3D Movies for Park and Garden Design
by Robert Oelberg, ASLA

“Fly-through” movies can be used for even the smallest of projects. A fly-through movie shows a scene as if you were a bird flying through it. Such movies can be based on point clouds, on models, or combinations of both.

As the owner of a small landscape architectural practice in the mountains of Western North Carolina I have made movies a part of my typical landscape design package because:

  • the 3D interactive environment helps me visualize the proposed landscape, and thus is a powerful design tool;
  • my clients can better understand and respond to the proposed landscape design if they can watch a movie of it in conjunction with viewing a color-rendered plan and plant photos; and
  • contractors are also given copies of the movies, along with the plans and specs. The movies allow for a greater consensus about what the installed landscape should look like between myself, the client, and the contractor. Circles on paper are rather abstract, and based on the experiences we bring to it, what the circles cause us to envision can vary widely. A movie is much more concrete. Depending on the quality of the movie, there can be a more consistent shared expectation for the built result.

3D Movie Fig. 1
Proposed Watauga County residential landscape

3D Movie Fig. 2
Proposed Watauga County residential landscape

Although I wanted to integrate animations into my design practice for about 15 years, I began by focusing on the nuts and bolts of movie making in the spring of 2008. Asking around, I came to the conclusion that CAD, which I had used for over 15 years, was not the optimal platform. Instead, I started with the relatively inexpensive landscape design software with fly through capabilities that I had seen on the store shelves of big box retailers for years. I visited "TopTenReviews.com," which compared ten different stand-alone landscape design software packages. “Realtime Landscaping Architect” by Idea Spectrum, was the most highly rated program according to their comparison matrix.

For all of the merits of the example landscape movies posted by Idea Spectrum, I found them all lacking in the following respects:

  • All of the landscapes were set on a flat plane. I have been practicing in the mountains for the past 15 years and have not worked on a flat site yet. Topography was also a design component in the DC metropolitan area, where I had worked before moving to the mountains. Topographic relief probably needs to be accounted for in most design projects around the world. Topography is such an important component that it can’t be ignored as a design element, so it has to be represented effectively.
  • None of the landscape movie examples portrayed a realistic environmental context. The design environment was no larger than the designed area in all of the examples. But the environmental context is a tremendously important component of any design. Movies have the capability of portraying the adjacent context as well as the landscape that is being designed, so why not include it? The default in the Idea Spectrum software is to portray a flat plane stretching out in every direction until it merges with the sky. If there has to be some default environmental context, this may be the best. But although there is a vague resemblance to parts of Kansas, the default environmental setting is not really like anyplace I have ever been.
  • The elements which were placed in the example landscapes (annuals and perennials, trees and shrubs, houses, paving and lawn) just did not seem to exist in the same space. For example, if the color and texture of the lawn looked convincing for a particular time of day and light condition, then other components did not look convincing. The colors and textures of other components seemed to be from a different place or time of day.
  • Plants and other components portrayed in the movies are each one of two basic forms: either they are fully dimensioned 3D models, or they are flat photographic planes neatly trimmed along the contour outline of the objects they portray. These are called “billboards,” which when portrayed in a movie, always turn to face the camera. In all of the examples, the designers had mixed the 3D models with the billboards. I found the result to be jarring. While billboards may depict greater photorealism than the 3D models, they just do not look very realistic in a 3D space. They are flat planes and do not modulate light the same way that 3D models do. I have stopped using the billboards. To their credit, Idea Spectrum’s software package comes with thousands of plant and non-plant, high resolution 3D models. But for a price, there is an abundant resource of high resolution 3D models of cars, people, outdoor furniture, and just about anything you could imagine, available from the web.
  • Finally, the Idea Spectrum software does not have a “fog” or depth cueing capability yet. Thus, objects that are in the distance are less distinct than those up close, but they are not lighter in tone value.

All of the components listed above have nothing to do with landscape design, but they have everything to do with luring the viewer into the space that I am trying to create. Once in the space, the viewer can give more informed feedback about what is liked or disliked about the design.

Although I was not particularly impressed by any of the fly-through movie examples on Idea Spectrum’s homepage, I was very excited about the possibilities of the technology. And here is how I have worked around the issues I have stated above.

