What Software Do You Use?
My first introduction to 3D CAD was back in the late 1990s when I was studying CAD and Construction at the University of Wolverhampton. I was instantly hooked. I loved working in a digital 3D environment and I soon realised that this was the direction I wanted to take my working career moving forward.
Through working in different architectural practices over the years and through further study when I completed a Masters in Digital Architecture I have experienced working with a range of different CAD software [both 2D and 3D]. Some packages were quite straightforward to use and others were way more complex, but I was willing to learn in order to get the best end results. In my view the best packages offer a huge amount of flexibility when modelling and rendering. This ability to tweak and fine tune settings shows in our 3D work and our clients get a better product as a result.
In 2008, after working as a 3D visualiser for an Architects & Interior Design Studio in Birmingham, I set up Resolution Studios and it was time to choose the tools of the trade that would best suit my business. In this blog I am going to describe the various software programmes we use, and why I chose them.
Disclaimer - this is not an attempt to endorse or promote any particular software, nor is it a criticism of any software I don’t use. It's simply an attempt to shed some light on how we have chosen to work and to answer one of my most frequently asked questions, ‘What software do you use?’
3D Studio Max
Our main tool here at Resolution Studios is 3D Studio Max, often referred to as 3DSMax. It is a huge and complex piece of software. However, once you get to grips with it and understand the user interface, you can literally model anything in three dimensions. It is in 3D Studio Max that we spend most of our time creating the geometry and setting up our 3D scenes.
3D Studio Max is made by Autodesk, who are also makers of AutoCAD, a popular computer aided design (CAD) system used by many architectural practices. The sophistication offered by 3D Studio Max means it is used in many industries - such as film, automotive and gaming - not just the architectural and construction sectors.
Anyone who has mastered 3D Studio Max will tell you that it is not the easiest of 3D tools to learn, however it is well worth the many hours invested in mastering it, as the possibilities for modelling 3D geometry are endless. I believe it is one of the best 3D modelling packages available to architectural visualisers.
3D Studio Max allows us to create highly complex and detailed geometry for use within our projects. These precise 3D shapes, along with high quality materials and bespoke lighting within our scene, means we can render higher quality and more photo-realistic 3D images for our clients.
Once you have mastered the basics, then it's a case of building on what you know, trying new techniques and creating ever more complex scenes, resulting in a virtuous cycle of improvements to your work with every project you complete. Even the most experienced users like to experiment and try out new techniques to improve their skills, so you will always be experimenting and trying things out. As with many technologies, I have tended to rely on just a fraction of the tools available. However, as the product has evolved, and new challenges I am still finding new, quicker or more efficient ways of working.
3D Studio Max has been our modelling software of choice since day one at Resolution Studios and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
V-Ray is an additional piece of software that we use alongside 3D Studio Max. V-Ray is a render engine which means it uses the computer’s processing power to combine the different elements we create in a 3D Studio Max model - the geometry, the materials (or textures) and the lighting - into a photo-realistic image. Most modelling programmes can render images within the software, however we use V-Ray as a rendering add-on because it calculates the lighting and materials with increased accuracy, thereby giving our rendered images increased photo-realism.
I remember the first time I used V-Ray and the difference it made to the realism of my projects, it really did take them to the next level, most notably in terms of lighting. Using basic render engines, light would be shown to travel directly from a source and illuminate a surface. Anything not in the direct line of travel from the source would be in shadow. In the real world however, light reflects off every surface, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the material of the surface. In turn, a whole room is illuminated when a light is switched on and so light levels and shadow depths vary considerably within the space. It is these subtle differences that V-Ray calculates, resulting in much more realistic rendered images.
Like any other advanced rendering software it can take time to get to grips with V-Ray, however the use of such add-on render engines is one way to greatly improve the quality of your work. At Resolution Studios we believe this is time well spent.
Although as an architectural visualisation practice, we spend most of our time using 3D CAD software, there are times when we need to turn to the 2D world! At Resolution Studios, Adobe’s Photoshop is our tool of choice when it comes to manipulating 2D images.
Our 2D work includes creating material maps to appear within our 3D scenes, post-production work on rendered 3D images and building photomontages. Photoshop is another complex piece of software with many different settings, tools and options available. However, after training, practice and sometimes a little experimentation along the way, it allows us to effectively and easily present our work in line with our clients’ needs.
