Meat and Potatoes 3D

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Meat and Potatoes 3D
Can you make it in the 3D market without going to work for a big CG oriented company? For many 3D modelers, the dream is to work for one of the big Animation or Gaming houses. Who wouldn’t want to be involved in the next Shrek™ movie, or Half-Life™ game. The problem though, is often logistics. You can be the best modeler on the planet, but there are thousands of modelers out there looking for those same limited job spaces, and if you aren't in the right place at the right time the chances of your latching on to that prized position at Pixar™ or Sierra™ are about as good as winning the lottery. So what do you do with all those mad skills if you aren't in Los Angeles or New York or one of the other major markets?

According to Cary Stice, owner of SCiOPTiCS, a 3D production studio in the northern Indiana town of Elkhart, you don’t have to be in a large market to be successful in 3D. “The first thing you need to do is take a look at the market around you, and find out what they need”. says Stice, who has been tapping Elkhart’s manufacturing base for the past six years. “They call this area the ‘RV capital of the World’. Some of the largest and best known RV, Boat and Trailer manufacturers in the world have their headquarters within 25 miles of here. There must be twenty manufactured housing companies just in our three county area. It’s the lifeblood of the whole region. All these companies have needs for artwork and promotional materials, and there are plenty of art houses and agencies jockeying for position to get it. The trick is, how do you stand out in the crowd?”.


This floor plan for Schult Homes was used as an illustration in print ads
and also used for a Quicktime VR 360 degree web view.


A better way of doing things

Upon examining the ways in which agencies, service bureaus, production houses and artists were servicing the industry here, Stice quickly realized they were steeped in an old school approach. “While all of them have added computers to their art departments”, (editor’s note: Stice had set most of these agencies up with their first computer systems, and trained them himself back in the mid to late 80s when he worked part time as a rep for Apple Computer) “they had in the long run only succeeded in using the computers to duplicate their old, worn methods and processes”. Since no real change in the process took place, there was no net gain to the client in terms of costs, which continued to rise, versatility, meaning the art from one project was rarely able to serve as the basis for another, or any meaningful increase in turn around time. “It takes the same amount of time or longer to do something on a computer if you don’t reduce the number of steps needed, and clean up the process” says Stice, “Things were still being done with the same old tired processes, only now they were ‘computerized’”.

“Long established agencies in our area were failing (Juhl, Ashe, Luke & Landis, etc.). At SCiOPTiCS, it wasn’t enough for us to lay down our styli and brushes, just to pick up a mouse and simply computerize the old way of doing things. Old school thinking wasn’t going take up anybody’s slack. To grow in this market, we needed to re-invigorate the process and design a whole new paradigm for delivering art and image to our clients”.
Stice decided that the old 2D methods were now failing to deliver the three things that nearby companies considered most important; lower costs, versatility & longevity of the product, and quicker turn around times.


This Odyssey pontoon boat floor plan
which might have looked rather boring
rendered in 2D is brought to life in vivid 3d.


3D was the key. “Our 3D models can be rendered from any angle at any time, as real as or even better than photographs. They can be animated and merged with live video. They can go to the web in the form of images, animations and 360° VR objects. 3D models are the heart of all serious special effect work in Hollywood. Since 1999, we have invested over $100,000 in top of the line hardware and software; much of it the same as is used in major production houses like Industrial Light and Magic, Banned from the Ranch or Peter Jackson’s WETA workshop. We just don’t do anything 2D any more. 3D was the key to unlocking a new market here, and CINEMA 4D was the key to unlocking 3D”.

According to Stice, the workflow of the 3D process at SCiOPTiCS tends to start with Adobe Illustrator™, then go to CINEMA 4D™ and then often over to Photoshop™. “Everything seems to start in Illustrator for template and spline work. After 20 plus years, I just feel more comfortable there when creating splines. MAXON continues to improve every element of CINEMA 4D with each new release, so I am starting to do more ‘on the fly’ spline work inside the program, but for right now, I still like to have Illustrator handy, mostly for its Pathfinder tool and its ability to outline, offset and combine splines”.

“Then it’s off to CINEMA 4D for the core of extruding, lathing, lofting, and the like before lighting, texturing and finally rendering”. Stice said the most recent improvements to CINEMA 4D have helped him rely less on Photoshop for “touch-ups” after rendering. “We used to have to put just about everything through Photoshop to touch up something, especially if you were doing ‘Cel Rendering’ for “line art” which tended to drop lines here or there, or put lines where you didn’t want them. With Sketch and Toon that’s pretty much all out the window. You can achieve great looking line art results if you play with the Sketch and Toon settings for your model. In the old days, we would often spend an hour mucking with a file in Photoshop to get it ‘just right’. Then if the client wanted to change an item, or worse yet, the rotation of the render, you had to run the new render back through Photoshop again to repeat the process. There goes another hour of mucking, not counting the time for a second render. It’s great that MAXON listens to us as users when they consider how to improve CINEMA 4D. Sketch and Toon saves me a world of time in the long run, and gives me great line art without having to filter renderings through Illustrator or Photoshop. You gotta love that”.

