Our expert panelists reveal how they create the most beautiful property visualisations in the world
Visualisations have come a long way since the hand-painted ‘artist impressions’ of yore, but even the experts admit: technology hasn’t rendered* humans obsolete.
“You cannot have good renders without a good technologist, so I think you have to start there,” says Billy Macklowe, CEO of William Macklowe Company in Manhattan. “But then, you also can’t have a good painting without a good artist.” Macklowe’s been involved in redevelopments such as the General Motors building on Madison Avenue (yes, the one featuring Apple’s flagship retail store in an enormous glass cube) and has seen the rise and rise of computer-aided visualisation first-hand.
“Before the commercial explosion of Auto CAD, we actually used hand sketches and blueprints, there was something very artisan about it. Now it’s a very iterative process of how you get there, we always employ a team that supports the effort. They understand the product we are developing, and we work together to get the right positioning, to make sure the materials are appropriately represented and everybody can really express a point of view. I might have final say, but there is a tremendous amount of collaboration that takes place to get to the finish line.”
Eddie Nelms is part of that team, in his role as Director of the New York office of creative agency Wordsearch. “Without a doubt, creating renders is art. It doesn’t really matter which rendering companies are using which pieces of software, they are all a fraction of a difference apart from each other. It really comes down to the talent of the artist. It is like the difference between a Vermeer and a Van Dyck. In my experience, it’s the attention to detail the artists bring. Their natural talent is what really drives a successful rendering.”
Render your strategy first
Before you unbox your tech and unleash your artists, our experts underlined the importance of starting with a clear strategy. “I think we need to look at the fundamentals of the building and the DNA of the project and that will drive a lot of your creative decisions,” advises Ross Karabelas, Director of Sydney’s The Property Agency. “We’ve recently completed a project that features up to eight variations of the finishes between the segments of the buildings, so it became very obvious early on that the hero of this building was its attention to detail, and that’s what the developer wanted to showcase within the project development itself. So we went down this path of concentrating on the fine detail and craftsmanship in the renders, which affects your choice of textures, of colours, of camera angles – everything.”
This move to bed down the strategy is also being championed by the render houses themselves, who see it as a way to produce better quality work, more efficiently. “One of the big things that really energises everybody – and that everybody wants – is for the strategy to become an increasingly larger part of what we do,” explains Andrei Dolnikov, founder and CEO of Binyan, a leading Australian visualisation firm that has recently expanded to the US. “Now that approach absolutely requires a much deeper collaboration and relationship with the creative agency, it does also require a greater degree of trust. But I believe the process is better and I absolutely know the results are better.”
It’s worth pausing for a moment to point out that everyone has their own vernacular – some of our experts are more particular than others – but broadly speaking, if you say ‘render’ or ‘visualisation’ most people in the industry will know what you’re talking about. Say ‘CGI’, on the other hand, and you might get heads shaking. If you’re curious, our complete ‘How To’ guide for this episode has a complete set of definitions specific to this topic.
Daniel Flood is the founder of Flood Slicer, one of Australia’s most established visualisation houses and a firm believer in the need for strategy to inform the process. “Part of our process is to talk to the architects, understand the motivations of the design and then find an interpreted approach that marries with the brand direction. That may or may not lead to head-butting at various times, but on our successful projects there is a mutual collaboration and that’s where I want to it stay. It’s an interesting dynamic because it works for some and others not.”
It’s all about the process
“For me, the visualisation process starts in the briefing. I take butter paper and pencils and a soft eraser to briefing meetings and I sketch an outline of possible views and elements as the conversation is taking place,” says Ross Shepherd, Founder and Director of Site Image, one of Australia’s leading landscape design firms. “These pencil mockups can assist the artist’s framing of views, with continuing sketches over rendering drafts continuing all the way into the final visualisation.”
