svo, 09. June 2022

3D content creation is a modern craft

Are you a 3D novice and don't know how these spatial visualizations are created? Then you've come to the right place. We describe the steps necessary to create 3D content. Are you afraid of high expenses for 3D images? You will see: CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) is not that expensive. The costs are comparable to a photo shoot without the technology and material abundance. In addition, the processes can be automated over time or even handled by machine learning without human intervention. However, for the time being, this applies mainly to large-scale productions, where the already immense effort can be reduced in this way. For individual projects, much human power is still the order of the day.

What are the cost drivers in 3D productions?

3D projects always involve different steps that lead to the result. For a general overview, see our article on how 3D content is created. The first steps are very similar to the real world: for a picture or a movie, the first step is always to get the extra - your product or whatever is to be starred - into shape. Then 3D content needs at least a studio - or even an extended photo/film set that wants to be assembled digitally first. Once everything is built (modeled) and made pretty (materialized), light/illumination is needed - because even in 3D, it's the light that makes the picture! And last but not least, we need a camera that needs to be set up by a trained eye. That's it for a still image.

If our project is an animation, our protagonist - and maybe even other parts of our scene - have to be rigged and animated correctly. The object must be taught how to move - or how it can move. Once everything is done, rendering and post-production follow. This turns the initially minimalistic CGI world into a visually appealing result. Depending on the size of the respective studio, different experts deal with the project. So while smaller studios and providers tend to have generalists working on the project, large providers are looking for experts with in-depth knowledge. This goes so far that there are even specialists for developing dust in films. Accordingly, in addition to the possibilities of small and large companies, the price structure looks quite different.

And: this example excludes the effort to produce interactive content. A screen deployment requires scenes to be optimized for different platforms (3D data is resource-hungry). Interactions with the content must be designed and implemented - and provided with a UI and a UX so that the interaction is both understandable and exciting for the person using it.

What does the effort for 3D graphics and videos consist of?

From the previous descriptions, it should have become clear that the effort comprises many individual actions. For a better overview, we have summarized - and categorized - the different approaches. After all, the creation of technical objects differs significantly from organic modeling - and if animated, the requirements are entirely different.

Here is a brief overview:

Technical objects (hard surface)

  • Modeling/Data Conversion/Reverse Engineering
  • Data preparation (creating assemblies and "rigs")
  • Materialization
  • Dependency programming
  • Studio setup
  • Lighting and camera
  • Rendering
  • Post-production

Organic objects

  • Modeling/data conversion
  • Rigging and preparation for animation (e.g., integrating markers for motion capturing)
  • Materialization
  • Programming
  • Studio setup
  • Lighting and camera
  • Rendering
  • Postproduction

Animation

  • Storyboard
  • Studio/environment setup
  • Animation/Motion Capturing
  • Camera work
  • Rendering/rendering optimization
  • Real film shooting
  • Postproduction/Editing

But now let's be clear: How much does 3D cost?

The most unpopular answer among customers: this question can not be answered in general. But in fact, each model represents a new starting point due to its complexity and the different materials used. Add to this the fact that the demands on the result can also mean different levels of effort: A schematic representation takes less time than a photorealistic illustration with countless details.

However, some clues indicate whether one's expectations and wishes are on the expensive or the good side. The following is a compilation of the relevant differences for the overall expense:

  • The initial situation: Are good 3D data of your product available, or do they have to be modeled from scratch? The conversion of a simple, geometric object is a matter of seconds. For highly complex devices or equipment and even organic shapes, modification and model organization can take hours to days.
  • Model detailing: Does your product consist of 50 or 50,000 elements? The more individual parts have to be processed during conversion, the greater the effort. And: The simple paint surface without fine details is created in a few minutes. Conversely, the photorealistic implementation of a single material with many details and effects can take several hours. So do you want a product with a few or dozens of materials?
  • The degree of realism: Do you want your product to be merely schematic for better understanding - or is it a photo-realistic image that you need as a product image/packshot for marketing purposes? The former is easy to accomplish - it doesn't need a match to reality, just an approximation. Realism, however, means that every detail must be realized. For photorealism, scratches, dust, and fingerprints become a necessity. Because only imperfection creates the perfect impression. So while on the photo/film set in the real world, cleaning is done, the CGI expert sometimes adds dirt to make the result look real. The same goes for the environment/studio and lighting: no natural environment is even - and no illumination is entirely uniform. Irregularities, however, always mean deviations from the perfect and thus additional manual effort, partly based on analog means such as photography.
  • The environment: Do you want to image your product in a studio environment? That is, on a neutral background? Or do you want to stage it in its "real" environment? A studio setup with a neutral background is much easier to achieve than a specific environment. Because this first wants to be built and materialized. Again, the difference is from minutes for a simple studio set to days for a realistic environment.
  • Last but not least: still or moving image? For stills, only the visible part of the scene has to look good. In animations, it's a different story in animations: Objects have to be right on all sides and are usually rigged, a kind of digital skeleton replicating the model hierarchies. This is what makes animation possible in the first place. In addition, you should already create a storyboard in the preparation phase. Based on this, it is usually possible to determine at an early stage whether individual scenes will work in the film or not. And finally, the post-production of the film material is, of course, more time-consuming than with still images. The most significant difference between stills and animation is the amount of work involved.