“Faster turn around times are a big benefit to our clients as well” says Stice. “The approval process is rather fun for us because the customer is always pleased with our turn around times. One particularly fun thing for us is revisions. Revisions used to suck in the 2D world, and last minute revisions sucked the worst! I normally render out a low res JPEG and attach it to an email and send it over to a client for approval. They may call me back and perhaps say ‘I'm wondering about that color, could we make that a dark green?’ or ‘This looks great, but could we rotate the view towards the front a little more?’ I will often keep them talking about it for a minute as I pull up the file, quickly change the color or whatever, render out a new image, and email it back to them while we are still talking. Then I will say ‘check your email’. When they open the file and I say, ‘You mean like that?’ They are really impressed. Especially if its more in terms of rotation of the object. With 3D, rotation is just as easy as changing a color, whereas a 2D artist would have to go back to scratch and basically do a whole new illustration. The ability to make large scale changes like that, especially at the last moment really tends to impress the clients”.

“3D is fairly new in this area. My background in 3D comes from working with a local engineering firm for nearly 2 years. We worked in some very high-end programs costing upwards of $25,000 per workstation. On the flip side, there are some very talented 2D artists in town that are very good at things like cutaway illustrations, etc. One artist in our area who came up more from the art side, rather than the computer side like me, has spent years and years developing a very distinctive art style. When you see one of his drawings you just know it’s his simply by looking at it. The work is that distinctive and that well done. Many 2D artists shy away from the 3D world, not so much for the learning curve, which can be rather intimidating, but because they are afraid that the 3D rendering process will rob them of their distinctive look. The final product just wouldn’t look like THEIR work anymore; it just wouldn’t retain the STYLE that they had spent so many years developing. That certainly has been true in the past, but now with tools like Sketch and Toon™, if you’ve got a style of output that you need or want to pursue, its definitely possible. Given time, I can go back and make a piece look airbrushed or look like it was done with any variety of hand held tools and methods, (most of which I have never had training with). I’ve always been artistic, had a good eye, but there’s no way I could compete with some of these people “hand to hand”. They are better artists than I am. The problem for artists when they look at 3D, is that they tend to draw a lot of satisfaction in the artistic process itself. They get hung up on HOW the thing got created, and if it isn’t done a certain, way, well, it’s just not art. Well, it’s a good thing I’m not an artist then. When I saw the toolset available in CINEMA 4D, I knew I had everything I needed to create “art”, but that’s not where I draw my satisfaction. I get it from giving my clients a whole new level of service. I couldn’t stick with 2D if I was going to do that and continue to be successful”.


Often a little extra work on one small piece can be turned into a long term project,
such as when Wells Cargo was so thrilled with the multiple renders of their first trailer model
that it led to them ordering models of their entire trailer product line


Big Fish in a little Pond

“Realizing we are not in the biggest of markets here, we don’t charge what we could if we were in Chicago or L.A. We charge what's fair for our market and it’s generally still less than some of the 2D guys around here can do. The trick is to extol the benefits of the process. You’ve got to talk it up, and educate your clients why what you do is better than what they do. At first glance, if we didn’t talk about our process, the client could care less HOW we do their Illustration, as long as they like it. If we had done it in Illustrator or Freehand, then we’re through, finished. But since we can take the 3D model we built for their Cutaway Illustration, throw it on the web, animate it, whip out a Quick Time VR™ object, composite it into video, etc. we are able to show them that they are getting SO MUCH MORE than a single 2D illustration. They now have the foundation for several exciting future projects, and guess where they are going to come for those projects?

We often toss in a QTVR object as a ‘loss leader’ bonus just to wet their appetite. Wells Cargo, a local cargo trailer manufacturer came to us for a line art illustration of one of their trailers, to put on their business card. We gave them back a color, a grayscale and a line art rendering along with a QTVR of the product as a “thank you”. They thought spinning the QTVR around was so cool, they ordered one for each trailer in their line. That's over 60 new illustrations. When you show your clients that you can think outside the box, it helps them to do the same. That leads to more business, and more client loyalty, and more money. It’s not always just about how much you charge”.