“We need the drawings, to begin the process. Which sounds very basic, but over the last couple of years, developers have been very keen to go to market before the design is even developed,” explains Costa Gabriel, one half of the founding partnership behind Melbourne-based visualisation house Gabriel Saunders. “It’s a very interesting position to produce renders with no design, because for us content is key. The better the content and the more ‘on-board’ everyone is, the smoother the process, and then my team can bring the product to life. At the same time, because we are not just technicians here and we are made up of a wider team of designers, photographers and stylists, we can work with the client group to help them visualise things that are unresolved.” explains Gabriel.
The importance of planning and process is a recurring motif throughout the discussions with our experts, even with something as seemingly simple as shooting backplates. “It’s important to take the time to plan the photography, to look at the tonality of the images we want to shoot, and the composition of the renders as well,” says TPA’s Karabelas, “so we know in advance exactly when the photographer has to be there, we know the particular angle of the building we need to shoot, because then the photographer knows where he needs to be positioned. From there we look at things such as unwanted vehicles in the frame, whether we have clean access, appropriate permits, whether there are risks to safety or property. If we can get that right in the planning phase then the actual photography becomes very easy to shoot.”
That pre-planning also becomes important when you are moving data between your consulting partners, according to Wordsearch’s Nelms. “A lot comes down to the project management, making sure the renderer will do their due diligence on the information and the model so they can alert us early if crucial data points are missing. Otherwise it becomes difficult to model the building perfectly, which is crucial before moving into the rendering process proper.”
Let’s get this thing moving
As film becomes an increasingly important part of the marketer’s toolkit, more developers are requesting their ‘stills’ be turned into animation, a process Binyan’s Dolnikov suggests can be relatively straightforward provided you do your homework up front.
“From a strictly timeline perspective, the motion happens after the stills because you are essentially animating the 3D scenes that you have already modelled, textured, lit and populated through the stills production process. Now whilst the animation happens at the back end, the planning and all the pre-production and the concept development should really be happening at the front. So that way your concept for the film and your concept for the stills are one and the same.”
When did the tech get so good?
We carry more computing power in our pocket than NASA used for their first moonshot but, according to TPA’s Karabelas, technology is not the only reason renders are now so good.
“Even just ten years ago renders were not seen as very important at all in the Australian market. Most developers would get their project near to completion and take actual photographs to use in marketing. Then there was a massive shift in the financing model, which meant most projects came to market ‘off the plan’. Today, selling off the plan is virtually impossible without a quality render. The buyers’ perception is, ‘if there are no renders, we can’t trust the project.’ And it’s the sales agents as well. If they cannot get their hands on a quality render, they might also question if perhaps the DA process hasn’t been completed or there is something unresolved about the design. If a developer is not committing to the investment and intricate process of producing a set of quality renders, then there must be something wrong – it becomes a kind of litmus test.”
“We’ve actually all known these visualisation technologies were coming for a long time,” says Shepherd from his landscape design studio in Sydney’s newly-fashionable Redfern. “Early 3D rendering programs first arrived in the early 80s. It has taken this long for the technology truly to arrive but, in a way, we’ve always imagined they would reach the exceptional rendering standards now achieved.”
If we’re going to thank designers’ imaginations and developers’ financing models for bringing us fabulous renders, we also have to thank the Bulgarians. No, really.
“The big jump in technology happened around ten years ago, when V-Ray came on the scene,” explains Binyan’s Dolnikov. “V-Ray was the result of some dudes in a basement in Bulgaria who worked out an algorithm that calculates accurately what we call the ‘light bounce’, to mimic the way light moves around between surfaces. This algorithm gives a certain softness, which we perceive as a ‘realistic’ look. So that leap happened ten years ago, but to me the significant thing that has changed since then is the experience level of the artists who are using those tools – we now have people who have been creating images for 15 years or more. In any other field, like architecture or copywriting or engineering, that’s normal, they’ve put in the time, they have the mastery. It’s what Malcolm Gladwell described in his 10, 000 hour rule. Our industry is now catching up to that.”
“For some there seems to be a preoccupation with the render engine and the software used, which is not the key driver,” explains Veronica Saunders from the Gabriel Saunders studio in Melbourne. “Sure, there are different software packages and some are geared more towards technical uses, but most will allow the artist to focus on materiality and lighting and not the parameters. I still think that you can go back ten years and find renders that are as good or even better than what’s produced on today’s software.”
