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SketchUp in production – an interview with Alex Jenyon

Can you tell us a bit about the kind of work you do?
I’m a freelance matte painter and concept artist in the visual effects industry in London. I’m hired to design and produce concept paintings and matte painted backgrounds for commercials, TV shows, feature films and… other random internet-based stuff. All kinds of things, really.

What are some of the big projects you’ve worked on recently ?
I did a lot of design work and matte paintings for the, erm, ‘amusingly’ titled comedy/horror film ‘Lesbian Vampire Killers’. It came out in the UK in March – no idea if the rest of the world has had the pleasure yet. It’s not a particularly high-profile film, but it was a LOT of fun to work on. I’ve also worked on Guy Ritchie’s ‘RocknRolla’, ‘Human Body: Pushing the Limits’ for Discovery, Nick Moran’s new film ‘Telstar’ and the Hollywood film ‘Stardust’. Lots of commercials, too – UEFA Champion’s League, Hyundai, Toyota, Co-op, Ribena… Right at the moment, though, I’m doing some designs for the re-imagined ‘The Day of the Triffids’.

How did you get in to doing this kind of work?
I studied Theatre Design at Central Saint Martins in London. It was a good course in terms of developing design skills, but not that good at teaching technical ability. So during my summer breaks, I got a job at Sony Computer Entertainment as an ‘assistant computer game designer’ – a LOT less glamorous than it sounds. But it did mean that they taught me the 3D application ‘Maya’, so by the time I graduated I had experience of both the (rather pretentious) world of theatre design, as well as the ‘down and dirty’ world of a studio game production. Slightly weird mix, but it’s helped me ever since…

When I was working in Bristol, I started using ‘Maya’ to produce rough 3D block models of the sets I was designing. The director would then choose a camera angle, I’d print out the render really faintly onto cartridge paper, and draw out the design in pen and ink. I’d then scan the drawing back in, and use Corel Painter to colour it. Once the painting was signed off, I would then go back to the Maya Model, and try to extract the working drawings needed to actually build the 1/4 scale sets. I thought I was being cutting edge at the time, but in retrospect it was a pretty clunky, inflexible, slow process.
A while after graduating, I managed to get a job helping out in the art department of a small stop-motion animation company in Bristol. They were just starting work on a feature version of ‘The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers’, and I was hired to to ‘do a bit of photoshop’. I ended up staying for 8 months, and helping design a lot of the sets the film would need. Sounds great so far, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, they didn’t get the funding they wanted to finish the film, I ended up working behind a bar, and because the designs I had done were under non-disclosure I couldn’t show them to anyone to get a new job! I therefore spend a lot of time (this was 2005) working on my portfolio, and it picking up bits of freelance work where I could.
Early 2006, though, I got a call out of the blue from ‘The Mill’ in London. They do visual effects solely for commercials, and they hired me as a texture artist on a short-term contract, which again turned into quite a few months of work. A while after I started working there, they got in a commercial that needed a football stadium as a background, and the producer gave the job to me. I therefore went back to my desk, and made the background they wanted using a combination of 3D models, painted 3D cards and projected textures. I was congratulated on producing a ‘good matte painting’.
Up until that point, I’d never really considered that what I had been doing actually WAS a matte painting, or that this was what I wanted to do with my career. But after being unwittingly paid to produce my first one, I’ve been doing them ever since. It’s a great combination of creativity, technical ability, problem solving and storytelling that I really enjoy, so I’m really grateful it sort of landed in my lap…
So how did you start using SketchUp?
Late in 2005, I got a contract with an online games company to do some set designs for a virtual casino. I promised I’d turn up the next week with my ‘own kit’, and start work. Problem was I didn’t own a laptop at the time, and certainly didn’t have the money for a copy of Maya to run on it. So I had about a week to buy a laptop, find a 3d modeling package I could afford, and then, um, learn it…
(Image ©Neverstop inc.) (Image ©Neverstop inc.)

I can’t remember how I stumbled across it, but about 40mins after downloading the demo to SU5, I’d already decided on it. That weekend, I therefore cycled about 10miles to the nearest Apple dealership, bought a Refurbished Powerbook and a copy of SketchUP5, and turned up for work on Monday. It was the perfect choice – and I quickly realized I’d been using Maya for a purpose it was never designed for. SU would have been a vastly easier, quicker, superior choice. I’ve been using it ever since.Like a lot of projects, it never got anywhere, so I can’t show the VERY FIRST work I did using SketchUP. This picture is from only a few weeks later, though. (Image ©Neverstop inc.)

