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Realistic vs artistic 3D visualization

The pros and cons of realistic and artistic 3D visualization and the ways to deal with the decision of choosing the approach that fits you best.

There are many ways to skin a cat and that notion doesn’t get any truer than in 3D visualization. You see, ever since 3D visualization has become a valuable asset and I can even go so far as saying that it is the driving force for architectural design and marketing, many architects have come up with creative ways to get ahead of the competition. To say that the Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry is a cutthroat business is the understatement of the century. It is an ultra-competitive market and one needs to adapt to the changes or even device new ways to be able to thrive in building design, construction and marketing.

3D visualization and rendering is now a must in any building project. Whether it be commercial, domestic or a multi-million building project, architectural 3D visualization has become a staple of conceptualization and presentation. The goal has always been to communicate the project in the most effective and innovative way to the client so that he/she would be sold to the idea from the get go and enable the project to get off the ground in no time—saving time, money and unnecessary delays in the process. It is the be all and end all of all construction projects and choosing the right method/type of 3D visualization can mean the difference between success and failure.

As far as 3D visualization goes, though there have been a lot of innovative 3D rendering methods/genres that have come out of the woodwork over the years (thanks to the digital revolution), it’s important to remember that in a building project, you only need to take note of the two types: the ‘Realistic’ and ‘Artistic’ approaches in 3D visualization. Technically, they are known in the industry as ‘Photorealistic’ and ‘Non-photorealistic’ 3D rendering techniques.

So which is better? How will you know whether it’s more practical to choose the one from the other? And which approach industry insiders and clients really prefer? These are valid but pretty loaded questions. They look deceptively simple but they’re quite difficult to answer as both terms can be subjective. When discussing about these two techniques, there are certain ‘grey areas’ and technical nuances that we need to navigate in order to come up with informed and satisfying answers.  In order for us to be guided accordingly, we must first know the basic facts.

Photorealistic rendering or realistic 3D visualization in layman’s terms is a computer generated rendering/image made to look as real as possible from the lighting, textures, shading etc. There is not much artistic freedom or modification needed to it. Its main focus is photorealism wherein an artist/designer studies an image and then tries to reproduce it as realistically as possible using another medium. In other words, the building has to appear exactly how it should appear in the real world along with other supplemental elements like trees, people, cars etc. If you make some stylized alteration to it then it’s no longer a realistic 3D visualization—no ifs no buts—ideally of course.

On the other hand, a non-photorealistic rendering or artistic 3D visualization is a type of visualization wherein artists/designers are given creative freedom as to how a certain visualization should look. It involves a lot of creative styles made to look like a drawing or painting for digital art. Its main goal is to impress and at the same time create a stylized environment wherein collaboration and appreciation can occur. Popular examples of this approach are cel-shaded animation and exploded view drawing.

One advantage of realistic 3D visualization is that it gives clients realistic expectations of a project at hand and leaves very little room for misunderstanding. The main thrust is to express and communicate how the building should look like as realistic as possible—the ‘impress’ aspect of it comes later when all the facts are laid out. It’s not to say that this style is boring. It can really be very impressive especially if the basic disciplines of photography and computer- generated imagery (CGI) are seamlessly blended together.

Having said that, there are certain things that realistic 3D visualization can’t effectively communicate—like the inner components of an object or building. This is where non-photorealistic or artistic 3D visualization comes in. I’ve mentioned the exploded view drawing earlier because it’s one aspect of this approach that glaringly differentiates itself from its realistic counterpart. It’s especially advantageous in the technical or schematic presentation of an object. Take for example the inner components of a complex building system along with its electrical and plumbing diagrams.  You can’t really effectively illustrate that using the photorealistic approach alone. It’s just not possible. Through the exploded view drawing, the complex system in a building can be separated at a uniform distance allowing clients to view and understand the order of assembly and relationships between various parts and components. Also, non-photorealistic 3D rendering have proven to be more useful in remodeling projects as it anticipates and not copies what the final look of the project should be.

There are more advantages and disadvantages that I can enumerate when choosing the other 3D visualization approach from the other but I don’t or we don’t have all day. I’ve narrowed them to the more important and glaring ones so as to save time and unnecessary information as at the end of the day, the subject matter is still very subjective. It is by any means, a ‘case-by-case basis. So the questions posted earlier just boil down really to preference and necessity. Between realistic and artistic 3D visualization, who are we to really say which one is better? Both have different advantages and disadvantages depending on the circumstance. They are, for a lack of a better term ‘apples and oranges’. In the case of realistic vs. artistic 3D visualization, the jury is still out there.

The best way to deal with such perplexing choice though is to communicate with your clients. Get to know them better; their tendencies, preferences and expectations. After all, what good is a method if it undermines, instead of bolsters, the collaboration aspect between designers and clients in a building project? It is them that you are trying to win over and not the technical pundits of the industry. At the end of the day, the clients always have the final say as they will be the ones who will fund the project and no one else.

My suggestion is to combine both realistic and artistic 3D visualization technique should the need arises. My belief has always been that if there’s a great idea out there, it should be acknowledged and utilized regardless of where it came from. That mantra was applicable then and it is even more applicable now. In the fast-paced, almost relentless world of the AEC industry, you can’t be a purist. You have to have an open mind and adapt to the changes along the way because if you don’t, you will surely be left behind.

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