Many of our experts pointed out that recent advances in software are focussed more on usability than capability. “I think, in time, even children could build up something in this software,” claims River FilmSenior CGI artist Vanessa Forner. “It depends on the level of detail you are after, but if you want what we would call a simple visualisation then many people will be able to produce more or less decent images.”
According to Nelms from Wordsearch NYC, this ‘iPadification’ of the technology is generating a whole new raft of problems. “No matter how many times you tell people that it’s actually a difficult thing, they sometimes still want to change the camera angle halfway through the process, because it looks so simple to do on the interface, especially on a white-block model. The camera angle process is very technical and you have to lock in your decisions before you can move onto the next stage with the textures and the rendering. Wanting to go back and ‘just quickly change the camera angle’ can set you back days and days.”
When things get tricky
Spend too long in the uncanny valley of ‘render-land’ and you start to believe all the world is immaculate interiors and perfect sunsets. We asked our panel to tell us about the complications that arise in the visualisation process. As you’d expect, they had some stories.
“I’m often disappointed with the way landscapes are depicted in property visualisations, and rarely do I see what I believe are exceptional landscape renders,” says Site Image’s founder Shepherd, whose work is focussed on the natural forms of vegetation rather than the artifice of glass and steel. “I think that’s because great landscapes are told mainly through shadows, and people seem to hate deep, rich shadows in visualisations. So the landscapes can tend to seem flat to me, due to that lack of depth in the shadows.”
“Sometimes we receive feedback which is not quite right,” explains Daniel Flood. “And what I mean by that is, for example, in a film situation where you are dealing with, say, a developer who has got one project, maybe two, then to them the idea of ‘cut that whole section out at 20 seconds and then move everything forward’ is very simple. The edit process doesn’t work the way they think it does, therefore they just don’t understand the impact of what they are asking. So our job is to be interpretive, our response is to take what they are saying and produce a result that makes sense in film.”
“One of our challenges is how to motivate artists on a project when the architects haven’t necessarily done a wonderful job of making something super sexy. How do we get the artist to work on it for two, three or four days, or weeks, or whatever it takes to make something beautiful, something different?” explains Binyan’s Dolnikov. “So we are constantly thinking about what more we can do, just like an architectural photographer would approach the subject matter as just the starting point. That’s how we try to think when we are looking at a design that’s quite familiar or common. How do I find something beautiful about it? That’s the challenge.”
Money is sometimes a challenge too. “We see developers deciding to go for the cheapest rendering because they think they are going to be getting the same value and the same product out of it, or at least close to it,” advises Wordsearch’s Nelms. “I am a strong believer that you get what you pay for, so check that you are getting the number of rounds of revisions you need on each image, not just the number of images. We’ve seen situations where the lack of quality in the early rounds prompts a whole host of change orders, which generates additional rounds, and at some point you start having to pay for each additional round. These cheaper renders can sometimes end up costing more than a premium job.”
Human, all too human.
While our panel fervently believe the human touch is what separates a good image from a truly great one, they were quick to suggest that humans are not always needed in the image itself.
“You can ruin an image if you fill it with lots of people,” explains CGI artist Forner from her London workspace. “The lighting has got to be right, the size of the person is sometimes not right, the shadows have to match as well. So if the people are well-placed it can make things interesting and also you can make a flow and tell a story, but it has got to be placed with a lot of care. Otherwise it’s better to leave the people out.”
Ross Karabelas also went on record to say he doesn’t like people. “As a rule, I think in animation humans are fine, but I am completely opposed to ‘stock’ people that you buy off the shelf and insert into renders. If you are going to commit to humans in renders then shoot them custom, on green screen, and superimpose them into the room itself.”
And it’s not just the technical side that gives Karabelas pause. Humans can create sales problems as well.
