Photorealistic 3D Computer Graphics Accessible to Transmedia Storytellers

I’m a writer at heart. I’ve been telling stories with words for more than four decades but I also have a deep interest in visual narrative. During my days as a newspaper and magazine writer I also did a lot of photojournalism. Over the years, the tools that I’ve used for both forms of storytelling have changed but my interest in integrating words and pictures remains.

When I ran across 3D computer graphics software in the mid-1990s, I was instantly intrigued about the potential narrative applications. In 2003-2004 I did a series of illustrated poems as a final project for a graduate course I took on texts and images. (Ears of the Earth, Rage, and The Ruin are examples of those.)

For more than 15 years I’ve played on and off with 3D computer graphics software, beginning sometime around 2000 with an application called Poser. It is a software application for posing, animating, and rendering 3D human and animal figures.

At that time, the images rendered had a definite CG look to them, which was okay for some uses but wasn’t quite what I had in mind for some of the illustrated work that I was interested in doing.

In the intervening years, the capabilities of CG technology has increased dramatically, to the point where photorealistic images are possible without having to use the massive computing horsepower needed for movie special effects. A current desktop or laptop computer — either Windows or Mac — can handle the workload needed to pose and render a high quality photorealistic or near-photorealistic image.


Photorealistic image designed to simulate black-and-white photography was created with desktop hardware and low-cost software. (Image by Peter von Stackelberg)

These days I am using Daz Studio (a free posing application), the Reality 4 plugin (available for both Daz Studio and Poser), and LuxRender (an open source CG rendering engine). Reality 4 provides an easy to use interface between Daz Studio/Poser and LuxRender, allowing the artist to focus on the aesthetic qualities of the artwork being developed.

I’ve always been partial to the physics-based rendering (PBR) that Reality 4/LuxRender use. PBR basically means that light in the virtual world created by the artist acts the same as light in our physical world. I can’t begin to explain how the software does it, but that’s the beauty of Reality 4 — I don’t have to. What it means is that I can take most of what I learned as a photographer over the past four decades and apply it to the virtual worlds that I create.

With the Daz Studio/Reality 4/LuxRender system, I can pose models, tweak skin and other materials, set up lights, position and focus the virtual camera, and hit the render button. Of course, it does take some time and effort to learn how to become a true expert and create unbelievably realistic images, but the community of Reality users is always willing to share knowledge. Even more surprising in this time of anonymous software development teams is that Paolo Ciccone, Reality 4’s creator, is incredibly accessible online to answer questions and add insights about using the software.

You no longer need the budget of a Hollywood blockbuster to create high quality computer graphics. We have reached a point where the hardware and software to create professional grade 3D computer graphics is accessible to anyone with a modern computer and a limited budget. Photorealistic still images and animations are now possible. There are already indications that tools for virtual reality (VR) are already starting to be commercialized.

While 3D computer graphics has not net been used widely for transmedia content production, the technology has reached the point that integrating high quality 3D graphics into a transmedia narrative is both feasible and practical.



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