By Jeff Mottle

Interview with Keely Colcleugh from Kilograph

Interview with Keely Colcleugh from Kilograph
By Jeff Mottle

CGA:  Tell me a little bit about your background and how you got into the industry and how Kilograph got started.

Keely:  I was trained as an architect. I went to McGill University in Montreal for my undergraduate degree in architecture. Upon graduating, I worked for Skidmore Owings & Merrill in San Francisco. Then I went on from there to work for OMA. It was a circuitous path. I ended up at Bruce Mau Design in Toronto, where I became more interested in the storytelling aspects of architectural design.

The work at OMA was very visual. I was also working at AMMO, the research division of OMA, at the time. The experience definitely drew me away from architecture with capital A. My experience at Bruce Mau was also quite decisive. Lots of things we were experimenting with at the studio piqued my interest; animation, film, real-time video, exhibition design, a lot of different ways of communicating ideas.

Doha international airport city competition - morphosis architect 2010-2011
Images of the Command and Control center at the proposed new airport

Eventually, I decided that I really should get into film, move myself down to Los Angeles and try it out, which is what I did. I left architecture completely and then was working in the film industry for about four years as a previsualization artist. When my partner and I moved to Paris to work, I was working at BUF Compagnie, which is a large visual effects company in Paris, as a producer. I received a call from a mutual friend at Atelier Jean Nouvel who said that they were looking for someone to join their 3D group. I was hesitant, having left the world, enjoying this career in film. But I went in to talk to them.

I was just so excited by the visual way they present their work and by the emphasis that they place on narrative and on imagery that I decided to take the leap and rejoin the world of architecture in a way as a visualization artist. It was interesting and daunting thinking that you know everything there is to know, being in film, about those effects, but realizing that architectural visualization is a whole other field entirely with its own rigors and its own set of demands.

But I really loved it. I spent two and a half years there before we moved back to California, and I just decided that that was the perfect mix of all the things that I’ve always been interested. I started Kilograph upon returning to Los Angeles. That’s how I got started, and everything else is history from there. The past two or three years, it’s just been trying to make a go of it.

CGA:  It sounds like you’ve been fairly involved with visualization right from the very beginning, so the transition into film and then back into storytelling within architecture wasn’t that big of a leap, then.

Keely:  It wasn’t, actually. Even for my thesis at McGill back in 1996, I was playing around with early versions of Max, trying to experiment with animation, fighting with technology. I definitely had an interest in it from the very beginning.

CGA:  Do you think having worked in the film industry and then having gone back into visualization has afforded you in any additional knowledge that’s made it easier for you to work in the field of visualization? 

Keely:  I think easier and more difficult. Knowing a lot more about your client’s process makes you more sympathetic to it, accepting change to the last minute because you’ve been there, which makes it more difficult for us to stick to rigid timelines. But also understanding the rigor associated with it. Working with certain types of firms, you begin to expect that level from your own work. I think it’s a mix. It’s a blessing and a curse.

Doha international airport city competition - morphosis architect 2010-2011
Images of the Command and Control center at the proposed new airport

CGA:  How involved do you guys get in the actual design process itself?  Obviously, you’re a trained architect and have worked in that field. Do they allow you to get involved in that process as an artist? 

Keely:  Absolutely. I think rendering and visualization is always an act of translation in many ways. We tend to work on, or we did at least for our first year and a half, competitions where it’s almost expected that you’re helping with certain aspects the design. The Doha airport that we did with Morphosis was very much a collaboration when it came to the visual style. We would set up cameras and those cameras would go back to the architects. They would look at their projects in a new way.

We’re very involved, I would say. It’s something that I think is an essential part of doing a good job as a visualization artist. Being an architect helps. My partner is an architect with his own firm and we share the same office space. It’s great for us. We can visualize some of his work and he helps us with architectural models. So on the technical side, it’s also very helpful.

CGA:  It sounds like, unlike a lot of other visualization companies, you’re actually more heavily involved in the early stages of the design process and helping them visualize then.

Keely:  Definitely. Often, we’ll just get sketches or verbal descriptions. We’re starting to do work with larger scale contractors, and building developers. They often just say to us, “We want such and such.”  Then we just have to throw it back to them. It’s fun for us.

On the other side of things, we’ve done some work with large corporate architecture firms who send us their 3ds Max models and it’s all very prescriptive. These clients are still very demanding however, which always produces great work from us. Most, like SOM, expect a certain ambiance from their images. It is very technical visualization work. It runs the gamut.

First Kilograph rendering: Military Museum in the UAE for morphosis 2009

CGA:  What other type of work are you guys asked to do? 

