An Interview with Brian Looney, Architectural Rendering Artist

September 24, 2007 7 min read

Brian Looney started off as an entry level drafter straight out of technical school and now he is a professional architectural rendering expert. Brian learned the major rendering tools in the field, working with architects and clients at McFarland Davies Architects, in Tulsa, OK. When Next Limit Technologies new Maxwell Render was released, Brian tried the new product, liked it, and immediately integrated it into his production processes. In order to learn more about his experience with Maxwell Render and how Brian is using this tool I asked him for an interview.

Brian, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your professional activities at McFarland Davies Architects?

I was blown away by the quality of these (Maxwell Render) renderings!

My name is Brian Looney and I have been an AutoCAD technician for eight years with McFarland Davis Architects (previously Davies Architects). Eight years ago I and a friend decided to take a drafting class at a local tech school and it turned out to be a life changing decision. I started on AutoCAD R14, learning the basics of CAD and construction documents. Continuing on up through AutoCAD 2004, I started to tinker with AutoCAD’s 3D capabilities. After doing some research, I and some of the other drafters I work with decided to try and push for our company to upgrade to Architectural Desktop with it’s modeling capabilities and specialized architectural features. With ADT (Autodesk Architectural Desktop), I began using the Viz Render plug in to create simple arch viz renderings for client presentations and construction doc cover sheets. I soon realized that to take my renderings to the next level, we needed to upgrade to better rendering software. 3ds Max 8 and its Mental Ray engine seemed very capable of highly realistic architectural renderings. I created many successful renderings with 3ds Max8/9 and mental ray for McFarland Davies. Then one day I stumbled upon some gorgeous photorealistic renders on a 3D website that were made with a new program called Maxwell Render. I was blown away by the quality of these renderings! After trying the demo, and presenting some renders to our owners, we decided that to take our renderings for clients to the next level, and to achieve certain goals that we had set for our company, that this was the right software for us. So for over a year now, I have devoted myself to learning the intricacies of Maxwell Render and the Maxwell material system. So I would say right now, about 60% of my time is spent in AutoCAD Architecture 2008 and 40% with 3ds Max 9 and Maxwell Render.

Can you describe for us your creative process starting from the original AutoCAD design to the final rendering?

Maxwell materials can produce very realistic results if done correctly

It really depends on what phase the project is in. Most of the time I am involved with initial design concepts, which means that I will be working from the architect’s sketches rather than CAD files. In these situations, I will do all of my modeling in 3ds Max 9. If, however, the client requires a visualization towards the end of a project, I will try and utilize the cad files as much as possible, depending on the quality of the cad model (sometimes the model is not fully 3D if the project is a renovation of an existing structure), All of the usable geometry is imported into 3ds Max where the rest of the scene will be created (trees, cars, people and landscape). I do all of this and render a few camera angles out for review, using only basic matte colors. When the camera angles and construction of the scene is approved, I then start on texturing the model. For Maxwell Render, this is the most important part, and it’s main strength. Maxwell materials can produce very realistic results if done correctly. After the model is textured, I’ll do some quick test renders for review, and then let the full high resolution rendering "cook" overnight.

3ds Max offers a good rendering engine (Mental Ray). What motivates you to also use Maxwell Render?

before I started using Maxwell, I had been spending a considerable amount of time tweaking render settings and rendering and re-rendering tests over and over

3ds Max 9 has an excellent built in renderer in mental ray. The Arch+Design materials are excellent for creating architectural visualizations. Also, occasionally I will use the "ink and paint" shader to create "sketchy" quick renders. However, before I started using Maxwell, I had been spending a considerable amount of time with mental ray tweaking render settings and rendering and re-rendering tests over and over. This was not an efficient use of my time. Animations must still be done with Mental Ray, for it’s rendering speed. That is Maxwell’s limitation for me right now. The ultra-realistic results that can be achieved with Maxwell are a trade-off in terms of it’s relatively slow rendering speed, ruling out animations for us with our demanding deadlines.

Maxwell Render, being based on simulation of light, is intrinsically slower than the traditional rendering tools. Despite the evident beauty of the images generated by Maxwell, what else justifies the additional time spent to generate an image?