“I think we need to understand that if we put humans in renders we are potentially doing the creative process an injustice. You want the purchasers to imagine themselves in the renders, as opposed to seeing other people in the renders that might not suit their idea of how they see themselves in terms of age, their race, their fashion sense, their affluence – whatever. You can’t control how every purchaser interprets these images.” People: you have been warned.
Using the visualisation process as a design tool?
“When you are decorating an apartment, or multiple apartments, on a computer, it’s kind of a wild process and you can use it almost as a design tool,” explains Macklowe from his office on Manhattan’s east side. “With our project in Greenwich Village, in the process of going through renders we did actually change certain design details because we realised that wasn’t exactly what we were going for. Even when you’re a so-called ‘experienced developer’ you can still see things and learn things at every stage. As long as you understand the implications of those changes.”
While interior design tweaks are an accepted and important part of the visualisation process, more substantial changes can quickly open up a can of rendered worms.
“We always warn developers that using a render house to create an apartment or a building to improve your design is probably the most expensive and inefficient way of doing work in terms of producing renders,” explains Karabelas. “Sometimes developers will wait until the renders are created so they can see a visual representation of what their designers created for them – and then decide whether they like it or not. That can get very expensive and it’s a very slow process. My advice: resolve your design first, lock on to your selected finishes, and then we can move into rendering.”
“Sometimes we discover people are using our visualisations to try and work out their brief as they go, which is fine but it can be frustrating because for me it’s more a case of ‘if you tell me what you want I can give it to you, I can make it beautiful’,” says Forner. “But sometimes people don’t know what they want yet, they are designing and deciding as they go along, but that’s translating into more money, because rendering software is quite an expensive tool for a designing process.”
Different keystrokes for different folks
We uncovered subtle yet important differences in visualisation techniques for various property types. Billy Macklowe has tackled all of them in his development career. “Recently we’ve done a lot of speculative office redesign. In this scenario you already have four walls to show somebody but you are making a new lobby, a new experience, and how you present that to potential tenants through your renders is very helpful – especially in today’s market where the majority of the time the landlord is building a turn-key solution for tenants.”
“Obviously residential, retail and commercial space all have very different lighting qualities and moods that you need to convey. We approach our visualisation work like a design studio would, embedded in research and precedent, with a return brief and visualisation research to find the best outcomes,” explains Costa Gabriel from his studio in Melbourne. “All our references are photographs, we are not looking at renders. The methodology is the same for us across the board whether it’s industrial design, a house, a commercial or high rise tower, it’s just we are obviously looking at very different reference content.”
Seen from the artist’s perspective, the difference often comes out in the materials. “If I have retail space and you want the windows to be lit but you also want to perceive the window display, then I will look at the lighting in a way that the window is going to tell us the story,” explains Forner. “If that window is the main source of light, for example, then the sun cannot be so bright, or even present at all. It helps kind of to think of in terms of lighting more than the actual use of the space.”
While residential renders have been focussing on interiors and views, Shepherd believes there are other opportunities to convey real-life through images. “To make a great image, you need one, two, maybe up to four little moments in them that look like imperfections, but are actually just a change in time – like a glint of light off a leaf, or a blur in the shadows thrown by leaves in motion,” says Shepherd. “Things that look like serendipity, like a happy accident.” In terms of the type of landscape images required, there’s an increased need for variety of landscape spaces, and to include many more different active and passive uses, which means the visualisations need to include more of these activities. “As residential developments go higher in density and in scale, the shared spaces become even more important. The challenges of demonstrating highly engaging and inviting spaces are definitely increasing in that regard.”
Taking it to the next level – from craftsmanship to artistry
When we asked our panel to describe the skills needed to become a world-class visualiser, the answers were as detailed as the renders themselves.
“If I were to teach someone about visualisation, I’d start by bringing in photographers and we would just talk about lighting and composition. Then I’d bring in interior designers and stylists and they would talk about their craft. Then I’d bring art directors to talk about storytelling and so on,” explains Veronica Saunders. “Only then would you get to the technical side, because you need to understand those fundamentals first, so when you get behind the tools, you are able to produce something that looks really beautiful. It is such a complex process, having one person able to do all those things is impossible.”
