What makes a great render (...besides the rendering part)? | Norm Li

What makes a great render (…besides the rendering part)?

There are a whole lot of tutorials, articles, and forums online that can help you create hyper realistic architectural renderings. These articles can show you step by step how to make the perfect glass material, mimic blue hour lighting, reduce render times, or troubleshoot a scene that’s crashing. But beyond the technical aspects of an architectural rendering, what else makes a great render? Through my experiences in the archviz industry, it usually isn’t the talent or technical skill of the artist that gets in the way of a great render, it’s the process.

By process, I mean the planning, structure, and communication that happens during a project in order to get you to the final images. For consumer purposes, the rendering process is both internal and external process. The internal process refers to the steps an artist can take to ensure they have a clear vision of the final product in both art and time management. The external process is how an artist conveys that vision to the client and ensures they buy into it.

Internal Processes

Image Planning
When I went to the State of Art Academy Masterclass in Venice (I know that sounds pretentious), I learned a lot of amazing things in 3ds Max, V-Ray, and Photoshop from  instructors that made my images look amazing. However, one of the most valuable things I learned from the month long course was the image plan. Some may call it a moodboard or inspirations, but basically it’s a collection of reference images that will inform you of how your final image should look. This ensures that you have a clear goal of what quality and mood you want to achieve in the end.

Our photo reference (left) and our final image (right) (Lily Pond House, Theodore+Theodore Architects, Photo: Trent Bell)

A reference image takes a lot of the guesswork out of why your image isn’t looking right. Rather than trying to figure it out in your head, just look to the real world. Wondering why your glass doesn’t feel realistic? Find a photo in the same lighting and observe the reflection, colour, and contrast. The closer your reference image is to your future render, the better. If you’re doing a hero shot of a tower during a warm sunset, find an image that is similar in both composition and building type. If you tried to use a single family home as your reference, you won’t have enough information to guide you to the final image. With that said, it’s good to start building a library (we use Pinterest) of nice reference images so you don’t need to scramble to find something at the time you need it.

Set Artistic Milestones
Rendering is an artistic endeavor. That means it’s possible to just keep going on forever, tweaking this and that, until somehow your deadline has passed. You can also spend a lot of time jumping back and forth between elements trying to perfect elements piece by piece. The best way to avoid this is to break it down into chronological milestones that you can check off. The rendering process naturally works in steps: geometry > camera > lighting > materials, rendering > post-production.

Using these steps as a basis with each one of your previews is a good way to stay on track to get to the final images. Rather starting with the geometry, then jumping to do some materials at the same time; concentrate on each element as a task before moving to the next. Furthermore, after the geometry stage, each process after that is informed by your image plan reference. Does my lighting match with my reference? If so, then that step is done. Now you can move on to materials, and so forth. As you begin to work in this structure, you can also start to predict and associate lengths of time for each task, depending on the scope of the project. With that knowledge you can accurately forecast timing, which will ultimately give you more time to spend perfecting your images.

External Processes

As simple as it sounds, communicate with your clients! Renderers tend to complain about clients not getting them files or missing deadlines, but it’s a two-way street. Don’t leave your clients in the dark when you work. Neither of you can read each other’s minds, and if you try to, the final images will not satisfy either side. The image plan can help in the beginning stages of the project to let your client know what you’re thinking and give them an opportunity provide their thoughts.

All the images above would be considered “dusk lighting” by our clients, yet are each quite different.

For example, “dusk” can mean a lot of things to an artist or client. Is it warm sunset, a purple sky after a storm, or full on blue evening? Communicating your intentions early, especially regarding the art, helps spark the conversation to move you forward, and to avoid misunderstandings further in the process. If the artistic goal is approved by the client from the beginning, the more time you have to perfect your image without having to worry about a lighting or camera change before the finals are due.  

Along the lines of more specific communication, let your client know far ahead of time when you expect information from them and when they can expect information from you. Sounds simple enough, but when both parties are caught up in their own work, it’s easy to make assumptions. Having a schedule set up to show when you need files, when you will provide previews, and how long the client has to comment ensures that there are no misunderstandings regarding the expectations of the client and the artist.

Having a schedule far in advance also keeps you accountable for the timeline you created, making the structure of your milestones even more important. Working within a schedule will naturally force you to look at your efficiency and start finding better ways to meet your goals. On the other hand, if you truly can’t meet the timeline you have set with the client, at least let them know far ahead of time as well. For the most part, clients are understanding if you give them enough notice that you are unable to meet a deadline. I have heard horror stories from clients saying they’ve waited for a render deadline, only to find out that the artist had not even started yet. Communicating your schedule to the client and any changes that may need to happen is key to avoiding surprises along the way that can tamper with the time you need to make great images.

In the end, all of these processes are about focusing the attention of both the artist and client so that any ambiguity of art direction and timing is eliminated. With those questions out of the way, you are able to have enough time and freedom to continue to develop your technical and creative skills as an artist. In future articles I hope to break down these aspects in more detail so that your process does not stand in the way of great art.

Written by Terry Sin.

Terry is a Managing Director at Norm Li. He earned his Master of Architecture at the University of Waterloo and joined the Norm Li team in 2013. Terry has a pragmatic approach to design development and the rendering process. He focuses on workflow efficiency and open communication to ensure collaboration at each stage of an image. Terry’s interest include Teaching and International Business Development.

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