03 June 2012

Jonathan Williamson - Architectural Visualization In Blender 2.6 - Training Video

Recently Jonathan Williamson released a new tutorial video on BlenderCookie.com, covering how to do Architectural Visualization In Blender 2.6 using Blender Cycles rendering engine.

Since there aren't any recent architectural modeling and rendering tutorials around commercially for Blender, I was very interested in Jonathan's new tutorial. I am big fan of both hard body modeling and architectural modeling tutorials. One of the first reviews I ever did was of a hard body mechanical model. So when Jonathan contacted me and asked if I would be interest in doing a review of his new baby, I said yes.

Product Specifications:
  • Name: Architectural Visualization In Blender 2.6
  • Author: Jonathan Williamson
  • Price: $10 Monthly Citizen Membership Subscription
  • Type: Online Streaming Video/Downloadable
  • Runtime : 5 Hours
The aim of the course if the rendered results are anything to go by is to deliver a very realistic looking scene of an interior room. According to the website everything required to produce such a render will be covered in the tutorial (which is was). So hopes were high that this will be a very good product.

Given that it's Jonathan Williamson doing the Blendering, you would expect nothing less, seeing how he has a string of high quality tutorials behind him.

So off I went to BlenderCookie and signed in to the Architectural Visualization in Blender 2.6 course. Once signed in I was presented with a total of 25 video tutorials each covering an aspect of architectural visualization in Blender. You can watch the videos online or download them direct to your hard drive. I decided to download them. The downloads were very quick and reliable. The total file size of the downloaded zip files was just over 3 gigabytes. You will need either a very quick or very reliable connection to download them.

Video Listing:
 Introduction To The Series                       1 Min 14
 Introduction To BMesh                           12 Min 18
 Modeling The Main Structure                     19 Min 15
 Modeling The Windows                            29 Min 25
 Modeling The Trim                               10 Min 20
 Modeling The Stairs                             10 Min
 Modeling The Chair                              21 Min 25
 Modeling The Wall Light                         23 Min 42
 Using Linked Groups                              6 Min 19
 Using The Edit Linked Library Addon              2 Min 35
 Importing Assets                                10 Min 45
 Environment And Sun Lighting                    12 Min 33
 Using A Window Light                             4 Min 38
 Adding A Background Image                        6 Min 58
 Adjusting The Cameras                            9 Min 42
 Creating A Material Library                      4 Min 49
 Creating The Room Shaders                       30 Min 21
 Shading The Chair                                8 Min 50
 Shading The Wall Lighting                        1 Min 21
 Shading The Room                                13 Min 52
 Scenes And Render Layers                        23 Min 02
 Compositing The Render Layers                    9 Min 17
 Color Adjustments With Nodes                    15 Min 23
 Adding Volumetric Lighting                      16 Min 20
 Final Editing With Photoshop                    10 Min 17

Of the 25 videos the first video is an introduction and goes over what will be covered in the rest of the videos.

The second video "Introduction To BMesh" has a brief rundown of the important changes that were introduced in Blender's new mesh system called BMesh which has recently been added to Blender's SVN trunk and will be available to all Blender users when Blender 2.63 is released.

This course requires what is currently a beta version of Blender 2.63, as the features of BMesh are used at various places within the tutorial. BMesh's major feature is that it allows for NGONS which are faces which have more than 4 edges, as well as numerous other useful features. Jonathan provides links to the appropriate Blender builds on the course website, so even if you do not have the latest and greatest version of Blender you will be able to get it from the links provided. I found the explanation of how BMesh worked and what it means for Blender users to be clear and easy to understand, with the important concepts explained very well. If you had no clue as to what BMesh was this video really helps. It's hard for me to remember sometimes that a lot of Blender users never use development/beta versions of Blender and may be totally unaware of BMesh and its long, long history of getting to the Blender public at large.

After the whirlwind tour of BMesh, the third video "Modeling The Main Structure" gets into the real work of constructing the interior room. In preparation Jonathan first goes through correctly calculating and using the right scales to model in with Blender. Explaining why it is important and laying down some simple rules to make sure scale is accurately maintained throughout the rest of the project, as well as highlighting some potential pitfalls that can be encounter by Blender users when modeling with accurate scaling. Thankfully he models using the Metric system and bypassed the crappy imperial system. Which should make things much more accurate and easy to do, given that Blender's current unit system is not consistently applied correctly with Blender own scale conversion system. Once the unit system is out of the way Jonathan moves on to creating a basic floor plan layout of the interior room. At this point he takes some time to explain how object scale can be distorted when scaling things in Object Mode and makes it very clear how to fix it, so as not to get caught out later on.

