Just Like the Movies: Thoughts on 3D Reconstruction Animation

Over the last few months in the National Museum of Archaeology, Valletta, Malta, there has been an exhibition of the FRAGSUS project (https://www.qub.ac.uk/sites/FRAGSUS/). This has been an exceptional project I have been working on over the years, and as part of the exhibition I got to display some of the 3D reconstructions I have made of Maltese structures, mainly the Ghajnsielem Road house and the Xaghra Circle.

The models I made were displayed as fly-through animations, which I made using the V-ray plugin for Sketchup. Looking back at the videos I made, I noticed that I was mainly using three types of shots:

 

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The pan
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The zoom
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The Rotation

These are fairly typical shots which can be found in many museum exhibitions and online (Sanders and Sanders 1998; Hixon et al. 2000). It is also reminiscent of online viewers such as Sketchfab.

Now, I am a big movie fan. I am currently going through the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die list and I am really enjoying studying the cinematography of some of the films. The way lighting is set up, or the tinting of the scene and the movement of the camera, are all elements that for me make a good film and provide an intense entertainment experience.

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Lighting from The Night of the Hunter (1955)
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Camera placement from The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
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A dolly shot from Jaws (1975)

The aim of film and of 3D reconstruction animation is very similar: they are both presenting some kind of narrative to the public. The way films portray narrative and create aesthetically pleasing experiences is by using tools that could easily be imported into 3D reconstructions. So why not create more cinematic renders of 3D models for archaeological exhibitions?

Here is a new render of the site:

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The shot is done with high coloration, camera blur, faster shots and forced depth of field. I took inspiration from these Wes Anderson shots:

The use of less conventional rendering techniques can impact knowledge retention in the user. The perceived “warmness” of the cinematic experience increases the feeling of immersion, which can lead to increased learning (Favro 2012). Although the images are hyperrealistic, they will be familiar to the viewers as they belong to a medium that is commonly used.

On the subject of accuracy, it is important to note that the realer the images seem, the more they may be mistaken for “absolute truth” (Eiteljorg 1995, 1998, 2000; Miller and Richards 1995; Gershon 1998 and many others).  This is an inherent issue in all 3D reconstructions, but that I would argue is a deeper problem for all of archaeology: the very museum displays in which the 3D reconstructions are presented often follow a single narrative, while ignoring evidence against it or alternative theories. While it is therefore vital to ensure the correct information is accessible by the end user, it would be impossible to convey the complexity of a 3D reconstruction in a museum setting.

As a wider argument for 3D reconstruction as presentation, I would propose that the finished render should have the liberty to display freely aesthetically pleasing imagery, even to the loss of accuracy. This is possible so long as the model is verified through careful research that is accessible and (when possible) peer reviewed. This would ensure a level of quality in the final render that takes into account inaccuracies but doesn’t limit the user enjoyment.

A much longer discussion on the accuracy in 3D reconstruction is the subject of my current PhD Thesis, but I would suggest reading Sifniotis, M. (2012), which proposes a scientific method of dealing with inaccuracies.

In conclusion, 3D reconstruction animation doesn’t have to be boring or “cold”. Rendering of 3D models can learn a lot from films when it comes to presenting to the general public. By creating aesthetically pleasing content, user enjoyment and learning become the priority.

REFERENCES:

Eiteljorg, H. (1995). Virtual Reality and Rendering. CSA Newsletter Vol.7 No.4.
Eiteljorg, H. (1998). Photorealistic Visualizations May Be Too Good. CSA Newsletter Vol. 11 No.2.
Eiteljorg, H. (2000). The Compelling Computer Image – a double-edged sword. Internet Archaeology 8.
Favro, D. (2012). Se non é vero, é ben trovato (If Not True, It Is Well Conceived) Digital Immersive Reconstructions of Historical Environments. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians Vo.71 No.3 pp.273-277.
Gershon, N. (1998). Visualization of an Imperfect World. IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications pp.43-45.
Hixon, C., Richardson, P. and Spurling, A. (2000). 3D Visualizations of a First-Century Galilean Town. In: Barceló, J. A., Forte, M. and Sanders, D. H. Virtual Reality in Archaeology pp.195-204.
Miller, P. and Richards, J. (1995). The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Misleading: Archaeological Adoption of Computer Visualisation. In: Huggett, J. and Ryan, N. Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology. Oxford: Tempus Reparatum pp.19-22.
Sanders, J. and Sanders, P. (1998). Constructing the Giza Plateau computer model. Available: https://oi.uchicago.edu/research/projects/constructing-giza-plateau-computer-model-1990-1995. Last accessed 23rd Oct 2017.
Sifniotis, M. (2012). Representing Archaeological Uncertainty in Cultural Informatics. PhD Thesis.

 

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Reconstruction of St. Mary’s Church – Caerau

Here is my first video animation of Saint Mary’s church in Caerau, Cardiff. I made the model a few months ago of this beautiful church, which unfortunately is only partially standing today. It is based on a plan of the cemetery and a number of photographs I found from when it was still complete.
Sketchup itself is an easy to use software and is perfect for reconstructing archaeological sites, especially if all that is needed is a way to show the plans in 3 dimensions. By tracing over the original drawings and pushing/pulling the surfaces you can create models of large-scale excavations in little time. It also allows to build on those plans and recreate what the site would have looked like, in order to better convey the archaeology to the general public. Some research is often needed and a little guesswork sometimes is essential, but with some knowledge of the site great models can be achieved.
This model in particular is also the first time I have worked on rendering the surfaces to make them more realistic. First of all the textures are more in detail than the standard ones, but also I have been using the Round Corners plugin by Fredo, which means there are less jiggered edges. This gives an overall more appealing feel. Finally I changed the lighting to in order to create better shadows. There is still more that can be done, but that will follow.
Finally, the animation was done by exporting the model using V-Ray, and then making them into a video using Adobe Premiere. A full guide on how to do it can be found here: http://sketchupvrayresources.blogspot.co.uk/2011/08/tutorial-vray-sketchup-animation.html (although here they use Adobe After Effects).