Many of our experts believe the classical disciplines of art and design are key to lifting otherwise technically correct images to something more emotive. “Sometimes images look flat, not only because of the lighting, but because of the sense of depth,” says Forner. “Thinking of foreground, middle ground, background and bringing back and forth certain elements of the image can make the work really stand out.”
“To make a great image, you need one, two, maybe up to four little moments in them that look like imperfections, but are actually just a change in time – like a glint of light off a leaf, or a blur in the shadows thrown by leaves in motion,” says Shepherd. “Things that look like serendipity, like a happy accident.”
“An artist also needs to be a diplomat, sometimes. You can get a mark-up from a landscape architect that says ‘make the trees bigger, move them over here and cover up’, and at the same time you get a mark-up from an architect that says ‘remove all the trees’ because they want to see the building,” according to Daniel Flood. “Everyone has a motive and a reason, so to avoid a standoff in procedure someone has to synthesize that information and get a result that’s right for the image.”
When taken to extremes, artistic approaches can hamper the practicality of an image. Nelms is certainly one for remaining locked on the task at hand – selling property. “There seems to be a lot more focus on showing detailed spaces lately, not necessarily showing full rooms, but portions and corners of rooms – things that I think make it very difficult to understand the product. Unless the finishes are truly amazing, it doesn’t say much, that little detail in isolation. I’m not sure it’s helping a prospective purchaser.”
As a key player in the North American market, Nelms also keeps his eye on what’s happening outside the frame. “The other trend we are seeing is creative agencies trying to build in rendering as part of the in-house capabilities they offer.”
Are we still waiting for the future to download?
When we asked our global panel to look into their crystal ball and visualise the future, the conversation often turned to the promise of ‘real time’ visualisation as well as immersive imagery technology.
“I think it is going to go more towards virtual reality and hybrid technologies,” predicts Macklowe. “If you look at the demographics, we have an aging population with change being driven by the millennials – they all live on the small screen. People are getting rid of big TVs and cutting their cables. It’s all facilitated by technology and we will have to keep responding to that.”
Daniel Flood also believes technology will have a role to play, but it may be more specific in its uses. “I think things like VR either have their spot and stay there or they will grow and become a more integral part of the business. At the same time, remember our major task is making a 50 square meter tog box look as big as possible and you are never going to do that in a VR environment, it just feels too small. And that process means, for off-the-plan development for example, it’s not going to have the impact on the market that people think it is going to have.”
From her front-row seat at the software show, Forner sees an entirely new relationship between design and visualisation. “I think the future of design is that you build up your 3D model, and out of the 3D model, you get out your drawings and your plans, not the other way around.”
“I think we are at the point where renders consistently look photo-like, they offer a hyper-realistic point of view. I think we have hit that target and now we are going into a more abstract mode,” offers Karabelas. “We are always trying to develop a unique point of view, that’s one of marketing’s jobs, so we may see more abstract views becoming more prevalent. We may start to see visualisations offering something more adventurous.”
It’s a prediction echoed by Nelms in Manhattan. “As we are getting a slowdown in the New York luxury market at the moment, developers have more time to build out actual model residence. What that means for the rendering is that they can be a lot more creative, a lot more artistic and not necessarily be entirely photo-real, because there will be other elements to do that job.”
“Maybe we’ll see a return to more analogue visualisations – sketches and water – colours and drawing. Even if just to create a point of difference,” adds Shepherd, before conceding that turning back the technology clock might not be as simple as it sounds. “Then you of course have the question of how to produce these images. Most of the great technicians and artists from that era are no longer working. A whole generation of old-school perspective artists have been replaced by the new technologies.”
* see what we did there?
