Spine3D: Architectural Animations
Spine3D extols the benefits of using Autodesk 3ds Max software for creating photorealistic buildings for architectural animations and next-gen games.
By Audrey Doyle
Whether they appear in a virtual tour of a proposed multimillion-dollar condominium complex or in a next-generation video game, buildings and other architectural structures must look photorealistic.
The folks at Spine3D know this firsthand, for they have experience building architectural environments for both application areas. To ensure photorealism in all the buildings they create, they rely on Autodesk® 3ds Max® software as their primary 3D modeling and animation tool.
Application Area Agnostic
Formed in 2000, Spine3D is a high-end 3D animation and visual effects studio based in Miami. Besides sharing a passion for animation, Spine3D’s founding partners hold advanced degrees in architecture, and are highly trained and accomplished 3D artists as well.
Since its inception, Spine3D has focused on creating detailed, photorealistic architectural walkthroughs and flythroughs of proposed real estate projects for an impressive roster of clients that includes Donald Trump, Arquitectonica, and The Related Group, among others. For all of this work, Spine3D has always relied on 3ds Max software.
“We began using 3ds Max because most of the architectural companies we work with rely on Autodesk AutoCAD® to generate their construction documentation, so the bulk of the information we receive comes in the form of AutoCAD DWG files, and 3ds Max is seamlessly compatible with DWG files,” says Kevin M. Smith, Spine3D principal and co-founder. “In addition, all of us have backgrounds in architecture, and we are proficient in AutoCAD, so we wanted a 3D modeling and animation package that was compatible with AutoCAD. 3ds Max is that package.”
It wasn’t long before Spine3D realized the numerous other benefits 3ds Max software offers. In terms of modeling, for instance, Smith says the software’s spline tool is one of its best features. “It lets you draw any shape, and extrude, bevel, and chamfer it quickly and simply,” he says. He adds that the software “has the best and easiest Boolean tools on the market.”
Regarding materials and mapping, Smith says the team enjoys the level of detail and control the software provides for creating and editing materials. “We mostly use standard materials, occasionally using third-party materials, depending on the rendering engine we’re using.”
When it comes to lighting and camera mapping capabilities, Smith says the software is stable and easy to use, and offers great control and flexibility. “Lighting is extremely important to our designs and animations,” he says. “Maneuvering lights in 3ds Max is a smooth process and the Light Lister tool provides excellent control, especially over scenes with a lot of lights.”
Meanwhile, Spine3D project coordinator/artist John Bouma commends the benefits of the software’s two-point-perspective camera correction modifier. “When we set up camera angles, the image can get distorted depending on the type of lens that is used and its distance from objects. Being able to fix that, especially for architectural renderings, has been extremely helpful.”
Finally, in terms of rendering, Smith says the team relies primarily on the 3ds Max scanline rendering engine and occasionally on third-party plug-ins, noting that their speed and quality make them valuable and effective tools. He adds that the team has used Backburner®, Autodesk’s free network render management software, and plans to use it more frequently as they look into expanding their renderfarm.
Architectural Animations Abound
According to Eddie Leon, Spine3D president, 60% of the company’s work comprises rendering jobs and 40% comprises animation. “We’ve been doing more animation lately,” he says. “There’s a lot of condo development going on in Miami. Our 3D animations help our clients to sell their buildings. We’ve become recognized as the experts in architectural virtual tours.”
“Our animations are not your typical walkthroughs/flythroughs,” adds Smith. “Our creative director, Robert Rios, designs them to be a lot more cinematic, like movie trailers. 3ds Max helps us to stand apart from our competitors in this regard.”
A recent real estate development project bears this out. For the project, client Royal Palm Communities and architect of record Arquitectonica hired Spine3D to create a 4-minute virtual tour of a proposed condo development in downtown Miami, called Paramount Bay.
According to Smith, the team began with construction documentation that the client and architect provided as AutoCAD DWG files. Then they used 3ds Max software to build, texture, and light the 3D models comprising the development, relying on such tools as the spline modeling tool and subobject modeling, as well as on the software’s standard materials for material mapping. “Then we incorporated the models into live aerial video footage, because the condos are located off Biscayne Bay, and the client wanted to show their proximity to the water and to downtown Miami,” Smith says.
Once they had camera angle confirmation and approval on the storyboard and on the model’s accuracy, colors, and textures, they rendered the final animation and images. “For models and shots containing lots of geometry, we used the standard scanline renderer because it’s faster when working with lots of polygons, and for some of the renderings and still shots we used third-party plug-ins,” says Rios. As the final step, the team added sound and motion graphics, and then used the Autodesk® Cleaner® XL industry-standard media mastering and encoding solution to compress the files for delivery to the client. “Cleaner is the best solution for compressing files and maintaining low file sizes, without compromising image quality,” notes Rios.
According to Rios, the biggest challenge with this project concerned dealing with design changes and revisions made by the client and architect. “There was a lot of back-and-forth between us and the client and architect because of design changes during the project. The great thing about 3ds Max, though, was that we could edit the model easily and quickly.”
“Project designs change, yet deadlines always remain the same,” adds Smith. “The ease of modeling in 3ds Max, and the speed that the scanline renderer provides, helped us to stick to our deadline.”
Architecture in Gaming
As noted earlier, although Spine3D has enjoyed several years of success in architectural animation, recently the company had the chance to use 3ds Max software in a different application area: gaming. For this project, leading game developer Electronic Arts solicited Spine3D to create a 3D model of a small European farmhouse. “They’re working on a next-generation game, and the goal of this ‘3D asset test’ was to provide them with a high-quality 3D architectural asset that they could drop into their gaming engine,” explains Bouma.
“The Xbox 360 and PS3 next-generation game consoles are going to require 3D models that are a lot more sophisticated than current consoles require,” says Leon. “Most of the people in the game industry don’t have traditional architectural training, but [they realize that for] the Xbox 360 and PS3 they need a high degree of precision and quality in their architectural backgrounds and environments.
“Electronic Arts is looking to companies like ours to gain more expertise when it comes to creating architectural environments,” Leon continues. “That’s why they experimented with us on outsourcing their environments.”
Spine3D built the farmhouse model from scratch in 3ds Max software, using concept sketches and photos of existing farmhouses as reference. Because EA wanted the farmhouse to look weathered, Bouma says the team spent a lot of time focusing on texture mapping. “Utilizing the Render-to-Texture feature in 3ds Max made this task reliable and efficient,” he says.
Another feature that came in handy was the software’s normal maps. Because the model was for a game, the team needed to build it using low-polygon-modeling techniques. “With the normal maps in 3ds Max, you get the appearance of more detail through mapping rather than through modeling,” enthuses Bouma. An added bonus for this project was 3ds Max software’s full compatibility with the Unreal Engine game development framework. “Autodesk provides export tools in 3ds Max for bringing your models directly into the Unreal Editor,” Bouma says. “It’s very clean.”
At the time of this writing, EA was in the process of reviewing the model. Regardless of whether EA works with Spine3D on the forthcoming game, Smith says that Spine3D is expanding its focus to include the development of 3D architectural environments for games. For this application, the company will continue to rely on 3ds Max software.
“As we enter the game industry, 3ds Max will be our platform of choice,” Smith says. “We’ve found it to be a reliable, effective, and integral tool, regardless of application.”