Sometimes you have to get creative
with models like when SciOPTiCS was required
to illustrate one of these brakes before it was even built
by combining parts it would be using from other brake assemblies


On getting reference information for his models, Cary says “...It depends, sometimes the client just gives you a rough sketch, sometimes you get printouts or elevations from a cad file, sometimes we have to go out and take some digital photographs of the object; you never know. One job I'm pretty proud of contained 2 illustrations of electric brake systems for motor homes. For the first Illustration, the client didn’t have a cad drawing or anything to use as a reference, so he just handed us the actual brake assembly itself. The second brake assembly didn’t even exist yet. They were building it by combining different parts from other existing brake systems. We had to take reference photos of two or three other brake assemblies so we could use the back plate from one, with this or that from another, and so on. We had to build the thing before it even existed. The final piece was quite photo-realistic, and a strong testament to CINEMA 4D’s rendering prowess”.


It would have been much more difficult to get an interesting illustration of this assembly
from Atwood mobile products in any other way than using 3D illustration.


“The Atwood piece with the slide-out LP tanks is another fun example. They had a rough prototype of a product, which didn’t completely match the final design shown in the few cad files they gave us a reference. They needed to get brochures together and they found they couldn’t just take a picture of it, because it’s just a big black thing after all, making it really hard to get a good shot, and it was not an exact match to the drawings. We went to them and said, ‘not only can we model that up according to specs but we can render a better ‘picture’ of it than you could possibly ever take in a studio’. As you can see, we gave them back something that’s photo realistic, with all the lighting just right, highlighting every angle just so. You could spend hours and hours or even days mucking around in a traditional photo studio trying to get a finished look half as good as the one we gave them. ”

Landing the Big Ones

When asked about the all-important procurement of work, Cary responded:
“Sometimes it’s a matter of doggedly determined leg-work and cold-calling. Clients around here respond well to a personal, one on one approach. We’re not even in the yellow pages. We use our website as our portfolio. To a prospective client it’s a confidence builder; our proof that we can do what we say, probably even more than what they’re about to ask of us! When they see the technical aspects of our website, and the high quality 3D renderings, it sets their mind at ease that they are dealing with professionals. If we can do all that, we can most likely handle their project as well. By the time we meet most clients, they are already convinced that we are capable, and the meetings are often just formalities, breaking the ice and cementing our image. They already like what they’ve seen, so if we meet with them, and can prove we are not aliens or something, then we’re in”.

A “cold call” can often put you in the right place at the right time

“If you look on our website at that big RV cutaway illustration we did early on for Coachman Industries, we landed that job because we told them something no 2D artist would; we could do it in 10 days from start to finish. That’s all the time they could give us. It was a HUGE risk, and a huge turning point for us”.

“Coachmen had already been working for several weeks with someone who was trying to complete a (2D) cutaway illustration for them in advance of the big annual RV show down in Louisville. Something happened, and the guy came back to them and said ‘I can't finish in time’. There was just no way he was going to get it done. They had already wasted a week calling around looking for someone else to do it on short notice. At the time, they didn't even know we existed, they just thought they were screwed”.


Sometimes going the extra mile for a customer can pay you back in spades,
like this Coachman illustration done under extreme time constraints,
It became the calling card that opened the door to dozens of other large accounts.


“Just then, call it providence or fate or whatever, Roark, my sales guy, bless his heart, decided, ‘Hey its time to call Coachman again’. Now, this is a big company. They like to deal with the big boys when it comes to promotion. They were a little tentative about us, but at this point they didn't have anywhere else to go. Lucky us. They said, ‘this is the deal: we need this illustration in 10 days, can you do it?’ I swallowed hard, and told them we could. It took three days for them to get me the cad elevations I needed to start the work, so in actuality we ended up having only seven days to do it”.
“Needless to say I didn’t sleep much over the next week, but I gave it to them a DAY EARLY for approval, and walked in with the final file at 4:30PM on the day of the deadline. On top of that, their internal cad guy who had always been responsible for these things before, came back and said it was the best looking, most realistic illustration they had ever had. We didn’t even charge them near what we could have what with their backs up against the wall and all. Was it worth it? That one illustration got us into a dozen other places. Apparently, if Coachman had hired you, then you are worth talking to. So now we are working with many of the other large companies in the area; Turtletop, Dutchmen, Schult Homes, Fall Creek Homes, Dometic Corporation, Atwood Mobile Products and more. We get good access right in with the decision makers. We’re exactly where we’d hoped we’d be now, when we started this 3D thing full time back in ’99 with no real portfolio, and not much money for that matter”.

‘Tis more blessed to give...