Thanks to our global panel of Unearthed experts for this episode:
William S. (Billy) Macklowe is the founder and CEO of William Macklowe Company (WMC), a fully integrated real estate development, investment and operating company based in New York City. WMC redeveloped the office buildings at 636 Avenue of the Americas, 386 Park Avenue South and 156 William Street and is currently redeveloping 311 West 43rd Street as well as the luxury condominium at 21 East 12th Street in the heart of Greenwich Village. williammacklowecompany.com
Veronica Saunders is a Director and one half of Gabriel Saunders Pty Ltd. As an Interior Designer for over 20 years she steers her team to strive constantly for attention to detail. After completing her degree at RMIT in Interior Design she began her career curating international exhibitions showcasing Australian design in Japan.
Together with Costa Gabriel, Gabriel Saunders have developed relationships in the property development and industrial design sector attracting a local and international client base. Gabrielsaunders.com
Andre Dolnikov founded Binyan Studios in his Sydney living room after working as a visualiser in the U.S. and has since guided Binyan to be one of the world’s leading architectural 3D rendering and animation houses, with studios in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and New York City.
Collaboration has always been a key Binyan trait and Andrei has built a team of world-class artists who work together to bring beauty and sophistication to clients’ projects. binyan.com.au
Ross Karabelas is a property nerd, graduating with high honours from the Meriton School of Property. He has represented some of the biggest property projects in Australia in his 12 year career, spanning across CBRE, Charter Hall and Crown Group. If you need something amazing done, Ross is your man. thepropertyagency.com
Daniel Flood is an animation/rendering specialist in the design and visualisation of the built form. Daniel’s immersion in the technology of image production is driven by intense standards. His work is defined by visual complexity and dramatic expressions of the photo-real. floodslicer.com.au
Costa Gabriel is a Director and one half of Gabriel Saunders Pty Ltd, with a career spanning 20 years in architecture and the built environment. He met Veronica Saunders at Crowd Productions working on commercial projects and prototyping. They formed Gabriel Saunders to develop processes that enable a collaborative process to produce highly detailed results.
With his company Gabriel Saunders, he has a varied client base in Australia and internationally, and has lectured and run design studios in Melbourne and in Europe. Gabrielsaunders.com
Eddie Nelms is a Director of Wordsearch New York, redefining how real estate is marketed in the United States through his role in the marketing and branding of One World Trade Center, 20 Times Square, Hudson Yards, 11 East 68th Street and the Empire State Building. Eddie is exceptionally well-qualified in the real estate sector, holding degrees in Architecture from the University of Virginia and Urban Planning and Historic Preservation from Columbia University. Wordsearch.co.uk
Ross Shepherd is a partner and owner of Site Image in Sydney and Melbourne, one of the region’s leading Landscape Architects. In a career spanning over 30 years, Ross has delivered a broad range of regional, interstate and international projects for hotels and resorts, entertainment & leisure parks, commercial and industrial, residential and retirement as well as institutional projects including universities, hospitals, civic spaces, urban design and public art. siteimage.com.au
Vanessa Forner is a Senior Architectural Visualiser at River Film in London with over 20 years’ experience in creating beautiful images for residential, commercial, retail and mixed use development projects in key markets around the globe.
Coming up: The ‘How To’ guide for renders, visualisations and CGIs.
If you’ve enjoyed hearing from our experts, stay tuned at the end of the month when we release our downloadable ‘How To’ guide for developing stunning images for your next property project. Available as a downloadable PDF, this Unearthed ‘How To’ guide will walk you through the timelines, budgets, strategies, collaborations and ideas you should be considering as you prepare to create a set of visualisations of your next development project.
About the Editor In Chief
Barrie Seppings is the Director of Strategy at Wordsearch Australia, part of the world’s leading specialist property marketing consultancy network. He helps architects, developers, agents and city leaders develop stories for the built environment.
About the Publishers
The Urban Developer is Australia’s largest and fastest-growing online community for development professionals. Their daily updates are read across the industry and their live events and panel discussions are highly sought-after. The Unearthed Series is the first of an expanding range of resources for development professionals, published by The Urban Developer and developed in collaboration with the world’s most experienced property professionals.
Wordsearch is the world’s leading network of property marketing specialists, with consultants, strategists, designers and managers in eight offices around the world. wordsearchaus.com.au
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Unearthed takes you inside property marketing.
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