Artist Spotlight: Sebastian Smolak

Getting the most out of LightWave 3D for architectural visualization

Posted: Wed 11 Dec 2013

When commercial developers and architects want to see what their new building will look like once it’s built, it would be nice to photograph it from all angles or allow them to tour the place day or night. Problem is, the property doesn’t exist. It hasn’t been built yet.

3D Artist Sebastian Smolak gets around this problem by creating photorealistic 3D architectural visualizations and animated clips that show in extraordinary detail what a building will look like when it’s finished. Corporate office centers with natural light streaming through the lobby, apartment buildings with ornate balconies, railings, and molding, high-rises overlooking public plazas, even dream homes and humble abodes are part of Smolak’s portfolio.

Doing business as Atlantis Arts Studio in Rumia, Poland, Smolak uses LightWave 3D software supplemented by a wide range of plug-ins to provide 3D architectural visualization and animation services customized to the needs of each unique project. While much of his diverse clientele is based in Poland, his business has grown beyond Polish borders.

“Many years ago, when I was looking for 3D software that would suit my needs and expectations, I chose LightWave because it’s a unified environment that lets me do even the most challenging project from start to finish for the most demanding client,” Smolak said. In 2001, he taught himself LightWave by experimenting on his own. He started by creating architectural animations using LightWave 7.0, reading books like LightWave 3D 1001 Tips and Tricks, by Timothy Albee, and reaching out to LightWave’s supportive community for ideas and advice.

“Every aspect of the job—which typically spans design, modeling, surfacing, lighting, and rendering—can be done entirely within LightWave without any need for expensive add-ons,” Smolak added. But he does like to supplement LightWave with a slew of plugins, many of which can be found in the LightWave Plugin database at https://www.lightwave3d.com/assets/plugins. Among these are vRoom from Eurisko Studios for fast interiors creation; StrokesPlus, for assigning Modeler or Layout shortcuts to mouse or pen/tablet gestures; and Global Materials from True Arts, for accelerating the editing and modification of materials on large numbers of similar objects in the scene, such as plants, all at once.

In some cases, Smolak does all the necessary modeling from scratch, sending 2D sketches or vector data to Modeler’s background layer to serve as templates. In other cases, he imports architectural sketches, plans or models from AutoCad, SketchUp, and other CAD programs via dxf, eps, obj, or fbx file import formats. Also, importing bvh motion data helps with setting up movements of CG people in architectural walkthrough animations.

“At the modeling stage, I can deploy components, such as windows, doors, or other objects, with the greatest precision according to the architect’s design, without having to manually measure the distance between them,” Smolak said. “There are no restrictions on the creation of the geometry of the most bizarre shapes, or moving, rotating, and stretching elements with utmost precision using the new LightWave 11.5 snapping possibilities.”

Smolak’s projects vary greatly in terms of the detail, scale, and production time they require. To visualize a small landscaped house may only take two days to complete, while bigger projects with four to six different views can take between five and 20 days. An elaborate property or settlement—with between 10 and 20 visualizations including aerial views and short animations—can take one to two months.

Since he’s usually working under tight time constraints, he must first consider the best strategy for meeting the deadline while rendering the most detailed visualizations possible. To make matters even more challenging, Smolak needs to be prepared for client changes and suggestions at each stage of the project. Perhaps they just want to swap out the type of fence around the property, or they may ask to replace all the windows for a totally different look.

“LightWave’s VPR [Viewport Preview Renderer] is my friend in this situation,” Smolak said. “The VPR lets me send my clients multiple versions of the building—in a variety of materials, colors, styles, camera angles, and more—so they can consider all the creative possibilities right up-front.” He can record his VPR renderings as MP4 files to give clients real-time virtual tours of the property with near-finished quality. On large-scale settlements, when he isn’t doing heavy modeling work, he’s using the VPR to determine the best quality renderings for his clients.

Smolak supplements LightWave’s Modeler with the new LWCAD 4.5 LightWave plug-in to visualize all the architectural and decorating options for a particular building. Then, if clients change their minds about any stylistic detail large or small, at any stage of the 3D visualization, animation, or rendering process, Smolak is prepared to deal with it.

If anyone is doing 3D architectural work, Smolak says that the LWCAD modeling system from WTools3D can greatly boost productivity. And between LightWave’s Modeler and LWCAD, artists have all the modeling capabilities they could ever need.

For example, LWCAD 4.5 enhances the Instancing capability in LightWave’s Modeler. “One of the most frustrating things in the whole modeling process is that clients sometimes want to change details or even revamp large sections of the building right before the deadline. This often means remodeling those elements and areas from scratch,” Smolak said.

“The way that Instancing helps enormously is that you can design one instance of the change—such as a particular style of window—and then the modeling system automatically updates all the other windows on the building to that style,” Smolak said. “LightWave also has a powerful node editor that allows artists to create and apply every realistic material or texture without restriction. The node editor can also control the placement and look of instances (virtual objects) either randomly or with precision. This is great for placing rich vegetation wherever it’s appropriate or aesthetically pleasing in the scene.”

Much of Smolak’s inspiration comes from nature itself. He spends his free time taking photographs of landscapes and other interesting subjects with his digital camera. He also frequents websites like CG Architect, LightWiki, and Liberty3D to see interesting visualizations, tools, and techniques that could benefit his own work.