For his preliminary floor plan design layout he uses the grease pencil very effectively to quickly sketch the layout of the major structural parts of the room (ie window opening, stair locations etc). Once the grease pencil work is completed the mesh modeling actually starts. Here he start by cutting in a stairway in the floor plan using various features of BMesh, specifically the new knife tool.

The knife tool has been improved a lot in the BMesh builds of Blender. It was at this point that I was surprised as I learned that you could constrain knife cuts using the C key. Makes the video worth getting just for that reason alone for me. Extensive use of snapping is demonstrated to achieve accurate modeling. Once the basic stair cutouts have been done Jonathan moves on to constructing very basic walls and windows. Once this is done the basic general block structure for the interior building is complete and we move on to the next video. Excellent video overall, clearly explained and I actually learned something about the new knife cut and constraints!

The fourth video "Modeling The Windows" covers unsurprisingly modeling the basic structures that form the windows of the room, the support beams and other such things. At this point also the initially constructed block room is separated out into different parts. Those part being the floor and the windows. This shows good use of the separate tool and keeping parts organized for later stages of the construction project. Good simple methods for positioning an objects origin in Edit Mode are also demonstrated on the newly created support beams which aide in scaling the object more accurately and efficiently with Blender. This is good because people often get caught out when trying to position things accurately when switching between Object Mode and Edit Mode and knowing where your object origin is and how to control it really can speed things up. There is also good use of Blender's face angle display feature, shown when trying to accurately rotate the support beams, as was the use of accurate snapping, both of which are very important when doing this kind of modeling. Jonathan uses and demonstrates linked duplication and the repeat command to duplicate the support beams accurately. Another notable thing to me was the demonstration of Custom Transform Orientations, as they are very useful for architectural modeling and make creating the support beams much easier than it otherwise would have been. Custom Transforms are often not understood so this should help Blender users get to grips with them. After the support beams Jonathan moves on to modeling the window struts and lower and upper window trim, using similar techniques to those used when modeling the support beams. By the end of this video the major structural support parts of the room are completed).

Video number five "Modeling The Trim" covers modeling the trim/baseboard/skirting board that runs along the wall at floor level. A new modeling technique is used to to do this, by using two curves, a path curve and a profile curve. The path curve uses Blender's Bevel Object feature to take the profile curve that Jonathan shows you how to create and uses it to form the cross section of the baseboard path. Jonathan's explanations were clear and easy to understand. As was his explanation of how vector curves work and how to interact with them. By the end of this video you have a cleanly modeled trim along the floor which was quick to make and it is very easy to alter both the path it takes and the profile shape of the trim, should you wish to have something different for your project.

Video number six "Modeling The Stairs" models a standard set of stairs using standard measurements as you would find with real stairs. The stairs are created using the same techniques as were used in previous videos with the added use of Blender's Array Modifier feature to accurately offset and rise the stair treads. The tread nose (the part the generally juts out from the top of a stair) of the stairs was even modeled to give them an even more realistic look. The stairs were modeled efficiently and with good use of snapping for quick positioning. Occasionally in this video Jonathan would revert back to using imperial measurements this did happen often and was not really important in the video.

Video number seven "Modeling The Chair" is the first of a few videos which go over how to model smaller items/assets that will eventually end up placed in the room that was constructed previously. Since there are a lot items (called assets) in the video tutorial Jonathan goes over modeling just two of them, the chair in this video and a lamp in the next one. All the other items were obtained from www.blendswap.com. www.blendswap.com is an excellent model repository for sharing Blender files, well worth checking out if you want to see a vast assortment of freely available Blender models.