Keely:  We’re getting some advertising work, working with photographers here in Los Angeles, helping them with some of their more challenging campaigns, which has been interesting for us. It’s not something we’ve done before. I mentioned earlier we have done work for contractors and developers , we are also getting asked to do visualizations of building and construction systems as well as lighting studies for some engineering firms.

It’s been a tough year finding work, so we’ve expanded our boundaries and begun to work in other fields, which I think is really helping us with our core visualization skills.

CGA:  That seems to be a common thread amongst most visualization firms these days. Is the core of your work still architecture, or is it moving more and more away from that now? 

Keely:  It’s actually coming back to architectural work. This past year, we’ve gone and done a lot of other things, but we’re getting some more interesting commissions from architecture firms whose work we really appreciate. That’s exciting to us. Often, those firms are very interested in experimentation and developing new visual styles. It’s a lot of fun.

CGA:  Looking at your portfolio online, it all has a very similar, cohesive look. It’s your signature style, I would say. What do you think makes up that style? What treatment do you do to your images and your animations? 

Keely:  I think a lot of the visual style, or ambiance, comes from work that I did at Nouvel’s. We were taught there that light is the most important thing in the image composition, so really trying to understand where the light is in a certain location helps avoid the cookie cutter look that you often see in CG renderings. Animations are something that we’re trying to do more and more of. We’re actually working on a pretty large project right now. It’s an education for us. Trying to create the same ambience in an animation that you can achieve in a rendering is a challenge, but it’s exciting.

We were using Mach Studio when it first came out to try and create an animation in a seriously compressed timeframe. Due to the project schedule we were forced to use a real-time render solution. We were surprised at the amazing qualities of light that you could get out of the real-time engine.

Images for SWA and Warren office of research and design. The project is a landscape city/ new urban center in China. XinYang development project

CGA:  I was familiar with the Mach Studio and the guys over there. You’re not using it at all anymore? 

Keely:  No we aren't using it anymore. It was one of the earlier real time engines and we just weren't able to incorporate that very specific workflow into our projects. We are still interested in realtime engines however and it seems there are more and more options for architectural visualization that are very exciting.

We’ve recently extended our render farm, so we have been able to just do rendered animations the old fashioned way which is sometimes a little bit more straightforward.

CGA:  How much of your work is out of the renderer versus the post work to apply the treatment? 

Keely:  I’d say probably maybe 40% rendering, 60% post for most of our work. When I was at Nouvel’s, it was probably 20% rendering. We use Photoshop and After Effects, but for very, very quick jobs, it’s not uncommon to just render very simple polygonal geometry and do the rest in post production.

CGA:  How does that affect changes when they come down the line? Do you find that easier or harder to do when it’s all in post? 

Keely:  It really depends on the job and it depends on the client. If you’re sure that it’s going to be very simple, straightforward back and forth, if you understand each other on the visual style – because it’s much harder to iteratively change things in Photoshop than it is to go back to the rendering. I find that it really depends on the situation.

Images for SWA and Warren office of research and design. The project is a landscape city/ new urban center in China. XinYang development project

CGA:  With all the changes that have happened in the industry over the last couple of years, some visualization companies made it and some did it. In your opinion, what makes for a successful visualization company in the current climate? 

Keely:  I think a company that’s really able to understand where the client’s going, to be able to translate that, to really create something that’s unique to that particular project. It’s a lot about communication, and I think our architectural background helps us there because we can talk the talk, so to speak, and understand perhaps certain terminologies and really appreciate the aesthetics of certain companies.

CGA:  What’s been the most rewarding project you worked on in the last couple of years? 

Keely:  We loved working on the airport project for Morphosis, but I think generally it’s the projects that really help us grow, the projects that push us to try new technologies like the Mach Studio. That was a real lesson for us and it taught us a lot of things about animation and lighting. For the lighting in Mach Studio it was a combination of studio lighting techniques from the visual effects world you’re employing, which teaches you proper lighting techniques and principles of lighting. I would say that the projects that really challenge us to try new software and new workflows.

CGA:  Are there any new software techniques or things that you’re working on right now? 

Keely:  We’re working on an animation for a large engineering and construction firm at the moment. We’re communicating through Navisworks models, and getting very involved in illustrating the technical aspects of building construction. This is interesting for us because we’ve never really gone there before.

It’s also exciting for us to get into this level of articulation with the animation work. It requires a deeper level of understanding of construction processes and the challenge of having to represent those in a way that’s very clear to their clients is exciting, but it’s also challenging.

Image for the Smithsonian aviation center by morphosis architects 2010. This is part of a series of images depicting a proposed interior intervention / renovation of an existing Smithsonian building.

CGA:  You’re talking about the work you’ve been doing, but what sort of projects would you like to be working on that you haven’t yet tried that would be interesting? 