  • Bringing Topography In. While the Idea Spectrum software has several ways of creating topographic relief, there is only one interface that can portray the complex landforms with which landscape architects often have to deal. The interface is to import a “height map” which is a raster image where the highest part is white, the lowest part is black, and everything in between is a shade of gray. Working backwards, I have to use map rendering software to convert a point file in a grid format to the shaded raster image. To get the point file, I have to create a 3D surface from contours in surface modeling software, then convert the model to a grid. I use AutoCAD’s data extraction function to list the points of the grid. Needless to say, it would be a whole lot easier if the Idea Spectrum software were capable of importing contours with corresponding Z coordinate values from AutoCAD or other CAD program. Contours in a CAD program is the topographic interface of choice for all of the landscape architects and engineers with whom I have ever worked.
  • Creating Environmental Context. Until my latest movie, I was modeling an environment usually twice the size of the designed area. The big problem with this approach is that it takes twice as long. On large sites, there is the additional problem of the file getting so large, due to the surrounding environment, that it is cumbersome. Recently, I employed a solution that works pretty well.  I model the topography for the site and the surrounding environment, then drape a high resolution aerial photograph over the entire model. The high resolution aerial helps place existing trees, structures and features on the design site, then I just let the aerial photograph draped on the 3D modeled terrain stand in for the surrounding environment. It is not as realistic as what I started out doing, but it is fast and a lot more informative than a flat featureless plain surrounding the design site. Put a different way, I concluded that I do not want to charge my clients for modeling an environment that is not the site they hired me to design, and I cannot afford to model the adjacent environment for free.
  • Getting Components To Appear To Be in The Same Space. All I mean to say here is that for my tastes, I needed to modify colors and textures of the default plants and 3D features to make everything cohere aesthetically. The Idea Spectrum software provides a lot of opportunity for customization. Time consuming? Yes. It only makes sense if you resolve to create your own custom library of plants, ground textures, building finishes, etc. which work well together, and then use them in subsequent design projects. Over time you will have a great looking result that you can render efficiently and cost-effectively. (This is a mantra which I keep repeating to myself.)
  • Use 3D Models Exclusively, and Avoid Using The Billboards. The folks at Idea Spectrum will be reading this and perhaps they will cringe. Obviously, they have put a lot of effort into creating some wonderful billboards. So I will admit: it is only my opinion that the billboards and 3D models do not cohere in the same aesthetic space. Do not take my word for it; form your own opinion, because there are some good reasons why Idea Spectrum uses billboards. You can take pictures from your digital camera or pull them from the internet, create billboards and see them within minutes in the context of a 3D movie. Not so with 3D models, which take hours to create or a lot of money per quality model to purchase from on-line vendors.
  • Creating Atmospheric Perspective (“Fog” or “Depth Cueing”). This is not currently a feature of Idea Spectrum, but other 3D modeling programs such as SketchUp and 3D Studio have it as a feature.
  • Compatibility with CAD Programs. This is probably the most important shortcoming of the Idea Spectrum software to date. You can not directly import CAD files into the software. The only interface for me is to create high resolution raster images, or “snapshots” of my CAD plans, then import them into the Idea Spectrum software as raster images, which I can move, scale, and rotate. This is slow and cumbersome, especially if you want to go back and forth between CAD and the Idea Spectrum environment.

Speaking as one who started out at a drafting table with plastic lead holder in-hand, I think that portraying proposed sites and landscapes with realistic 3D walk-through movies is a very effective technique. Whichever software you choose, you should make certain that the 3D modeling software is fully interactive with CAD. With this, the advantages over hand techniques are:  1) the design process happens in 3D and the architect is entering into the space he or she is designing; 2) movies are run from the same 3D models; 3) the model creation process is fast and cost effective due to palettes of personalized, customized 3D plants and site features, and batched rendering routines; and 4) the same 3D models also generate 2D color rendered landscape plans customized to reflect the designer’s personal style.

These techniques are the future of landscape design. Once technology and training allow animation to become main stream, I believe it will be the standard that clients expect. It is an option that is just too compelling to ignore.

3D Movie Fig. 3
Landscape proposal for Green Valley Park in Watauga County

Watch 15 second clips from some of my recent landscape movies.

Bob Oelberg practices land planning and landscape design as Robert N Oelberg, ASLA PA in Boone, North Carolina, and can be reached at rno-la@charter.net.

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(619) 294-4477, ext.130