Why I Love The Pencil

Chris Schwarz over at Lost Art Press contacted me back in February to see if I would be interested in doing a hand drawing in a late 19th / early 20th century style for a limited-edition poster to commemorate the 5th anniversary of his excellent book, The Anarchist Tool Chest. I was more than happy to agree to the assignment not only because I consider the book to be a classic, (Schwarz has been a leader in not only creating a hand tool renaissance among woodworkers but creating a whole new philosophy in the way we look at furniture and the process of creating it) but I was also excited to do a drawing entirely in pencil., something I hadn’t done for quite a while.

Except for the occasional quick sketch, it’s rare I don’t do a drawing now on anything except the computer. After digging out my good pencils and tools and some good vellum from storage, (the new stuff is made for plotters not pencils and gives horrible results when you try to erase something), I made a test drafting just to refresh my pencil skills as well as brush up on my hand lettering technique.

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As I began to layout the drawing I suddenly began to realize both the differences and advantages of hand drafting over CAD:

1 – There are no in-your-face interruptions such as email, instant messaging, software update notices, news alerts, etc.

The process of creating a working drawing has been hi-jacked by software. There is this fallacy, particularly among those who don’t draw, that the computer is doing the bulk of the work. This is patently false. The computer is just a fancy pencil. It can give the veneer of respectability to a drawing if you don’t know what you are looking at, but the document is worthless if the operator does not understand the basics of creating a working drawing. Also, the process of creating a construction drawing happens to a great extent in your head, not in the computer. A lot of the work on the screen is preceded by a good deal of mental gymnastics, which is why set designers hate to be interrupted. Stop us in process and it will take 10 to 15 minutes to return to the zone where the true work gets done.

When you are drawing with a pencil you are in a completely different mental space that requires you to constantly visualize the object in your mind. This not only makes you work in a much deeper state of concentration but forces you to think many more steps ahead in the process of breaking the object down into what needs to be drawn to communicate its complexities.

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2 – You have to think differently about the drawing.

The draftsperson is no longer spending brain power on software or hardware concerns. There is also the endless-zoom mentality where the operator does not have a realistic idea of the scale of the elements. The ability to zoom it 10,000 percent on a document is what leads to prints in which the dimensions and notes are virtually unreadable unless you’re using a magnifying glass. There is also an economy in a hand drawing that is absent from a CAD drawing. You only show what is important for that sheet.

Also a line is what you say it is. With CAD and 3D modeling there is this expectation of perfect scalability throughout the model. That may be a good thing if you are designing a high-rise where there are dozens of other engineers and companies involved but for set design it adds a layer of unnecessary work.

Where you were once chastised for drawing too many brick details on a facade, I’ll regularly get a digital model where every fastener is completely detailed with threads. This is why during the pre computer days it was considered that a good working rate for a draftsperson was a sheet a day, while the rate for most modern computerized Art Departments is calculated at 3 to 7 days per sheet. We used to fear that the computer would make things so much more efficient that less people would be needed. Just the opposite happened. Where a typical feature film used to have 4 to 10 Set Designers, on bigger shows now, there will  be as many as 30.

Proof for final offset prints. photo by Chris Schwarz

Proof for final offset prints. photo by Chris Schwarz

Detail of nice crisp detail of the poster by Steamwhistle Press. Photo by Chris Schwarz

Detail of nice crisp detail of the poster by Steamwhistle Letterpress. Photo by Chris Schwarz

The print is being offset printed by Steamwhistle Letterpress in Newport, KY. Only 1000 of the prints will be made and copies will be available on the Lost Art Press website.

Here is a video Chris made at the shop while the first prints were coming off the Vandercooke press.

 

Letterpress Print Run from Christopher Schwarz on Vimeo.

 

 

The Digital Bookshelf – Furniture Mouldings

“There is a tendency among those accustomed to the large-scale of moulding detail on exterior work in wood or stone to make their mouldings on furniture and interior woodwork too large. The full-size furniture moulding so carefully drawn by Mr. Warne should be of the utmost service not only to furniture designers but to students of architecture and interior decoration.”

plate 21_warne

 

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“This book covers many different types of English furniture; bedsteads, bookcases, bureaus, cabinets, chests, cupboards, chairs and others. This book illustrates cover this book covers molding details on English furniture from about 1574 to 1820 molding is the method adopted by the cabinetmaker to give definition to the lines of his work and the sections of molded detail very very much as one style has succeeded another through the oak, walnut, mahogany and satinwood periods of English furniture the workings of moldings was then so laborious that the craftsman use them with greater restraint and obtained more pleasing effects by their use than is frequently the case today when profusion often eliminates interest.”

