Yesterday we kickstarted a 5 parts series about The ArchVIZ BIZ by Norm Li. Read the introduction on the Job Board Blog to get a sense of what is coming… it’s GOOD! I’ve been keeping an eye on Norm Li’s studio since I started out 15 years ago and seeing how they grew to become the biggest independent ArchVIZ Studio in Canada is amazing. Lot’s of insight coming your way – brace yourself!
The genesis of any ArchVIZ Studio is mastering the product (art) and the production (technology). Whether you are a freelancer or a world class studio, you need to master these two competencies. I’m often asked which one comes first. That’s like asking whether the chicken or the egg came first.
Advances in technology enable better art. The pursuit of better art demands improved technology.
Look, no one starts out being as good as guys and studios like Peter Guthrie, Ronen Bekerman, MIR, DBox, Visualization One, Brick, or any of the other world-class artists and studios in our industry. It’s something you work on. And keep on working on all the time!
You’ll be happy to learn that there are some fundamentals that make life a whole lot easier if you know about them from the get-go.
Treat your work as art.
If all you are trying to achieve is a photo-real representation of a proposed building or space, it’s not art – it’s just a technical illustration. A simulation if you like.
To rank among the best, your must create works of art. You need to tell a story about the subject that is compelling. Describing it with scientific accuracy is not enough. You need to make people want whatever it is that you are illustrating. Make them lust after that condo or grab a good coffee at the hotel lounge. Make them feel like they already work in that office, or relax in that lobby lounge.
Make them believe!
Transport them in their minds directly into the rendering.
So… how can you create art more easily?
It’s totally OK to base your rendering on an existing image. All great images are born from an artist’s collective memories and experiences. It makes it much easier if you have a record of them. Start collecting images that you like.
The HOW is not important, just that you DO!
Save them to your hard drive or use Pinterest (Check out Ronen’s Pinterest Board to see how he does it), just have a system that works in terms of searching the collection once you need to be inspired.
In our studio, we make sure that we collect both rendered and real inspiration images. If our ultimate goal is to recreate reality, we should reference reality. Our studio directors search out the most captivating photographs and use them as templates for our images. Some of our favorite architectural photographers include Doublespace Photo, Tom Arban, and Iwan Baan.
Take your own photos too!
Taking advantage of your physical surroundings is also a great way to get inspired. We love going off-site to seek out real-world material and detail examples. Our entourage team is never without a camera, as they often take photos of subject matters as a means to experiment and see how it’s captured in real life.
The more life-like your image looks, the more probability it has with making an emotional connection with your audience.
Write the Story
In our studio, we ask the 5 W’s before we begin any image : Who, What, When , Where, and most importantly, Why?
Answering these questions helps us establish a plan that will help focus the execution of an illustration.
Who is the intended audience?
An image for marketing purposes should be very different from an image being prepared for legal purposes such as a civic design review. If it’s an image for a fundraising campaign, it should speak to the donors. If you’re preparing a set of images for a particular city, make sure the people in your entourage reflect its’ demographics.
Here in Toronto, we have a very diverse population, so including a broad range of ethnic groups for local projects allow us to create a more realistic image. When we’re working in large American cities like New York or Los Angeles, we are mindful to incorporate high levels of African American and Latino entourage.
By including your viewer in the image, you make it easier for them to connect with it.
What is the main subject?
Is it the building? Or perhaps the image is part of a set and focuses on a specific sub-area such as a park or a plaza. Or maybe it’s about a specific space within a larger open area.
Your answer will help you determine where to place the bulk of your energy when detailing the model. By directing your effort toward a certain area, you give the image focal point and also increase the efficiency with which you can produce the image.
Determine the most appropriate time of day and season. Not every building needs to be shown at dusk!
We once had a client insist that we depict an elementary school at dusk. It made no sense at all and in the end, the image wasn’t very successful. Another tactic is to see if there is a particular event that happens at a special time that will really compliment the space or building.
Here in Canada, there are often winter festivals that happen in and around our civic buildings; depicting the buildings in a snowy winter atmosphere really enhances the “Canadian” locality of the project. It’s also important however to note when the images are intended to launch. Although winter scenes are cool – if you’re launching a project in the middle of the summer it might not make the most sense.
Where is the project? You might think this is a no brainer, but you have no idea how wrong some artists and studios get this.
Whenever we get an assignment, we visit the site. If it’s local, we head out there whenever possible. If it’s an international site, we look up the site on Google Earth and do a virtual site tour. We note the types of vegetation, models of vehicles, street accessories, traffic signals, etc.
I’m always shocked when I see images for local Canadian projects that have foreign license plates and subtropical vegetation. If those studios cared to do the most minimal of an investigation, they would know instantly how ridiculous all that is.
It’s not just how you render the building or space that makes an image sing. An image is the sum total of all the details that are incorporated into it. In order for the image to make sense, all the entourage and detailing must make sense as well. Your minds eye will instantly pick up on any oddities; even if you can’t quite put your finger on what exactly is wrong, you’ll just feel it instinctively.
This is the question that ties it all together.
Why are we building this project? What is its’ reason for being? Is it to enhance the neighbourhood? Is it to bring a whole new way of living to the residential market? Is it a culmination of a masterplan for a university or corporate campus? Why does it exist?
Your image should clearly communicate the project’s reason for being.
If you can answer these 5 questions clearly, your image will deliver its message with precision and impact. If not, the image will likely provoke more questions than it answers.
Use Analog Rules in a Digital World
Even though we can do all kinds of crazy things on a computer, it doesn’t mean we should. Our studio often gets files from our clients that have cameras set at 6mm, with the sun coming from the north, and lights with values that are well beyond physics. We are often asked to shoot views that only birds and drones can see.
Keep it real. Keep it simple.
Remember, you want to tell the story of how a real person will experience a project.
I also suggest employing time tested artistic principles like the rule of thirds, the golden rectangle, the rule of odds, color theory, etc.
See Compositional Theories of Art for a visual guide to the various rules of composition.
I also like to obey physics. And most of all, don’t go overboard with the likes of bloom, volumetric lighting, chromatic aberration and excessive depth of field play. Stick to the story of the image and what serves it well.
Use Photoshop Appropriately
Photoshop is this wonderfully double-edged sword. When used to enhance an already great image, it can really take an image to the next level. However, our team believes that if you come to depend on Photoshop to overcome shortcomings in your ability to produce a decent rendering, it can make things a whole lot worse.
A wise man once said “a pig with lipstick on is still a pig.” Here at Norm Li, we try as much as possible to get it right in the base rendering. However, there are people who expertly defy this rule. The guys over at SOA are a great example. But they have also built a process that allows for it.
In our studio, we live in a fast paced, design driven environment. We participate in a lot of design competitions and at the very early stages of projects. We don’t always have the same ability to lock down the parameters of our images. As a result, we try to involve as little post production in our images as possible.
End of Starting a Studio : The Art
Whether you’re one person in your mom’s basement (like I used to be) or 100 in an office tower in Manhattan, your mastery of art will play a huge factor in your success.
Arch Viz artists and studios live and die by their last image. Failure to keep up with the times can tank an otherwise successful studio. No matter how great your clients tell you your images are, remember that when it comes to art, you can never stop learning and evolving.
Remind yourself daily that we are, first and foremost, artists.
See you in Part 2 – Starting a Studio : The Technology
The ArchVIZ BIZ by Norm Li - Introdution Part 1 - Starting a Studio : Art Part 2 - Starting a Studio : Technology Part 3 - Growing a Studio : Culture Part 4 - Growing a Studio : Finance Part 5 - Growing a Studio : Client Management