Artist Spotlight: Paolo Zambrini

Posted: Thu 16 Jan 2014

When Italian artist Paolo Zambrini presents his clients with the CG architectural renderings they ordered, they’re sometimes surprised at the results. If they are expecting straightforward illustrations of their building designs, they instead get very striking provocative visualizations intended to elicit strong emotions. 

Through a sophisticated use of photorealism bordering on hyperrealism, these high-resolution renderings show buildings in all their glory while visually conveying overtones like contemporary urban edginess, avant-garde futuristic, or even at times a gloomy and ominous mood.

Drawing on inspiration from such notable filmmakers as Andrei Tarkovsky, Frederico Fellini, and David Lynch—whose films often contain fantastic or surreal themes—Zambrini’s architectural illustrations and animated clips have the look and feel of beauty shots in the movies. His animations glide up to, over, around, and through architectural structures so viewers can see it from perspectives only a virtual tour could provide.

"I feel architectural illustration can become boring if it’s limited to a purely straightforward rendering approach. When the project allows, I tend to use a little sunlight, water in some form, and a subtle sense of abandonment and decay,” said Zambrini, whose architectural visualization company Engram Studio, in Faenza, Italy, has grown from one to five artists since he founded it in 1990.

Besides drawing on his painting and fine art skills, Zambrini says, “I like to blend cinematic aesthetics, environmental elements like water, rain, fog, and sunlight, and photorealistic techniques that place CG architectural structures credibly within their surroundings.”

Faenza, a small city near Bologna, Italy, is itself an inspiration in his work. The area offers beautiful vistas like mountains, seas and tree-lined meadows, with weather ranging from cold, snowy winters to hot, sunny summers, rain and fog.

His approach to his CG craft is very creative and expressive as he seeks to depict the emotional side of architectural renderings. But it’s also a highly competitive business, serving the needs of architects, urban planners, construction companies and others in need of top-quality CG architectural imagery often on tight deadlines.

“We use LightWave 3D as our primary CG system because it has all the tools and features we need to handle complex projects and do creative problem solving—which encompasses CG modeling, lighting, animation, and rendering—extremely quickly and precisely,” Zambrini said.

Engram uses the latest LightWave build supplemented by third-party software like Adobe Photoshop and After Effects for visual effects, matte painting, color correction, and other post processing. They also rely upon LightWave plug-ins like LWCAD from WTools3D, which provides unique CAD tools for creating CG buildings in minutes; and Kray (from MindBerries/Poland), a Global Illumination (GI) renderer that allows fast, accurate rendering of scenes where indirect light, reflections, caustics, blurring, and other lighting effects play an important role.

Engram’s toolbox also contains third-party software for specific animation tasks, such as JimmyRig, which enables fast rigging and animation of CG people and other characters as well as giving artists latitude in modifying their models and motion. There are also a series of plugins by Dennis Pontonnier (DP) that let artists create realistic skies ranging from sunny to twilight along with the realistic reflections and highlights those lighting conditions would cast on objects and surfaces. The Pontonnier series includes Sun Sky, Sky Light, and Sun Spot, among other plugins widely used in CG work, especially architectural visualization.

Each Engram operator has a 17-CPU workstation with top of the line NVIDIA graphics cards, 16GB of RAM, side-by-side monitors, and access to a central network attached storage (NAS) system and a 10 PC render farm. LightWave’s workflow lets multiple operators work on different aspects of the same scene simultaneously so the workload can be distributed efficiently between them.

“Besides occasional work in medical and industrial animation, we work extensively in the architectural illustration arena. And 30% of this workload involves architectural movies,” Zambrini said. “To make these animated movies—clips running a few minutes long—we need to incorporate CG animated people, vegetation, rigged cars, buildings, skies, lighting, to name just a few of the elements we composite.”

“Since we rarely have time to model and rig objects from scratch, manage weight maps, and other time-intensive CG tasks, what we need are “finger-snap” solutions that let us work very fast on large, polycount scenes without quality compromises,” he added.