H. P. Shapland, 1923

 

E.j. Warne’s book, Furniture Mouldings, is still one of the best resources on 16th to 19th century British furniture. Almost never out of print, copies can be had for as little as $1.

Until you get a print copy, you can download a digital scan of the book below. Scanned from an ex library copy, there are a number of damaged pages but you can get a good idea of the scope of the book.

FurnitureMoulding_EJWarne_1923

 

– R.D. Wilkins

 

Exhibition Of German Expressionist Film Artwork Now At LACMA

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At the Los Angeles County Museum Of Art now until April is a special exhibition of artwork and posters from the German Expressionist period of the silent film era, 1919 to the mid 1930’s. Produced in association with  La Cinémathèque Française and the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences, the show features over 150 pieces of artwork from classic films of the German UFA studio.

Along with many posters are a large number of original set and costume design drawings which are seen together for the first time here. Most of which have not been on display here before and others only seen as small images in publications.

Of course artwork from the most well-known films are there; The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, The Nibelungen, but there are many others from more obscure films as well including Robert Hearlth’s original schematic of the forced perspective backings from Der Letzte Mann which were such a sensation.

One of Ernst Stern's drawings for Waxworks, which indicates the set design, platforming, camera position and lighting.

One of Ernst Stern’s drawings for Waxworks, which indicates the set design, platforming, camera position and lighting.

A watercolor and charcoal drawing for one of the sets for Dr. Caligari by Walter Röhrig

A watercolor and charcoal drawing for one of the sets for Dr. Caligari by Walter Röhrig

It was common during this period of German cinema for Art Directors to work in teams of two or three people, dividing the design duties among themselves as matched their individual abilities. A perfect example of this is the work of Otto Hunte and Erich Kettelhut on Fritz Lang’s The Nibelungen. Here is a drawing by Hunte of the dragon by the waterfall.

Gouache painting of the dragon for Die Nibelungen by Otto Hunte.

Gouache painting of the dragon for Die Nibelungen by Otto Hunte.

Being the more technically trained, Kettelhut elaborated on the design by drawing the technical requirements of the dragon to carry out the action called out in the script.

Technical drawing of the Dragon by Erich Kettelhut

Technical drawing of the Dragon by Erich Kettelhut

Kettelhut carefully described how the giant action prop was to be built and operated both with stage requirements as well as the on-board personnel’s responsibilities.

drawing describing how each part of the dragon was to be operated by stagehands.

Enlargement of Kettelhut’s drawing describing how each part of the dragon was to be operated by stagehands.

The size and depth of the recessed path required for the props operators.

The size and depth of the recessed path required for the props operators.

Kettelhut called out the length of the neck as well as the tension springs, framework, control cables and hoses required for the creatures fiery breath. He calls out "only rubber!" for the mouth area.

Kettelhut called out the length of the neck as well as the eye detail, tension springs, framework, control cables and hoses required for the creatures fiery breath. He calls out “only rubber!” for the mouth area.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is the scene from the film where Siegfried finds and kills the dragon. The effect is quite crude by our modern film standards but must have been thrilling for a public new to such spectacles. Imagine the lot of the half dozen stagehands stuck inside the big, airless prop as it bellows smoke from inside it. Notice the large forest and mountain sets created for the film, truly epic efforts for the time.

Atmospheric Theaters – When The Theater Was Part Of The Show

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In the United States the period of the ornate Movie Palaces lasted from around 1915 to the 1940’s. In that short period thousands of ornate theaters were built all over the country. Of the several genres of architecture that were created during that period, the Atmospheric theaters came the closest to blending the new media of film with theaters’ stage drama roots.

