Inside the Architectural Space

Oliver Higgins explains how Maxon Cinema 4D offered the tools required for a post-planning building animation.

By Duncan Evans

Ratcliffe College Preparatory School, near Leicester, was founded in 1847 by Antonio Rosmini, a renowned educational innovator. The school has been a beacon of excellence ever since.

Ratcliffe is a Catholic school that welcomes children of all denominations and faiths whose parents feel they can benefit from and share in their ideals. The ethos of the school is that it caters to the development of the whole person, both academic and personal, through a wide range of extra-curricular activities. That means consistently high academic qualifications with top grades in A-levels as well as featuring a Steinway grand piano in the concert hall, amongst many other attractions.

Recently, the school was looking to expand its campus, by adding a new building and classrooms to update the facilities on offer, but needed to see how the design spaces would work before building even began. The solution was to commission design firm Franklin Ellis Architects to design the buildings and create the views that could then be signed off at the pre-planning stage.

Initially this was done with single image views. But stills aren't as good at showing how spaces work so the decision was made to create an animation. This could then also be used as a marketing tool for the school with the aim of hosting it on the website so that it was also available to parents and students.

Oliver Higgins, architect/visualizer of Franklin Ellis explained, “The visualization and animation were very much design tools for us as well as the client, as they allowed decisions to be made very early, which otherwise would have had to been made much later in the process. This minimized the risk for the client and allowed for any potential issues to be worked out before the construction process began.

It was important that the animation had a narrative, a journey through the spaces that were being visualized. Essentially, someone would need to be able to watch it and understand where the building was located in relation to the existing school, the general external massing and appearance, and finally, how the spaces would work within the building.

The opening sequence used a Google Earth© image mapped onto a plane object. The surrounding white-card buildings were modeled and placed in their respective positions. Basic trees were then added with a displacement modifier that gave them a spongy look. The aim was to replicate the old, physical models from before CG. The style also meant the level of modeling detail could be cut back, as populating the scene with high-res trees and fully modeled and textured buildings was not practical due to time constraints.

The initial sequence was relatively straightforward, but once inside the building, a technical challenge became apparent. All the spaces within the building faced a glazed courtyard. Almost all the camera movements included an element of this courtyard so that the spaces on the opposite side of the courtyard were always visible.

Oliver explained how this situation would normally be resolved: “Usually we would break the sequence down into smaller film sets that would allow us to keep scene size down and allow for high details. As most of the building was visible through this courtyard we needed to limit details in the background while having a high amount of detail in the foreground. Eventually, we decided the best way forward was to have a high-res and a low-res classroom space that was swapped into the main model, when needed, using the XRef function. When the view was in the background, we used the proxy function to load the low-res version and then switched to the standard XRef when in the foreground.

The polygon count for the completed scene was on the order of 3.9 million, but if hi-res classrooms had been used for all the spaces, this would have rocketed to around 6 million, placing a significant strain on rendering the final animation. It was this feature that made the project possible in the time available, and is one that gets a lot of use at Franklin Ellis, as Oliver explained, “Cinema 4D's XRef function is something that we use on a day-to-day basis here. It allows different versions of buildings to be switched almost instantly while still maintaining individual control of their own files.

Towards the end of the animation there are detailed shots within the courtyard. Franklin Ellis used Cinema 4D’s Hair feature to place grass throughout. Combined with global illumination, this produced a lovely, soft grass effect. To further detail the areas of grass, individual daisy models were scattered around using MoGraph. Oliver commented, “MoGraph is another invaluable tool as it allows us to clone items such as desks, chairs, small landscape objects, etc. It makes a process that would be very tedious almost instantaneous.

To finish off, the external lighting was created using the Physical Sky object. A simple sun and sky was enough to provide the aesthetic required. The internals used a mixture of spot, omni and area lights. The main corridors were lit using omni lights at about 20% intensity. This provided enough ambient light in the space and, coupled with the rays of sunlight streaming in, provided a soft look to the image. A series of planes were used in the corridors with a simple white illumination to give the impression the light was coming from these objects. Similarly, the classrooms used 600x600 mm ceiling grid lights with an omni light under each to generate the lighting. Various spots were used when specific areas needed highlighting.

The final animation was three minutes long at 1280x720 dpi resolution, but simply panning around spaces for that time is difficult to hold the attention of the audience. To complete the presentation, silhouetted children and audio clips from similar, real-world spaces were added during post-production to better simulate the atmosphere. Coupled with a variety of pans and camera movements, this achieved the aim of sustaining interest for the duration of the animation.

Duncan Evans is a freelance journalist, photographer and author.

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