‘Hand-Hewn’ vs. Machine Made: Comparing Historic Tool Finishes To Modern Methods – Part 1

Creating period wood finishes for film and television scenery always involves a certain amount of subjective and creative interpretation. Usually the wood surfaces are finished to a level having more to do with the time period’s distance from modern times more than how old the set would look in relation to the time of the story. So usually anything set in ancient Roman times looks like it’s been through several hundred sandstorms, attacked with a grinder and sand blasted until the early growth rings are worn away from the late growth rings. There were certainly buildings that were very old at that time but there were plenty that looked much newer than the photo below.

weathered wood showing sunken early growth rings

weathered wood showing sunken early growth rings

I was working on a period film several years ago and I noticed that one of the other designers had called out the wood surfaces of their set to be finished as ‘hand-hewn’. I knew the surfaces would have actually been surfaced to a finer finish than a rough hewn beam and I asked why it needed to be so rough. They answered that being pre-machine age, other than furniture which would have required lots of sandpaper, they wouldn’t have had the ability to give the wood a smooth finish. I said that not only was that not true,  in many ways hand tools gave a superior finish to the tools of the machine age, and they had something better than sandpaper.  They laughed until they realized I wasn’t kidding.

Let’s take timber framing. When most people think of a timber frame building they tend to think of the wood looking like this:

fachwerk3

16th century German timber frame or Fachwerk house.

The wood didn’t look anything like this when it was built. The faces of the wood probably looked more like this (minus the checking or cracks):

restored German Fachwerk building from the mid 1600's.

restored German Fachwerk building from the mid 1600’s.

 

Partly because of this trend toward artistic license, and not understanding period construction which leads to misinterpreting the photographic research available (such as the photo below), wood buildings get designed and built with anachronistic finishes.

 

fachwerk2

The timbers of this fachwerk building were originally as smooth as those in the previous example. Many years later the faces were scored to act as a grip for the
plaster stucco-like finish that was applied at one time to ‘modernize’ it, much like some old interior brick walls were scored to accept plaster.

 

Even the building industry can take some of the blame. Here’s a photo of a popular flooring with a simulated jack plane finish. The plane had a curved blade that was used to quickly take a plank down before being planed smooth to its final thickness. A board with tool marks like this would not likely have been used in a decent dwelling.

fake jack plane tool marks

 

 

Today it’s hard to imagine doing all the work involved in processing wood from logs to a finished form without power machinery. How could a hand tool created a finish smoother than a modern tool, much less sandpaper? first of all, the way the tools work today is much different than the way period tools work. And, because it was  a much more labor-intensive process, they didn’t finish surfaces that wouldn’t be seen.

Let’s start with the big stuff. The process of taking logs from a tree to a piece of framing timber in the European tradition in the 16th and 17th centuries involved a number of types of hatchets.

Here’s a video by Christopher Schwarz on the use of hewing axes by Plimoth Plantation’s master joiner, Peter Follansbee:

 

 

By the 18th century the process involved not only the hewing axes and saws but an adze to square the sides followed by a broadax to smooth the sides, and possibly a drawknife to remove the axe and adze marks.

Here is a great little video by Ken Koons explaining the process:

 

 

Once the mortises and tenons were cut they were cleaned up and smoothed using chisels and slicks, which were basically large chisels meant to be pushed by hand rather than hit with a mallet. The photo below is of the largest slick in my collection. Made in the late 1860’s in Ohio, it has a 3 inch wide blade. This big blade is certainly closer to a chisel than an axe as you can see from the closeup of the blade as it shaves off a sliver of my thumbnail. The blade will leave a very smooth surface.

 

A three inch wide framing slick from the mid 1800's

A three inch wide framing slick from the mid 1800’s

framing slick2

 

Here is a short video by John Neeman of a framing slick in use, you can see how quickly and cleanly it cuts a tenon.

