Business In Arch Viz

By Jeff Mottle

Business in Arch Viz. Vol. 10 - Finding Your Look

 


Finding your look by Juraj Talcik

An approach for conscious image creation and better use of tools in managing your personal creative vision 

Ask the right questions

"So goes a proverb: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and he will never ask "What HDRi/LUT did you use?" ever again.

If there is one particular thing that visualizers have in common with photographers, it's that a lot of them are inadvertently asking the wrong questions, and that often leads to frustration on both sides. That is not just a trait of hobbyists or beginners, I am guilty of that myself after all these years! But I've learned to banish those thoughts, to better analyze what I am really interested in replicating, and then rely on my own skillset to realize it. This approach is something I would like to guide you through so that you can work with confidence yourself.

Why are there "wrong" questions? Because learning the answer to them wonít leave you in a more knowledgeable state in the true sense of the word. They're akin to asking "What camera did you use?" in day when even entry-level DSLR with a kit lens can make fantastic images. Heck, an iPhone photo can land you on the cover of glossy magazine or win you a photographic award!

Learning the name of the exact part of process or of a particular prop or tool will bring you as close to replicating the great image you admire as would buying the same chair and keyboard the artist used while sitting behind his workstation. The props or tools will merely show a potential, potential that the artists fulfilled themselves with their creative choices backed with experience.

The are no secrets to successful image

These questions will only set you up for failure and frustration. There is no elusive secret technique or hidden button to push (I've looked for them myself for way too long). Great creatives are almost never defined by such externalities as their choice of software, a particular technique such as HDRi, or which exact one or two buttons they push during post-production.

I am by no mean saying those aren't important. Great software that fits your preference, or high-quality HDRI domes that do their job correctly, are important parts of the creative workflow and their mastery can be crucial in executing your creative vision. You can't take a picture without having some sort of camera after all, but it's important to sort out the priorities and place the tools and techniques where they fit better - which is behind a conscious creative vision. 

The role of the software

The tools of the trade for the architectural visualizer have greatly evolved to a point where they are as unobtrusive as possible. Long gone are the days of tweaking loads of technical values and searching for the right formula that will save you from the morning horror of seeing splotches all over your image. All tools can make great images now, so you can't make a wrong choice. Consequently, none of the tools will produce great images for you all by themselves. This is a fantastic state of affairs because we want to focus squarely on the creative part, without enduring any unnecessary burden from the technical part.

I personally use Corona Renderer for the ease of use, which comes both as great integration into the host application like 3ds Max, and as great simplicity in producing clean, technically-correct images. It's the closest to the one-button dream solution, and capable whether you are a beginner or seasoned professional. 

The same applies to post-production software, whether you use it to paint the majority of your picture or just put some finishing tweaks to color and tones. 

With all that said, I would love to show you how I try to find my vision for projects and how I use my tools to craft the images afterwards to fulfill that vision.

The rest is not important for the look of your image! It's great that we have the freedom to not think about it anymore.

Lost in the Workflow

There are many established common workflows when it comes to architectural visualization, and some of them harken back too much to the technical nature of it. The biggest offender in my book is to overly focus on breaking things up into particular building blocks, i.e: "Lighting"/"Texturing"/"Post-Production"/etc.

When you divide your work into blocks like this in the very beginning, the image process becomes a technical puzzle, where you can easily get the feeling that you might be missing a crucial block in order to solve the puzzle. It may also lead you to give preference to a particular block to the detriment of the final image. A fantastic texturing job will never be able to save poorly lit and composed image that doesnít elicit any emotion.

It may also lead you into a needlessly strict linear path when being more flexible would yield a better result. Stacking layers on top of each other relegates the workflow to that of a painter - except the kind who is renovating their kitchen rather than one who is creating a work of art. I would like to propose an alternative that puts a slight twist on this.

Enter (Pre)visualization

The great photography pioneer Ansel Adams defined "visualization" as "the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure".

