We create content. Learn more about us.

Photographing the Impossible

Women are from Venus -- Raygun Studio practices the art of deception using new, more intuitive 3D software. Stunningly realistic and provocative details has put the image shop in the forefront of a new wave of advertising imagery. Credit: Michael Tompert/Cade Martin

Raygun Studio unwraps the mystery of fantastic CGI effects

“If God is in the details, we all must on some deep level believe that the truth is there, too,” writes novelist Francine Prose.  Good storytellers, she says, know that it takes just one vivid detail to make the tallest tale come across as a truthful account.  Once the fisherman describes the hook caught in the bloody gills, we are somehow more apt to believe the big fish story.

The same holds true with images.   Michael Tompert, Designer-in-Chief at the Palo Alto-based Raygun Studio, has made a career out of presenting the impossible, straight-faced, as photorealistic truth.   We know that carnivorous chocolate, luminescent lather, and winged whales don’t exist, but Tompert’s convincing details require us take a second look.

“In a way I’m like a photographer,” says Tompert, who considers himself an image artist. “I build images that look like reality.  The content might have fantastic elements, which in many cases are client requests. If the client wants a Venus flytrap made entirely of chocolate, I want the chocolate to look so real you can taste it.”

Tompert started his own company after several years retouching product images for Apple and using 3D tools in the design of many of the icons, logos, and concept visualizations.  Now in his own shop for design and advertising imagery, Tompert has wide berth to play in his signature style.

Techniques at Raygun triangulate traditional photography, digital retouching, and computer-generated imagery (CGI) from 3D models.  For many years, CGI technology seemed impractical for photographers and graphic designers.  But Tompert explains that CGI tricks are now within reach, even for Mac-adherents like himself.

3D gets un-PC

A new generation of fast microprocessors and intuitive rendering software has made this kind of fictional photography possible.  One of the leading developers, Luxion, has released its high-speed rendering application KeyShot not only for PCs but for Macs, finally bridging the gap between CGI in the world of graphic artists.

Tompert has worked with 3D rendering since the 90s, gaining some experience in car ads and other product shots.  “Automotive styling is where 3D CGI originated,” he says.  “Photographing cars can get extremely involved.”  By taking the same CAD used to design and manufacture a vehicle, graphic artists could render it with realistic materials and composite it into any scene.  They could plop SUVs onto desert plateaus or park luxury cars on European cobblestones, without the immense effort of on-location photo shoots.

The problem in the past, Tompert says, was that the 3D CAD and best rendering technology resided almost exclusively on the PC side of the fence.  As a consequence, the software demanded a highly technical “engineer-y” mentality that one has come to associate with PCs.  You would have to mix your own material palette by tweaking dozens of optical properties. Setting up the lighting environment required the same sort of math-heavy pre-planning.

Taking his best shot -- Raygun Studio's Michael Tompert at a shoot, mounting his Nikon D300 to a Kaidan spherical pano tripod head for a HDRI. Photo by Montse Llaurado

The worst part of the older, slower rendering apps was you couldn’t see what you were creating.  Previews often gave only a solid-color fill of surfaces.  To see the actual interplay of light, reflections, and shadows – the convincing details — you had to process a final render, which sometimes took hours.  It was a bit like planning a fireworks display when all the rocket labels were in Chinese.  You never knew what you were going to get until you fired it off.

For many intuition-based visual artists, this amount of techie tedium was more than they could bear.   Tompert, however, soldiered through the technical demands for years, collecting a wide variety of 3D Mac tools, like Strata 3D, Amapi, Poser, Modo, and Cinema 4D.  Luxion technology, however, offered something new in its application Keyshot.  Tompert was one of the application’s earliest adapters.

“KeyShot provides an interface worthy of the name Mac OS.   I think it will open up CGI to a much larger audience in the photography and graphic art world, including people that were initially turned off and were unwilling to jump the hurdles.”