 

 

 

Cut timber surfaces were as smooth as their maker wanted, or needed them to be. Here are two photos of the Daniel Trabue cabin near Lexington, KY. The cabin was restored some years ago and returned to it’s 1797 appearance. The clapboard which had been applied later had protected most of the logs from decay. Notice the tool marks on the exterior logs. Now look at the second picture of an interior wall on the second floor. Here the German maker has signed his name with an 18th century cipher. Notice how clear the signature is. It was made with a traditional crayon made of beeswax and powdered vermillion used for marking out work while building. The crayon was found during the restoration, tucked above the front door lintel. The clarity is only possible because the wood surface is so smooth.

front door of the Daniel Trabue cabin

front door of the Daniel Trabue cabin

18th century cipher of the cabin's builder

18th century cipher of the cabin’s builder

 

Next week, in Part 2 of this post I’ll talk about and show you how traditional hand tools can actually create a finish that’s superior to their modern day counterparts and why our ancestors didn’t use, or need sandpaper to surface wood. Also, you’ll learn why every recreation of Noah’s Ark you’ve ever seen is dead wrong.

Tomorrow You’re Going To Hate Yourself

There’s just one day left to pledge to the Spike Kickstarter program and get the early release Spike laser measuring accessory for smartphones. For a pledge of $389, you get a Spike Pro device and software for less than half of what it’s going to cost when they are released on the retail market.

This isn’t an ad and I’m rarely so excited about tech devices considering how many of them are released every year, but this thing is flat-out amazing. If you do many location surveys it will save you a lot of time and frustration.

Take a look at the previous post for the full story on it and another scanner called the Sensor. The more I investigate the Spike the more excited I get about getting my hands on one of them next April. The developers are writing code for more applications even as we speak and are working on a beta app to enable the device to create a point cloud of a non rectangular shape like a gravel pile. This device is going to completely change my work methods of location surveying and make some jobs possible that would have been unthinkable before. It’s also designed to work with Sketchup and will export kmz files that import right into the program.

They have extended the range of the device to 950 feet and have released a number of videos to explain the range of possibilities. The video below shows using the company’s Ike3D device to measure an interior. I’m guessing, and hoping that the Spike will be able to capture interiors in a similar fashion.

Watch this.

You might want to act fast if this looks interesting, as of this posting there are only 40 of the devices left at this pledge level.

3D Scanners For Your Pocket – Coming Soon, Very Soon.

There must be something in the water in Boulder. A lot of technology is coming out of that little town including two new devices which could continue to revolutionize the way we work. Location survey work has never been much fun and always comes with unknown challenges that often leave you stymied, ike that billboard you suddenly learn you have to measure, or the block-long row of buildings that you have to survey with two hours of sunlight left in the day.

Using 3D scanners for location surveying and object duplication in the past has been something people have wanted, but the price of most of these devices usually makes their use too cost prohibitive. The iPhone and the many apps that accompanied its popularity have been a real help in many Art Department workflows but their uses are currently limited as far as true 3D capture and augmented reality functions.

Two companies, Ike GPS and Occipital are trying to fill a need for low cost 3D scanners with two inventions which act as add-on devices for digital phones and tablets. By harnessing the power of these devices, their creations enhance products that most people are already using.

Ike is a company which has had previous success with hand-held scanners and was looking to create a device which could be small enough to fit on a smart phone. They’ve come up with a small device called Spike which attaches to an iPhone or other smart phone and uses the devices built-in accelerometer, compass and GPS functions to make it possible to measure the size, height or even the volume of buildings and even create a 3D model to export to a modeling program.

5543da38df27e38fafd40a7ac07248a7_large

The company is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise interest as well as funds to develop the device which they plan on having ready for the market by next May. The device will come in two versions; the Basic version and the Pro version which will generate 3D model files, geolocate buildings and allow for pulling measurements from the digital image.

f5b20da41992f026ed2e151a0ad21154_large

For a donation of $389, you’ll get a prerelease Spike Pro which the company says is around half of the final retail price, meaning the street price of the Pro unit is going to be somewhere in the $800 range. That may seem pricy but the next closest device I know of that can provide similar functions is about 5 times more,  both in size and price.

Here’s a video from the company website:

 

 

Occipital has developed a device they are calling the Structure Sensor which attaches to an iPad and can create 3D scans of objects or rooms up to about 550 square feet with a range of 3 1/2 meters. The file can be imported into a CAD package or output for 3D printing.

Structure Sensor

The Sensor Kickstarter program is fully funded but for a $330 pledge you can still get a Sensor at a significantly reduced price than it will retail for when it becomes available early next year.

