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:


The pan
Webp.net-gifmaker (1).gif
The zoom
Webp.net-gifmaker (2).gif
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.

Lighting from The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Camera placement from The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
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:


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.


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.



Sketchup for Archaeology – Olynthus House

house shading

Having talked for the last few days about Sketchup and its uses in Archaeology, I thought I’d complete this line of enquiry by showing you another model I made during my second year and briefly presented before, a house from the Classical Greece site of Olynthus.

Much like the houses of Zagora I covered before, the house at Olynthus is a great example of domestic space in the classical world, with an inside courtyard and different rooms of which for the larger part we know the function. The reason or Olynthus in particular is that in this case the houses have all the elements of houses in the Classical period, and the base plan is repeated throughout the entire town.

House 6

The main reason I chose this model was that it was a challenge. Previously I had only reconstructed the Parthenon, so I was not entirely used to closed spaces. In addition, I had the actual site reports handy, which meant I could reconstruct the house reliably, with little left to imagination. Finally, it gave me a chance to investigate issues of lighting within closed spaces, and settle a debate that I’d read about, regarding a possible need of a flue to provide lighting to some of the rooms.


Apart from the use of components, that I’ve discussed already, I found two interesting things with this model: the use of visualisation to understand the use of space, and the aforementioned lighting tool.

One of the main issues I was having with the house was the presence of a ladder, which would have allowed transit to the upper stories. The location I originally intended for it didn’t actually fit, something that I only realised when looking at an initial draft of the model. It was too steep, and if it extended any further to reduce this it would have blocked one of the doors. Therefore I decided that the location had to be wrong, and tried many different positions that could be possible. The one I finally settled with was the only one that “looked” right, and after reading the report again it turned out there was a base for the ladder in some of the houses in that exact spot.


This is probably insignificant on the long term, but it made me think that the only way I realised the position was wrong was with the added dimension, as the 2D plan didn’t give me sufficient information to realise.

The issue with lighting was part of a debate I was reading, about an area of the house interpreted as a flue. Some suggested this area was open at the top, in order to allow lighting, while others thought that the lighting in the room was sufficient to carry out basic activities. I therefore created an entire street by repeating the house, and placed windows as suggested by the report. I then rendered the images with and without a hole in the ceiling.

dark oikoslight room 2

The results are not of the most conclusive, although there is a difference between the two rooms. This does however suggest that a hole in the roof would have not been sufficient, so it is possible the flue was used to conduct smoke from a fire within the room.  Again, in this particular instance the results are not ideal, but in other models the idea may have more success, especially in enclosed spaces.

New Things I’ve Learnt for Google Sketchup


If you read my blog yesterday I posted an article about creating a virtual museum using 123D Catch and Google Sketchup Pro. Apart from the large scale project, this has also given me a chance to play around more with these programs, and especially with Sketchup. As a result I’ve learnt a few more skills I’d like to share with you.

Sketchup is a brilliant program, and in my opinion the easiest and most efficient 3D modelling software for archaeology. For other uses it could be a but simplistic, especially when realism is an issue, but for creating models of sites or structures for display it is sufficiently capable. I currently have Sketchup Pro, as well as V-Ray for rendering images, but there is a free version of Sketchup that has most of the functions of the Pro version and that is sufficient for most models. The tips in this article though are based on the Pro-Vray combination, although some of them should still be available in the free version.

Materials: One of the things I was trying to achieve in the museum was creating little tags for objects, in which I could display information. Because I didn’t really need to write the actual text, to see if it would work I got an image of text from the internet and then loaded in the paint tool. I’d done this before, but I was having trouble making the text fit perfectly. After trying different approaches I noted there was a “position” material tool when I right clicked the surface. This opened up a nice interface which allowed me to successfully position the image. Saved me a lot of time, and it has good potential for other things too. One of the ideas I was thinking was to create a large circular wall around a site onto which I could paint a landscape, so when it was rendered it gave the impression of being place in the real world. The positioning tool would allow me to manipulate this texture in order to make it continuous, without having to play around with the scale.


Lighting: I finally used the lighting tool with V-Ray, which was harder to understand than I thought, This was the first time I created an entirely internal space, and lighting was an issue. By creating a long thin rectangle, and placing the light on one side I created a convincing neon light. The trick here was increasing the intensity to 150, rather than the measly 30 it is at, which makes it seem like it is not working. I am also honestly impressed with this tool, it does add a lot to the realism, and I’m even thinking of adding a few lights under objects to give them a lit up effect.


Walk tool: I usually pan and zoom and use the orbit tool when I’m editing and when I’m showing people my work, but the walk tool is a much nicer way to present a model. It allows the user to feel like they are present on the site rather than an external viewer, and it’s much less shaky than I thought, You can even make it so that it will automatically stop when you encounter a surface which is great, considering on occasion this is an issue with the orbit, pan and zoom tools.

Obj importing:  Didn’t realise that Sketchup could import object files, which is great. Many 3d programs have difficulty with the material files associated with the 123D Catch obj files, yet Sketchup seems to have none. It is hard to alter the files themselves, yet it’s a good way to put them in context. A feature could be placed within the reconstructed model of the site, and if all of the features were recorded they could be glued together to make the entire site.


Glass: I made a few glass cabinets for the virtual museum and then tried making them transparent. I painted them light blue and then set the opacity to 18, making them only slightly visible. When rendering the images, this created a big problem, as for some reason the outer side of the glass was transparent, while the inner was reflective, creating an odd mirror effect. I had to Google this one, and the solution seems to be to give the surface at least a bit of thickness. By creating a 3D pane of glass, rather than just a 2D surface of glass the problem is solved, with realistic effects


Some of these tips are probably obvious, however being self taught in the program means that I have gaps in some areas. However the good thing of Sketchup is it requires little knowledge, just a keen interest.

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).