The complexity of early-age photography made visualizing your subject a crucial necessity. Knowing what composition and light you were going to capture was an important aspect of it, and while there is nothing wrong with simply capturing reality as it is with an unpremeditated push of a button, this concept of visualization is much closer to the work we do in CGI, and learning to harness its power can be very beneficial.

Cinematography took this purely psychological concept further, into the practical realm of prototyping, called "previs", experimenting with art direction such as lighting, composition, camera and placement in a looser more approximated set, before incurring the cost of full production.  I like to utilize both of these concepts heavily in our work in architectural CGI. Here is how I apply it in our studio:

The harder the start, the easier the finish

I am not ashamed to say that we brainstorm and play around with the scene in our studio as much as we end up spending time polishing the result to its final quality. This has proved to be a successful formula for us to keep the creative spirit and motivation high while delivering unique and good-looking images that both us and our clients are proud of.

If you want to cry that this is a luxury you can't afford, I would love to clarify that this isn't about wasting time daydreaming before starting the tools, but more about equalizing the priorities during the full length of production. The creative gains during conceptualization and experimentation will smoothen and shorten the following production and may save you from spiraling production costs that can result from excessive back-n-forth with an unhappy client later in the process.  

[Previsualization] -> [Scene mockup] -> [Applying the concept] -> [ Polishing up the successful concept]

Start with an Idea

Conceptualization isn't a set amount of stages or particular techniques. The process is individual for every artist and unique to every projectís needs. The main purpose is to think of the image. In our studio, Veronika and I consider what we want to achieve with the image first. Asking questions like: What are the strong elements of the project or the particular space to be portrayed? What sort of emotion should the image convey? What color palette and light would achieve that?

Lot of artists want the images to tell a story. I am not necessarily of the opinion that every image needs to strongly tell a story, and I feel this often leads to a forced narrative overtaking the image and overshadowing other qualities. But I do consider how each of the individual elements of the image contribute in meaningful ways. A hazy sunny morning light over a neatly unkempt bed can add a touch of life and a storytelling element to an otherwise sterile room. I imagine soft bright light washing over the room and a tamed palette of warm tones, and I get a mental image in my head of how I want to proceed with the image creation.

When building the vision for the image, I draw upon inspiration from a multitude of sources. There's a mental library of images in my head from personal experiences travelling and exploring, or a visual library of work from a multitude of media such as photography or cinematography, and so on. When drawing inspiration from the work of others, try not to just emulate them. Analyze and go deeper into why you love that particular inspiration.

Try to describe your vision. A bold composition, natural light, a focus on the XYZ element. It will remind you of the priorities during production and help you better communicate your ideas and your plan to your client.

Whether you merely keep this in your mind, or write it down, or create visual moodboards, all depends on you and the particular project. A strong moodboard can be a powerful weapon in winning over your clientís trust, granting you the much necessary creative freedom in executing your vision.

It's great to look for references elsewhere. Just aim broadly and look outside the field - photography, movies, paintings, etc. Perhaps subjects outside of architecture can give you ideas for your work (moody landscapes, colorful portraits...)

A small moodboard from a presentation to a client. If our ideas for mood, light, material and color palette, furniture and details fit together at this stage, making it fit together in a CGI scene will simply be a matter of craftsmanship!

  

A more agile approach

Armed with a vision, the next step is to quickly test it. It may live up to or even surpass its imagined potential - or it may fall like house of cards! It's therefore important not to focus on the details of the work yet.

To quickly build up a playground, we use premade content from our in-house asset library when possible, and creating a simple approximation when not. I donít believe in testing in isolation. A "Clay" stage, which is the "naked" model of a scene with a white/grey material, is used at best for early composition or architecture sign-off, but not to test lighting, due to its very inaccurate portrayal of light; dark painted walls, overly rich colored props or reflective flooring can drastically alter the interaction of the light in the scene, and a clay render will not capture any of that.

With the help of physically correct shaders, this situation can be easily amended. Without wasting time on complex shaders and gathering high-resolution texture sources (which at this point wouldnít contribute much), I use a simple color or diffuse texture and approximate the specular reflection (just "matte"/"semi"/ or "polished"), giving me a preview close to how the final scene will look. Those are two clicks that can make all the difference.