“Every company has a project, and every project has a budget. It’s not just that our quotes tend to come in lower than other groups and agencies, we still manage to use up the available budget because we can offer so much more to the client. The people in charge of these projects know that they are going to spend every penny of the budget they are getting, so who can give them the MOST BANG for the BUCK? We can. We do! We can go in and say, ‘well, you said you wanted to accomplish this, but for that same money, what would you really like to do?’ Often they will allow us to take the project well past its initial scope, or at least past what someone else had quoted for the same money. Whether they take our lower quote, and save the money, or have us do more and shoot the wad, these project leaders get to look like heroes in their own company structure because they are over delivering, coming back with more than anyone thought was possible before, usually for less money. Every job gives you something to show the next guy. Every time you get a client to go a little further, you get to push your own abilities, and justify the R & D time it takes to learn new processes. It’s a win-win situation”.

“I give a lot of credit to CINEMA 4D because I don't think we would be where we are right now if we didn't bring CINEMA 4D into the pipeline. In terms of its interface, animation abilities, ease of use and top notch tech support (not to mention its PRICE). It really has become the heart of our business. Even with the video projects I do, I hardly ever do anything these days that doesn't use 3D computer graphics. Aside from the occasional, very straightforward, TV commercials we whip out in the Final Cut Pro Suite alone, we use CINEMA 4D in almost every other aspect of our process. We consider it indispensable”.

They say Timing is everything...

“We knew it was the right time to get into this. We feel a little like pioneers, being the first in our area to take this 3D route with all our work. It’s a big investment in time and money to get into 3D. The learning curve is rather steep, and it requires powerful, beefed up computers. Perhaps it’s not that it’s that hard to learn,(especially with CINEMA 4D), but there is a lot to learn. I had the advantage of already having learned the fundamentals of 3D in the engineering area, so to me it was a natural step. Taking the 3D plunge might intimidate your average art-guy but they come from a different mindset. If the average 2D ‘artist’ around here is saying, ‘no I can't really get into that’, that’s fine with us! We’ll handle it”.

Our main slogan is ‘We’ll save you time and money in our All-Digital, all-3D World.’ That's what it comes down to for our clients; time and money. We prove every day that we deliver those savings with our unique 3D perspective (no pun intended). It’s very rare that we ever quote a job we don’t land. If the 2D people can’t keep up, that’s their problem”.

Cary's business has now become so successful that he is looking to hire two or three new CINEMA 4D artists to fill the demand for his work. “Our goal is to turn in our first million dollar sales year by 2007. We believe we’re on the right track with our approach, our mid-west balance of faith and family, and our use of CINEMA 4D. It just keeps getting better and better”.


Cary's enthusiasm for the use of this 3D medium, leaves one with these primary selling points that can be used for potential clients:

- In many cases initial outlay is actually going to be cheaper than 2D.

- Generally, it is significantly faster to create the model in 3D and render it out than traditional 2D methods of technical illustration.

- The ability to go back and create new artwork or make changes in original artwork from the model quickly and inexpensively, whereas in 2D even a simple change of viewing angle means a totally new piece of artwork, basically starting from scratch.

- The ability to repurpose a model: a model can be used in multiple formats from basic illustrations to QuickTime VR rotations for presentation, to full compositing into live media, with fixed costs after initial construction.

And that makes the basis for any good business you can dish up with a versatile program like CINEMA 4D.



Cary Stice is the owner of SCiOPTiCS, Inc. in Elkhart, Indiana. He enjoys fishing, writing, and spends the rest of his time on eBay. He is currently looking forward to the release of Joss Whedon’s feature film “Serenity” and would love to help Joss with his 3D requirements when “Firefly” returns to network TV. As it should.

SCiOPTiCS can be reached via their website at:
www.sci-optics.com

Will Dupré is a freelance modeler and writer, known to many in the poser community for the conforming clothing that he markets. When he is not at his computer madly working on his newest 3D creation, he may be found inline skating on the Pinellas Trail, flying his hand painted stunt kites on Sand Key Beach, or working in the 3D community as a Forum Administrator

Will Can be reached via his website at:
www.willsmind.com
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Member Opinions:
By: Jimko on 2/15/06
I would have been very interested in what the budget was on some of these projects

By: fast125b on 2/16/06
As a 3d artist from elkhart I congratulate you.
good luck and keep up the good work.

By: Sans2012 on 2/19/06
Very interesting and informative read! Thank you and all the best;)

By: kraphik on 4/3/06
My company also got a very good start with cinema 4d. Now running XL bundle of version 9.5 and BP 2.5. Thanks for good read and great references.


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