Check out the video below:

Here are the links to the Kickstarter pages:

Structure Sensor

Spike Pro

Rendering In Sketchup

For those of you who work in Sketchup and are new to rendering, or are confused by all the different rendering software packages available, a new book is coming out March 25 that will help. Daniel Tal, landscape architect and author of Sketchup For Site Design, has written a new book, Rendering In Sketchup, which is now available for pre-order or as a digital download.

rendering in sketchup

There are now a number of rendering programs on the market for use with Sketchup, with a majority of them working from within Sketchup without having to exit the program. This can be a plus or a minus depending on how you work. Even though most of the programs offer free-use trial periods of their software, It can be pretty difficult and time-consuming to decide which is  the best one for your workflow and budget.

Daniel is an excellent teacher and has written a very thorough and detailed book on the process of rendering from Sketchup using a variety of software programs as well as explaining post-rendering work with Photoshop. While not every rendering engine is covered, he does go into a great amount of detail explaining not only the basics of rendering, but his own methods using Shaderlight, SU Podium and Twilight Render.

The book covers workflow, hardware requirements, how to model efficiently for renders, use and teaching of textures and a lot more. At over 600 pages, the book is both a reference and a guide and can be read for pertinent chapters rather than just cover to cover.

You can get more information on the book here, and you can view the videos on Daniel’s Youtube site here

Here is a really good tutorial by Daniel you should watch which is based on the material from his book:

Land8 Webinar: Rendering in SketchUp – Daniel Tal from Land8.com on Vimeo.

If you want to know all of your rendering engine options, here is a list of rendering programs that work with or within Sketchup;   ( Prices are as of March, 2013. )

From within Sketchup:

Shaderlight – $299 full license; timed access from $50

Twilight Render – $99

V-Ray – $800

ArielVision – $175

Bloom Unit – free software , cloud-based, priced per render

Caravaggio – $295

Indigo Renderer – $220

IRender nXt – $499

Light Up – $189

LumenRT – $295

Maxwell – $995

Raylectron – $99

Render[in] – $160

Renditioner –  $99,  Pro $199

SU Podium – $198

Thea Render – $420

Standalone Software

Artlantis

Kerkythea – free

The Future Of Sketchup

On Monday morning I, along with about 280 others, packed into the Boulder Theater in downtown Boulder, Colorado in the hope of finding answers. It was the first day of Sketchup Basecamp, a semi-annual event that attracts Sketchup users from around the world for a three-day conference that’s more like a cross between a family reunion and a college party than a traditional industry conference.

When it was announced on April 26 of this year that Google was planning to sell Sketchup, a lot of people ( myself included ) got more than a little nervous. Sketchup is the sole piece of software I use for modeling sets and creating working drawings. Since purchasing the program in 2006, Sketchup has become the most-used modeler in the world with it’s user base growing to over 30 million people. The program was obviously very successful, so why was Google selling it off when it normally doesn’t divest itself of products. The last time they had sold a product investment was in 2009. A Sketchup blog article by Product Manager John Baucus on the same day helped to allay fears but there were still a lot of unanswered questions and concerns.

Google had purchased Sketchup’s parent company, @Last Software in 2006 to provide content for Google Earth. The idea was to provide a free 3D modeling package that would allow people to create buildings for use in Google Earth. Even with a paid version of Google Earth it seems that Earth was never a profit generator for them and with the introduction of a new system which allows Google to now create models from auto-generated 3D mesh buildings from photo-grammatical data gathered from satellites and unmanned aircraft, it seems that they no longer saw a need for a 3D modeling program. There was speculation in the engineering industry that the company would be sold to Dassault Systemes, but when the announcement was made it was revealed that Sketchup would be purchased by Trimble Navigation.

Trimble Who?

So, who is Trimble Navigation and why did they buy Sketchup? It turns out Trimble is a billion dollar company located in Sunnyvale, California and is a leader in developing systems which use GPS technology for the surveying and construction industries. They have offices in over 30 countries and have over 1,800 patents relating to GPS systems. Sketchup is just just one of a number of acquisitions Trimble has made this year, including Tekla, a BIM modeling program from Europe. On Trimble’s website they describe the company as having integrated  “a wide range of positioning technologies including GPS, laser, optical and inertial technologies with application software, wireless communications, and services to provide complete commercial solutions. Its integrated solutions allow customers to collect, manage and analyze complex information faster and easier, making them more productive, efficient and profitable.”

