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01.20.2004
Moving Pictures
With clients' (and the public's) expectations rising after 9/11, Fred Bernstein finds that architectural animations are a tool designers can no longer pass up.

With clients' (and the public's) expectations rising after 9/11, Fred Bernstein finds that architectural animations are a tool designers can no longer pass up. Options range from New Yorkkbased video artists to low-cost foreign firms.

In the field of architectural animation, as in so many other things, one date separates then and now: September 11, 2001. The direct effects of 9/11 on companies that make architectural videos are vast..Michael is out in California with Peter Walker,, said Matthew Bannister, principal of New Yorkkbased dbox, referring to the Ground Zero memorial designer Michael Arad. When he comes back, we'll have five days to do the animation. It'll mean working some extra-weird hours..

Bannister's company had already done four other Ground Zeroorelated projects before it was asked to animate the winning design in the memorial competition. The LMDC, Bannister said, wanted it to be very realistic for the public presentation.. At least half a dozen other firms that specialize in three-dimensional renderings have been involved in redeveloping the World Trade Center site. There have been animations of the proposed master plans, the designs for Freedom Tower and other structures, and most recently, the memorial finalists (who were given a list of renderers by the LMDC, which picked up the tab for the animations).

But the indirect affects of 9/11 are greater. Technologies have a way of making themselves indispensable, especially after a splashy public showing. It's akin to what happened in the wake of the O.J. Simpson trial: Prosecutors say that jurors now expect DNA evidence in every case. Since 9/11-related architectural videos began appearing on the television news, consumers of architectureedevelopers, tenants, city planning commissions, and not least the publiccexpect projects to be presented with walk-throughs or fly-throughs, usually with background music, trees blowing in the wind, and people walking up and down virtual stairways.

Luckily for architects, the range of options for creating animations is multiplying. For firms doing the work inhouse, a website, cgarchitect.com, offers advice on the latest products and techniques. At the same time, the ease of transferring data over the Internet has made it possible for some large firms (including Manhattanbase Kohn Pederson Fox) to save money by having animations produced overseas. As a result, architects say, the days when a video was a luxuryyand one completed only after the design was finishedd are over. Videos are prepared at every stage of the process, and can serve as design tools.

Bannister said that in one case, his firm was asked to make animations of spaces that hadn't even been rendered in two dimensions. After the client approved the video, the architect would do the drawings,, he said. Ed Manning, another New Yorkkbased architectural animator, said one of his clients was planning a renovation that, in Manning's mind, would produce awkward spaces. On his own time, he produced an animation that convinced the owner to rethink the design. He could see exactly why the spaces wouldn't work,,Manning recalled. He added that traditional two-dimensional renderings, given their capacity to hide or highlight whatever a designer wants, can be misleading in a way that 3-D renderings are not.

Bernard Tschumi, who recently stepped down as dean of Columbia's architecture school in order to focus on his increasingly busy practice, said that he, too, is using animations more and more as an in-house design tool. An animation confirms things about a space, or opens avenues you didn't think about.. Manning freelances for Imaginary Forces, a company that until now has been known for movie and TV animation. Two years ago, the firm opened a New York office dedicated to serving the architectural market.What's happened, he said, is that rising standards of visual literacy, along with advances in technology and lower costs in applying it, make it possible for architects to think about creating images that are as detailed and realistic as the images that have been used for entertainment and advertising..

Said Bannister of dbox, We're a relatively new business model in the United States, where, until recently, hightech renderings were mostly done in bedroom shops.'' By contrast, he said, this has been an established business type for many years in Europe,, where concern for historic city centers meant that photorealistic renderings of proposed new buildings were de rigueur. But in New York, he said, after 9/11 there was a sudden expectation for computer visualizations, which led to a rise in businesses like ours..

Another entrant is Screampoint, a California firm represented in New York by Wendy Cohn, an urban planner. For years, Cohn worked for the Manhattan borough president on such mega-projects as the redevelopment of Times Square.When Hsiao-Lai Mei, a West Coast entrepreneur, showed Cohn his photorealistic animations, she realized that developers could use them to present their plans to New York's community boards and Planning Commission. (The commission itself has since become a Screampoint client.)

On a laptop at the firm's office in Rockefeller Center, Cohn offers the proof: In one caseea video of a proposed mall in Honoluluuit's impossible to believe the animation isn't a movie. According to Cohn, the client liked the animation so much, he took it to Italy to pick out marble paving that matched the effect created by Screampoint's artists. But Screampoint's selling point isn't just verisimilitude. Founder Mei developed a system that links 3-D images to a multitude of data: Click on a wall in an animation, and you may find out when it was painted, and what color. Click on a floor of an apartment building, and you may find out how much rent the tenant has been paying. According to Mei, his system makes 3-D imaging a tool that can be utilized throughout the life of a project. Our typical clients are large owners and developers, though we work alongside architects and engineers,, he said. The interaction with the designers is very tight..

Though Cohn occupies a Rockefeller Center office, most of Screampoint's work is done outside the country. It's 24-7. Someone is always working in China or in Egypt or in Yugoslavia or Mexico,, she said. Indeed, the value of sending work overseas, apparent in so many other fields, is quickly becoming recognized in the world of architectural animation. Kohn Pederson Fox (KPF) has all but its simplest animations made in Beijing. Architect Richard Nemeth discovered the high qualityyand low costtof Chinese renderings when he was working with a client in China several years ago. He tracked down the Chinese renderers and began giving them work. People in the firm would say, These renderings are really nice, where do you get them done?'' Nemeth recalled.

Until then, KPF had used New York animators. Now the firm posts its data on a password- protected website, where it is downloaded by Chinese workers. We call every evening and talk to them about what changes need to be made. The next morning, we have a draft,, said Nemeth.

He said the typical animation, such as a fly-through of Songdo, a new city in Korea that KPF is master-planning, takes seven or eight drafts. But that's because the people doing the work in China have a very good sensibility,, he said. If they didn't, you could do 15 drafts and still not be happy with the results..

Not every firm is ready to outsource its animation. Tschumi, for his part, has three fulltime people doing videos in his loft office on 17th Street (out of a total staff of 30). Lately, he has been winning one high-profile competition after another and the videos produced under his roof, he acknowledged, are one of the reasons. Increasingly, the animations are part of the competition entry,, he explained.

Other architecture firms give animation work to companies like dbox, which employs 13 artists in its studio on West 14th Street. The firm was founded, according to Bannister, in the computer lab at Cornell's architecture school in the 1990s, where he and his founding partners studied. He is proud to note that their influences include pre-computer-age works of architectural representation, such as the mid-20th-century photographs of Julius Shulman and, going further back, the 18th-century view-paintings of Venetian Giovanni Canaletto. The Canaletto book is always out somewhere, always open,, he said. These elaborate animation services don't come cheap. ((If I sense that we're bidding against someone, they're probably not coming to us for the right reasons,, said Bannister.) Dbox, according to Bannister, has not yet felt the impact of its overseas competitors. We're always booked up at least a month in advance.. The firm also produces art videos that have been shown in a number of museums.

With computer animation software becoming more widely available, most firms have at least one person on staff who knows how to use it. But,, said Bannister, buying a Les Paul guitar doesn't make you Eric Clapton..

FRED BERNSTEIN, WHO STUDIED ARCHITECTURE AT PRINCE