On starting to model the chair Jonathan opens a brand new Blend file and models the chair separately from the rest of the room. The chair will get linked in later using Blender's Append and Linking feature, which is described later. The chair model is measured and created to scale. Jonathan uses a good technique of using a bounding box to more accurately work out what the eventual dimensions of the created chair will be. He also makes good use of the Display Properties Panel to show the bounding box in a different display mode, so that it does not get in the way while modeling the chair. The chair is constructed using various combinations of extrusions and edge loop cuts and edge sliding, all clearly described. Two modifiers were used and explained in the construction of the chair, the Mirror Modifier and the Subdivision Surface Modifier. Soft chairs like the one being modeled in this video generally have a more rounded soft organic shape when it comes to their surfaces. This is achieved using Blender's Subsurf Modifier, which Jonathan takes time to explain and shows when and how it should and should not be used. He also highlights possible pitfalls of having internal faces present when using the Subsurf Modifier and how to fix it. Using various techniques Jonathan shows how to add the appearance of seams to the chair to make it look softer and more realistic, as well as how to add extra faces when needed to achieve that desired soft effect. Good use of the CTRL++ feature of Blender is shown (Grow selection). Even though this video packed in a lot of information in a short amount of time it was all clearly explained as needed and resulted in a very simple chair model that looked very impressive. He also showed how asymmetric modeling can be used to make models look less computer generated and regular, improving their realism. Impressive video.

Video number eight "Modeling The Wall Light" used all the same techniques as previously describe to produce a stylish but simple wall light, but also included some new features that were describe clearly by Jonathan. Those features were Normal recalculation, High Speed Extrusion using Ctrl+Left Mouse Button clicking, the Edge Split Modifier, Solidify Modifier, Creases and Seams. I liked the use of the Edge Split Modifier with Mark Sharp combined with Creases to reduce the total amount of needed geometry in terms of controlling edge loops for small items such as this. Also it helps to make people aware of the power of creases & sharp edges when combined with the Edge Split Modifier. Just using these few basic features Jonathan was able to construct a lamp that looked a lot more detailed than it actually was. After the geometry of the lamp was finished Jonathan moved on to doing a basic form of rigging on the lamp so that its component parts could be moved and repositioned easily. This was achieved using Blender's Armature system. The use of the Armature system to attach the various bones to the various bits of a lamps mesh geometry was clearly and quickly explained. Weight painting was not covered but it was not needed in this case. Finally bone transformation locks and basic parenting were also used and explained, all combining together to give a lamp that was very easy to manipulate correctly without any bad movements. Yet another feature packed fast moving chapter with a lot of new information within it.

Video number nine "Using Linked Groups" takes the previously created and rigged wall light and goes through the steps needed to import that model into your room model by using Linked Groups to keep the linked models both organized and easier to link into a scene. The effects of linking a model and what that means are all clearly explained and Jonathan demonstrates how altering the original model also alters the linked in model in the room. Because the wall light model also had a rig attached to it Jonathan also explains how to use Blender's Rigging Proxy system to allow the linked in models to alter their rig bone positions. Blender's Rigging Proxy system is often skipped over so it was a surprise to see it explained. This will surely help when you need to import rigged objects that need to be amenable to adjusts in their rigs on a case by case basis. Another excellent video, making what could potentially be a difficult topic easy to grasp.

Video number ten "Using The Edit Linked Library Addon" Is a short but interesting video which covers how to use an Addon written by Jason Van Gumster which allows for the quick editing of original linked in files (assets) in Blender with a click of a button. Being able to alter original linked in files really helps when you have a lot of linked asset files, and this Addon makes the whole process so much easier. This was another short video, but a very useful one as this Addon is a great time saver.

Video number eleven "Importing Assets" is an extension of the things learned in the previous two videos. It covers importing all the other assets which are used in the scene and covers the topic of positioning objects for good visual composition. Specifically how to position the imported assets such that they feel right and give the correct visual focal point or eye flow for the scene. Jonathan imports the main objects showing how to do it and what to take into consideration. The rest are imported with the video paused and once imported the video is started up again. This was a short and simple video but still useful for the information on composition it gave. Also it showed the usefulness of the Edit Linked Addon as it was used to correct a mistake in an object import.

Video number twelve "Environment And Sun Lighting" covers setting up materials such that they all render with clay material. This is used to test how the scene will look as a whole when lighted using sky textures from the world settings. Blender Cycles node system is demonstrated and it seemed very clearly explained to me. Good descriptions of how to use the Sky Texture Node setup were gone over, and Jonathan showed how to mix various colors with the Sky texture to get a more colorful lighted scene. After having the light how he wants Jonathan uses a sunlamp to create shadows and again explains clearly how to set that up to get good shadows and color mixing. So another short chapter but full of important information.