Architect and Designer John Eberson

Architect and Designer John Eberson

The Atmospheric movement was created by John Eberson, a stage designer and architect who immigrated from Europe. Having studied electrical engineering in Dresden, he took an apprenticeship with a theatrical designer in St. Louis and worked as a set designer and scenic painter. His first theater design was for a ‘picture house’ in Hamilton, Ohio. By 1926 he had perfected his ‘atmospheric’ concept with the creation of the Majestic Theater in Houston, Texas. Earning the nickname “Opera House John”, he would design over 500 atmospheric movie palaces by the end of his career.

 

Majestic Theater- Houston, Texas, built 1926

Majestic Theater- Houston, Texas, built 1926

For the average American, spending an evening in one of these theaters was as close to a trip to Europe as they could ever hope to have. Usually designed with European themes, Eberson’s designs featured large coved ceilings that gave the illusion of sitting outside in a courtyard with facades on either side. The ceilings were painted sky blue and a projector called a Brenograph was used to project moving clouds and stars on the deeply coved ceilings.

Eberson's drawing for a facade for the Paradise Theater in Chicago

Eberson’s drawing for a facade for the Paradise Theater in Chicago

Most of the facades detail and ornament were executed in traditional staff of plaster and hemp fiber, painted and gilded.

Saenger Theater, New Orleans

Saenger Theater, New Orleans

As with most popular trends, the atmospheric theme was quickly picked up by others and expanded throughout the country where the palaces were built even in small rural towns. One such theater is the Holland Theater in Bellefontaine, Ohio, built in 1931. The theater is the only known theater with a 17th century Dutch motif and features a twinkling star ceiling and turning windmills. Turned into a 5 screen multiplex in the 1980’s the theater was hut down in 1998. In 2009 the theater was reopened as a live theater venue and the interior is slowly being restored back to it’s original look.

Recent photo of the interior of the Holland Theater with it's painted sky, starlight and turning windmill blades

Recent photo of the interior of the Holland Theater with it’s painted sky, starlight and turning windmill blades

 

Wayne Manor Was A Remodel – Delineating Set Walls on Drawings

Often when sets are designed there is either an advantage or a mandate to using existing flats for a set’s construction. Sometimes a standing set is revamped or stock set walls are pulled from storage to either save money or time or both, particularly in Television where there is never enough of either.

Universal Studios was famous for revamping sets to the point that some sets were merely repainted and dressed for a TV series when a show required numerous sets. I spent my first years in television at Universal and the Production Designers there were experts at reusing stock units from the large stock sheds on the lot. In recent times some designers resist the idea of reusing scenery but audiences rarely ever notice when they are seeing a stock set. The practice was much more widespread in the early days of TV when there were actual studios in existence who saw the value in having large amounts of stock scenery and made efforts to catalogue and maintain it.

The problem from a Set Designer’s perspective is how to delineate the different walls on the drawings to communicate what is what. Each studio had a slightly different nomenclature, as I learned on my first show at Universal on Murder She Wrote. One day the foreman called from the stage. “Where the hell are all these stock walls you’ve got on this drawing?” he asked. I was confused until I realized they used a different delineator symbol than what I’d always used.

Some of the nomenclature was universal (no pun intended). A thin line on the plan meant the wall was existing and standing in place. it was rarely dimensioned on the drawing. A thick line at most studios meant it was a stock wall and was accompanied by it’s stock number. At 20th Century Fox, this line was also pochéd (shaded). A hatched line denoted new construction except for drawings done at MGM and Universal Studios where it meant the wall was stock. A thick line to these art departments denoted a new wall.

At 20th Century Fox Studios when they were planning a television version of Batman in 1965, the producers were on a limited budget to make the pilot. As the show required numerous sets and the Batcave interior was going to take a big chunk of the construction budget, they cruised the stages on the lot to see what sets might be standing that they could reuse, particularly something that would stand in for Wayne Manor as the script called for a well-appointed mansion.

According to Ed Hudson, long-time manager of the Art Department, the producers heard that the TV series 12 O’clock High was going to be using one of their main sets less, a reproduction of an English Tutor mansion that stood on Stage 18 and was used as the headquarters of the squadron. The network had decided the show didn’t have enough action scenes to keep the young crowd engaged and planned to shoot more of the show ‘in the air’ with scenes in the planes and less talkie scenes on the ground.

Shown below is a copy of the original plan and elevations showing the various wall types, dated September 1965. For those of you wondering, the Bat poles are at Elevation H.

