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Shane Peterson Interview

Category: Environment Art
March 21, 2009


Shane Peterson is a 3D artist who up until recently was working for PB's Design Visualization Technical Resource Center (formerly Company39) in Seattle, Washington. He has over 5 years professional experience as a 3D artist and design visualization.

I had a chance to contact and interview Shane. We talked about what he is working on, what inspires him as an artist and some fantastic advice on art, design visualization, lighting and modeling.

Make sure to visit Shane Peterson website.

Can you tell me a little about yourself?

My name is Shane Peterson. I'm 27 years old and I have a wife and two daughters and I live in the Seattle area. I have five years of production experience in Design Visualization.

I attended The Art Institute of Seattle in the Animation Arts and Design program. At the end of that program the school does a portfolio review where students can show off their work to employers. I received a call a few days after showing my portfolio and was hired on as a 3D Production Artist with Ballena Technologies Inc.

At Ballena we created 3D models of sporting facilities and rendered 180 degree panoramics to be used in an interactive Flash utility. The utility was designed to aid in ticket sales. You'd be presented with a 3/4 view overhead of the stadium, arena, or speedway then you could click on your preferred seating section and get a representation of the view from those seats. I spent two years at Ballena then I followed a couple of coworkers to what was then know as Company 39 as a Design Visualization Specialist.



Company 39 was a subsidiary of Parson Brinckerhoff which is an Engineering/Project Management Firm. It wasn't long after I was hired that Company 39 was reorganized into the parent company as PB Design Visualization. At PB Design Viz we created visualization of transportation and engineering projects all over the world, as well as visualization for commercial developments like high rise condominiums. I spent nearly three years at PB Design Viz, but unfortunately due to the economic downturn they were forced to decrease the size of their team and I was laid off. Since then I've been searching for a full-time position and freelancing in the mean time.

Most recently I produced a model of the HTC Shadow II for an Ad firm called Publicis of the West. They were responsible for the preloaded content on the phone and wanted a motion graphics piece to submit to award shows. I provided them with a detailed phone model and several transition animations that were used in a video which was submitted.

Shane Peterson.net

Where do you get your inspiration?

Just open your eyes and look around. Inspiration is everywhere: film, music, games, even just walking down the street.

Primarily though, I find inspiration in photography. It's an amazing art form and when creating realistic 3D art I tend to want to push my images to look photo-real.

Stock photo sites are great when I'm feeling stuck and looking for something to spark some creativity. Magazine ads are great, as well as concept art sites. I guess the simplest answer is that my inspiration is other artists.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years? Where do you want to be and/or working on?

Ideally I'd like to be in a position of creative control, like managing my own team or even running my own production company. As for what area of the 3D industry that would be in I'm not sure. I call myself a 3D generalist because my interests are all over the place. I love design visualization, but I'm also into game art, high-end cut scenes, and TV/film effects.

What software do you use to create some of your design visualization renderings?

I'm a 3D Studio Max user. I've been using it since version 3.1 so that is about 10 years now. As for renderers, at Ballena we used scanline only. I experimented with Brazil in the 1.0 days. At PB Design Viz we used Vray exclusively and most recently I've been using Mental Ray for the convenience of it being integrated into Max. I also use Combustion for compositing and I'm a heavy Photoshop user.

Could you describe your workflow when working on a project?What gets done first and some of the steps along the way?

To use my experience at PB as an example; at the start of a project the Sales/Marketing director would pitch our services to the client. From there a scope of work and contract would be drafted to outline the services we'd be providing, the deadlines, and the cost. As a team we'd have a kickoff meeting where our Production Manager would delegate the tasks and name a Project Lead.

The first step after that would be collecting our references. There would be direct communication with the client to insure we had an accurate understanding of what they wanted. We would gather any CAD data that was available, material samples, landscaping plans, furnishing reference, and interior/exterior design sketches. Pretty much every scrap of reference we could mine out of the client.

From there we'd start to rough out the model by downloading terrain data, blocking in buildings and starting the main structure of the building or engineering project.

While that's in progress we'd typically create drafts of camera angles and storyboard any animation sequences with viewport grabs or rough renders. Rarely would there be only one person on the project so usually someone would continue to model out the building or structure and someone else would be working on the environment which we referred to as the context.

There were three main stages to this; modeling, texturing, and lighting and always in that order.

Drafts were usually scheduled out in the contract for specific dates to ensure we were on schedule and to detect any problems or changes early. Revisions were common and frequent.

Once the main structures and context were complete finer details like plants, trees, people, cars, or any other set pieces would be added. We'd do a final internal review for quality control then render out the scene in the final resolution. Whether we'd use render passes are not would depend on the complexity of the scene and the deadline. Regardless there would be some tweaking done to the images/animations in Photoshop or Combustion.

