SketchUp in the Film Industry

Led by Brad

Brad started his career in architecture and eventually moved into the film industry in Hollywood.

Notes by Andrew

Andrew is an engineer on the SketchUp team, specializing in build automation, installers, localization, and software development infrastructure.

Approximately 20 folks attended this session, some who were simply curious about the topic and others who are deeply embedded in the industry already.  A couple of SketchUp and LayOut developers were present also.

Table of Contents

I. Overview

II. Major Talking Points

III. Wish List

IV. Response from SketchUp Developers

I. Overview

Brad discussed his background in film and then presented specific projects with which he was involved in order to show how he has applied SketchUp and LayOut to his work in Hollywood.  He primarily focused on visualization, including bridging storyboarding to pre-visualization, set and prop design, set construction, and geographic site surveying and exploration.  Several other folks who were present also chimed in about their experiences, one of whom is a seasoned cinematographer.

A particularly important element of this talk is the “Film and Stage Plugin” that was written by @Last Software many years ago and has not been updated since being acquired by Google.  In addition to the great strengths of using SketchUp for film work, participants also discussed some of the limitations or shortcomings, which are reflected in these notes as a wish list.

Following the conclusion of the talk, representatives from Google met with several of the more vocal participants in order to better understand the “wish list” items and to discuss possible paths for improving and updating the old Film and Stage Plugin.  Elements of those responses are included at the end.

II. Major Talking Points

  1. A common use case for SketchUp in film involves inheriting models created by others, in a variety of programs.  SketchUp makes it easy to import such models and quick to clean them up, improve them, and get them sent on their way for approval or further discussion.

  2. Match Photo is a good tool for early set design when it is already known where a particular scene will be shot and the building or stage is already constructed. Real photographs can be easily converted into SketchUp models which can then be improved directly in SketchUp, or exported to other programs for additional work.

  3. A great element of SketchUp is the ability for people to download it for free, open a model provided by someone else, and then use basic orbiting, measuring, dimensioning, and other tools to comprehend that model and obtain exactly the information they need to know.  That way a designer does not have to take the time to add dimensions for every single item that will need to be built, since the construction folks can do it themselves and get as much or as little data as desired.

  4. LayOut is an incredibly valuable addition to toolset for film work and by itself proves the case why film professionals should purchase SketchUp Pro.  LayOut is so straightforward to use and so well suited for creating construction documents from SketchUp set models that in many cases, a concept can be developed in the morning by a designer and then by the afternoon, the LayOut file with fully specified construction documents can be given to the department that will make the set or props accordingly.  It is very simple to put together incredibly professional and detailed plans in a hurry, and to change those plans just as quickly if necessary, due to the integration between SketchUp and LayOut.

  5. SketchUp is a great tool for the work that needs to happen a step or two before pre-visualization.  Set design is perhaps the biggest thing it does well at the moment.  Construction, electrical, lighting, artwork, paint, etc. are all easy to visualize in SketchUp, allowing the overall stage and set to be considered and tweaked ad infinitum before being built.  MotionBuilder is a better tool for capturing the visualization aspects of where actors or cameras are to be positioned and how they will move as the scene plays out, but that tool doesn’t have the ability to so quickly and easily display, in a very compelling way, exactly what the constructed stage will look like.  It is in instances like this that the Film and Stage plugin becomes very valuable.

  6. The Film and Stage Plugin, which as mentioned is severely out-of-date and also a bit buggy, is a plugin whose primary strength is in the manipulation of the viewport to reflect the exact way in which the 3D space will be seen through a specific camera (lens, aspect ratio, field of view, focal length, etc.).  Although it does have its problems, a great deal of meaningful work can be accomplished by using the Film and Stage plugin to manipulate the camera.  There’s a long wish list for possible improvements, addressed in the next section.

  7. One important use of the film plugin is for set design.  If only part of a movie set will be visible in a given scene, knowing the precise details allows sets to be simplified, saving time and money on their construction, since off-camera portions will not be built.  This is a situation in which knowing the camera frustum is particularly important.

  8. Another important use of the film plugin is to prove out the required camera position for a given view, which is important in the event that walls or props must be omitted or made movable in order for a particular shot to be obtained within a tight space.

  9. An interesting use of SketchUp is to create the backdrop, set and circumstances in SketchUp, and then pull actual images out of the storyboards to stand-in for the actors or props.  By then modeling at least the basic shapes and structures of such items at their proper scale in SketchUp, it becomes possible to prove exactly where such items will need to be placed on set, or to what scale they would need to be built, in order to allow the camera to capture them as the storyboards portray.  Visualizations such as this are done before the items are physically built, which saves a lot of potential rework.

  10. SketchUp can be used for storyboarding.  In some cases, 3D models of sets, or at least of the general location, are available even before storyboards are created.  If a model of the set already exists, or if one can be easily generated, then it is a relatively simple operation to create 2D props and actors that can be placed into the scene and viewed in context through the camera.  Following that, it is a simple matter of exporting images to create a series of traditional storyboards.  And, creating each position as a scene, storyboarding can be made interactive by animating through the changing scenes.  The applicability of sketchy-edge styles and of creating custom styles with Style Builder in this circumstance is self evident, giving the output a genuinely sketched look and feel.

  11. "Get Location" is a very useful tool for set designers and the new features in SketchUp 8 for detailed color imagery and highly precise terrain data from Earth are extremely compelling and people cannot wait to put them to use for film work.  Even with previous SketchUp versions, whether it’s being able to show that a given location has enough open space to support the necessary cameras, crew, equipment, trailers, etc., or helping to find a suitable location in which to find a particular set of geographic features, the geographic tools are crucial to some aspects of movie making.  The terrain data provided in SketchUp is incredibly valuable due to the way it minimizes surveying.  Instead of choosing multiple sites at random and then surveying them all until a suitable location is found, SketchUp’s integration with map data allows folks to identify a much smaller candidate list of sites and perform far less surveying, at considerable savings of cost and time.