The faster I build the set, the sooner I can walk through it as virtual photographer!

Both the clay and final image above use the same light setup. I created the light with the materials in place, since the one on the left isn't very useful in judging how the result will look. Don't fall in love with an unfinished result!

 

Take the opportunity to explore deeply

One of the reasons so many creatives search for a holy-grail of a particular way of doing things (like some special HDRI) is that they donít explore fully the tools at their disposal or learn deep enough to understand them.

Light is one of the most fantastic aspects of an image. To abandon the opportunity to shape it to your liking and instead follow the preference of some template is robbing yourself of the most satisfying part of this work, in my opinion.

Don't think of "Light" as a building block in your puzzle. I don't associate it with a particular technique such as Sun/Sky system, HDRI dome, IES spotlight - instead I think of light as a transformational force that reveals the built form, the shape of elements, the texture of every surface; of its influence over the mood and spirit of the space. It is a creative medium to be mastered and used to mold our vision into our final image.

I am a great fan of natural light. Daylight can take so many forms and interact with architecture in so many ways. It can be diffused or directed; reveal patterns or shapes; put focus onto the space or onto the light itself alone. As CGI artists, we have power to sculpt it in way a photographer canít imagine, invoking sunrise or blue hour at will, amplifying a golden ambiance with atmospheric effects like fog to separate our subject and underline the magical mood.

For architects, the light is at the very centre of their designs. They look at how to shape it by form and texture, and in return, the mood and spirit of the space. As a CGI visualizer, it's good to give it the same depth and importance! It requires thought and consideration, not a cookie-cutter approach. Image credit: SIOBHAN ROCKCASTLE & MARILYNE ANDERSEN

Use simple means to achieve spectacular results

"The best camera is the one you have with you"

Once I know what I want to achieve, executing it is a simple matter of craftsmanship. Intimate knowledge of tools and thinking outside of the box can help, though. To the surprise of many, 80 percent of our work is lit using the age old Sun & Sky system. It gives you a breadth of options you might not be aware of!

You can affect the size of the sun to make softer shadows, make the sun much weaker to put more dominance into the diffused light, desaturate the sky to simulate an overcast Nordic sky, or desaturate the sun to simulate it being diffused behind clouds. From a warm Mediterranean afternoon, to an intense Alpinic sun with strong sharp shadows, or a bright neutral white light in Scandinavia, itís all within reach with few clicks and tweaks of the system.

A few of our images from a recent award-winning project used nothing more than a simple white-colored plane, positioned with adjusted intensity and directionality.

Do you prefer HDRI domes? Perhaps there is this sky with an incredible sun behind clouds, but it's midday in Summer and you would like the same light just lower? Simply open the texture in Photoshop, apply warp or repaint the position through other means and you have the same nice light with longer shadows. Or perhaps you just want to keep the clouds and affect both the height and intensity of the sun? Then separate them into two textures that are combined back together in a flexible manner inside your 3D app, or combine the systems (a sun from the 3D app, and a sky with the separated HDRI texture).

The options are endless. Don't let the tools command your work, direct them to your goals.

You can freely modify HDRI maps to suit your needs. Here I quickly (and dirtily!) warped the hotspot to make longer shadows. I also painted below the horizon to bounce some light and color from the "ground". Don't LOOK for the best one - MAKE your best one!

 

Find your signature style

Through time and practice, following your own vision and relying on your skills will reveal the most satisfying "by-product" - the emergence of a signature style, a look to your work that is unique to you. Your images will be consistent with the goals you set in advance, creating a cohesive body of work, a memorable portfolio attractive to clients.

Your work will feel unique, while everyone else will be focused on using the "same settings" as one famous image or another.