Far from dumping the software in a fire-sale, Google wanted to make sure Sketchup went to a good home. Google had a previous relationship with Trimble having used their GPS systems in developing Google Earth.

Trimble Vice President Bryn Fosburgh was there in Boulder at the opening session to explain how they saw Sketchup’s position in the company’s structure. Having established itself in the engineering and construction side of the industry, the acquisition of Sketchup is seen as a way of extending the firm’s footprint into the design phase of the industries as well. He said they saw the modeling company as becoming seamlessly integrated with the other companies’ software and hardware products and said his only surprise after the purchase was getting used to the unusual dog-rich environment of the Sketchup offices.

Users of their products like the Robotic Total Station will be able to bring the file from a Sketchup model of a house into the device and have it’s laser lay out the corners of the building with 1 centimeter accuracy.

More Tasty Sketchup Biscuits To Come

A problem most companies have is learning when to leave acquisitions alone. Much like biscuits, where over-handling the mix leads to leaden,  inedible lumps. Trimble seems to have a record for buying quality companies, integrating them into the family, and then leaving the work to the people that know best how to implement it.

Joined on stage by Sketchup Product Manager John Baucus, Product Evangelist Aidan Chopra and a number of others from the company, the group quickly explained the plans Trimble has set for the 3D modeler: the program is going to stay simple to use, and it’s going to get a lot more complex as well. The company sees Sketchup as a platform as well as an application.

Here’s the abbreviated breakdown:

– There will always be a free version of Sketchup available and the basic program will     never be more complicated to learn.

-The Pro version will continue to be developed and you will see a continually greater difference between it’s abilities and those of the free version.

-They will continue to support 3rd party developers in creating compatible software and plugins to work within Sketchup. Over 45% of users have and use 3rd party plugins with Sketchup and they want to continue to support the creation of useful additions that they would never develop in-house, hoping that each industry will take the initiative in creating plugins for specific needs.

-They will continue to support “everyone else” as well. Since the program is used in so many varied industries and vocations, the company wants the software to be truly useful to anyone who uses it to create.

-They plan to continue to make the software run bigger and more complex models as fast as possible by any means they can.

-The company is ramping up their team size and is currently looking for new talent. Trimble is pumping a lot of money into the company, especially in Layout, their software for creating construction drawings from Sketchup models. They plan on continuing to improve the drawing program to equal any CAD package out there.

-Starting in 2013 with the release of the next version, the company will now go to annual updates instead of the random release dates we’ve become used to. Another sign that the software’s development is going to proceed at a much faster rate than it did at Google.

Also, there are plans to overhaul the 3D Warehouse. The Warehouse now contains over 2 million models with over 1000 new models added each week, many by major manufacturers. They plan to update it to make it easier to use and easier to find content.

And, it was announced that the company has developed an STL importer/exporter for creating model files for use in stereolithography and 3D printing. Now that companies like Makerbot have made desk-top 3D printers available in the $2000 range, 3D printing may soon become as common as paper printers.

They have licensed STL plugin code from three outside developers, streamlined it and offer it as a free plugin. You can download it here.

All in all, the switch to Trimble ownership looks like a much better fit than it did with Google. Although as John Baucus will say, plenty of good things came from the Google purchase. It was at Google that the free version of the software was launched and the 3D Warehouse came into being. And, kudos to Google for making sure the company went to a good new home and wasn’t just cut loose.

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I left the conference relieved. It looks like Sketchup has a very long and productive future ahead. Aidan Chopra joked at the opening session, “Sketchup 17 is going to be awesome!”

Whipping The Inner Dorftrottel

The German expression ‘dorftrottel’ roughly translates as ‘village idiot’ or ‘small-minded villager’, but the expression can have a much more nuanced meaning than it’s English equivalent. The term can also refer to a state of intellectual isolation and mental obduracy rather than just a matter of geography.

It’s easy for those of us here in Los Angeles to drink the media Cool-Aid and believe our own press. For many here, Hollywood is still the big engine pulling the train, still the driving force and font of inspiration for all the other entertainment industries. To a great extent that’s still true, but if you peek into the next room,  you’ll see that other entertainment communities are laying their own track, and we need to know where they’re headed.

