Improving Artlantis

Abvent’s Artlantis renders full-colour realistic images using three-dimensional model files imported from CAD applications in most common file formats. Marketed for use with Vectorworks and ArchiCAD, but applicable to all CAD software on both PC and Macintosh platforms, it provides a slick environment for scene illuminating, surface assignment and locating camera viewpoints, providing large, rapid image previews. Rendering outputs include solitary images in many file formats, VR Panoramas, VR Objects and fly-through animations. You can easily learn to use and become productive with this product.

Artlantis provides a time-efficient transformation of CAD models into highly rendered “ray-traced” images with subtle illumination effects that include multiple reflections and refractions. It also provides a great introduction to the behaviour and pitfalls of rendering applications prior to investing in high-end modeling and rendering packages.

Version 4.0 adds improved lighting control, soft shadow casting and global illumination to its imaging palette. These features create pleasing, luminescent ambiance in rendered imagery. Global lighting is a relatively new method of quickly emulating calculation-intensive radiosity lighting. This is the main departure of Artlantis from typical computer views that exhibit amateurish grey shadows. Experienced illustrators know that developing a sense for the behaviour of light and shadow in an unfamiliar application requires a substantial time investment. Artlantis minimizes this by previewing decisions quickly in its large image preview. This feature is particularly strong in interior situations with numerous potentially clashing materials and subtle, interacting light sources.

Artlantis provides distinct dialogs for placing and editing cameras, materials and lighting. But in developing a scene, switching between these dialogs can become frustrating. When the illustrator sees an unexpected effect of light on a newly assigned material or discovers a misalignment of texture while shifting a camera view, switching dialog modes is often necessary to make adaptations.

When previewing the appearance of a rendering, certain fabric patterns or shadow directions might need to be suppressed. Artlantis enables this through ease of material editing. Shader and material creation allows for combined layering of patterns with varied transparency and independent sizing contributing to the overall texture map. It is easy to develop a personal library of Artlantis shaders based on common textures or ArchiCAD materials, adding subtle enhancement with translucent overlay maps that emulate grime or shiny satin finishes. Full control over transparency, bump mapping and roughness is available. Material assignment in the preview window is simple–merely drag a shader from the library to the element.

Cameras can easily be positioned using the mouse constrained by special keystrokes, or by dragging icons in large, orthographic positioning views. Vast models become more difficult to precisely navigate because they are represented in the positioning views as uniformly coloured wireframes. Since multi-storey structures become extremely confusing, it is necessary to accurately position light sources within the CAD model before importing, adding only the more general environmental lights in Artlantis.

While the material/shader creation process is straightforward, adjusting light sources can be tricky. The slider for fine-tuning intensity also responds to changing light power by orders of magnitude. Some users report that this aspect is difficult to master, as are the implications of the numerous adjustments of range, shadow-casting behavior, breadth of light cast and rate of falloff. However, the speed of positioning and aiming lights is fast and smooth–analogous to watching a studio photographer move and adjust lights and reflectors to achieve the desired effect.

Emulating photographic effects is also enhanced by the new “depth of field” feature, controlling focus like a real camera lens. And, Artlantis provides a “heliodon” light for the precise creation of sun studies specific to global locations, although shadows cast using this method cannot be softly diffused as with other light sources.

One drawback is that Artlantis has no modeling tools. Objects in the scene cannot be moved, and although a complex workaround of making problem objects invisible while merging relocated objects can be done, it is only worth the effort if much time has been invested customizing the illustration scene. Be warned that it is difficult to use Artlantis as a design development tool since the back-and-forth aspect of model, review and re-model is disrupted by file saving and updating model edits. For example, having assigned numerous lights in Artlantis to dramatically illuminate a scene, the user discovers a major design flaw. Returning to the modeling environment to make the changes may cause the loss of certain decisions made in Artlantis, unless the “open with reference” option is used, preserving changes made after the model was initially exported.

Texture mapping of materials requires careful pre-planning prior to export from the model-building application. Artlantis considers each imported material in a global sense, performing repeats and adjustments of the material map for each named material. If objects with different orientations use the same material, the mapping direction will inevitably be wrong for some of them, requiring a tedious reassignment of materials.

Users report that when importing some file types, lighting color and intensity is incorrectly transferred, but this is a minor problem because the software’s sophisticated light sources support the user in further image refinement.

Artlantis uses centimetres for distance units. This is normally only a problem when entering light or camera locations numerically, but can also affect scaling of imported textures. Finally, since Artlantis operates from a fixed model, objects cannot be scripted to move within animations as can be directed, for instance, in ArchiCAD.

As an enhanced design review tool rather than a finished commercial imager, Artlantis excels in editing surfaces and lighting effects. The designer can import model files and achieve glowing luminescence and reflections more quickly with this application than with others in its price range, testing many surface alternatives with speed and grace. The learning curve and preparation time for an Artlantis rendering falls well within architectural billing rates–satisfactory results can be achieved without consuming days refining the output or learning obscure commands.

Dwight Atkinson, ASAI, GDLA, MAIBC, proprietor of Vancouver’s Atkinson Iconography Studio, recently completed Illustration in ArchiCAD, a book to be published by McGraw Hill in several languages.