Matthias Buehler from vrbn studios talked about their approach to creating realistic 3D content for urban environments, optimized for real-time software and detailed enough for VFX and Film production.
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Real-time and classic ‘offline’ rendering are starting to grow together, and hybrid production pipelines emerge. We more commonly see pre-rendered elements used within real-time contexts and final-quality VFX using real-time tech, all happily mixing and matching.
In the early 2000s, James Cameron was one of the pioneers in the field of using real-time performance capturing on his movie ‘Avatar’ (released in 2009). The latest giant leap forward was, of course, the approach ILM took for the Virtual Production of Disney’s ‘The Mandalorian’, where big LED screens showing a real-time environment (using Unreal Engine) were directly filmed.
The demand for 3D content has been dramatically increasing over the last years, not only in the creative industries but also in all sectors that leverage 3D graphics. Almost all stories told unfold in some urban environment. Creating realistic, full 3D architecture is technically very challenging: variation in typologies, shape complexity, asset and material variation, and especially the optimization for real-time use with LODs and draw call optimization.
This is the field that vrbn studios is uniquely focusing on: we provide consistent architectural 3D content for demanding productions that need to create vast 3D urban environments in a short amount of time.
The main ingredient to realistic architecture is realistic assets. We’re going to great lengths to create them consistently, matching the typical regional style, and building each one with 3 LODs.
A set of geotypical LA style assets:
3 LODs per asset:
To manage the complexity and consistency, we’re developing a suite of unique tools, which are the core of our production, supporting all aspects from rough building forms to the final 3D model to deriving the LODs and finally quality control.
The final buildings feature 5 LODs, created using our internal workflows – specifically avoiding an automatic LOD system, as none of those handle architectural semantics as we do.
5 LODs per building:
Most game architecture is built from tilesets, and that heavily restricts more complex building forms, especially more complex roof forms or facade corners that are non-rectangular. Our approach allows for rich architectural variation and offers easy to use building models.
Our Building Productions
Our buildings can be used for both real-time and VFX applications. For the different 3D platforms we currently support – Unity3D, Unreal Engine, and RedShift3D for Houdini – we write our own importers to control the quality. The ‘look parity’ between the tools is important, though the results will never 100% match due to different rendering and material systems of the various 3D tools.
‘Look parity’ between tools; more tools will follow:
Having representations in multiple native formats allows pipeline-friendly switching between tools without tedious file conversions.
Our first production is built in a geotypical ‘Los Angeles’ style, with residential, commercial, and industrial buildings. An extension to this production is in preparation. The models are drag-and-drop ready, with five custom-made LODs, collision meshes, and draw call optimizatioт.
If you’re curious to try some of the content, we have some free packs available on our website!
We’re targeting contemporary, photo-realistic content, focusing on productions that can expand into the hundreds of unique, high-quality buildings (which brings its own set of challenges). Applications are for Games (e.g. racing, simulation), Serious Games, VFX, but also other related industries such as Scientific Simulation, Training, or Autonomous Driving.
The above-mentioned Virtual Production is a key focus currently since our content is specifically optimized for real-time application and detailed enough for use in VFX productions (Film, TV, Advertisement). Besides, COVID-19 has severely restricted the use of physical film sets.
Since not every studio can afford the specialists needed to create consistent 3D architecture, our off-the-shelf buildings are a great option for indies and small to mid-sized studios.
We’re currently working on the first ‘German’ style buildings, as these have been requested multiple times. We’re not yet clear about the direction we want to go afterward, but it'd be probably either Tokyo, New York, or maybe something ‘dystopian’. Requests are welcome, of course!
Assets in ‘German’ style:
Further, we’re investigating more tools and renderers to support natively: 3ds Max, Maya, Blender, Cinema 4D, Clarisse, V-Ray, and Arnold are among them. There is still much to do, but we’re more than excited!
About the Author and vrbn studios
Matthias Buehler is the founder and CTO of the Switzerland-based company ‘vrbn studios’. His background is in architecture. Over the last ten years, he’s become a specialist in urban 3D modeling: for real-world architectural and urban planning uses, but also for entertainment and architectural/historical visualization.
vrbn studios specializes in creating highly realistic 3D architecture for large-scale urban environments. For general info or questions, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.