Over the years I have used several different photo editing and image manipulation tools, but I believe that Photoshop is currently the best in the market to meet our needs.
Forest Pack is a tool for scattering objects throughout a scene. It has been designed with landscaping in mind, whether that is setting up a forest of pine trees, showing gravel on a driveway or scattering a few autumnal leaves on a lawn. It comes with vast libraries of landscape features from trees, shrubs and grasses to boulders, stones and sand. Forest Pack simplifies the geometry of objects - such as flowers in a meadow - which in the natural environment tend to be complex and repeated on a large scale but not identical. This enables us to add huge landscaping assets with millions of polygons to a model - such as a wild flower meadow - without demanding too much processing power or time.
Using Forest Pack, there are so many ways that we can control the seemingly natural and random scatter effects that it produces….
… how many different shades of green should be in this lawn?
… how much variation do we want in the length of the blades of grass?
… how much movement should be portrayed by varying the angles of the blades of grass?
This level of detail can enhance the realism of a scene, so at Resolution Studios we use Forest Pack as standard practice when creating external views of either natural or landscaped environments.
Unreal Engine 5 [UE5]
There’s a lot to be said about Unreal Engine, so much so that it was the subject of my first blog in May 2022 (you can read it here!) and I’m sure it will be the subject of many future blog posts too. I first came across Unreal Engine(UE) back in 2004, when a lecturer on my masters course at Newcastle Uni pointed out the possibilities that game engines offered to architectural visualisation. It's fair to say that the sector has taken a while to embrace this crossover but it is beginning to see the benefits, especially with virtual reality and real-time rendering becoming more mainstream. At Resolution Studios UE5 is an essential tool for producing animations and walk-throughs.
Unreal Engine was originally developed for the [computer] game industry, to prolong the life of one of Epic’s games by allowing the gaming community to create their own levels and environments for the Unreal Tournament game. Independent game makers started using the software to produce new games and Unreal Engine took on a life of its own. In recent years, architectural visualisers have seen the potential benefits of using such software, allowing them to take their clients on virtual tours of their unbuilt schemes and displaying proposals in virtual reality.
On the surface, gaming and architecture may seem a million miles apart, but when you turn the guns and bad guys off, gaming software leaves you with an excellent platform for exploring virtual buildings in real time. Not only can we explore buildings using game engines such as Unreal Engine, but it also opens up the possibility to explore our buildings using Virtual Reality headsets, allowing clients to explore and experience a development that is still in the design stages, allowing them an opportunity to give constructive feedback and improve the design of the scheme.
Moving forward I believe the Unreal editor will be used more and more in our industry and it’s something we at Resolution Studios want to be part of, as the possibilities it offers us and our clients are endless.
And there you are, I hope you found my quick rundown of the software we use here at Resolution Studios useful.
There are alternatives to each of the software and tools I mentioned, however most are the industry standard for generating high quality 3D visualisations to showcase architectural schemes.
If you are looking to get into the Arch Vis sector then I would suggest you become familiar with the 3D Studio Max user interface and understand how to get the best out of the software. There are many tutorials available online [both free and paid for] that can walk you through the menus, dialogue boxes, settings and workspace to get you up and running and modelling in 3D.
I hope you found this an interesting insight into the software we use here at Resolution Studios and if I can help in any way please get in touch.
About the Author
Jamie Wilkes has worked as a 3D visualiser and has over 20 years experience working with 3D CAD in the architectural industry. He is now owner and director of Resolution Studios, a 3D visualisation firm based in Halesowen in the West Midlands.
Starting out as an Architectural Technician, Jamie worked on a number of commercial and residential schemes, producing CAD plans, elevations & sections of buildings. After completing his Masters in Digital Architecture Jamie then followed his passion for 3D & took a role as a full time 3D visualiser working mainly in the leisure sector.
Resolution Studios was established by Jamie in 2008 and has since provided 3D visualisations, animations and interactive imagery for planning applications and marketing developments in many sectors throughout the UK and abroad.
Do you want to be making use of the latest tools and technology with your next project, if so then please get in touch and we can see how we can work together.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 0121 674 40 20