Re-touch & go

Incorporating 3D CGI details into an image works similarly to composting one photo into another in Photoshop.  In the title example featured here, Tompert makes a paintbrush swipe in Photoshop of his background image of the on-location beach scene, making an empty space in the waves in roughly the position he wants the flying saucer.  He imports in the preview image from the Bunkspeed application from the backend, just as if it was another Photoshop document.  The UFO model appears within the stroke.  He can go back and forth between the two applications to perfect the positioning and light effects.

“The real breakthrough with the Luxion technology is that it is real time,” says Tompert. “This allows me to work truly visually,  play with the scene, experiment, and find things accidentally.”  In contrast to renderers past, the KeyShot preview generates the entire scene just as it will appear in the final, including all the light sources, high-fidelity materials, and every tiny detail of reflections, refractions, and shadows.

If Tompert rotates the UFO model slightly, the KeyShot preview immediately re-processes the scene, and the new results appear in the PhotoShop brushstroke.  Like a rapidly developing Poloroid, the preview starts out fuzzy at first, but within a few seconds a tinny spacecraft gains clarity.

One advantage comping with a 3D model rather than a static image is that the objects in the KeyShot scene are movable and voluble in real time.  Tompert can tilt, rotate, or re-size the 3D model until the prop is naturally poised in the Photoshop composite.  KeyShot automatically recalculates the lighting effects in the new preview.

“Luxion KeyShot is basically a photo studio in a box. You have lights, a stage, and bring in your props.  You can save your stage and open it up a month later and the lights are still on, the scene exactly the way you left it, without any dust gathering,” explains Tompert.  “Another difference is you can change the materials of your props.”  If Tompert clicks on another material from the library palette, the preview would start again, giving him a UFO in glass instead of metal within a few seconds.

“I just love how I can be creative and spontaneous in KeyShot with 3D models.  I can dial in the lighting and materials in real time.  I can see the reflections and refractions run up and down the models in the real environment just like in a photo studio, rather than having to pre-plan or calculate the shot.”

A real gem -- To produce the luminous effect in Gillette's shower gel ad, Raygun Studio rendered a 3D model using Bunkspeed SHOT's diamond material. The high level of light scattering gives the image radiance as well as depth.

Materially different

The Luxion KeyShot application has taken off with the graphic art crowd (besides releasing a parallel product for Mac users) because that the software comes standard with an extensive library of pre-mixed shaders that perfectly match real-world materials:  woods, metals, enamel finishes, even translucent substances like glass or liquids.  Artist can jump right into rendering models in a sort of paint-by-numbers simplicity, without all the technical complexities.

Tompert often likes to trade out different materials to make unconventional choices to see he gets better light performance in a scene.  In Raygun Studio’s recent ad image for Gillette’s new shower gel, Tompert rendered a 3D decoy of the showering man in solid diamond to produce exaggerated light scattering.   “You can push beyond the limits of a real-world photo studio.  You can make glass that sparkles more than diamond, metals that reflect more than chrome.”

Setting up -- The original HDRI backplate used in the UFO crash image above.

A higher range of possibilities

“Since I work with KeyShot frequently now, I have been shooting more of my own HDRIs especially on bigger productions.  Doing my own HDRIs not only makes for incredible realism but turns out to be a great way to connect with everybody on the creative team at the day of the shoot,” says Tompert.  “It’s a way to span the real working world of photographer to the virtual world of the computer.”

Tompert initially relied on the library of HDR studio and on-location images that come along with Luxion’s software.  Now with equipment to create his own, he has no limits to where he can apply CGI.

A HDRI is a high dynamic range image, which picks up many more intensities in an environment that conventional photography.  A 3D HDRI and the background 2D photograph ideally are taken at the same time to capture the same play of light.  But in practice, one can also improvise.  In the spacewoman image, the photographer Cade Martin created the backplate image of the fashion model in Washington.  Weeks later, Tompert took a 360-degree HDRI at the beach in California which approximated the original scene.