The set drawing for the Wayne Manor interior for the pilot episode.

The set drawing for the Wayne Manor interior for the pilot episode.

Plan detail showing walls at Elevation A. Note shaded and hatched walls.

Plan detail showing walls at Elevation A. Note shaded and hatched walls.

Elevation A showing the three types of walls clearly marked.

Elevation A showing the three types of walls clearly marked.

The table beside the title block clearly lists all the stock walls, their position on the plan and their stock number.

The table beside the title block clearly lists all the stock walls, their position on the plan and their stock number.

Once the network accepted the pilot, a permanent set matching it was built on Stage 24. With minor alterations, the original set was duplicated as seen in this November 1965 drawing below. Note that the walls drawn as ‘standing’ on the other plan are hatched for new construction.

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The exterior of the house was an actual location, a house at 380 South San Rafael Avenue in Pasadena. It’s my guess that the location was chosen after the interior set was built.

Having a standing set influence the look of another permanent set is more common than you would think. The set for the 1993 comedy The Nanny, was a reused and slightly revamped stock set from a show called Sibs, which had been shot on the same stage and never made it past the pilot stage.

When the 2010 NBC series Parenthood started, the main characters house was based on a home in Malibu canyon where the exterior shooting was planned. The site was surveyed and had been reproduced on stage by the time the deal between the homeowner and the studio fell through. With no time to redesign, the producers were stuck with the houses look. When the exterior of the house was duplicated on the backlot at Universal the next year, it was a close copy of a house that was never shot for the series.

Original location of the house for the main characters of the series Parenthood.

Original location of the house for the main characters of the series Parenthood.

Parenthood cast in front of the exterior facade built on the Universal Studios lot which was influenced by the location house which was chosen but never shot.   photo by NBC Television.

Parenthood cast in front of the exterior facade built on the Universal Studios lot which was influenced by the location house which was chosen but never shot. photo by NBC Television.

One thing that producers aren’t is psychic, much to their dismay, and you never know if you have a hit or a flop on your hands until the public sees it, and even then you can’t be sure. When the pilot for the original Batman series was tested it tested worse than any other show the network had done. Considering shelving the series, luckily they decided to air it since so much money and already been spent on the show, not knowing it would become a cultural phenomenon.

The HMS Bounty And The Blockbuster That Was Never Made

The Bounty in 2010. photo by Ebyabe

On October 29, as Hurricane Sandy bore down on the U.S. east coast, a distress call went out to the Coast Guard from the crew of the HMS Bounty. The ship was four days into a bid to avoid the ship being destroyed in harbor by the storm. The captain had decided that the best way to save the ship was to go to sea and sail around the hurricane. Now being swamped by 30 foot waves, the crew was forced to abandon ship. The captain and one of the crew were lost at sea before the remainder of the crew were rescued by Coastguard helicopters. Hours later I saw a photo of the ravaged ship as it went down, its’ mast tops shredded and its’ yards torn away.

The HMS Bounty goes down off the coast of North Carolina. Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Tim Kuklewski/ /U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images

I looked at it and remembered climbing the shroud lines up to the main mast top and looking out to sea almost exactly 18 years before while surveying the ship for a film. It was to be a remake of the classic Errol Flynn pirate film, Captain Blood, and it would have been the most expensive film made to date. But the films fortunes were as bad as those of the Bounty turned out to be.

The HMS Bounty’s Rebirth

The ship was commissioned by MGM in 1960 for the 1962 film Mutiny On The Bounty starring Marlon Brando. Built in Nova Scotia, it was the first large vessel built using original ship’s plans. To make allowances for shooting and to hold a larger crew, the ship’s deck length was increased from nearly 91 feet to 120 feet with the beam, masting and rigging increased in proportion to the new hull length. Once the film was completed, the studio had planned on burning the ship but Brando protested and the Bounty ended up in Florida. It went through several owners before Ted Turner bought the ship and in 1993 donated it to an educational foundation where it was sent to a new home port in Falls River, Massachusetts.

dock in 1994

Bounty in dry dock in 1994

When we went to survey her in 1994, she was on the rails in dry dock, a number of her futtocks were in need of replacement but we were assured the work would be completed in time for filming. Three of us crawled all over the ship the entire day, taking measurements, hundreds of photographs and video to document the existing structure for as-built drawings. Since the story of Captain Blood takes place in the 1680’s, over 100 years before the original Bounty, the ship was to be converted to an earlier vessel which meant applying a different stern, rigging and bow.

