Perfect Picture
by: Bob Cramblitt
Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 4 (Apr. 2009)

Perfect Picture

If 18 months ago you would have told David Burgess that he would consider a 3D computer graphics tool “brilliant” and able to inspire “incredible creativity,” he might have laughed in your face.
Burgess, an internationally known auto­motive photographer, is no Luddite. He was among the first wave of professional photographers to go digital, and calls that movement “a revelation, offering possibilities unheard of in film.” Until recently, though, Burgess had resisted the marriage of photography and 3D CGI—and, according to him, for good reasons.

“I explored CGI, looking into [Autodesk’s] Maya and other programs, but found them to be nonintuitive and uncreative,” says Burgess. “[CG] was the domain of technicians. I didn’t want to do the equivalent of going back to a university in order to learn one of those programs.”

Burgess’s opinions changed approximately a year ago when he was working on a project for Ford Motor Company. Jennifer Flake, the company’s director of global brand imaging and design for public affairs, wanted to show the media the Ford Inceptor concept car in a real-world environment. The only obstacle was that the car had not been built yet—a situation Burgess was unaware of when he arrived for the photo shoot in Las Vegas.

Burgess and his assistant shot backgrounds at a neon-sign graveyard outside the city. Then, using a spherical camera, they shot high-dynamic range (HDR) images, which provided a 360-degree panorama of the location with complete lighting data. The duo brought the photo­s and data back to the hotel, where Burgess, using a rendering program from Bunkspeed, merged CAD models of the concept car with his just-captured digital photography files.

Within hours, Burgess had created five complete images, with the car fully integrated into the scenery, reflecting the surrounding environment and taking advantage of the captured light from the HDR images to generate highlights on the car and natural shadows.“It was staggering that I could do this so quickly with software I had never used before,” says Burgess. “I had the freedom to exercise creativity and pursue my own style without compromising quality. I was able to render the images in hours on a laptop, something that might have ordinarily taken days using a renderfarm.”

Fresh Look at CGI
According to Burgess and fellow auto­motive photographers Michael Lee, Nigel Harniman, and Vic Huber, the Bunkspeed software, called HyperShot, warranted a fresh look at how photography can be used with CGI.

Unlike traditional programs, originally intended for creating images and animations from scratch, HyperShot is designed exclusively for working with photos and HDR  data. After shooting the background plate and HDR photos and loading them into HyperShot, the user imports a 3D car model from any standard 3D DCC software, including native data from popular CAD programs. Next, the person applies materials, color, and surface textures using a palette within the software. Then, he or she chooses an HDR map to provide the lighting, adds the backplate image, and adjusts the virtual camera for lens type, angle, rotation, and distance.

Automotive photographer David Burgess used Bunkspeed’s HyperShot software to place a CAD model of the Ford Explorer America concept car in US location shots.

“I had spent a lot of time in the past looking to add CGI capabilities through Maya and 3ds Max,” says Lee, who has done advertising work for Honda and Mercedes-Benz, among others. “It took a lot of time to modify materials, and a great deal of expertise to get the quality I needed. Even with hardware acceleration using 32 processors, rendering a single image typically took as long as 12 hours.

“[Now I can] quickly get to the fun part of the process for any photographer: lighting,” Lee adds. “Photographers are often called upon to consult on lighting, so it’s great to have this much control over that aspect. The rendering is optimized, so what took me 12 hours with 32 processors can be rendered in two hours at the same or greater quality on a Mac quad-core system.”

Interactive Photorealism
HyperShot’s architecture was designed from the start to take advantage of new technology and hardware developments. The engineers started from a clean slate, aided by Henrik Wann Jensen, Bunkspeed’s chief scientist, who is known for his photon-mapping algorithms that make it possible to realistically simulate effects, such as caustics, diffuse inter-reflection, and natural phenomena, including smoke and fire.

 “Our goal from the beginning was to create tools that would extend the ability of photographers to communicate the passion, vision, and emotional beauty of great automotive design,” says Thomas Teger, Bunkspeed’s director of marketing and strategic planning. “Having easy access to great materials and lighting, and the ability to quickly see the results of your work, enables faster, more insightful decisions that aid creativity.” 

Is the Time Right?
After years of false starts and retrofitted solutions, is the time finally right for the marriage between photography and 3D computer graphics? Obviously Teger thinks so, but so do Burgess and Lee.

Photographers see for the first time that there is little or no compromise associated with a plunge into CGI waters. The software mimics the way photographers work, allowing them to exercise and extend the signature styles they have developed over the years. “You can create pictures that you couldn’t conceive of before,” says Burgess. “You can put the car in any position in almost any type of environment and make it look real.”

On the practical side, Burgess is able to avoid some of the problems associated with retouching. “There are [unsightly]  floors on almost any shoot staged in a studio. When you retouch the floors, you bleed the living daylights out of reflection and shadow details. Now, there’s much less retouching. The paint is proper, with the right metallic effects,
and there is no compromise with shadows and lighting.”

For Lee, this takes away some of the pressure of having to capture everything during the photo session. “[I no longer have] to do everything behind the camera. Traditionally, you can only be creative when shooting. After that, you are limited by what you can do in [Adobe’s] Photoshop,” Lee says. “[Now I have] the freedom to try something different. If you have a good CAD model with a lot of detail, you’re only limited by how creative you want to go.”

As with any new form of technology, there are perceived and real obstacles to widespread adoption. “The photography business is shifting, and like any changing environment, people will have to adapt,” Teger adds.

“Traditionally, everything was outsourced from the manufacturer or the agency to different entities: the photographer, the CG house, the retoucher. Now, the photographer can do everything: take the pictures on location, insert the virtual object into the scene, and fine-tune lighting, colors, and materials. Rather than a step-by-step process with many players in a chain, it’s one-stop shopping.”

Burgess used CGI to insert this Maserati GT Lisbon into a photograph of a racetrack.

Burgess and Lee see parallels between the current situation with CGI and the obstacles faced by digital photography just six or seven years ago. “Initially, clients freaked out,” says Lee. “You just have to keep proving that it is a better solution for the client.”

In addition, there is the bedrock issue of obtaining good CAD models. “Companies can take 3D CAD models that have been engineered for manufacturing and apply them to advertising, promotion, and PR,” says Teger. “However, it takes communication between technical and marketing people to make it happen.”

Burgess and Lee see two obstacles when it comes to obtaining quality CAD data: Auto manufacturers are often nervous about giving out proprietary design data, and the details required to generate a great image are sometimes not in the models supplied to photographers. These aren’t showstoppers, however, and should dissolve once there is a better understanding of the new process. Similar issues faced CAD itself in its early years, until auto manufacturers realized the time and cost savings of using a 3D model to drive the product development cycle.

“If the tool can help photographers do considerably more in less time, it is worth it to them,” believes Teger.

A major consideration for Lee is that there is no need for proprietary hardware. “With some other systems, it’s like buying a car that becomes dated once it leaves the lot,” he says. “I don’t want to have a big investment in hardware that I can only use occasionally for rendering.”

For photographers such as Burgess and Lee, the question is not when this marriage of photography and CGI will take place, but when everyone else will realize that it’s already happened.

If the likes of Burgess and Lee are correct, five years from now we’ll look back and see photography mixed with CGI as natural and inevitable, similar to the way we see Google, the iPod, and the Prius today.

Bob Cramblitt writes about technology developments that fundamentally change the way we work and live.  He can be reached at .