Can you give us some idea of your workflow? How does SketchUp fit in to your day-to-day work?
I use SketchUP extensively all of my design and planning work. It’s very rare that I use it to produce finished renders or models, but it’s a crucial ‘first step’ in my design process. I use it to make rough set visualisations, choose camera angles, and lay out the perspective required for further painting. Probably easiest to explain with an example:


Because I found myself working in studios without access to either a printer or a scanner, I was forced to make a big shift in my painting style – instead of producing meticulously neat line drawings on paper, I started simply painting over the SketchUP renders digitally. My use of pencil and paper has been declining ever since (I don’t think I’ve touched a pencil for about 8 months now).
Every few months, I decide that I’m using SketchUP as a kind of ‘crutch’, and that I’m going to do a painting ‘from scratch’, without using any 3D at all. I then spend a frustrating amount of time constructing perspective grids by hand, working out vanishing points and drawing endless thumbnails – and the result is always slightly inferior. With a sketch model constructed in 3D, I know that the scene I’m painting is physically possible, that the perspective is correct, and that I’m happy I’ve chosen the best composition. I can then concentrate on the more creative aspects of the painting – the atmosphere, lighting, form, texture, details – knowing that the basics of the painting are sound.

What are your favourite features of SketchUp?
My number one ‘feature’ of SketchUP is not really a feature at all, but the actual modelling / inference system itself. Because I sit half-way between 2D and 3D, I love the fact that SketchUP is a 3D package in which you actually draw lines to construct your models, rather than having to worry about polygons, vertices and control points. In terms of actual features, I’ve found ‘styles’ and ‘photomatch’ to be incredibly useful. Google’s 3D warehouse has also been a great help (you can see why I was so pleased with SU6!). When I have only a few minutes to construct a set, 3D warehouse in invaluable. It’s particularly useful for storyboarding – if the script specifies ‘helicopter’, it doesn’t really matter what KIND of helicopter at the storyboarding stage. It’s obviously going to matter later on, but at the storyboarding stage all the matters is that there is a helicopter in the scene – and I can probably find one in only a few minutes on 3DW.

©Chrome Productions (Boards) / Thanks to 3DW user 'moom' for helicopter model ©Chrome Productions (Boards) / Thanks to 3DW user ‘moom’ for helicopter model

Do you use any companion software with SketchUp – i.e. a rendering or animation solution?
I’ve recently purchased ‘Vue’ to help with my matte painting work. It is still a little bit flakey as an application, but it deals with SketchUP geometry really well. An SU model tends to have all kinds of smoothing and normals issues when importing into Maya, but Vue never seems to have any problems. I’ve therefore been able to use SketchUP as the first stage of some of my matte paintings, as well as my concept design work.
Here is an example of starting with a rough SketchUP model, matching it to a real-world plate, and then producing a photo-real matte painting:

SketchUp Model SketchUp Model
Vue Render with live-action plate Vue Render with Live-action plate
Final Matte Painting Final Matte Painting

One of Vue’s big selling points is the ‘ecosystem’ feature, which lets you ‘grow’ landscapes containing hundreds of thousands of realistic plants. However, you can put ANYTHING into these ecosystems – including SketchUP geometry. This lets you ‘grow’ entire cities from scratch, or produce crowds of people to fill a stadium. As I don’t have any work I can show you (damn NDA’s again), here’s a very quick example of ‘growing’ a shanty town on the side of a hill. shantyTotal time to produce this image (inc. 10 min render): 30mins. It could certainly do with some post work, but it’s a good demonstration of the ease with which very complicated scenes can be produced.

What Ruby scripts do you rely on?
I never really find myself using many ruby scripts – not really sure why. I’ve got all the really significant ones installed/purchased (FFD, ToS, SoapSkin, SDS etc.) I’ve used each of them once or twice when I had a modelling problem that I couldn’t solve any other way, but most of the time I find the standard tools sufficient for the ‘quick and dirty’ models I normally produce. Since my work is all about speed, I don’t really get much time to experiment while I’m on a job – so learning more of the capabilities of these scripts is something I need to work on in my own time.
I have found a lot of use for a nice little script from Mr. Marshall (camera2modo), that exports SU camera to… Modo (unsurprisingly). I’ve been using it as the first stage in an unnecessarily complex workflow to get the camera data, eventually, into Vue. I’ve been re-writing the script as a ‘one click’ export from SU to Vue, which has been taxing my brain (unused to coding) to the limit. I’ve got even more respect for the Ruby guys now! When (if) I get it to work without all the heinous hacks I’m currently employing, I’ll post it out the the community.

How would you like to see SketchUp develop?
I’m still using SU6, as I couldn’t see anything in SU7 that would help me in my work. For Architects and Product designers, I’m sure dynamic components are a brilliant new tool, but they aren’t particularly useful to me at all. Along with the rest of the SU community, I’d obviously like to see the mundane things fixed first – the notorious shadow bug (that’s tripped me up in front of clients), better performance with high polycounts, more import / export formats… all the boring stuff.
In terms of a wish list, I’d LOVE to get openGL support for more than one light source. I often use SU to work out what’s going to be in shadow in a particular scene, and the single light source rather limits this to outdoor sets only. Native directional, point and spotlights would be brilliant.