(with Maxwell Render) the amount of geometry in the scene has little effect on rendering times

There are many benefits that, to me, outweigh the relatively slow rendering in Maxwell. First, the process of rendering is completely different than other engines such as Mental Ray. Other engines render small sections of the total image, slowly filling in the render until it is "complete". With Maxwell Render, the engine renders the whole image all at once, with the image starting off grainy and gradually clearing over time. Therefore, the longer you let it render, the clearer the image becomes. Also, you can set the time limit of the render or you can manually stop it when you think it is ready. Another very impressive feature is Maxwell’s Multilight. With Multilight enabled, you have a slider for each light in the scene that can be adjusted in real time while your image is rendering. No more having to adjust lights, test render, adjust, test render… This feature alone was worth the purchase of this software. It is absolutely invaluable in arch viz interior scenes. Plus, Maxwell lights are material based. You create a piece of geometry in your modeling program and apply an emitter material to it to create a light. Maxwell includes many preset light materials which are physically accurate such as 65 watt incandescent, 40 watt fluorescent, and so on. Another benefit is Maxwell’s ability to handle complex and heavy geometry. I have noticed that the amount of geometry in the scene has little effect on rendering times. Resolution and refracting glass materials have the biggest effect on rendering time, in my experience. Although, in my work, I will mainly use the AGS (architectural glass system) material to decrease rendering time. This material has the reflectivity and transparency of glass, but without the calculation heavy refractions. There are many more features that I could get into that make Maxwell stand out, but this interview would get very long and technical!

Creating a rendering of an architectural model, where do you draw the line between your artistic and aesthetic sensitivity and your technical skill?

The render doesn’t necessarily need to be technically correct

Very good question! I am not the one who usually draws that line, my employer is! Haha. There are a few things I have learned to remember when producing a rendering for a client. The render doesn’t necessarily need to be technically correct. In fact, sometimes a technically correct, perfectly depicted, photo-realistic architectural rendering can scare a client into thinking that the design is complete and unchangeable, especially during the early phases of design. You want to find that balance between realistic and conceptual while producing a warm and inviting eye-pleasing design concept. Now, when the project is close to complete, the client may request a more finished render. This is when the rendering will be allowed to be technically correct and all the small details of the structure can be shown because they have all been decided on and will not change.

Can you share with us a time when the quality of the rendering really made a difference with a clear impact at the business level?

Most clients are not able to look at floor plans and elevations and visualize what it is they are actually looking at

All the time! Most clients are not able to look at floor plans and elevations and visualize what it is they are actually looking at. A lot of the time, they need renderings from a human perspective to see the beauty of the design that they are investing their money in. I have never seen a client look at a floor plan and say "Wow". I think, though, that the most important area of rendering presentation is in the marketing aspect. If your company is fighting for a project, and you bring beautiful renderings of your ideas and even previous projects, and the other guys are bringing hand sketches and scribblings, you really set your company apart from the others. Clients will also be impressed with a company that has and utilizes the latest tools and technology to get the job done quicker, and more efficiently.

Based on your experience, what would you recommend to an architect or a designer that wants or need to start creating rendered images?

plan on investing quite a bit of time learning the modeling program

I think it starts with the right software and the right training. Do your research on the various modeling programs, most of them have demo’s that can be downloaded and tried for a limited time. Find out what others in your field are using. Choose one that you feel comfortable with. Plan on investing quite a bit of time learning the modeling program. Enroll in training programs that are tailored to your type of specialty. When I first started with 3ds Max, I took several courses at a local tech center, bought a few books, and worked through many tutorials included with the software. You will need to get comfortable with the basics of rendering in your 3d application. When you’re comfortable with modeling and rendering in your 3d software, you may decide, like I did, that a separate renderer can fill your needs better and give you better results. Whatever you decide, if you are passionate about creating digital art, and you keep up with technology and what others are doing in your field, it will be a fulfilling and fruitful career. Good luck!

I would like to thank Brian Looney for taking the time to do this interview. A special thanks also to Nicole van der Burg of Next Limit Technologies for putting me in contact with Brian. If you have any questions for Brian or for Novedge, please leave a comment below and we will be glad to answer.

Franco Folini

Update: a gallery of Brian’s rendering images is available on Maxwell Render forum (free registration required).

Franco Folini
Franco Folini

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