Employee Spotlight: Sheena Garcia
April 3, 2018
Written by: Visualhouse New York
Sheena A Garcia recently joined our New York office as Head of CGi, bringing with her over 10 years of experience in both architecture and visualization. She has worked at notable offices across the country including DBOX, Olson Kundig and Kilograph. With her extensive knowledge in the field, she is working with our artists across all offices to oversee production, quality, narrative direction as well as inspiring new ideas in the way we think about visual storytelling. We sat down with Sheena to learn more about her experience and her approach to visualization.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How did you first become interested in architectural visualization?
As a student I was always interested in graphic architectural representation – just not necessarily photo-realistic rendering and simulations. There’s a lot of modes of architectural abstraction like collage, as seen with Archigram and Superstudio. There are more purely 2D representations like Bernard Tschumi’s Manhattan Transcripts. Then there’s the modern hybrid styles using 2D and 3D media like that seen with LTL Architects, or Diller Scofidio. So I’ve always been interested, even when I was in school, with architectural representation and I think that led me to transition into the visualization side of that.
Funny because when I was studying, I actually was not a fan of hyper-realistic renderings because I thought it was going to take over and all of the humanistic aspects of creativity was going to be lost. But getting in to it, I realized there’s a ton of evolving technique that happens in visualization. There is still a very creative, emotional and personal outlook that you can put into your work. So it was an interesting outcome. So initially I was kind of anti-visualization, but then I realized it still has the capacity for artistry that is important in any creative act.
Is it more work to do hyper-realistic renderings than ‘traditional’ architectural representation?
I think it’s about the same. It’s just a different way of allocating time for processes and the timeframes are shorter.
Is one rendering style more 3DS Max focused and one more post-production?
Well, in 2D architectural representation you wouldn’t use 3ds Max. You’d use CAD, Illustrator, maybe Rhino or Revit. You might even use just textures from magazines, photography or color fields, so it’s a little more like classic artistic collage. The thing about contemporary visualization, is that it uses all of the programs that 3D character artists use, like Max, Maya, V-Ray and Corona, and those aren’t programs you would necessarily learn in a traditional, architecture studio. Further, the means of manipulating geometries, applying materials and simulating light opens up new points of view and new ways of seeing design.
Did you learn about visualization in architectural studios or only once you started working in visualization studios?
When I first graduated, I worked in New York for an interior architecture firm that did a lot of fun things like restaurants and nightclubs around the city, so at that firm, there were a few people who had backgrounds in digitalization. I was kind of amazed by what they were able to do. I decided I was going to learn how to do that as well, so I had to teach myself all of that. But really by going in-house, was when I learned the most.
How was the visualization process different between the architectural studios and visualization studios?
I think it was somewhat similar. I think in architecture, there’s a looseness to it. You’re not always using the images for high-end marketing. You’re using them to sell your idea, and get the client on board with what the direction of the design is. So they’re looser and a little more hazy, and they don’t have to sell it to the larger audience; they really just have to sell it to the client so that the design can proceed through its natural phases. The cool thing about it is, you’re designing it while you’re representing it. So there is that level of figuring out what it will really be on the fly. So when they actually assemble the drawings and documentation for the construction process, there is something really interesting when you see it built in person. While visualization media is extremely important, there isn’t currently a substitute for how space feels and how it has such a connection back to you in real terms. These experiences are simulations that are made when you get that marketing image in a magazine or it’s in a book, or a website - that’s when you find the meaning in it. But architecture just takes longer for you to find it, because you’re waiting for it to actually be built.
Did you enjoy the architectural work because you would only focus on one project at a time?
It’s interesting because when I was in Seattle I worked in-house as a professional visualizer on one project at a time. I only rendered one major building, all aspects, inside and out. The great thing about it is you learn a lot about tectonics, detailing and construction because you are working alongside the designers and consultants. In high-end visualization it isn’t really helpful to be applied to a project that long. But in architecture, yes. It‘s sometimes important to be on a project for a long time to understand all of the nuts and bolts. It just takes longer to get all of the pieces together holistically.
Have you seen CGi change throughout the 10 years?
It’s interesting, not as much as I would’ve thought. I think that the technology is really similar, and those keep evolving. The way that we do it is strangely the same as when I started but with evolving narratives. One thing I have noticed is how many more people want to use marketing imagery at the outset. Or how many more projects now have it budgeted or have it as an automatic part of the design process from the earliest client meetings. Teams now always want to have some sort visualization to represent their project. But I think that more and more people want it and also more and more they want that at earlier stages of design. Teams will want it in Concept Design when there’s not even a detailed design yet. I think there’s a lot of pressure now to get that marketable image out there for your building as a preview and proof that it's worth building.
And I guess a lot of people who are tasked with starting to do that, don’t necessarily know what they need to make a beautiful image yet. Which is typically a good design and the time you put into it.
Do you think they’re relying too much on the images to design the space? Or do you think the design should come first?
