Getting back on track with interviews and what could be better than doing one with CITY LIFE Jury panel member, Alex York. Previously working at Hayes Davidson, Alex is now heading his own London-based studio – Ateilier York, boasting clients like Barton Willmore, Savills, David Adjaye and MMM Architects to name but a few. He recently published the case study about his work on The House that you must read if you havent done so yet. Much to learn here so Enjoy!
Alex, Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got into Architectural Visualization?
It was actually largely complete luck that I ended up working in architectural visualization. I had studied computer animation at Teesside University in Middlesbrough for a few years and needed to get moving with my final year project. I had discovered fairly early in the course that I really had no interest in character animation, rigging or modeling, so I needed to find a solution that would still impress them and get me through the course.
I realized that buildings rarely involve any animation and are relatively straightforward to model (at least the sort of schemes I was working on back then were). I decided to try to recreate a project that my uncle had worked on for Alec French Architects in Bristol a School. And later to create a view of the Naoshima Gallery in Japan by Tadao Ando. The Ando image was picked up by CGTalk (now CGSociety) and won a CGChoice Award, which was a huge honor.
Shortly after that it made the CGSociety front page and from there it was spotted by somebody at Hayes Davidson in London, who set up an interview for a potential job. I should admit that, at this point in my life, I had no idea what archviz was and that it even existed as a career path. But a week or two later and I’d taken the job and was on my way.
After nearly three years at Hayes Davidson I decided to move on and start my own thing. At the time the idea was to focus more on photography, but the CG bug kept biting and I eventually became a freelance architectural visualizer. A few years later and I formed Atelier York.
It’s still essentially me at the helm, but I bring on any number of freelancers to help when larger projects come in and I have plans to expand in the future. David Connolly from Insightful Light joined me on The House project and I very much hope we’ll work together again soon. I’ve also used a few other freelancers over the years and have a nice list, which keeps growing, of people who I will call upon in the near future if needed.
What was the trigger that made you go on your own, forming Atelier York?
The name was born only a little over a couple of months ago, but the concept and structure of the business has been in place since 2008. I think the main reason for forming AY was that I had a very strong, clear vision of what I wanted to be doing day-to-day.
I’m very much a work to live person, so I want to feel as though what I’m doing every day is worthwhile somehow. It’s difficult when you’ve got a vision for something and you’re not in a position to see that vision through due to people leaning over your shoulder and the usual chain of command.
The client is usually hard enough work keeping happy as it is! Even in the relatively structured, often closed world of archviz it’s still more than possible to achieve this freedom of vision, but perhaps only if you do it alone. We very much live by the rule that we don’t let anything out of our studio unless we’re proud to put our name on it.
We don’t generally do very many super-quick projects, but that’s not to say that we’re always afforded the luxury of long-term, high-end projects – we do have a reputation now as being one of the best studios to come to for high-end work, particularly residential, but it’s taken a long while to get that reputation. And even relatively short-term projects are handled in a similar way to long-term projects, and the minimum quality level is still very high.
Back to the benefits of going at it alone, there’s also the great benefit of being able to manage your time to work with your personal life. I have a baby on the way and being able to work earlier or later in the day, or over the weekend, to free up time to spend with my family is invaluable. My family will always come first and our clients know that, because they have families too and feel the same, and this is the real world, not The Apprentice.
But, of course, we always hit our deadlines!
Can you tell us about any difficulties you might have had in the early days starting the company?
I have to say that one of the most difficult things I found when I first went freelance was forking out the cash for hardware and licenses! It’s a very expensive process, but I knew that I’d be better off buying everything in one go at the start than slowly over a year or so.
I’m also a self-confessed nerd, so any excuse to buy computer gear and Ill go for it!
In general, cash-flow is the hardest thing to manage, I think. But you get better at it as time goes on and you learn tricks to stay afloat and hopefully scale things up, as we have done steadily over the years. Fortunately, we seem to now be largely out of the worst part of the recession and work is starting to build up again and clients are becoming more and more willing to green-light projects old and new and budgets are climbing again.
It was a very tough few years, though, in general, but things are certainly picking up a great deal now. There’s also the threat from cheap work being put out by various studios around the world, but that’s probably something for another time…
How is being your own boss is different than working as an employee in a bigger studio?
I think the main thing is the reward of knowing that you’ve pitched for a job, negotiated it, delivered it, thrilled the client and then been paid every penny you’re owed.
Working a salaried job brings all sorts of benefits, not least stability, but there’s nothing like getting paid and being thanked personally than being just another cog in the machine. And, as an artist, my portfolio is extremely important to me. When you’re working for yourself, your portfolio is as public as you want it to be. There’s the usual issue with NDAs but when they are removed at least you can put your work out there under your own name, not under the banner of somebody else’s name.I think that’s a huge benefit.
There are a great number of hugely talented artists out there but most of us will never see the work they do day-to-day because it’s buried under their company’s name and not their own. We don’t immediately become our own boss as many people think. The client is still the boss! But at least you can hopefully become your own art director, and that’s a role most people love and don’t want to give up once they’ve had a taste of it. But if you’re not the type to manage your time well and you’re not able to get up early in the morning without the threat of being fired then I wouldn’t recommend the freelance life!