And you’ve got a new tutorial for us?
I posted a tutorial on one of my background paintings for ‘Lesbian Vampire Killers’ last month, which seemed to go down really well. It’s been translated into French (thanks to Frenchy Pilou), posted on a Brazillian SU usergroup, and hit my server with nearly 7GB of bandwidth…
Here’s another from the same series – ‘part 2’ if you like:

Stage 1: SketchUP Model Stage 1: SketchUp Model
Stage 2: Chosen camera angle Stage 2: Chosen Camera angle
Stage 3: Sky added, Levels adjusted Stage 3: Sky added, Levels adjusted
Stage 4: Details painted in using small chalk brush Stage 4: Details Painted in using small chalk brush
Stage 5: Atmosphere and lighting effects added to create the final background painting Stage 5: Atmosphere Lighting effects added to create the final background painting

Where can we see more?
I’ve got a lot more work on my website, which I try to keep updated as often as possible. There’s a showreel there too, so you can see some of my paintings ‘in motion’.

Oh, and before I finish, here’s a little experiment of mine – using Justin Chin’s SketchUP character rigging hack for a piece of character design:


Thanks for reading.
Alex Jenyon
May 2009

David Allan and his book: “Why We Feel “Road Rage” … And Why It’s Your Fault!”

Introduction :

Isn’t it about time someone stood up for those of us who feel “road rage” without letting it affect our behavior? Most of us are careful, considerate, non-aggressive drivers who are forced to navigate through a sea of “F”s on our way from point A to point B. This book is the first of its kind to explain why we feel the way we do, and who’s really to blame!

About Allan :

David Allan was born with a unique outlook on the human race. While considerate and attentive to the needs of good people, he has always believed that “F”s deserve to be exposed and ridiculed for their bad behavior.

Seen here, he experiences his very first "drawer ding."

Seen here, he experiences his very first "drawer ding."

A few years later, he came upon his first left-lane hog.

A few years later, he came upon his first left-lane hog.

Then there was that time when young David took a header because an "F" abruptly skidded into a driveway without paying attention.

Then there was that time when young David took a header because an "F" abruptly skidded into a driveway without paying attention.

On his first day of college at the Institute of "F"-inology, he encountered yet another jerk.

On his first day of college at the Institute of "F"-inology, he encountered yet another jerk.

People have often asked Mr. Allan what the future holds for him, and he has indicated that he intends to continue his life's work for as long as he is able ....... longer if necessary.

People have often asked Mr. Allan what the future holds for him, and he has indicated that he intends to continue his life's work for as long as he is able .......

...... longer if necessary.

...... longer if necessary.

Interview :

SketchUpArtists: Let’s start with you giving us a one-line synopsis of your new book, Why We Feel “Road Rage” … And Why It’s Your Fault!

David Allan: In a nutshell, it’s an illustrated, humorous rant designed to cheer up frustrated drivers.

SA:Why this book?

DA: I saw an aching need for frustrated drivers to be “heard.” In my research, I found that people like me don’t suddenly become frustrated, nor do we frustrate ourselves. No, the sad truth is that our emotions are strictly caused by others, after repeatedly being subjected to their clueless, inconsiderate and annoying antics.

SA: Is that where the “Your Fault” part of the title comes from?

DA: Exactly! I judge the human race with an exaggerated form of pass/fail grading … good people are members of Class A, and the rest belong to Class F (I call them “F”s, for short).

SA : “F”s?

DA: Yes … “F” stands for “F”ailure (and for “F”ault). The “F” theme is central to the book. I grade bad driving behavior using an “F” Meter. I’ve also created an imaginary, all-powerful super vehicle – the “F”-INATOR – which punishes bad driving behavior in many of the book’s episodes. I’ve even discovered a medication pr oven to reduce on-road “inflammation” … it’s called Preparation “F”.

SA : How did you come up with the idea to illustrate the complete book in Sketchup?

DA: I always knew that I would illustrate my book in 3D space, because I knew that I’d never be able to achieve each scene’s desired perspective and camera angle on the first pass. Also, I wanted my illustrations to be better than those of other books I’d seen, virtually all of which had “cartoonish” illustrations. Sketchup was a perfect fit for my needs. It was reasonably priced, intuitive to learn, technical support was excellent, and there were libraries available when models exceeded my skill level (in that regard, the people at FormFonts were very helpful and supportive).

SA: How long have you been using Sketchup?