I definitely think the design should come first. And I do think people are starting to rely more and more on the images. It’s interesting because, like I was saying before, when you study architecture you learn a specific way of trying to demonstrate your design that isn’t necessarily a photo-realistic rendering. It’s 2D CAD work or collage-based technique, or sketching - those are ways that you try to represent what you’re thinking. Some have trouble seeing that the design is not necessarily done and that you can change things, because it looks so done to them. That being said, that’s where the excitement is; it’s trying to show clients what their building could be. When you make a really compelling image and everyone is really happy with how the building is turning out, you feel like you did your job. One rewarding aspect of new work is that we often find ourselves in the actual design meetings alongside the leadership groups, from developers and architects. We are able to act as a mediator or translator between their dialogues as they exchange ideas or if they are in need of a shared visual platform to find common ground if they hit a design block.
When working through the visualization process, what part of it do you enjoy the most?
The truth is I kind of like all the aspects of it. When you start, you’re trying to come up with a narrative or a story about what that image is going to be about. Sometimes that part is more successful than others. Then, you’re working on the cameras and there’s a real kind of photographic element to that. Trying to set cameras up to make a statement on that historical notions of perspective is what I think good visual artists bring to this that other people might not.
But, I really like lighting. Day images are nice but I’m really a big fan of dusk and night. You get to highlight different elements of the building. I like projects that have a lot of detail. When you get all those little pieces of detail that the architect has in mind for the project I think it just adds a real richness to the overall project. So I like those parts, but then most people enjoy the post-production [Photoshop] that happens near the end. That’s kind of where the real magic happens. Yeah, it’s weird, but I kind of like all the pieces of the process. I guess my least favorite part would be compositing the ‘people’ and entourage. Everyday viewers of our work love that part but for me it’s really time consuming to get the people to look natural.
What challenges do visualization artists face?
Well, I basically think the idea of artistic expression versus client intentions is a dominant theme. So I think there’s always an attempt to try to help them understand that it’s not always necessarily going to sell the building or be useful in supporting the design concept. Everyone wants to make a very moody image, like with haze and to look like there’s wetness on the ground and rain, everyone wants to make those images. You want to make an image of snow, or an image of fall. And sometimes the client, especially in more marketing phase, they really want it to be happy and bright and blue skies. Everyone should be open to the idea that there could be a way to sell it in a less traditional sense.
Design competitions can be difficult because they’re really fast. Normally the client is in the middle of designing something so they’re stressed because they don’t know yet where the project is going. But there’s something fun about this type of image pipeline. You can be a little bit more loose and a little more concept based. It can be really fun even though it’s kind of stressful. You can get some cool images when you get to work on competitions directly with architects. I think they can’t believe they just gave us a two day-old Rhino model that someone made, and they’ll get just an amazing world-class image.
What do you think is most important for new emerging artists to know about the field?
I think the important thing is to know that like most things it involves a lot of practice and iteration. There’s a lot of competitions like those held by Evermotion or Ronen Bekerman that allow you to experiment and take risks. When I was starting, I would just do an image on the weekend for no reason other than the fact that I wanted that ability to have complete creative freedom and test things without outside input. Even in architecture, it’s common for people do competitions outside of their office jobs just to practice on their own and get better. And not necessarily have to follow the direction of someone else who is going to tell you how it has to be. So just I would just advise young artists to experiment and practice. Another obvious thing is to look at great photography, go around, take photos, even to get new urban textures - that sort of stuff. For me, it was about sitting down on a weekend trying to see what I could come up with by the end of it.
How do you find inspiration for new projects? When you talked about the narrative, how do you start thinking about that?
One thing that I try not to do is to look at other renderings. That’s not saying that I don’t, but I don’t use that as a jumping off point for how I start to give art direction to a project. I would much rather start with architectural photography. Someone like Iwan Baan; he takes the most amazing photos of architecture - I mean they’re so – they almost look like renderings. Maybe I’ll start looking at his work and try to reproduce that quality of photography. I’m not a photographer but I enjoy good architectural photography. Another thing I’ll look at is high-end architectural magazines, like FRAME or Mark. They always have these interesting projects that have cool designs. Also just tons of architectural websites where designers typically promote the latest built projects. So I say I try to look at actual built work for inspiration and not other renderings because that’s one of the end games. We’re trying to be realistic. That’s like saying instead of looking at actual things for realism, we’re going to look at other people’s interpretations of realism; that just seems kind of divorced from it.
While working as Head of CGi, what do you hope to learn and achieve?
I hope to achieve the continued development of new narrative approaches. Meaning not only new approaches to creative direction but building the structure between our offices and developing our core competencies. I think that personally I’m also hoping to learn more about the business operations side of an international practice like this. I‘ve spent a lot of time making images, so I’m interested in seeing that other aspect. Client relationships, marketing, project pitches, task and people organization, all of the tasks leading up to getting the work out the door. I’m just excited to be a part of those processes more because I think it’s the next step.
Where do you see the future headed for CGi?
I think some would say the future is VR [virtual reality] and AR [augmented reality], and I think those things are interesting platforms for client participation. I’ve seen a lot of what they can do. But I don’t think they’re necessarily going to replace films and animations as ways to convey experiences through moving images. Maybe they’ll work hand in hand moving forward. Who knows, maybe those platforms will get so real, the design community will turn against it. I see it moving forward as it has been; towards new levels of material and light realism and integration with traditional architectural representation. Another direction could well be the further hybridization of stills, film and data into more fluid and smarter marketing collateral.