CGI or composite of CGI and real life?

A recent article on the ACMSiggraph website (an annual conference that Blink Image attend on a regular basis) discusses if computer graphics are always the best answer. Though the article largely relates to the film industry, it’s content is entirely applicable to architectural visualisation.

3D Studio R4 – early days for Blink Image

Nobody can deny that the software that we all use – and the computers that it runs on – have improved markedly over the last decade or two. When Blink Image began back in 1998, VRay hadn’t even been written, 3Ds Max still ran in DOS and computers were operating in megahertz rather than gigahertz! The term ‘render-farm’ wasn’t widely used (if at all), and we were running the business on 3 or 4 hand-built computers chained together in a simple network. Contemplating adding raytraced reflections to a scene was something we could only dream about as the task of rendering them out would tie up the computers for hours or even days on end. Adding cars or trees and other plants was something we tried – wherever possible – to mitigate by not pointing a camera at those particular areas of the scene.

If we wanted reflections (in the floor or on metallic surfaces for instance) we would paint them in during the post production phase (in Photoshop typically). Similarly, cars, trees and shrubs would be painstakingly painted into the shot by hand wherever they were needed.

As Blink Image developed and grew, investments in new hardware allowed us to add raytraced reflections into our scenes and we began to add more complicated objects like simple bushes, trees and cars as 3D objects. Rather than ‘faking’ natural daylighting (often using something we referred to as a ‘dome of lights’!), software enabled us to use global illumination to add to the realism of our images.

Software has improved still further, and our computers are faster than ever. With our own, in-house render farm, we can now render incredibly complicated scenes in a shorter time. Higher polygon trees, displacement maps, particle systems, soft reflections, HD animation… However, what we find with each new computer (that is twice as fast as the one it replaces), or with each fresh software release (that promises ever more features and capabilities) is that we throw even more challenging tasks at it. More realism. Higher resolutions. Better quality. More natural. More detail. Higher density textures.

Even with all this power and the clever tools at our fingertips, there are still certain things where ‘real life’ is best and cannot be very easily reproduced by a computer rendering. Key elements to a particular composition – a foreground tree canopy, a plump, soft, luxurious towel on a towel radiator, a beautiful bouquet of flowers in a central position – are far, far better (and more quickly) achieved by using real life photography and ‘comp’ing’ in Photoshop.

Blink Image do not simply ‘click render’ to achieve the high quality results that you see in our portfolio. A finished image is a complex blend of subtle details that allow the composition stand up to the closest scrutiny. Though sometimes an image is entirely computer-generated, more often than not it is a hybrid of a render and photography, making the best use of what we have at our fingertips. A computer (and therefore software such as 3Ds Max and VRay etc) is only a tool that we use in the creation of our work, just like the pencil and drawing board we used whilst studying Architecture at university before we established Blink Image as a business!

We draw from both the tools that we use and the experience that we have gained in nearly 20 years of architectural visualisation.

Drawing boards with parallel motion: fabulous tools from Blink Image’s past


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