Video number thirteen "Using A Window Light" is related to the previous video in that it also covers lighting but this time it's a different type of lighting, using a plane mesh object to act as an emission light source. Used primarily to get around certain control issues with lighting using only world and sky texture lighting. Also this video covers how to make this mesh light not block out the effects of the previously configured world sky texture lighting. This is done by using and changing the Ray Visibility settings in Cycles. All of this is explained by Jonathan. The end result is that we end up with a nicely lighted scene that is both lighted by a Sky Texture and an light emitting plane which covers our windows but does not block other light sources.

Video number fourteen "Adding A Background Image": Up until this point the view out of the window in the room that has been constructed was totally empty, but in a real view the window would look out on something. So Jonathan goes over how to add a background image texture to the scene and position it such that it looks like a real world view outside of the window. This is achieved using the Image As Plane Addon and Blender Cycles Light Path feature to create a shadeless material that is usable in Cycles. Jonathan explains all these features clearly. Though I was a little confused about the Light Path setup, it was simple enough to achieve and it could just have been me not paying attention. Another short video but the information on setting up shadeless image textures was very useful as it was not immediately obvious to me how I would have achieved this. Good video.

Video number fifteen "Adjusting The Camera" covers setting up the camera, and some of its important settings precisely. as up until this point the camera has only been positioned very roughly. To achieve the proper camera setup Jonathan uses the standard tools such as rotation and translations of that camera and also uses two less well known features that a Blender camera provides. Those being Compositions guides set to "Rule Of 3rds" mode and the Cameras shift feature. Most people will know what composition guides are for, but less probably know about the Camera Shift option. I just assumed it was for offsetting the camera slightly in the Viewport when rendering a scene, but Jonathan showed its true power in correction for perspective distortion. So this is another video where I learned something and it's probably worth the price on its own. Excellent video.

Video number sixteen "Creating A Material Library" covers how to create a simple scene which will be used to test various material settings to see how they look when rendered with the same light setting as you would have in your original room scene. It is also used as a storage location from which the materials can be taken from and linked into other scenes. This is made easier by Jonathan demonstrating how to import node groups which have the sky texture setup in them and by linking in the sun lamp from the original scene, thereby making sure that both the test material scene and the original room scene are lighted identically. Short video but an excellent way of testing material and making sure they will look right when used in a live scene. This video forms the first part of the next major topic covered in this tutorial, that of materials and shaders and how to set them up to get the desired results.

Video number seventeen "Creating The Room Shaders" this video covers creating the various shaders needed for the constructed room, which will later be linked into our scene. The first shader created is the wood floor shader. Jonathan shows how to use the Cycles Nodes to get the wooden floor effect that is required. Using textures that have been made available with the tutorial Jonathan goes over how to apply textures for color, spec and bump mapping using Cycles Node system. UV texturing is nicely explained, if a little quickly. Another handy tip I learned was that Node can be constrained along the x and y axis. Being able to change how the scale of UV Mapping is displayed on objects using Cycles is fully covered. The node setups covered are well explained and very flexible in terms of how much control they give you over your final outputted shader. Nice tip of how to alter the tint of the floor texture using Cycles Node was very useful also. Cycles Node Groups are also covered in the tutorial. Jonathan takes some time to explain how these work and what they are used for.

After the floor shader Jonathan moves onto the wall shader. But instead of using the Cycles Node system he uses the Material Panel system that is also available in Cycles. Which again is handy to know. Next up is covering how to shade the wooded beams. He does this by using the settings from the previously created wood floor shader, showing how sharing settings can speed up shader creation. Jonathan works his way through all the other shaders (glass, metal) in a similar way and describes them all very well. The end result of creating these shaders was very realistic looking. A fabric shader was also created, which again the end result looked very good. The Cycles Node system makes creating these realistic shaders so easy that Jonathan almost had nothing to say, just a few nodes and some simple steps and boom, realistic shaders!

Video number eighteen "Shading The Chair" in this video the previously created shader materials are used to add a material to the chair model that was modeled in an earlier video. Only at this point the chair has not yet been UV Unwrapped so can't be UV Textured, so Jonathan demonstrates how to UV unwrap the chair model. Again it's clearly explained and I had no problem following. Handily Jonathan highlighted a possible bug with long file path names, which should save some people trouble.

Video number ninteen "Shading The Wall Light" covers shading the wall light that was previously modeled. Since this is a very basic shading object. The materials are just linked in from the ones you made in your material test file. Very short video but again easy to understand.

