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3D Rendering: A Brief Explanation

3D rendering is one of the fastest-growing industries on the planet. Here’s a brief glimpse into the inner workings of that industry, and why it’s important to the future of technology.

If we look relatively at the evolution of art over the span of human history, 3D rendering and visualization is but a tiny dot on a spectrum that spans from primitive cave drawings to computer aided masterpieces in sculpture and architecture. Only in the past three decades has the technology for 3D rendering advanced far enough to provide artists with the tools necessary to work seamlessly in the medium. The industry has proceeded to confound onlookers with images and animations that suspend disbelief as much as they inspire awe.

But 3D rendering is much more than just a new expression of fine art - it is the engine powering countless industries as it allows us to peer into the inner workings of  systems - both natural and man made - to better understand how our world works. It is a technological evolution that has spawned innovation, entertainment, communication, connection, and relative thinking. This article aims to reveal what 3D rendering is, how it’s applied, and why it’s so important to future technological progress.

What is 3D Rendering?

In the most basic terms, 3D rendering is a two dimensional representation of a computer wireframe model that has been given properties such as texture, color, and material. You see 3D renderings everyday, but most of the time you probably don’t even notice. Of course, there are obvious applications like watching Toy Story with your kids (or by myself...I mean yourself). But, you’d probably be surprised to learn that most product advertisements were, at least to some degree, created through the use of 3D rendering visualizations. 3D digital artwork is in your magazines, on your TV screen, on the covers of your books, and just about everywhere else in print or screen media. The medium has quickly become the most ubiquitous form of art and artistic expression - and it happened without anyone really realizing it.

The anatomy of a 3D rendering

Every 3D visualization is created using two primary software pillars: modelers and renderers.

Every rendering starts as a 3D model, which is represented by a series of flat geometric shapes connected together in three dimensional space. These shapes are called polygons. These rudimentary geometries are the backbone of any digital 3D model, and are manipulated and created using computer software such as Rhinoceros 3D, Google SketchUp, or 3DStudio Max.

The models themselves are often very crude, represented in the digital space as a simple wire-frame object or scene. In order to give these shapes real form, they must be introduced to texture maps, artificial light sources, and a number of other filters that turn out at the other end what amounts to a finished 3D rendering.

In addition to modeling and rendering programs, there is also post-production software such as Photoshop that give each work the final aesthetic touches that are necessary for a rendering to be incredibly true to life. 3D rendering artists must be well-versed in a variety of each software type in order to create visualizations of the highest quality. They are a unique breed of artist, engineer, and mad scientist - experimenting on ones and zeros to get the most out of the technology currently available to produce their work.

Airplane Cockpits and the Birth of 3D Rendering

In addition to the miraculous ability to fly 36,000 feet above the clouds to a spot halfway across the globe, airplanes can also be credited with the conception of 3D rendering. It all started in 1960 when a lowly cog in the machine that is Boeing, William Fetter, was tasked with streamlining the efficiency of space within airplane cockpits. Because, we all know how important nap space is to pilots as autopilot safely glides passengers from point A to point B. Mr. Fetter got to work, and at the end of his ergonomics experiment he had computer generated orthographic depiction of the human form. He called it a ‘computer graphic,’ and with that swift stroke of ingenuity an entire industry was born - one what would fundamentally change how we consume and communicate media.

Walking in the footsteps directly behind Mr. Fetter was one of his associates, a Dr. Ivan Sutherland, who took this little experiment one step further with the creation of SketchPad, the world’s first 3D computer modeling program. This rudimentary piece of software enabled a person to interact with or create an image on a computer screen. Long before the term Graphical User Interface (GUI) was coined, this was the first of its kind.

So, then started the journey of 3D rendering. We all know what happened next: computers got faster, software got better, and the tools with which people would manipulate 3D digital space become sophisticated enough to give way to a fever of multi-media innovations.

3D Rendering Software

As mentioned earlier, 3D rendering software breaks down into modelers and renderers.

The most powerful - and subsequently the most difficult to master 3D modeler - is Maya. It is a complex piece of software made by Autodesk and primarily used by animation studios and video game makers as the backbone of their world building. Maya has by far the most robust tool set, and even incorporates physics based modeling tailor made for animated movie makers who are trying to recreate real-world systems for the most accurate and believable rendered scenes.

For architects and designers, Rhinoceros 3D dominates the market. It offers a different, more approachable toolset than Maya, but still has enough under the hood to model geometries quickly and precisely. An alternative to Rhino is the free-to-download SketchUp, distributed by Google. It’s the most user-friendly 3D modeler on the planet, and is quickly gaining steam among architects as a prolific design and communication tool.

Most modeling programs are setup to interface with a variety of renderers, the most popular and powerful being VRAY. It allows you to set up scenes, images, or animations with ultra-realistic light and shadow ‘scattering’ algorithms that perfectly recreate reality. Alternatives to VRAY include Maxwell, Cinema 4D, or the open-source program Blender 3D.

3D Rendering in Film

Perhaps the industry most impacted by the rapid growth of 3D rendering technology is show biz (do people still call it that?). The shear volume of animated movies featuring smart-mouthed raccoons or foxes or panda bears each year is staggering. Studios such as Pixar have not only changed the trajectory of animated entertainment, but the motion-media canvas as a whole.

The use of computer-generated imagery (CGI) dates back to the 70s, when mainstream mega-hits like Star Wars were baffling movie-goers with things people simply had never seen before. Nerds worldwide could be found weak-kneed and stumbling out of theaters staring into space and muttering, “how did they do that?” And while back then George Lucas was still resting his movie magic heavily on the use of practical effects and scale-model making, he brought that galaxy far, far away to life with 3D rendering in a way that hadn’t been explored before.