I was invited to speak at a 3D and Virtual World conference at the Macromedia Hochschule Für Medien Und Kommunication in Stuttgart which was given a few weeks ago. While the primary focus of the conference was on the world of gaming, the theme also touched on the designing of virtual worlds and all the possiblilities that encompasses. For me, the conference was a glimpse into the other entertainment industries which are helping to expand the meaning and directions in which the 3D digital world is taking us and how it will affect our future as designers of those environments.

Creating Games With Drama

Dr. Michael Bhatty

The keynote address was by Dr. Michael Bhatty, professor of media and game design at MHMK campus in Munich, who spoke about the new breed of game designers. He believes games are a media and art form all their own and that the potential of them as story-telling devices is yet to be truly tapped. His courses are geared toward creating designers who are ‘directors’ as well as authors of these virtual worlds, and he means ‘worlds’ in the real sense. As the lead designer of the popular game SACRED, Bhatty believes most games fall short of creating a fully fleshed out environment. “You need to know everything [about the games world] from history, religions, deities, cultures, geography etc. The list goes on and on so let’s just say – a good game director is interested in everything when envisioning a new world as her or his playground,” Bhatty said. “I develop backgrounds for research, because most developers make the mistake of not being thorough and rely only on trivia and clichés they know from movies, pulp magazines or other games.”

Coming from a film and art background, Bhatty is very concerned with the cinematic elements of a game, and believes games should have the same ability to move people in the dramaturgical way that films do. Bhatty is convinced that the ‘game’ concept can be extended much farther than the limited definition we have of it, and creating virtual worlds can enhance many other fields such as education.

The Benefits Of A Well-Planned Design Process

Producer Tom Kubischik

Tom Kubischik, game designer and Producer at Morgen Studios in Berlin, spoke about the process of game design and ways to avoid the pitfalls of not following a rigorous design and development process, something a lot of film production companies could benefit from. He also mentioned that many game development companies, rather than wait for interest from the Hollywood community,  have struck out on their own into the world of feature films and television content.

The “Gamification” Of Society

Dr. Steffen Walz – photo by Ivo Näpflin

Dr. Steffen Walz of Karlsruhe, Director of the Games and Experimental Entertainment Lab at RMIT University in Melbourne, spoke about Gameful World Design in a humorous lecture on how the world around us is being “gamified”. You can watch his lecture here (in  English) from an earlier conference at LIFT11. He talked about how nearly everything in life is becoming game related or is being influenced by gaming concepts. The end result of this being, I think, that people will expect future communication, learning and entertainment to be more visually based.

The Virtual Reality Re-revolution

While a lot of my lecture involved 3D modeling for feature films, the main topic I covered was virtual reality systems for viewing those models and how I think it will influence both game design and film set design. Virtual reality isn’t really new, it’s been around since the 1800’s when panoramic paintings became popular. Even crude vehicle simulators have been around since the 1920’s.

It’s only with the recent improvements of computer processors that VR systems have become a more viable option for designers. VR systems have been used for over 10 years in other industrys and are now standard for aircraft and automotive manufacturers who are dealing with critical space considerations and find that modeling and designing in full-size 3D cuts large amounts of time. The German company IC.IDO has developed a VR system that is in use by most major car companies and their VDP software allows the system to use a model from nearly any other modeling software program. Watch the videos below to see a simulation of how you soon may be designing.

Is The Home-Holodeck Around The Corner?

I mentioned that as the appetite for digital models grows so does the size of Art Departments at the studios. And as these models become bigger in size and quantity, and if the trend toward more detailed models with fully textured surfaces continues, how long will it be before some producer or someone in studio management realizes they are sitting on thousands of dollars of nearly video game-ready digital assets? Is it so far-fetched to think that someday as kids leave a theater they will be able to purchase an access code that will allow them to “play” the movies in their ‘virtual reality playroom’ when they get home?

I spoke in vague terms about a VR system I have experienced at a company (who’s name I can’t mention) which would make such a thing possible. Once you experience true full-immersion 3D, watching something on a flat screen, no matter how good the 3D is, is just not satisfying. This system could be adapted to various interior spaces and become a sort of present day Holodeck for commercial or home applications.