“I study the colors and placement of objects and how the light spills over them depending on the time of day or weather the scenes depict,” Smolak said. While it’s difficult to create realistic CG lighting, he considers this step crucial to achieving his incredibly photo-realistic visualizations. He credits the improved radiosity and lighting quality of LightWave 11.6, which work in tandem with LightWave’s fast, accurate rendering and VPR for creative experimentation.

“I can tailor my approach to each unique project because LightWave offers intelligent, customizable and fast Global Illumination (GI) with disk caching, color space management, good anti-aliasing strategies, and a wide array of lighting options,” Smolak said.

 

“The VPR offers the greatest impact on accelerating the entire workflow process,” Smolak added. “I can see exactly how every material will look given my lighting conditions, and how reflections or anisotropic highlights will spread around without the need for test renderings.”

A key focal point in all of Smolak’s 3D architectural visualizations and animations is the sky, which ranges from blue skies with pleasant, puffy clouds to dramatic, painterly skies. Smolak calls SunSky, a free plugin from Denis Pontonnier, his “go-to” tool for creating all types of sunlight/skies. He says he can play with the mood of the scene in real-time using sliders attached to the options offered by the SunSky plugin.
The sunlight then falls naturally on the scene below, reflecting off windows, pools of water, or other reflective surfaces.

While working on very complex scenes, such as large settlements with hundreds of instances—like high-poly trees, cars, houses, and thousands of plants—Smolak said that the VPR can become very slow even in draft mode. Through experimentation, however, he’s found a workaround to improve the VPR’s efficiency and speed up the process of creating large, complex scenes.

“The short-cut involves using LightWave’s Global Illumination settings per object feature from the Objects Properties panel instead of the Global Illumination settings from the Render Globals panel,” Smolak said.

To speed up switching between the GI settings from Object Properties Panel (which he uses only for high quality final renderings) and Render Globals, Smolak said there’s a hidden command in LightWave called Redirect GI Settings, which can be found when you open the Configure Keys panel (alt + F9) under the Objects command. For faster VPR previewing in the Render Globals panel, he uses very low GI settings, such as 20 for RPE (Rays Per Evaluation) and 10 for MPS (Minimum Pixel Spacing).

“To make it easier, I’ve assigned the command Ctrl+Shift+A to select all objects in the scene beforehand,” Smolak said. “Then if you want to go back to the standard (F9) renderer, with its high-quality settings, just select all the objects again and after that Redirect GI settings will enable the high GI settings for all objects from its Objects Properties panel. My speed gain ranges from 250-450% depending on the complexity of the scene and view, or even more if I lower the camera anti-aliasing.”

The VPR’s default draft mode has predefined settings for GI and camera anti-aliasing. When draft mode is turned off, the VPR reads camera and shading settings directly from the Render Globals panel. Smolak said, “If you lower camera settings here to from Minimum Samples = 3 with Adaptive Sampling turned off, you can gain even more speed with very little quality impact – but again, it depends on the scene.”

Another tip for speeding up the workflow is ef ItemFocus, a plug-in by Dan Dulberger, that helps speed up the VPR process by isolating those objects you want to put your creative focus on. First, begin by creating parent-child hierarchies to organize and associate related objects in the layers. Parent all cars to a null named cars, parent all people to a people null, parent all houses to a ground/terrain objects null, and so forth.

“After that, you can use the ef ItemFocus plugin to temporarily hide and disable from rendering those unselected hierarchies with their related child items,” Smolak explained. “If you need to work on foliage objects or individual houses, for example, you can work faster by hiding all other types of object from rendering and OGL view. This can work like layers in Layout and speed up VPR previewing of isolated objects for temporary surface editing in large scenes where it’s hard to do so manually in Scene Editor.”

In scenes that involve a lot of thin instances like grass and small foliage, it’s sometimes better to turn off adaptive sampling or to use high values like 0.1 through 0.25 with minimum samples >10. Smolak says, “This will speed-up rendering without losing quality if camera minimum samples value is set above 5.”

For final renderings he uses low RPE settings and high (>5 but <20) MPS settings for relatively thin objects, such as balcony railings, window frames, and fences; materials with higher reflection levels, like metals and glass; and surfaces with uneven, irregular, contrasy or bumpy textures, like roads, grass, dirt, and roofs.

He’s also using very low settings for instanced vegetation too—typically only 20 RPE and 5 SBR (Secondary Bounce Rays) —but the MPS ranges from 0 to 5 to make it contrasty. All other surfaces, like the walls, have high GI settings with low MPS for good GI contact shadowing. GI settings per object works with multi-selection in Layout so you can select all desirable objects in Scene Editor and apply these values to them at once.

For final finishing tasks like compositing, color correction, and adding effects like depth of field and glows, Smolak uses Adobe Photoshop. For animation compositing and postproduction, he uses Eyeon Fusion. From LightWave 11.6, he exports render buffers—such as layers of shaded reflections, shaded specular, shadows, depth, and other attributes—to the EXR image format. He prefers EXR because of the high dynamic range it offers when he’s editing that imagery in Photoshop and Fusion.

Smolak said, “Considering the time challenges I face, and all the creative challenges I tackle on different and unique projects, LightWave gives me all the tools, features, and solutions I need to deliver the highest quality, photo-realistic 3D visualizations, animations and renderings to my clients.”