What do you do to get clients now that you are responsible for all the promotion too? can you define the type of clients you have now? Looking for?
This is a tricky one.
I will admit that the majority of work we get comes to us than our seeking it out, which is great for obvious reasons. But it’s taken a long time to get to that stage. I think reputation and branding is enormously important. My clients, both existing and future, know what they will get from my studio, namely passion and an extremely high level of quality.
We really prefer to spend as much time on a project as possible and I like to take some proper holiday time off when I can, too. Our client list now is quite varied. It includes architects, developers, design agencies, interior design studios and other visualization studios.
I enjoy working for all different types but working for architects is usually the most enjoyable for me, as they’re usually the best people to communicate their own design to you!
How much freedom do you have in your client work?
This depends largely on the project.
Over the last few years we’ve produced quite a few competition images, which are usually very open to our own artistic take, but we also do a lot of high-end residential work where every last tiny detail is specified by the architects/client and there’s relatively little creativity involved sometimes.
Occasionally our clients will just let us run with something and put it to them and they go with it. Sometimes they take a lot more control and art-direct it themselves, in a way. One thing that I think does make us unique is that we’re not shy in coming forward and trying to educate our clients about what we do and why we think certain techniques and styles will work better than others. After all, they aren’t artists or photographers they hired us for a reason, for our expertise as much as anything, and we like to make sure they feel they’re getting good value for money I think our explaining the process to them also makes them feel more confident that we know what we’re doing, and they feel more involved, too.
It also helps down the line with future work from the same client, as they will know more about our workflow and how long things take and what’s possible/not possible. We’ve also worked with some of the same clients for many years, so we have great relationships with them and they often trust our artistic judgment.
Can you share more details about your typical client workflow from start to finish of a project?
As with the previous question it really comes down to the job, but our workflow is similar across all of our projects.
We start with the brief and nail down the scope of work, timeframe and deadlines etc. We then take the architect’s drawings and work up the main structural side of the model and produce white renders for approval/comments.
We then move into internal detail modeling, furniture and lighting etc. and produce the first rendered drafts.
We then go through the usual comments/amendments process until the shots are signed off.
We always work with full-res PSDs but low-res renders until we have sign-off, after-which the full-res renders are sent to either our in-house mini farm or sent externally if they’re heavy-duty. One thing that crops up in our industry is that quite a lot of artists seem to get annoyed when lots of comments come in. Naturally it can be a little irritating when you’re getting fresh comments that don’t build upon the previous set due to the client/architects not quite knowing how the process works/should work, but most of the time you’ll get a load of comments through because the client/architects are getting excited with your work, as they’re finally able to see what they’ve had down on paper and in their heads for months/years.
I take it as a compliment that we’re hitting the spot with them, rather than finding it a chore. So long as you’re billing for it and time isn’t being wasted, that is! That said, it’s fairly common that a client might drive an image in a direction you’re not happy with, so we always keep old versions of images in the archives for when this happens and we’d like to revisit to a version we were happier with.
The most important thing for us is to always make sure we deliver the work on time and fulfill the brief, or exceed it if possible.
Can you define the balance between Pure Render and Post Production in your work?
This depends entirely on the project as well. On The House, which we released very recently, there were so many shots and very clear phases to the project that it made more sense to get things working as well as possible in the render and leave post work for minor color corrections and simple comping rather than anything more serious.
However, on quick projects we often like to get the renders out as quickly as possible and try to establish mood and atmosphere in post, as it’s generally more freeing and artistic. It’s always about balance and efficiency. If it’s quicker to do it in post, we do it in post. If we’ve got time or it makes sense to do it in 3D, we will.
What kind of hardware do you use?
We have a few 6-core i7s with 12GB RAM each and a GeForce 580 in each, with Dell 30 and 24 screens, Wacom Intuos and a few slower nodes for rendering simple passes and channels. Nothing spectacular! We’re hoping that the new Intel chips due out by the end of this year will be worthwhile as we skipped Intels Sandy Bridge entirely.
Can you tell us about the software you use in the studio?
We’re fully 3ds max design here, running version 2012 for new projects and legacy versions for updates to old projects. We use Mental Ray, Photoshop CS5, After Effects CS5, Maxwell Render 2, Forest Pack Pro, Lightroom, ProEXR and plenty of plugins and scripts, some written in-house to help with day-to-day tasks.
Why do you use Mental Ray?
I think there’s a feeling among many in the archviz world that Mental Ray is not up-to-date and is slow. It is true that V-Ray is being developed a great deal more quickly than MR, and V-Ray has more features. But it’s also true that MR is a more than capable renderer and offers all the tools we need. It’s just pixels in the end. As for being slower than V-Ray this entirely depends on the scene.
If you want to render an enormous number of proxy trees or you have a complex animation to render, for example, then V-Ray might be a better option. Or if your geometry has issues and you’ve no time to fix it, V-Ray might help where MR certainly won’t. But it’s true that MR can be tamed and is perfectly capable of superb quality, fast renders.