Keely:  That’s a difficult question. We’re enjoying spreading our wings and working in other industries, but there are some other architectural projects we’d love to work on. I think projects that push the conceptual nature of what we do a bit more – there aren’t always that many opportunities to do that these days. Projects where we can really collaborate with our clients and achieve that shared vision. They are fewer and farther between. Really trying to develop the conceptual side of our imagery would help us, particularly in animation.

CGA:  Where do you look for inspiration when you create your pieces? 

Keely:  Photography, primarily. A good friend of ours is an architectural photographer and he’s always surprising us and inspiring us with the work that he does. He was just in our office a couple of weeks ago and showed us some work that he did for an exhibition in Milan. He primarily photographs Japanese architecture. The camera angles that he chooses and the nature of the work that he does is inspiring.
Coming from the visual effects world, I’m interested in the work of concept artists like Syd Mead. Then, of course, there are the people in the industry who we look up to like MIR and Luxigon.

CGA:  Where do you see the profession going in the next three to five years?  Obviously things have changed a lot in the last five years. Do you think a large shift is going to continue to happen or are we settled in where it’s going to stay? 

Keely:  It's interesting what’s happening. It seemed like for the past three years, people were going elsewhere for cheaper, mass-produced renderings. Those same clients are definitely seeming to come back a little bit, whether they’re dissatisfied with the level of service or whether the prices are going up there. I’m not really sure, but those same clients also have a very strong interest in animation. I think it’s going to become an integral part of what we do as visualization artists.

Having an animation pipeline is going to be essential, not just the simple slides for animation, but with visual sophistication and understanding techniques. Because everything’s visualized now, I’d say it goes across all industries.

CGA:  With your own clients, how important is have the actual lines of communication and being intimately involved in the whole process versus just, “Here’s the job we need done. We need it by Tuesday"?

Keely:  We’ve had the latter, too. It’s not as exciting to us, but depending on where we are, we’ll do that work as well. We definitely have fewer of those because I think people like the service where they like to have the conversation through images, so they prefer for it to be an iterative process almost always. But we have had people say, “Just render this.”  That’s not very exciting for either side.

CGA:  What’s been the most challenging part of your business in the last couple of years? You’ve only been up and running for a couple years now.

Keely:  Growing really quickly, you always have growing pains in figuring out a lot of the day to day workings of an office and trying to balance the timelines. We really enjoy working collaboratively with our clients because we understand their process, but it becomes difficult to remain sympathetic when you have an office and timelines and tight schedules.

Sticking to a schedule and being able to work until the last minute with people is becoming more difficult, but we still feel strongly about doing that somehow.

Lack of sleep is probably the most difficult thing. We have a two-year-old and that makes things a lot more interesting.

CGA:  You mentioned that you were going down to Lexington later this week with students coming into the industry. What do you think is important for them to know about the industry or learn before they come into the industry of visualization? 

Keely:  I think it’s important to obviously master the technical skills and keep in advance of all the tools and technologies that are out there, but good design is good design and if you don’t know how to tell a story with your images then it’s always going to be flat. I think looking to lots of other sources of inspiration, maybe film, but always looking at things with a visual eye.

When I started in the visual effects industry, my producer said, “Here’s a list of movies. I want you to watch them all with the sound turned off.” I thought, “That’s crazy.” But it’s really amazing what it does. You see things differently.

CGA:  If you were going to hire somebody, would you have more of an inclination to hire someone who had a strong art background who could tell a story, or somebody who had a really solid technical background? 

Keely: I think there’s always a mix in every office of those people, but we recently hired somebody that we found through your site, so thank you for that. They have incredible amounts of experience, quite a bit more than, I’d say, we do. He’s been working since the ‘80s in visualization. He was a painter and rendered by hand, primarily. I think that that’s something that the younger guys in the office can learn a lot from that approach. I think that’s something we value a lot, that ability to be an artist. I think that’s good strength for us.

CGA:  If you had to do it all over again, would you still stay in the architecture industry or go back into visual effects? 

Keely:  I would stay in it. Of course my parents always wanted me to be a doctor. But yes I think I’d stay in it for sure.

CGA:  Thank you very much for the interview Keely.

Keely:  Thank you, Jeff. It’s been fun.


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Thanks Jeff (and Keely) Very inspirational!
me as an architect i love this conversion i found it useful and interesting the most important points for me that i appreciated from Keely is understanding the nature of the client and what he thinking cause this is an important thing that every architect or a visualizer have to consider the other point is respecting the old techniques and believe that a good design its a combines between a concept and good presentation .. than x its really a story of success and keep groin Keely..

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I think a lot of the visual style, or ambiance, comes from work that I did at Nouvel’s. We were taught there that light is the most important thing in the image composition...

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About the author

Jeff Mottle

Founder at CGarchitect

placeCalgary, CA