DA: Just about a year and a half. Compared to models and scenes created by some of the Sketchup experts out there, I’m clearly a novice. But for my needs … creating simple, easy-to-understand scenes to augment my book’s text … Sketchup was ideal.

SA : Is this a hobby or a profession?

DA: Well, I was lucky enough to be able to take a sabbatical to write and illustrate this book full-time. But like many others, the sour economy has forced me back into the everyday working world. Authorship will be relegated to a part-time avocation for me in the future, but I fully intend to keep writing and illustrating more books.

SA: Are there any on the horizon?

DA: I hope to write an entire Why It’s Your Fault! series. I’ve drafted about 50 episodes so far for my next working title, Why Golf Is So Frustrating … And Why It’s Your Fault! I’ve talked with my new friend Pete Stoppel about possibly collaborating on this next book, so hopefully I’ll be able to bring this one to market more quickly than the last.

SA: Well, David, thank you for your time today and we wish you the best of luck.

DA: No, thank YOU! I’m thrilled at the opportunity to make new friends in the Sketchup world.

SA: One last thing … where can people buy the book?

DA: It can be ordered though  Amazon , Barnes and Noble and through my site. Oh … and don’t forget to listen to my road rage song on my website!

Author Stats:

• School attended: Institute of “F”-inology.

• Year awarded with Roads Scholarship: 2001

• Number of patents pending: 1 (the “F”-INATOR)

• Number of inventions: 1 (the “F” Meter)

• Number of scientific discoveries: 1 (Preparation “F”)

• Number of books written (so far): 1

• Number of comic strips created: 1

• Favorite number: 1

Another testimonial:

“David Allan has a way with words. His crazy, smart sense of humor makes you look at road rage in a whole new way. What used to drive me nuts on the road now just makes me laugh.”

Dianna S. – Domestic Goddess

Yet another testimonial:

“This book is basically a bible of driving frustration. [It] just had me laughing from cover to cover.”

Cruisin’ Bruce Palmer -100 FM “The Pike”

Worcester’s Classic Hits!


This week (30/04/09) we are focusing on a well known artist in the field of digital watercolor. Snoopywang’s style is instantly recognisable when you see it.His bold artistic style with both exterior and interior 3D models is quite unique. His ease of use with Piranesi and Google SketchUp shows many years of patience and practice, which has made him stand out from the rest.  Wang himself states ‘Piranesi is more like an electronic pen and don’t expect it to do so many things automatically’.He states that ‘Piranesi is not a software but a tool, and in your hands it’s the marker pen and the watercolor pen’. He has also a few interesting Piranesi tutorials which we

Recent Work

Recent Work

Marker Pen and Watercolor

Marker Pen Watercolor

Watercolor (delicate strokes)
Watercolor (delicate strokes)

Interior Watercolor
Interior Watercolor


Pepe from Google 3D Warehouse

This week (23/04/09) we are delighted to present the work of Pepe from the Google 3D Warehouse. His choice of models and especially his amazing application of textures and photo matching has left us speechless. Here is a sample of some of his work. These great models and much more are all available for download at Google 3D Warehouse.

Hame Castle Part A

A medieval royal castle on the shore of Lake Vanajavesi in Hameenlinna city. This file (part A) contains the main castle, the cannon tower and the lakeside section of the outer wall.


Bates’ Motel

Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller, Psycho (1960) and its sequels, were filmed at the set located in Universal Studios, Hollywood, California. Now you can step into the scenery and, like the original first film, it is black-and-white. Although the house, motel and stairs in this model should be on their actual present places and in approximate scale, some of the details and textures are a mix of fictional and its former appearance; specially the interior views which have been modified because of the functionality. WARNING!: Contains some of the main scenes from the film. (Trees in model: SetTree3D).


Hame Castle Part B

Medieval royal castle on the shores of Lake Vanajavesi in Hameenlinna city. This file (part B) contains Crown bakery, office building and the gate to the outer courtyard.


Young willow

Young willow as a bush and older white willow. Scaling sizes: Willow up to 5m, white willow 13-20m. Be careful with scaling and rotating to avoid popping of the axis.


Hame Castle Part C

Medieval royal castle on the shore of Lake Vanajavesi in Hameenlinna city. This file (part C) contains Bailey buildings of the main castle.


Hameenlinna Railway Station

The first railway line in Finland was opened in 1862 between Helsinki and Hameenlinna. The current station in Hameenlinna was built after the destruction of the original station in 1918. The station was drawn by architect Thure Hellstrom and it was completed in 1921. (Trees in model: “SetTree3D”, Taxi from “Google Sedan Store”). See also these beautiful 3D models: “Helsinki Central Railway Station” by Ilesoft and “The Railway Station of Hyvinkaa” by RSuonio.


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