Video number twenty "Shading The Room" covers similar topics as were covered when shading assets earlier only this time it covers shading the major room structures, the floor, walls and stairs are all shown being shaded. The rest of the items in the room are shaded also but not shown on the video, as it is the same process of shading throughout. Other interesting highlights of this video were the coverage of a material changing Addon and the use of Blender's layers system to make shading the important parts of the scene easier and more organized. Excellent video.

Video number twenty one "Scenes And Render Layers" this video marks the start of a completely different phase in this tutorial process. All the physical modeling and texturing of geometry has been completed by this point. Things move on to the more post production oriented side of architectural rendering and visualization. This video covers how to split up and organize your created scene using a combination of render layers and separate scenes. Jonathan describes how he is going to organize his scenes and why, as well as describes some of the important render settings that will be used to get the best results for his scene. Render Layer manipulation and scene management within Blender can be a complicated and difficult to follow subject but Jonathan managed to explain it very well and I was able to understand what he was doing. A good tip I liked on this video was the simple but not often used button which allows you to delink 3D Viewport layer buttons from the render layer version of the same buttons. He also covered BVH caching and how to speed up scene rendering with this option. Another impressive part of this tutorial was the method he used to capture reflections on a window for later compositing in Blender. An advanced video but very well explained, though you may have to watch it more than once to get it.

Video number twenty two "Compositing The Render Layers" takes the previously organized render layers and scenes from the last video and goes through how to render those elements and finally composite them together to give a scene that looks like one whole scene rather than a collection of different parts. Jonathan clearly shows how to take those rendered images and use them in the compositor, and shows some of the new features available in newer development builds of Blender Cycles. Probably about the only minor mistake I saw was that like almost everyone else Jonathan incorrectly said that the compression slider for PNG images effects image quality, this is incorrect it just effects image size. not output quality of the image. PNG is a lossless image format after all. This would effect quality if it was a jpg or some other lossy format. Either way it's a insignificant issue and has no effect on the final results. Excellent video.

Video number twenty three "Color Adjustments With Nodes" is where Jonathan covers how to do color correction on his composited render. The node setup he uses are explained very well, and it is a simple setup, he does not go crazy with many different nodes, just the basic ones for very good final results. One thing that I did like a lot was Jonathan's discussion of the Multilayer OpenEXR file format, and how to use it to preserve the ambient occlusion pass as an image, rather than having to depend on Blender internal render buffers, or less suitable file formats. You could do entire video series just on color correction so Jonathan did a great job in cutting out all the fluff here. Excellent video covered only what was needed, nothing superfluous.

Video twenty four "Adding Volumetric Lighting" was a bit of a surprise to me, because Jonathan actually goes all out to get something approximating atmospheric light dispersion. Most other tutorials either skip doing this entirely or just add a glow effect to highlights. By doing volumetic lighting using Blender internal render he was able give a lot of extra realism to his scene. I am not well up on the volumetric settings, so I can't say why changing the Lighting on the volumetrics to shadow gets the light ray effects that it does but it certainly works, so again I ended up learning something new. So all in all another excellent video even if parts of it I was not entirely clear on why it worked, I probably need to go back and watch it more times.

Video twenty five "Final Editing With Photoshop" this is the final tutorial and it combines the previously made volumetric light rays into the room scene, does some color cast tweaks and shows you how to clean up fireflys. While it would have been better to have completed this stage in open source software like Gimp, it's very easy to convert what was done in Photoshop to Gimp (which does make me wonder why Jonathan did not use Gimp in the first place). So another short but clearly explained video, covering the final touch ups needed to make an image truly polished.

So for those of you who made it all the way through this long and rambling review you can probably tell that I thought on the whole this set of video tutorials was excellent, if not go count the number of times I said excellent in this review. What problems I did find were so small as to be not worth worrying over, as far as the content of the video tutorials is concerned. It's an amazing piece of work. Jonathan Williamson should give himself a big pat on the back.

On a slightly less certain note, I know that some will not like having to subscribe to a Blender Cookie Citizen membership just to have access to this tutorial as good as it is, but I think it is worth it as Blender Cookie does put out a lot of citizen tutorials, so you would likely over a year get several high quality tutorials not just including this one. Which I think makes it worth the subscription. It may or may not become available as a standalone product you can buy outright, I just don't know.

Brilliant product, if you can subscribe you should!

Review Score 90%