Best,

Juraj Talcik

 

Links

Talcik&Demovicova: http://talcikdemovicova.com/

Corona Renderer: https://corona-renderer.com/

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This article definitely got me questioning my approach :-)
Liked your open minded article Juraj! Thank You for your time to put it together. I am always looking for creative paths at work too, by trying them out. Cheers Franz
What an refreshing, enlightening and informative article. Thank you so much for taking the time to share this with us. Kobus
Thank you Terri, I am glad you liked it :- )
Fantastic article Juraj. Thanks for taking the time to write it up. I hail from a fine arts background, and as I'm not as technically geared as many others in our industry I have often been frustrated in the past with the many technical hurdles to overcome to achieve the artistic concept I had in mind from the outset. So I for one am very excited that the software is becoming more of a tool in the artists hands than something that will most likely make your head hurt at SOME stage in your project. I have always said that what sets good visualisers apart from run-of-the-mill ones is that artistic eye. For hundreds of years, artists like Caravaggio have seen the importance of light and composition - without these fundamentals an image will always just be an image, instead of an artwork that is not easily forgotten. We have lots to learn from great artists, photographers, and the best artist of all - nature itself. I'm so often discontent with my end result as I see it lacks so much of the imperfect beauty I can see in nature - if only we had all the time in the world to detail these things...or 15 minions to help! So thank you Juraj. Will be coming back to it again.
Agreed Justin, For us it's all about the underlying need of the image/s. Questioning to the second, third, fourth level - who is the customer and what does it need to do for them. Only after that do we thin about how to achieve that artistically and own the creative and leadership of that collateral. It's vital that the visualiser is understood to be the expert in expression and communication of the message and it's their responsibility to extract that from the client in order to be able to produce imagery that delivers against that need. We have to remember that no matter how many images clients commission they are rarely experts in creative communication and will naturally default to the same practices they.. and everyone else.. is using. Whether you're in-house or a 3rd Party studio earning the client's respect and showing the creative leadership through understanding and your own language of imagery is how we produce great work that stands out and captures the viewer's attention
I must admit that sometimes that conversation sometimes happens far too late in the process (often at the last hour) which leads to the most compromised product in the end where both client and ourselves are disappointed. Interestingly and rather satisfyingly, the projects that we are given more artistic input often come out far more successfully than either of us expected.
Ironically as the project progressed the comments and design alterations she made, it got closer to everything else out there. Its a risk/ fear thing I think
This actually happened very recently to us. The project had approved rather brave direction but as it got near to finish with lot of changes he...perhaps panicked or not, and just turned it down and requested it to the turn into the most generic look you can imagine even providing reference that almost made me stop breathing (in bad way). Some partial understanding I was given by 3rd party involved is that (this particular Country/City) market is slowing down a bit and leading developers to be lot more conservative. But I guess this is unavoidable. I've been reading some interviews in ComputerArt magazine (focused on advertising and branding world) and one very renowned, experimental studio answered that they still need to do a lot of work in convincing clients to not go down the lowest common denominator way (and bringing their competitors work and asking them to copy it :- ).
Agreed Justin, For us it's all about the underlying need of the image/s. Questioning to the second, third, fourth level - who is the customer and what does it need to do for them. Only after that do we thin about how to achieve that artistically and own the creative and leadership of that collateral. It's vital that the visualiser is understood to be the expert in expression and communication of the message and it's their responsibility to extract that from the client in order to be able to produce imagery that delivers against that need. We have to remember that no matter how many images clients commission they are rarely experts in creative communication and will naturally default to the same practices they.. and everyone else.. is using. Whether you're in-house or a 3rd Party studio earning the client's respect and showing the creative leadership through understanding and your own language of imagery is how we produce great work that stands out and captures the viewer's attention