From there the images or video would be burned to a DVD and sent to the client. We typically didn't do printing or video publishing ourselves.

How long does it take you to create some of your city fly-thoughts such as Seattle Flyover?

I didn't animate the camera for this particular shot, but in general a camera animation like this could take a couple of days to a week. As for the city model itself, I modeled dozens of those buildings but it really was a group effort of the entire team at PB for about two and half years to get it to the state you see it in for that animation. The Seattle City model was something we all worked on during our downtime between projects, or while we were waiting for a critical piece of reference/feedback. It was a great asset to have for all the high rise condos we visualized in the Seattle area since it gave a a majority of our background environment. We could use it as a starting point for all of our Seattle projects and just detail out the areas closer to the cameras.

Do you have some tips on modeling environments, buildings and cities? Especially on such a large scale that you work on?


When working on something so large you really need to be mindful of your memory usage otherwise you'll run into problems not only rendering your image but working in it as well.

Your geometry and textures need to be optimized.

For this model there were no set polygon limits for each building. We did have to use as few polys as possible to define the shape of the building and place all of our detail (from photo reference) in the texture.

When making the textures we had to keep in mind that most of the time the buildings would be tiny on screen but every now and then they could be in the mid-ground. It was a balancing act to keep the texture memory footprint small and maintain the detail needed to make the building recognizable.

Beyond that organization is extremely important.

We were dealing with hundreds of buildings and if a building needed to be replaced or updated we had to be able to find them quickly. We established naming protocols that had us naming the building and the textures for that building the same. In addition to that we relied on layers heavily to keeps the files organized.

An added bonus was we could turn off everything in the scene except what we were working on which made working in such large files much more tolerable.

Lastly we used Xrefs to keep details like cars and landscaping in separate files, and Vray Proxies.

Could you share some key concepts you use in your projects to create realistic indoor and outdoor lighting?

I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that realistic lighting is only realistic to a point. Even photographers use flashes and bounce cards to enhance the light in their scene to make for better composition.

A good way to get your renders to look more real is to mimic what a photographer would do. Set up some lights everywhere you'd expect to see light in real life. Windows, table lamps, sconces, TVs, etc. Now go get some reference for those types of lights and examine each one.

What color is it?
How intense is it compared to the rest of the scene?
Does it have a hard edge shadow or is it more diffused?


These are important questions and getting them wrong can take away from the realism of your render. After you've done that start placing additional lights or bounce cards in your scene to enhance the composition if it needs it, otherwise if it's not broken, don't fix it.

When you're ready to render, render out in passes. Separating your reflections, and even your individual lights will give your far greater control over your image in post production. Adjusting the intensity and color of those elements takes far less time in Photoshop or a compositing package of your choice then it does to make a minor tweak and render again.

Lastly I like to throw an ambient occlusion pass on top of that to give some greater contrast to the shadows. In my opinion it makes the image look just a little more real.

Exteriors are a little easier because there are less lights to work with. Usually for me it's just a direct light and a skylight. I like to use complimentary colors in those lights. Start with the skylight by itself and get that one close first.

The skylight is going to define the color of your shadows.

Then I put in the direct light with just a slight diffusion of the shadow. Once that is at the angle and intensity you want it you can go back to the skylight and tweak it until it all works.

Could you give three pieces of advice would you give a beginner who wants to begin learning 3d and architecture/design visualizations?


1. Reference.

Always have reference for everything you're creating. Whether it's a model, textures, or lighting, always use reference and lots of it. Even if you think you know what something is supposed to look like, you could be missing key details unless you're referring to some reference.

Did I say reference enough?


2. Practice

My second piece of advice is to practice. Find a cool photo that you like, or take one yourself and try to recreate that photo exactly. I'm not suggesting you plagiarize someone's work, but the act of mimicking something you see exactly will teach you a ton about what is going on in the composition. The more you practice the better you'll be.

3. Stay Current

Lastly I would suggest staying current in what is going on in the industry. Subscribe to some magazines like 3D World, or register on some forums or 3D news sites. You'll come across all sorts of new technologies and techniques and as you do you should try out all that you can. This industry is constantly evolving and is much more competitive now then it was just 5 years ago when I was starting out. Anything you can do to give yourself an edge is always a good thing.

And last question, anything you are working on currently that you want to share with the readers?

Right now I'm actively searching for full-time production work and freelance projects. Other then that in my free time I'm working on an Indy iPhone game with a programmer friend of mine. It's a game utilizing the Unity engine.

Where can we find your work? Website? Facebook? Twitter? Linked in? Etc.

You can stay current with what I'm doing at:





I want to thank Shane for the interview. Looking forward to more of your work.

Here some more of his work and make sure to head over to www.petersonstudios.net for more.







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