Some numerical examples from our practice

Without going into detail about numbers and costs, we want to give some hints about the effort involved in creating 3D models from design data:

  • A simple model of a metal ball valve with actuator - photorealistic still image on white background, material detailing medium: 10 hours for the first preparation (conversion, creation of about ten different materials, studio setup, rendering/image preparation), 6 hours for re-rendering of a comparable ball valve with different dimensions.
  • Medium complex model of a laboratory device with about 2'000 very different single parts - still image on white background, material detailing medium: 50 hours for preparation (conversion, creation of parts hierarchy, design of about 40 different materials, studio setup, rendering/image preparation).
  • Complex model of an industrial plant with about 50'000 partially repeating parts - still image on white background, material detailing simple: 100 hours for preparation (conversion, creation of instances of multiple used parts, creation of parts hierarchy, design of about 50 different materials, studio setup, rendering/image preparation.
  • Lab environment to represent the medium-complex model - for images of the device in a reduced "real-world" environment: 40 hours (create mood board, develop a rough sketch, modeling, and materialization work for lab and lab equipment, set up lighting and environment).

These are, of course, only a few sketchy examples. Finally, the number of hours can be multiplied by the local rate. It has to be considered that a good 3D artist for freelance work sometimes has an approach comparable to an engineering job.

Good 3D content costs good money - but in almost all cases, it represents the more worthwhile option.

At first glance, this may seem contradictory: 3D costs a lot of money, especially at the beginning. In the long run, however, 3D pays off for content production. But how does it work?

Intensive start

Like in almost every field: Working out the basics is time-consuming. Free modeling or converting design data to visualization data means manual work in practically every case. And that costs time and effort.

In addition to the model, the initial step also involves designing and coordinating the various - usually company-specific - materials. The more complex the model, the more individual parts and materials. Depending on the initial situation, this can easily take anywhere from several hours to weeks before the first renderings can be output.

Time will tell about the benefits

Once the visualization model has been completed, 3D is always worthwhile: from the same basis, any conceivable visual form can now be created with little effort. Today a packshot, tomorrow a product application, and then a training video. 3D requires no physical space, no physical installation, no elaborate lighting and camera setups, and no logistics. Material, organizational effort, and rework are saved.

All options - less friction potential

Have you ever had to organize a set for an application display? Let's use the example of a simple home automation installation to show you the differences and a 3D set.

You need to procure an excellent product with your logistics for the physical set. Then you organize a room or a studio.

You have the product installed by a professional - and define beforehand the view in which the product should be displayed. Perhaps you want to highlight a specific detail. To put this in the best light, you must first create a structural condition for the shot. Then, your product must be installed, and a photo or film set built.

After the picture has been taken, the photographer dismantles the set. The result, however, may not be so sparkling after all. The product manager realizes that the most crucial element is not visible - a different camera angle would be better. Maybe the pipe used to install the product is not up to the standard your customers use. What now? Rebuild the whole set? Reshoot it?

What can become an eternal dance in the real photo and film world is practically just a relaxation exercise with 3D.between a physical

Time is money!

Probably the most significant advantage of 3D is that it allows you to show things that don't (yet) exist. You can start marketing before the first finished product leaves your company. And in a higher quality than with photography.

The same is true in everyday life: where a real picture involves a wide variety of people, CGI is a matter of a few actors. No one has to set up or install the product especially. No photographer has to -with assistance- build a set and create shots. Furthermore, 3D visuals also require much less rework: no fingerprints, annoying cables, sockets, and unwanted reflections that must be painstakingly retouched.

Reusing instead of recreating

Do you have a product whose variants differ in details but are always identical overall? Do you want to program a product configurator? The last thing you want is to have to shoot and retouch each option individually. 3D has a huge advantage when you need to create variants. Nothing has to be physically swapped; there are no discrepancies between different images.

Your brand thanks you

3D can do what otherwise can only be done with great effort: create your very own brand world. Your environment can always be adapted anew without you having to change the overall look. This creates a considerable recognition value that goes beyond a uniform photographic style. This allows you to stand out even more visually from your competitors.

When does 3D pay off for you?

First and foremost is the question of how important content is in the company's strategy. Is it about telling customers facts about the product - or is it about giving customers a distinct feeling about your brand? The former will lead you to do product presentations in-house - with your equipment. The second means you'll realize that content is thought about for the long term, pays into your brand, works in an uplifting way, and therefore requires effort.

And this is where 3D makes the real difference. Once you have your products as 3D objects and have created a look with your materials, spaces, and objects, in other words: your world, the data can be used over and over again, rebuilt for every conceivable situation through slight adaptations, and thus used as a vital element of your visual identity. Here are a few more little suggestions about the prerequisites that will always give you an advantage with CGI:

  • You have a simple product that externally consists of a few different parts. Here, 3D is on par with product photography.
  • You have products whose appearance is simple/reduced but differ in numerous variants or options? In 3D, you can create various images from one set identically without physical reconstruction. This gives you a repeatable workflow that saves time.
  • You have a product with many individual parts to be mapped, but they form a platform that can be used - with modifications - in various ways. The advantage of 3D here is that such images, in reality, are usually costly and not very flexible. Modifications are easy in 3D - unlike photography, where the entire photo/film set has to be recreated from scratch.
  • You want to create a brand-specific look that, in reality, you would need a set built specifically for you. The effort for the basic build with CGI is significant here, but you don't need space or material.

Added marketing value through 3D

AWE Schaffhausen has been creating 3D content through product visualizations, animations, and interactive 3D tools for web, AR, and VR for more than ten years. As a communication agency, we use the advantages of different 3D tools with which content around products and services can be transported very close to the target group.

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