Visualization with Attitude

23 Jan, 2008 By: Kenneth Wong

A filmmaker takes a dramatic new approach to architectural visualization.

Soaring symphonic music, growling cellos, danceable beat, impossible camera angles, flying choppers, and sunlit skyscrapers distinguish Neoscape’s architectural visualizations. It’s much more than a walkthrough or a flythrough. It’s a cinematic experience, complete with story, drama, and characters. That’s probably because Nils Norgren, the cofounder of Neoscape, is an Emmy award nominee (director of photography for a film about Boston’s Big Dig). He believes in combining “the heart of a filmmaker with the head of a true CG leader” to produce the award-winning deliverables. At Neoscape, the artists don’t just render a CAD file of a Las Vegas residential complex into a 3D animation. They tell stories about young people moving into their first loft.

Forget the Walkthrough
At Autodesk University 2007, during the presentation preceding the Design Visualization User Mixer, his demo reels drew admiring gasps from the attendees.

If you want a straightforward walkthrough along a certain path, most architectural CAD programs or 3D rendering programs would allow you to produce a QuickTime file with a few mouse clicks. “It might be good for design evaluation, but when it comes to selling something, it’s not the most compelling way to get someone excited about something. It doesn’t elicit, in my opinion, an emotional response,” Norgren observed.

In a typical walkthrough, he pointed out, the crude human icon walks down a corridor, opens a door or two, enters a room, exits, resumes walking, and repeats the process ad nauseam. As a result, “You spend 80% of your time watching walls slide by,” he remarked.

He likes to tell his client, “Less is more.” In his view, an architectural scene should give potential buyers “just enough information so they want to take the next step, find out more information about the project.”

The technical details, such as the floor plan and the dimensions, are better left in the sales brochure. “Don’t try to convey every nook, cranny, and plaza,” advised Norgren.

Going beyond a typical walkthrough or flythrough, Neoscape treats architectural visualization projects like a cinematic sequence, planning out every shot and camera angle in storyboards and animatics. (Click on image for a larger view.)

Getting More with Less
Norgren and his colleagues often break up the master model, the client’s entire structure, into smaller modules, then concentrate on rendering and polishing up the portions that will be prominently featured in the movie.

“You don’t want to jump right in and start modeling the buildings until you know exactly what your story is,” Norgren cautioned. “The storyboard might tell you where you should spend most of your effort. You only need to model things that are in the front. If something’s going to be way in the back, and nobody needs to see it, you don’t need to model it.”

As filmmakers do, Norgren and his colleagues would usually begin a project with a treatment, a one-paragraph description of what the footage is supposed to show. They would then work out the camera shots and the animation sequences in sketches, storyboards, and animatics beforehand. He primarily uses Autodesk 3ds Max to construct the scenes.

In the conceptualization phase, Norgren tells his animators to give him "simple, massing models,” he said. “I want to be able to experiment. I need to be able to work fast … I’m rendering them only in grayscale, preview mode. It doesn’t need to look pretty. It just needs to give me an idea of how each camera angle looks, how each shot connects to the next.”

James Song and Nensi Karanxha, digital artists from Neoscape, posted a tutorial, "Exterior Scenes Part 2 -- Modeling: ACAD/Revit/SketchUp Into Max," on importing AutoCAD, Revit, and SketchUp files into 3ds Max on Area, Autodesk’s online community and resource portal for digital artists. In it, they give the following advice:

  • Clean up CAD files that you don’t need, such as electrical installations, structural elements, notes, specifications, etc.
  • There should be no xref file present. If so, you need to insert or bind or you can try the Include Xref option, but we prefer binding xrefs and cleaning the xref file as well.
  • Sometimes there are blocks in the CAD files. You can either explode them or you can turn on the Convert Blocks to Groups option when you import into Max.

The authors also show how to use 3ds Max’s File Link Manager to maintain associativity with the original AutoCAD file.


In a tutorial posted at Autodesk’s online community Area, Neoscape artists James Song and Nensi Karanxha show how to export the geometry from an Autodesk Revit file into 3ds Max. (Image used with permission from Autodesk and Neoscape.) (Click on image for a larger view.)

The Language of Film
The cinematic medium has its own language; it doesn’t need a voiceover. “We tried to steer the client away from voiceovers,” said Norgren, “but we’re not always successful.”

In another 3ds Max tutorial posted on Area (“Exterior Scenes Part 1: Composition & Cameras”), Neoscape artists Lon Grohs and Rodrigo Lopez advise, “Is the subject contemporary, modern, classic, historic, minimal, and so on? Depending on the design of the structure, different sensibilities may apply. And while we don't have the capability to put down our cameras and walk around the space, we do have an extraordinary freedom to place any number of cameras in our virtual space. Additionally, the new Walk Through Camera is a useful tool for taking a quick, informal virtual walk around the model to discover potential views and photogenic elements.”

Dramatic angles, human characters, mood music, stylized editing, and a strong sense of story distinguish architectural movies from Neoscape.(Click on image for a larger view.)

To promote the L5 Las Vegas condos, Neoscape put together a commercial with bouncy camera movements and quick takes, set to Lyrics Born’s track “Stop Complaining.”

The footage might seem schizophrenic to some, Norgren admitted. “But it works,” he assured. In fact, it was a style carefully selected in consultation with the client. The MTV-inspired animation is calculated to appeal to the target demographics, the affluent 20- and 30-somethings buying their first luxury lofts.

Neoscape’s videos can be viewed here. For more tutorials by Neoscape artists, visit Area.

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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