The ship still had most of it’s original fittings including the brick oven and the hand grained paneling below deck. Other than the repairs on the futtocks, she seemed still intact after over 30 years of sailing.

View from the main mast top. Photo- R.D. Wilkins

View from the main mast top. Photo- R.D. Wilkins

The Bounty's brick oven. photo - R.D. Wilkins

The Bounty’s brick oven. photo – R.D. Wilkins

The crew mess area. photo - R.D. Wilkins

The crew mess area. photo – R.D. Wilkins

hand-grained partitions below deck. photo-R.D. Wilkins

hand-grained partitions below deck. photo-R.D. Wilkins

Survey photo of the fore bits. photo - R.D. Wilkins

Survey photo of the fore bits. photo – R.D. Wilkins

The great wheel and binnacle. photo - R.D. Wilkins

The great wheel and binnacle. photo – R.D. Wilkins

View of the stern from the main top. photo - R.D. Wilkins

View of the stern from the mizzen top. photo – R.D. Wilkins

Drawing done from survey measurements in 1994. R.D. Wilkins

Drawing done from survey measurements in 1994. R.D. Wilkins

Period rigging details

Period rigging details for Bounty conversion.

Captain Blood Sails Again

Back in Los Angeles, design work proceeded under the leadership of Production Designer William Creber, who had been nominated for Oscars three times before. The Set Decorator was Eddie Fowlie, David Lean’s right-hand man who had done props and sometimes effects as well for the classic films, Lawrence of Arabia, and fulfilled five different roles on Doctor Zhivago as well as other films. When asked by the studio which credit he wanted for Zhivago, he first replied he didn’t care but decided on a special effects credit since it had involved the most work. He later wished he had picked another title since the effects were so good they were virtually ignored. It appeared to all that the film was made in snow in winter when it was actually shot in Spain, with thousands of tons of cheap marble dust used as snow. The beautiful winter ice palace interior was actually carefully applied paraffin. He had come out of retirement to do the picture, leaving his home in Spain. We were all a bit in awe of both of them, particularly Eddie given his pedigree with Lean. The director had just had his last film explode at the box-office and was the hot ticket in town. The scripts scribes were equally hot commodities and had recent successes of their own.

The plan was to do a remake of the popular Errol Flynn film from 1935, even though the common thought at the time was that pirate movies didn’t make money, (Jerry Bruckheimer would prove this wrong a few years later.) Popular yes, profitable no, This was mainly because of the cost involved in making them. Besides being a period film, it would involve creating a huge 17th century battle, creating at least four different period sailing ships and recreating a large section of the town of Port Royal. The initial projected budget suggested that it would be possibly the most expensive film made to date. That being the case, there were only a few stars that the studio was willing to gamble their money on, and the first choice was Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Proposed artwork for a promotional poster for the film.

Proposed artwork for a promotional poster for the film.

I was eager to quiz Eddie about his time with David Lean but he seemed a bit aloof and obviously did not suffer fools gladly. So, I thought I would offer something he would find useful. I brought in a rare out-of-print set of books from my library of which part was an inventory of ships of the period. One section listed every piece of equipment you could find aboard with illustrations and measured drawings, a Set Decorators dream. He looked up at me over the top of his glasses when I entered his office. “Eddie, I thought these might be a good reference for you”, I said as I laid the books open in front of him.

His jaw dropped slightly as he silently thumbed through them for several minutes. Without looking up he said, “Where did you get these wonderful books?” Then he said it reminded him of how he had done the props for Lawrence Of Arabia. He had an illustrator do a drawing of each piece he needed. The he posted them on his wall and would bring the various local artisans to his office, point to the drawings and indicate how many he needed.

I realized why you could never make a film like Lawrence today the same way and why the Art Departments of the period were so small. Today something like a camel’s saddle would be drawn in multiple versions by several illustrators, modeled in Rhino or Modo by as many as three different set designers, rendered, redesigned, remodeled, re-rendered, finally approved by the director, and only then would a set of working drawings be made. Eddie just found a person who understood what it was he wanted, gave him a sketch and told him how many he needed. But this was a time when directors hired people they trusted and let them do their job. They understood that THEIR job was defining the story and script and concentrated on camera placement and performance and didn’t involve selecting drawer hardware.