Other filmmakers soon followed suit, and in 1993 an up and coming director by the name of Mr. Spielberg bestowed upon the world a bare-chested Jeff Goldblum and a host of ultra-realistic and terrifying dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Watch that movie today and I dare you to tell me it wasn’t made in the past 5 years. If you could put a time-stamp on it, Jurassic Park was the benchmark digital media had been waiting to reach before fully taking off. Honorable mention to transmorphing that robot into a molten puddle of titanium a year earlier in T2: Judgement Day, although that bit of CGI doesn’t quite stand the test of time in the way the towering T-Rex still does today.

And then in 1995, melting minds and hearts alike, was Pixar’s first major foray into the movie-making business with a charming tale of a boy and his playthings in Toy Story. Buzz, Woody and the gang proved to everyone the days of an animation industry ruled by the second dimension were numbered. It was the first feature-length film created entirely in CGI, and also just happened to be one of the most revered, beloved nostalgia trips ever created. The importance of Toy Story can’t be overstated, as it took such an accessible, universally relatable universe for people to fall in love with the medium.

Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a new release that didn’t have at least a hint of digital interference. And while many ironically blame the unfortunate death of George Lucas’ Star Wars journey to an overuse of 3D rendering (personally, Hayden Christiansen should be shouldering a lion’s share), the evolution of the medium has done nothing but good things for the movie industry.

Architecture and Design

To many, architects have the glamourous and romantic job of erecting massive (stop) edifices of concrete and steel, providing shelter for the masses as the kind of artist who strives for more than paint-soaked overalls and food stamps. Really, they are glorified salespeople who wear black slim-fit Hugo Boss suits and draw rectangles all day. I should know. I am one of them.

And with all those pretty pictures and visualizations and demands to show the client paying millions of dollars for something they’ve never seen before comes the necessity to use the most technologically advanced set of tools to show their worth. Architects and designers lean on those 3D rendering tools to showcase their ability as creators. Of course, there are many steps from taking an idea sketched half-drunkenly over a cocktail napkin to a code-compliant, structurally sound building, that journey either starts or stops at the designers ability to communicate it before a single shovelful of dirt is cast.

3D rendering is the architect’s best friend. It grants them the ability to show not tell. Not only that, but the ability to quickly build a 3D model grants the designer the opportunity to critique their own work. 3D rendering has become the quintessential design tool, offering a built-in system of quality control that makes sure every angle of the building has been studied with a steely eye before the time has been spent on figuring out how to construct it.

As technology improves, architecture studios have started to implement virtual reality (VR) technology into their practice. This further enhances the architect’s ability to communicate their work with clients and builders. A little more on VR a bit later.

Virtual Reality and 3D rendering

Or, how about right now?

If you’ve turned on the internet in the past year or so, you’ve inevitably run into a story or dossier on the rise of virtual reality. When you have silicon valley mega companies like Google and Facebook investing fists full of dollars into the progression of VR technology, you can bet your bottom dollar on it finding a nice, soft landing pad in the mainstream. But, of course, using virtual reality requires an entirely different flavor of rendering technology (for the most part). Real Time rendering, or the 3D rendering you find in most video-games or other interactive digital media, enlists the help of very powerful algorithms and processors to produce experiences that are computed on-the-fly depending on user input.

Until now, the 3D rendering we’ve discussed exists in the form of pre-destined images or animations that are crafted by engineers and artists, then set to render before outputting the finished product. Real-time rendering is happening as it’s being seen, streaming from the memory of whatever piece of software you have running at the time. This technology, which has been running in parallel development since the invention of 3D computer graphics, is key to the virtual reality revolution. Architects have started using VR to take clients on virtual tours of unbuilt work. Putting people who may not understand the experiential qualities of a floor plan can be communicated with on terms they can more easily grasp.

So as VR becomes more important so does the advancement and implementation of 3D rendering technology. Artists are becoming more well versed in the idea of building fully realized 3D worlds that can be interacted with - even if in some rudimentary manner. Until recently, it was simply too expensive and too time-intensive to do such a thing. Think about how long it takes for videogame developers to take a came from concept to completion (not to mention the millions of dollars) and you’ll understand why it’s taken certain industries so long to catch up. But times are changing, and VR is making its way into places no one thought it would end up.

Where does 3D rendering go next?

With virtual reality keeping 3D rendering busy for the foreseeable future, it’s difficult to predict the next mega breakthrough in the tech. Of course, computers will get faster, processors will get smaller, and more and more people will have access to the tools required to be a 3D rendering artist. It’s a profession that will continue to grow as the demand for good 3D rendering work increases - which it will.

In the end, the work and the demand for the work follows the tech. We could be nearing a massive step in computer technology as scientists and engineers get closer to opening up the quantum computing can of worms. If quantum computing ever gets uncorked and finds itself in the hands of consumers and artists, we could be seeing a huge jump in the capabilities of artists to digitally recreate the world around us. This could have implications not only in the industries we’ve outlined here, but in medical technology, military applications, and the automotive industry.

There’s a cliche that says it best: the sky’s the limit. Artists and engineers will continue to push the limits of what’s possible as long as limits exist to push. 3D rendering and visualization will soon touch the entirety of industry in the developed world, and good technicians will be needed to fill out those growing cogs in that massive machine. 3D rendering is here to stay, and I have a feeling we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible.

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