As one who is working in-house, our focus has been shifting more to producing the more polished stuff. The "design" orientated work is being handled by the architects with thanks to Revit, even that has had to improve in quality. Quite frankly I am happy about that. As Nic said, we are an expensive necessity so it makes more sense to use us in that role rather than the other. It has been a slow (over 10 years) and hard fought evolution. In many ways driven by arch-viz studios high quality and our clients expectations. In turn I believe it is also pushing the studios to deliver a vastly different product. As you say, making them specialize and develop a signature style and product. One area where we will not be competitive/ profitable is animation and film production. At least not until we have a significant restructure in management and pipeline to handle them effectively. With regards to finding your own style, its something that needs to be taken more seriously. Recently I had a client comment that all renders, in particular in the residential market, all look the same and is making it harder to differentiate one project from an other. Ironically as the project progressed the comments and design alterations she made, it got closer to everything else out there. Its a risk/ fear thing I think. If you go too far out there you may just scare away the very people you are trying to attract.
Juraj, your article was fantastic.. thanks for sharing! Nikos, that Jeff mentions above, is the course-founder of Creative Lighting and we work very closely together. reading your article and the comments below echo what we are all about at CL. If anyone would like to discuss this topic and how we're working to change thinking around visualisation for both artist and client then please do reach out to us https://www.creativelighting.co/contact/ Shaun
Thanks Juraj, its actually the Australian arm of Squint that has become independent. Squint UK had moved more into kids TV and food and beverage but there was still an appetite in Australia for design and architecture focused work that has increasingly become our niche. Agree with the sentiment of increasing specialisation within the industry which is natural as it matures. There is certainly a place for everyone and the gaps between marketing imagery, architectural communications / strategy work and design / creative tech for architecture is growing opening up new avenues for everyone. I dont think there are many true one stop shops around anymore. Justin this is what I mean by limited shelf life - studios and artists that don't specialise (and then expand based on their strengths) I think risk being overtaken. Its not uncommon now for different arch vis studios to do the stills, film and then external creative and app or suite install.
Nice to see your comment NIC, just 10 minutes ago finished reading about the rebrand of Squint/Opera. Kind of sad to see that name go, it was the coolest name in the industry. Just like Justin, would love to read more if you elaborate. Regarding our studio, we do work about 50:50 where one half is pure creative, advertising sort of archviz work (or real-estate if purists would complain) were very big almost unlimited independence. The other is is service based, where we are almost external part of team working on project along many other involved parties (architects, developers,..). I am not sure if the other part will that massively overtaken the industry, but I agree that due to size of many architectural companies, their internal technical departments have largely advanced their options forward. It might be that that will be the necessary focal point for larger archviz studios, but smaller ones will be able to specialize in smaller niches and those will grow in number, until "archviz" is no longer even relevant name for larger part of us.
There is a no global school for arch vis artists and they are in high demand but also chronically unskilled and generally overpaid with a limited shelf life. Look at how many creative coding and games graduates there are around - loads. Which ever studio (existing or new) moves strongly into this field building on top of the existing industry will have first mover advantage and will do very well for the next 10 years.
Good points, could you elaborate more on the "limited shelf life" comment
Good write up here and a solid viewpoint, especially for residential and marketing images. Our business is changing much faster than anyone in the industry is aware, no longer are arch vis studios the leaders in technology or reinventing processes. This has swung back to architecture studios being at the center of this change. Most arch vis studios currently focus on marketing images which are in my opinion a dead end that places arch vis at the very pointy end of a long stick. I would like to aim to be more services based and project partner focused to elevate what we do back to a place which places more values on our skills and background. There is a no global school for arch vis artists and they are in high demand but also chronically unskilled and generally overpaid with a limited shelf life. Look at how many creative coding and games graduates there are around - loads. Which ever studio (existing or new) moves strongly into this field building on top of the existing industry will have first mover advantage and will do very well for the next 10 years.
I wouldn't mind AI dealing with those clients who say, "Keep rendering me options, I'll know what I like when I see it." This is a fantastic article. This would be a great round table or even a reddit style AMA in the future.
get it to drive your realtime tour though your building could be fun
what like spiders crawling in your mouth whilst you are sleeping? creepy
having said that, I really dont like the idea of cyber implants :)
You'll never know. The assimilation will happen while you're sleeping :)
having said that, I really dont like the idea of cyber implants :)

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Juraj Talcik from Talcik&Demovicova speaks about finding your look.

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About the author

Jeff Mottle

Founder at CGarchitect

placeCalgary, CA