Rubble Trouble: World Building without a hard hat

Before pixels, both Architects and VFX artists were physical model makers. Today, they have each have made the transition to planning and constructing digitally, using similar if not identical software to create hugely detailed virtual environments towards different ends.

VFX Course Leader Saint John Walker and Associate Professor in Architecture Jonathan Ellis-Miller have started collaborating and talk about the growing crossover between their disciplines. They were recently interviewed by Norwich University of the Arts’ Fuchsia Wilkins.

File picture shows workers walking in front of the construction site of a commercial complex on the outskirts of Ahmedabad

FW Can you give me an insight into how architecture and VFX complement one other?

SW I’ve been thinking about the similarities between the two disciplines. There is similar software being used and there are similar production values and standards, particularly in terms of 3D software. But that’s nothing unusual. 3D is also prevalent in animation, interior design, graphics and other fields. However, with VFX and Architecture there are more acute similarities, for instance, ideas of simulation and visualisation, and verisimilitude. Fundamentally, we’re both world builders. The difference is what those worlds are built for. VFX is very much (currently) entertainment based but with architecture, it’s usually a real world situation and there are restrictions that don’t apply within the world of fantasy.

JEM Architects used to work with physical models to represent reality, but now we use Building Information Modelling (BIM) and specific programmes like Revit. When we’re working on a building, we now design it as a 3D virtual model. Our processes are similar to the world of VFX, but we go a level deeper. We use layering to show where the pipes will go, how the structure will fit together. These virtual models can also inform cutting programmes or 3D printers, thereby automating the construction processes.

 SW Yes, and at the end of the day your virtual models provide an inventory of the materials you’ll need to create the real physical thing. VFX is not based around realism, it’s based around photorealism- they just need to appear real. We create synthetic objects that need to look like they are shot through a lens. We create the detail to appear on a big screen. As a VFX artist you have to understand how to manipulate the viewer into believing something. We fool the eye by managing the way we frame and lead the eye,  and mimic how the lens sees things. We don’t need to itemise pipes or look below the boards and wall particians.

JEM In the past, if I was designing a building, I’d produce planned sections and elevations or have a model made. Now, we’ll produce high quality CGI – 2D or 3D – to give clients a sense of what that building might look like. In my own practice, we have CGIs made using what are called verified views. For example, if you have a site in the centre of London, you can go there, take a photograph and insert a beautifully rendered image of the intended building to take a look at it in situ, in order to ultimately get permission to build.

Saint John Walker, Course Leader VFX
Saint John Walker, Course Leader VFX

SW This is where all those traditional art school values come in. In order to produce those photoreal CGIs you have to know where the light’s coming from, appreciate how it’s bouncing on to the building, or predict occlusion and reflection for something that’s not there yet. You might put a bit of blur on it to give a sense of focus; all those traditional elements of cinematography are important to make it convincing. At the end of the day it also comes down to efficiency. Efficiency sounds like it’s something bad, but it’s very important. Don’t do anything in 3D if 2D will do. VFX companies now use LIDAR scanning, a surveying method which uses a laser to measure and record the physical environment. They can drive down the street with a little device and it pings back a point cloud from everything it hits…

JEM That’s exactly how we survey buildings too. We do a point cloud survey and stick it into a computer. It’s no different.

SW Well, the difference is, if an architect scans a building they have to survey the whole structure if they want to use it for a model. A VFX artist only scans the outside surface, or certain sides only because that’s all the camera will ever see. This is what I was saying about efficiency, using just enough of something to make it look believable. Its about the veneer, the surface


FW You’re running a collaborative project between second year architecture and VFX students at NUA. Can you tell me more?

SW At NUA the second year is predicated around the idea of collaboration. It would be very easy for VFX to collaborate with Animation or Games but we thought there was more of a challenge in coming together with Architecture for seven days of intensive workshopping. The idea is to enable modelling around the theme of ‘rewilding’. We want students to think about what might happen to buildings if they were abandoned. What would happen if we left the doors of NUA open, say and a flock of wild geese came in and lived there for 30 years. How would they alter the building? If man disappeared, what effects would lichen, insects or rot have over 200 years?

JEM It’s encouraging students to see things in a different way, to appreciate attrition and wear as factors. The architecture students will explore how the building might deteriorate and the VFX students will develop the visuals.

SW It could be seen that architecture is about permanence. Generally, you build something in the hope that it will be there for generations. VFX is so transient, it’s all about a film’s short window at the cinema. To look at time in a different way is kind of exciting.

JEM It’s interesting to look at buildings that have been around for hundreds of years and examine the patina of time. Algae, fungi, lichen grows on them. With a lot of the buildings that we make now we have to work out how we’re going to keep them looking shiny and new. They are not allowed to age or weather because that’s not the modern way. So in rewilding these buildings, we want our students to take a step back to look at how materials degrade over time, and why.

SW It’s also applying the fantasy side of VFX to something real. Students seem to love the idea of post-apocalyptic imagery. When they make a scene it always features a ruin with some ivy over the top; of course there’s far more that would happen over a period of time! So rather than creating a romantic view of a ruin, here they will need to do in-depth research into what actually happens. How do vines really grow, how does rot degrade buildings? What caves in first, and over what period?

FW Businesses are currently crying out for people who are both technical and creative. Do you think this mix is going to be more important, going forward?

Johnathan Ellis-Miller, Senior Lecturer Architecture NUA
Johnathan Ellis-Miller, Associate Professor Architecture NUA

JEM We ALL require high levels of technical competence these days! Operating complex computer programmes effectively is no mean feat, particularly for architecture and VFX. We want people to still make physical maquettes and produce drawings, of course, but they also need to gain technical acuity.

SW …And patience! There’s a huge amount of iteration required to render something beautifully in 3D. It’s not just about learning the tech, there’s that thing of trial and error, building and rebuilding prototypes.

FW Does this go back to what you said about the usefulness of an art school background?

SW Yes, exactly. If you ask a new student to design a bridge in 3D they’d create a simplistic structure, but in the end it’s nothing like a real bridge, with its distressed concrete or weathered paintwork. If you take them to look at a real structure, as I did – I took my students to the flyover on Magdalen Street in Norwich – and you get them to take visual references, they suddenly start to see that it was entirely different to how they’d imagined, where the stresses and wear and tear are. We have this assumption in our head that we know what something looks like. But you have to go and collect references and pick out the scuffs and marks on pillars or the cracks in concrete in order to truly depict something that fools the eye. You can only discover all that from going out and looking, by being good observers with an eye for detail.

(Thanks to Fuchsia Wilkins for transcription)

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