Tom Macie, Architectural Illustrator

Tom Macie, currently living near Raleigh, NC, is a freelance 3D model artist dba, The preVision Company since 2004. Tom has an MFA in theatre design and production, and was on the faculty of UNC Wilmington for 18 years. In 1994 he traded watercolor perspectives and hand-drafting for rendering his designs in Strata 3D, and drafting in CAD.

In 2004 he began working commercially for a range of real estate developers, urban planners, interiors designer and architects creating illustrations for all phases of development processes.

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» Hi Tom. You have a beautiful collection of work up on StrataCafe, but for folks who may not be familiar with you, tell us a bit about yourself. How did you make the move to architectural illustration?

Thank you for those kind words.

I was learning (then) StrataVision to render my stage designs at UNC Wilmington and for region theatre and opera. I eventually employed it as a design tool for advanced undergraduate stage design students at the university. I made a handful of presentations demonstrating this on campus and at theatre conferences on the regional and national level.

The university administration asked me to help with 3D scenes for various grant proposals and projects. At about this time, I was building a new home, and showed some of my 3D models to the builder and developer, who saw its potential. I began working commercially by making illustrations for their permitting and rezoning processes. As I learned more about modeling, they started using this for design planning and then for marketing of their products.

When the workload is heavy I send portions of my projects to a few very good freelance staffers. They help model the structure or help with post-render compositing. I handle all of the texturing and final scene rigging myself.

» Why Strata? What made you pick it up, and why have you stuck with it?

Since stage designs often include abstract forms and surfaces, I looked for a tool that would be able to work outside of normal architectural functions. This tool would have to be able utilize information from a variety of imported formats for shape and texture creation.

What I discovered rather quickly was how well Strata 3D handles light. As a former lighting designer, I find the lighting controls function very much like stage lighting fixtures.

I'm staying with Strata because of its ease of use, the versatility of texture handling, and the realistic rendering capabilities. My clients appreciate the appearance, which is different than much of the architectural illustrations being produced.

» If you could only have a handful of applications, which would be indispensable?

Strata 3D.

VectorWorks, for file conversions, shape creation and some parametric controls for architectural units like windows, doors, stairs and the like.

Photoshop, for texture creation, post-render retouching, and for assigning color profile information to completed renderings.

Illustrator to extract vector-based information for 2D illustrations such as site plans.

» How do your architectural illustrations usually start? Blueprints?

Every way you could possibly imagine. Some of my clients use these illustrations to seek approval from municipalities, so plans for a structure or development may not be complete - or may not yet exist. I have even made models of buildings from hand sketches on several occasions.

Ideally, CAD files are best. PDFs are becoming more common. I import these into VectorWorks and make a lot of the structure there, saving some shapes that Strata will be able to model with better reliability. VectorWorks has the ability to import pdfs and scanned image files, and I can work in scale directly on the image.

For furniture and room dressings of interiors scenes nearly everything is modeled in Strata, with the exception of some model libraries that I purchase and import.

» What aspect of a render is most important to making the space feel tangible and inviting?

Two things are most important to me; careful examination of lighting the scene, and developing properly proportioned, non-repeating textures. If either is incorrect, viewers will recognize this. While they might not know what is technically wrong with the scene, the simple function of this recognition will serve to distract.

» How did you get involved in these very cool Flash panoramas you've been posting? Are there unique challenges to projects where you don't define exactly how the space is viewed? And, of course, what software are you using to stitch your scenes together in Flash?

Click and drag your mouse within the panorama area to move the scene about.
Panorama #1 Panorama #2 Panorama #3

The Flash 360-degree panos are a great alternative to animation. They render more efficiently, and offer a more interactive experience to the client. Since there are only six images rendered for the panorama, any post render retouching or re-rendering is much simpler than many the frames of an animation. They are therefore less expensive to produce than animations.

These panoramas can also be placed into .pdf files offering the client the option of viewing the pano, within their formatting.

There are no real additional challenges to making these scenes, other than having to completely finish a room, whereas static images might not require this.

To stitch the scenes I use Pano2QTVR, from Garden Gnome Software. This is an older PC version, though I'm looking at the new Mac versions.

» Do you tend to incorporate the "life" of an architectural scene (people, trees, etc.) directly into the 3D file, or do you do a fair amount of compositing after the render?

For almost every occasion, they are there at render time. My clients will adjust the content of their scenes until deadline, and I like to be able to give them as much flexibility as possible. Having these elements in the scene makes it easier to do global adjustments to light and shadow for example, without having to rebuild it post-render.

» For a new designer, is there still a base in traditional drafting-table work that contributes to the final product? In non-photorealistic illustration, as good as digital tools get, the experience of actually drawing on paper does improve your illustration skills. Could the same be said about architecture?

Yes. For 3D modeling architectural forms there needs to be a personal exploration into how light interacts with a surface. The body of experience I draw upon the most when using Strata 3D is scene painting. When you apply paint to a surface that is to be viewed at some distance, you have to break apart and exaggerate the individual elements so they will be readable as a coherent form at a distance. This is not unlike how the different channels in Strata's texture editing dialog separate the various functions of each texture.

I don't know how one could learn about this solely in a digital space.

» How important is lighting to architecture and interiors specifically? Is it as simple as putting lightbulbs in the lamps, or does your theatrical lighting experience come into play?

Lighting is what makes the scenes credibile. Lighting designers consider a number of controllable qualities for every moment in a show, and figure a method of creating this scene by selecting from various kinds of fixtures in a theatre.

Light handling in Strata is one of my favorite tasks for this reason. The lights are very realistic because of the way they are controlled, and the result is very much like the real thing.

» If you had to advise a young Tom Macie on being a great architectural illustrator, what would you say to him that might give him an edge?

As a beginning illustrator, you should have a background combining both art and craft. Formal training as an artist is essential to personal understanding of things we see. Knowledge and critical thinking must be in place before the technology can be of use.

Hands-on experience with structures, and/or some architectural background is necessary at the very least.

Be as observant as you possibly can. Think about how you would model everything you see, how it would be lit, and how the surface textures would be made.

Finally, be as much of a computer geek as you can. Keeping abreast of new technologies and maintaining your equipment is vital to sustaining your workflow.

» Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions here, Tom. We look forward to seeing more great work from you on the Cafe!

It is my pleasure, thank you for this opportunity.