The upside of all of this is that no matter what the tools or media are, and they will continue to change at a dizzying pace, they only increase the need for designers. Whether the worlds are physical or virtual, they still need to be designed. It’s interesting to note that most of the speakers at the conference were either architects or had studied architecture at university.

The challenge will be in keeping from being seen as an ‘operator’ of these ever more complicated systems, and to continually convince the companys / studios / producers that the truly important factors are the designer and the design, not the high-tech tools themselves.

P.S. – Your Rendering Software Is Obsolete

An article at PC Magazine.com last November talked about how real-time rendering is changing the movies, mainly in terms of how it affects the workflow and the time involved in creating animated films. Because of the advances in processor speeds and the continuing evolution of software programming, animators are beginning to be able to animate in real time. The giant rendering farms of the Far East may soon be a thing of the past.

Creating renders, at least for me, is a tedious affair that ends up eating hours of time while processing images, and renders ( pun intended ) my computer a slave to the rendering engine, useless for working on anything else.

The new wave in rendering software is for real-time execution with full motion and lighting effects as well as physical atmospheric effects like water, fog, etc.

While not cheap, there are a number of real-time, full motion options that cut the normal still-image render time from hours to seconds.

LumenRT

The least expensive option I’m aware of is LumenRT. This is a real-time rendering engine designed for use with Sketchup, but is currently being developed for use with other modeling software. Unlike the other programs I’ll discuss, there is a calculation process involved that does take more time but the advantage of this is that you can output what is called a LiveCube, which is an executable file you can send to anyone that they can navigate in and explore the model without the need for any software. Pretty neat. The downside is that once this is done, if you make any changes you need to recompute everything.

The program boast very accurate lighting and reflection effects and this affects the render speed. The company’s site advises that you may experience slower processing speeds if your model exceeds 40,000 square feet or 500,000 polys.

Normally price at $295, the program is currently on sale for $195 at their site. You can watch a promo film below, and read a review of it here.

 

 

Lumion

The next option is a program called Lumion, which was designed based on the object-oriented analysis approach of Quest 3D, a virtual reality program designed for 3D fly-throughs and simulations.

Lumion’s interface

Lumion is a true real-time rendering engine that can import nearly any 3D model. Instead of using ray-tracing technology like most other renderers, it uses a system more like those found in gaming systems to simulate light effects. This would seem to suggest that the specular effects and reflections are not accurate but a viewing of several sample videos of the product seems to suggest otherwise. Because of the way the program operates, objects in the background are rendered at lesser resolutions meaning it can handle models with millions of polys without bogging down.

The program is touted as having a short learning curve and is able to generate full motion renders in a fraction of the time it once took to do them in programs like Maya.

Lumion isn’t cheap by any means. The price of the basic program is about $1,900 with the pro version running about $3,700. There is a free version, which is limited and there is a trial version as well. It also runs only on the Windows operating system. Check out the amazing promo videos below and read the reviews here and here.

Lumion quick overview from Lumion on Vimeo.

Waterfall Lumion techpreview from Lumion on Vimeo.

Lumion demonstration from Lumion on Vimeo.

Twinmotion 2

Twinmotion 2 bills itself as “the render killer”. It was developed by an architectural film as an in-house application but was made available to the public. Like Lumion it is capable of handling huge models because of its Level Of Detail technology that renders distant objects with less detail and increases the poly count as you move closer to them.

Twinmotion 2 interface

Twinmotion seems to have more accurate geo-locating controls as well as sun controls, but Lumion is constantly changing so that may no longer be the case. Twinmotion does create excellent renders as seen below in this side-by-side comparison of a render to actual film of the location.

At $2900, Twinmotion 2 is in the same range as Lumion. Plus, there is a $850 annual subscription fee, similar to Revit. It’s hardly a purchase one could take lightly.

So what does this mean for the Art Department? Do we need full-motion renders? Considering that renders are becoming more and more common at each step of the design process, creating full-motion renders that can be done in a fraction of the time of traditional renders might become the norm.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe they could provide a good transistion step into the pre-viz process. Or maybe they’ll bring some of the pre-viz work back into the Art Department.

What do you think?