After that Eddie would chat about he times with Lean in the afternoons at tea time, which didn’t involve tea for Eddie, who preferred beer. He’d found a local shop in Santa Monica that carried imported beer, so each day when we’d walk to lunch, ( those were the days when we actually stopped for a proper lunch and didn’t eat hunched over our desks ) we would buy him two cans of his favorite beer.

drawing for 18 pounder cannon tubes. At over 9 feet long, these were even shorter than the largest guns.

Drawing for 18 pounder cannon tubes. At over 9 feet long, these were even shorter than the largest guns to be made.

drawing of gun equipment

drawing of gun equipment

One day one of the producers was talking about the ship cannons and I showed him a mock-up of the cannon shot for the large 32 pounder cannon. He frowned as he took the 6 1/2 inch diameter ball and said it seemed puny. I walked him around the corner to where I had taped a full size silhouette of the gun that fired it, which was over 10 feet long and more than 4 feet high. He was shocked. It was then that I made the mistake of mentioning that the opening battle scene was based on a real battle, the Battle of Sedgemore in 1685. He looked surprised and said, “you’re kidding?” I said that not only was that based on history but the main character was also based on a real man named Henry Pitman. “That’s fantastic!” he said. I’m sure in his head he could see that sought-after card ‘based on a true story’ in the title sequence at the front of the film.

This revelation caused a lot of excitement and they asked me to do a little presentation for the director and producers about the real events behind the film. A few days later when I began the presentation, the enthusiasm quickly died. As I told them the real story it became readily apparent that serious liberties had been taken in Sabatini’s original book and worse, the events portrayed in the script didn’t match the real story either. The carefully crafted battle scene that took place at night in the swirling snow had actually happened in the middle of July where heatstroke would have been more a likelihood than frostbite.

It was then that I realized two important truths about the film industry;

1. – Working on a film about a subject you know a lot about is usually a very frustrating and ultimately disappointing experience.

2. – If someone, other than the Production Designer, says they want to know what it really was or looked like, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll change what they already have in their mind.

Most people just want research that is going to confirm or validate what they already have in the script or the image they have in their head. Maybe that’s human nature but it’s the same reason composers hate the temp music used during editing. After months of hearing a tune connected to a picture the director will end up wanting something “just like that tune”. It’s almost routine for a director to question a designer’s design choice by demanding to see research. And then when the image which validates the design is produced, the director will insist, “well, I still want my version instead.” Research that doesn’t validate their own ideas is worse than useless to them because it just points out their own ideas are many times based more on Hollywood clichés than reality.

Everything was proceeding nicely when we be can to hear rumblings that Schwarzenegger was thinking about pulling out of the movie. It was rumored that he had an extended ski trip planned that conflicted with the schedule. Someone else suggested that he was worried he would look ridiculous in 17th century knee breeches. For whatever the reason, a week later it was confirmed that he had pulled out of the picture. The momentum slowed to a crawl. With a picture this large, particularly a picture partly shot at sea, the weather plays a large role. If the schedule was pushed we would be into hurricane season in the tropics and that was something the studio didn’t want to contemplate. Another actor would have to be found and fast.

Because of the estimated budget, the studio sent a list of just five other actors that they considered to be enough of a box office draw to make the film feasible. I leave it to you to guess who those five were. As the week went by, each actor on the list passed until there was just one who had yet to decide.

In my naiveté, I had regularly been collating and forwarding research from my library that I though would be useful but never got a response about it. As each script revision happened it became apparent that it was being tailored to Arnold’s action hero persona with ever greater feats of daring and super-human agility. That last Friday, I got a call from the director’s assistant. She asked if I could send her additional copies of the all the research I’d been sending over to the director saying that the originals had been ‘lost’. The director was scheduled to leave on a plane for Paris that evening and wanted to take the research with him. It turns out the actor who was the film’s last hope was interested, but only if it was going to be a historically motivated picture. I wasn’t sure how they were going to explain why the script was so different from the research.

I don’t think I need to tell you what the actor’s decision was.

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!”