Zambrini points to LightWave’s Modeler, which gives artists the flexibility “to edit objects, poly’s, and points at the same time—rather than restricting them to a more procedural CG approach—as one of the ways the system boosts productivity.”

LightWave tools that are especially helpful to architectural modeling include: precise and complete snapping, advanced interactive cut operations, displacement and weight maps, schematic view/scene editor, materials management and control, energy conservation nodes, among others.

Zambrini says that nodal materials editors are critical to architectural visualization: “You cannot create energy conserving materials with legacy materials editors, at least not without a lot of effort. LightWave’s Delta node is extremely simple and effective in creating extremely believable materials with ease.” Delta materials, one of LightWave’s many Material nodes, helps artists create physically accurate surfaces like glass, liquid, and metals faster and easier than they could before.


Another challenge LightWave helps overcome is creating photorealistic CG grass and other vegetation. LightWave’s Instancing feature can help create a lot of vegetation, such as a grassy lawn, without imposing a computational burden at render time. But if not lit properly, CG vegetation can end up looking like paper, glass, or plastic rather than an organic substance. Zambrini says, “This is because it’s not easy to find the right amount of reflection specularity (which is specular reflection of light on surfaces), and most users think that translucency works with global illumination (GI), which it does not.”

Zambrini uses DP’s Sun Sky, Sun Light and GI as the basis of the daylight system for the whole scene. Then for vegetation, he suggests making a separate setup where you exclude vegetation from GI—by disabling radiosity from the Object/Lights panel—so the vegetation doesn’t get any light from background or bounced light. But it will still cast diffuse shadows on the terrain since you keep radiosity ON in the Object/Render tab.

About this, Zambrini says there’s an important difference between the two types of GI switches that artists need to understand. If you disable the GI switch in the Render tab, the object will still be lighted by GI (but GI will not take into account everything else in the scene), whereas if you disable the GI switch in the Light tab, the object will NOT be lighted by GI.

Vegetation, which is excluded from GI, is lit by DP Sun and a dedicated DP Sky Light (a special dome light that casts the same light as Sun Sky but in a direct way). Zambrini adds, “Exclude everything BUT vegetation from this light. This trick avoids having useless GI light bouncing into vegetation and long irradiance cache computation on leaves, plus it will give you extremely precise shadows between leaves that you couldn’t otherwise get with GI. Again, DP Sky Light is a direct light, so leaves' translucency will work with it, while it wouldn’t using Sun Sky and GI unless you make a nodal setup, which will render more slowly ".

Another big issue when you have a lot of vegetation is blurred reflection on leaves. Zambrini says that if you use DP Sky Light, you can totally disable reflection and use specularity instead. Since DP Sky Light is a dome light (or hemisphere), specularity will act just like a reflection. So if there are buildings or other objects blocking the sky from vegetation, specularity takes shadows into account (exactly like diffusion). So occluded leaves will not have specularity. Zambrini adds, “This setup will give you better results than any other setups. We know because we’ve tried dozens. And it will probably render faster than any other setup as well.”

To optimize rendering time, Engram uses LightWave’s VPR (View Port Renderer), which allows artists to preview how key elements like scene lighting will look after full rendering is completed so they can experiment with different looks and fine-tune creative changes interactively. “Super fast and flexible, the VPR totally changed our workflow and allows us to get better results in less time,” Zambrini said. “Free render nodes are also a big benefit, and overall, LightWave is a very budget savvy tool, which—in these times—is a very important factor.” Finally the exceptionally supportive LightWave community provides a lot of free tools, which he says improve the value and experience of working with LightWave.

“Luckily with LightWave, all the tools we need are easily accessible in a very efficient, ergonomic workflow,” Zambrini said. “When it comes to having the right toolset for architectural modeling, nothing on the market can compete with LightWave.”