It’s also free! (as part of the 3dsmax package).
Which is great for people starting out as freelancers. I see Mental Ray is a renderer that sits nicely in-between V-Ray and Maxwell Render.
Have you been trying the new GPU rendering solutions that are being offered these days, iRay for example?
I have indeed, and find them relatively slow, buggy and ultimately useless for the GPU side of things, since 99% of my projects need more than a couple of GB GPU RAM to render, most need at least 6GB and often anything up to 11GB.
It’s new technology, and developing, so hopefully in a few years time they will be more practical for archviz work. That said, NVidia have no incentive to release GeForce cards with a proper amount of VRAM, since they can charge a massive premium for their Quadro range.
I wonder if, by the time cards are released with enough RAM and are affordable, GPU-based rendering will be an old technology and something new will come along. For product viz or something relatively less RAM-intensive GPU-accelerated rendering can be a real bonus though.
How much time do you spend working on an image usually?
This could be anything from a few hours to a few months! Generally, we spend as long as possible and try to persuade our clients to let us work on a project for as long as possible to do the images/architecture justice.
However, we don’t dismiss quick projects. Sometimes it’s nice to rush something out and see how far you can push it in a limited timeframe. It’s nice to be able to just paint something up quickly instead of the usual complex scenes from time to time.
Who do you consider as a source of inspiration… Where do you go to find it?
I wouldn’t say I’m inspired by anyone at all, really, but I do look up to artists like Bertrand Benoit, Alex Roman and Peter Guthrie. I think they have workflows and approaches to what we do that really push things forward. It’s not often we get the chance to really do something unique in the commercial world, so I respect these guys enormously.
I’m more inspired by classic architectural photography, particular that by Julius Shulman. I also try to take my camera everywhere. I think it’s a lot easier (and cheaper!) and more enjoyable, even, to be inspired by the real world in front of you than sitting at your desk imagining.
Any other activities besides work going on in Atelier York, like personal projects, hobbies, etc.
There’s a drum kit no more than 3 feet away from my desk… It’s quite a challenge resisting playing it when we have a large job on the go! But there’s nothing quite like half an hour of relentless Black Metal blast-beats to wake you up and focus your thoughts!
I also do quite a bit of live metal gig photography and promo/location photography for bands, which can be seen at www.alexyorkalive.co.uk.
Can you share with us some interesting stories about memorable projects or famous project you been working on – some inside stories you can share?
Not without getting myself or others in trouble!
The technological advances in hardware and software allow more people to enter the architectural visualization field with less effort and experience, Does that effect you?
Yes, but in a positive way.
I think the real bonus is that more and more architects are taking to SketchUP to get their models going, freeing us up to concentrate on the more artistic/creative elements of a project.
I’m not worried about software becoming easier for new folks to get into because ultimately it doesn’t matter what software you use or how advanced it is if you don’t have the eye for it then it’ll still look sub-par.
We’ve all seen amazing images coming from artists/studios in Maxwell Render, for example, but we’ve also seen poor work from others using Maxwell Render. It always comes down to the artist. There’s also the element of how well you communicate with your clients and your ability to get the work in the first place. I think some people overplay software. It’s just a tool. If a piece of software or hardware allows you to get to your desired result more quickly or more intuitively then that’s great. But I don’t think any software can make you a better artist, at least not a better commercial artist.
London seems to be a rather important hub for the visualization industry, what can you tell us about it?
In a way, the UK’s first efforts into archviz began in London.
And, as with most industries, this one does seem to thrive in the capital. That said, there are many of fantastic studios around the country, particularly up north. I think the main reason that London is a busy place for archviz is purely because there are more people living and working here per square mile and there’s a little more money going around, so budgets can be pushed a bit further, perhaps.
There are also some of the more well-known and well-regarded universities, pushing graduates out with a decent enough knowledge of the basics of CGI. But the reality is that, so long as you can get a train/car to a meeting in a city, you can live way out in the sticks if you want to. The majority of the work we do is purely online. Several of my clients I’ve never met in person, and I’ve even a few whom I’ve never spoken to on the phone!
Sometimes email is enough, especially for quick jobs. This is one reason why quite a few freelancers manage to stay afloat or do very well while living further out from the city. That said, London is an amazing place and it’s impossible to get bored here. The beer prices aren’t much fun, however…
I noticed you are related to the Society of Architectural Illustration. What can you tell us about it?
The SAI is a group of like-minded architectural illustrators from all over the UK, both traditional and CGI. There are many professionals in the society but it also includes some passionate hobbyists.
We meet usually a few times every year to present work to one-another and to discuss the industry and, occasionally, pass work on. I am a council member and one of those responsible for accepting/rejecting applicants. There are many names in there that you will recognize and a large number of benefits to be had by joining. And it’s dead cheap to join, if you’re accepted. We are always on the look-out for talented archviz artists so, if you think you have what it takes and have something to offer the society, visit our website and get in touch – www.sai.org.uk