“HDRIs capture a sphere that includes the whole dynamic range of radiance, from the flares on the sun to the tread underneath a rear tire,” he explains.  “Shooting your own HDRIs requires a bit of specialized hardware, whether it’s a DSLR with a fisheye or a Spheron scanning camera.  Then you need quite a bit of post-processing, either in Photoshop or in specialized tools for stitching and blending.  It’s not for the faint of heart, but it allows you to add any item imaginable into a photographed scene. It’s a good idea to work with available HDR images for a while and study how they work, or tweak existing HDRIs in Photoshop to get an understanding of how they affect a scene before going out and investing in equipment and software to shoot your own.”

Creating a splash

The next frontier for Raygun Studio CGI experiments is modeling realistic fluids.  Water – whether it occurs in rain-drenched streets, mountain cascades, or just in a pitcher on a table – has traditionally been a trouble spot for photo retouchers, since it is nearly impossible to remove water elements from their original context in with 2D tools.  Tompert has found ray tracing a way to sidestep this problem.   Now, with the addition of other 3D software tools, he has been pushing liquids closer to center stage.

“I am very interested in physics modeling which is coming along lately as the Macs are getting powerful, or should I say, almost powerful enough, to allow this kind of thing.”  Tompert will generate 3D splashes, spills, or pours in applications like RealFlow or MoGraph in Cinema 4D.  “It makes for some very organic and amazingly realistic models which open up other possibility for CGI beyond the usual product shots. Most of the things I wind up using in my final images are not really not planned out; camera views just ‘spoke’ to me and I would take screen shot of them and just drop them into Photoshop and finish it off.”

Pacific Heights -- A collaboration with San Francisco photographer Erik Almås, who shot the girl and the skyline, while Raygun Studio contributed the rest from rendered CGI models. Local shop Jellysquare performed the post-production and compositing.

A realistic outlook for Mac users

The advertising industry have acquired a taste for CGI-composite photography, and according to Tompert, its appetite continues to grow.  At first, CGI was a way to create less expensive glamor shots for products, but now ad agencies recognize that hyper-real compositions that tell a story can reach a deeper psychology.  As Tompert’s examples show, CGI craft can convey a mood or experience that can be imagined, but not — ordinarily –photographed.

“As CGI gets more accessible, the trend will accelerate.  Even more implausibly fantastic and hyper-real constructs of the imagination will be the default for imagery in advertising,” predicts Tompert.  “It will be interesting to see how far that trend will push the envelope.  And like a lot of Mac-based applications, there’s a tendency to democratize what used to be arcane.   CGI won’t be viewed as impenetrable.  The new apps will take the big fear out of 3D and bring in a lot more people who are not very technical yet very creative.  3D tools are now opening up an avenue to express their vision.”

Written by Brett Duesing, Obleo Design Media.  A version of this story appeared in BPT Magazine Issue 22.  Editor’s note:  at the time of publication, this article referenced Bunkspeed HyperShot. Bunkspeed had announced its new product line, formally called HyperShot, would be called SHOT.  Forthcoming releases of SHOT, however, were limited to the Windows platform.  Technology from the former HyperShot rendering application transferred to Luxion, which does offer an application for Mac users under the name KeyShot.  Michael Tompert reports that Raygun Studio is now producing  effects in KeyShot for Mac.  The product name has been updated in this article to reflect these industry changes.

About Raygun Studio

Raygun Studio, a digital retouching and CGI studio in Palo Alto, California, fuses photography, retouching, and CGI for the best in photorealistic effects.  Founded in 2005 by image artist Michael Tompert represented by Kate Chase of Tidepool Reps, Raygun Studio has quickly grown a client list of design firms and agencies small and large, including BBDO, Butler Shine, Chiat/Day, Crispin Porter, Tolleson Design, Ogilvy and Y&R.  For more examples from the Raygun Studio portfolio, please visit: www.raygunstudio.com.

Comments are closed.