post, they now prefer to render spherical maps onto spheres. This makes the skies and their reflections more coherent. Zambrini said, “Nothing destroys an image faster than a sky that doesn’t accurately match the sky’s lighting and hues.”

To optimize rendering time, Engram uses LightWave’s VPR (Viewport Preview Renderer), which allows artists to preview how key elements like scene lighting will look after full rendering is completed so they can experiment with different looks and fine tune creative changes interactively. “Super fast and flexible, the VPR totally changed our workflow and allows us to get better results in less time,” Zambrini said. “There are very few other CPU engines with an interactive solution as efficient as VPR. Free render nodes are also a big benefit, and overall, LightWave is a very budget savvy tool, which—in these times—is a very important factor.” Finally the exceptionally supportive LightWave community provides a lot of free tools, which he says improve the value and experience of working with LightWave.

In the future, Zambrini sees a number of key trends. For his business, there’s the need to compete with archviz artists and firms around the world, even in places where the work can be done more cheaply than in the EU or America. 

And stylistically he sees a split between realistic renderings—the style that will dominate for furniture, products and interior design elements—and illustrative renderings—a graphical interpretation of architecture.  However, he adds, “One thing we’re increasingly asked for is situational rendering. This is the storytelling component that creates a whole atmosphere, such as what the people are doing in the CG scene and what likely happened before and after the shoot.”

And while the future is hard to predict, Zambrini said, “We’re likely to see architectural visualizations that involve more interactivity, such as walking in a realistic CG movie and interacting with people, things and immersive technologies.” 


Claudia Kienzle is a creative technology writer whose articles regularly appear in leading U.S. and international trade magazines.

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hi, vegetation is seen by GI (so trees cast diffuse shadows around). I'm saying vegetation is not LIT by GI, since unless you use a BF+BF solution, you'll get washed out results. Veg is just lit by a dedicated dome, no need of GI bounces if you have a good direct light and a good shader which handles translucency.
Hhm.. the part about disabling GI for being calculated within vegetation seems to be a good tip. Should be the checkbox in objects' vray properties "visible to GI > off" for Vray in 3DS, right. Actually I dont get the point why there should be a different light setup - but I'm not used to LW anyways. My point is now: excluding GI visibility (light just passes through objects, therefor is not being tracked) should be enough for speeding up calculating bounces??
I think that is i7 cpu's. But 17 cpu's per workstation would be nice.
Great article, always loved Lightwave, but went to the Dark Side many moons ago. 17 cpu's, per work station, sounds nice. Crackin work lads.

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Inspired by great filmmakers, Italian Artist Paolo Zambrini delivers architectural visualizations that transcend design and evoke emotion

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Jeff Mottle

Founder at CGarchitect

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