  12. The addition of Street View imagery in SketchUp 7.1 is probably still undiscovered by many film professionals, but those who know about it have come to rely on it.  Street View data from as yet un-modeled areas makes it very easy to model the scene surrounding a real-world place where filming is to occur and even helps designers and cinematographers locate out-of-the-way places or more exciting places for filming that are near the already planned location of a shoot.  Seeing the surrounding buildings can immensely improve visualization, even when used as a 2D backdrop.  Beyond that, the modeling features of SketchUp with Street View data allow such buildings to be very easily created in 3D for even better 3D visualization.  The same potential exists for areas where Building Maker data is available, as it greatly simplifies the construction of real-world geometry.

  13. The “Nearby Models” feature of SketchUp provides the ability to utilize any models that are contained in the 3D Warehouse and are geo-located within the captured imagery area, which can save an incredible amount of time versus having to model them from scratch.

  14. The primary limitation with SketchUp out-of-the-box as it relates to film work is that in its basic form, the camera doesn't accurately represent real lens behavior.  The Film and Stage plugin was developed in order to allow the camera behavior to be finely tuned to represent true through-the-lens visualization of SketchUp models.

  15. A good camera plugin is incredibly valuable to people using SketchUp for work in the film industry. Among other things, a good plugin allows one to prove things like whether a crane is needed, what the boom microphones look like and what the cameras and lenses need to do. Above all, in order for folks to buy into using SketchUp for film work, the representations it creates must be trustworthy; the central problem with the Film and Stage Plugin today is that it is not trustworthy.  Since the installers have not been updated since SketchUp 5, the plugin itself is difficult to install with newer versions of SketchUp.  Due to upgrades to Ruby in newer versions of SketchUp, certain features of the plugin may not even run properly at all once installed.  In using the plugin, cinematographers have complained many of the camera properties seem incorrect and that they must go through quite a lot of work in order to ensure the SketchUp viewport accurately represents what will be seen through the lens.  Various workarounds to many of these problems have been discovered by folks over the past few years, including for instance, the “Camera Parameters” Ruby script, which can help provide users with the assistance achieving a realistic viewport, and purpose-built SketchUp models that contain visual references, around which users can manually resize their viewports to achieve more accurate views.

III. Wish List

  1. Industry professionals participating in the talk insist that updating SketchUp’s plugin and ensuring the math is correct would establish a very strong selling point to win over many others who do not yet use it. They would like to see a new Film and Stage plugin developed and provided by Google: one that runs and installs properly on SketchUp 7 and 8, and whose camera parameters are mathematically accurate and require no intervention or messy configuration. Although there are many uses for SketchUp and LayOut in the film industry, an awful lot of utility is lost without a trustworthy camera plugin.

  2. Cinematographers and set designers want to be able to generate a viewing frustum to show what is within the field of view of a given camera.   MotionBuilder is a good example of a tool that shows the frustum nicely.  MotionBuilder also animates a moving frustum across a path, but that isn’t important for a tool like SketchUp.  It would be nice for SketchUp to project a simple frustum in an orthographic plan view to visualize the context.

  3. Camera, lens, and viewport are all inextricably linked.  Film and stage work would be easier if SketchUp (or a plugin) could "know" all of the complex properties of the various lenses and cameras on the market (or allow lens information to be programmed into the tool) for the purpose of providing an accurate representation in the viewport.

  4. Measured camera movements (elevate, rotate, pan, tilt, roll, etc.) would be valuable in a film plugin.

  5. Instancing or a simple state engine for SketchUp would be great for storyboarding.

IV. Response from SketchUp Developers
  1. Regarding why the plugin has not been updated:  Developers at Google would like to develop a new Film and Stage plugin.  It has been on the “to-do” list for years, but other priorities have dominated over that period and it has not been possible so far to update the plugin.  The old one was pulled from further distribution when SketchUp 6 was released, partly because its installers needed to be updated, but mostly because it was known to have several problems and there was a desire to repair it before releasing a version to work with later SketchUp versions.  As Google engineers were unable to look into the implementation of the old plugin over the last few years and the original author is no longer with our team, the details of the problems remained unknown for a very long time.

  2. Regarding the desire to show camera frustum: This is already possible, but most people don’t know it’s there, because it’s a bit hidden.  Each camera from the Film and Stage plugin has a frustum that is created using construction lines.  By default, the frustum is hidden.  To expose it, you must unhide the Camera_POV layer that is created when the camera is added.

  3. Regarding some misconceptions about FOV: Some users of the Film and Stage plugin experience problems related to FOV for a somewhat silly reason.  In the film industry, FOV is generally referenced with regard to the horizontal distance, whereas SketchUp’s FOV input box expects vertical distance.  This can cause an awful lot of confusion for folks who are unaware of that fact, so keep that in mind when using the plugin.  It should be noted that there are known problems with many of the camera and lens definitions in the plugin, which is why the viewport may still look wrong even after taking the horizontal vs. vertical into account.  However, knowing that trick should help a lot.

  4. Regarding the utility of measured camera movements: Google engineers agree that such a feature would be “really cool.”

  5. Regarding the future of the film and stage plugin: As you no doubt realize, Google does not publicize its future product development plans.  Therefore, the following statement is by no means an affirmation of future plans or a promise of what is to come.  However, after hearing about the level of interest in the film and stage plugin and becoming excited about it themselves, a couple of folks on the Google SketchUp team have decided to look into whether they can put together an updated Film and Stage plugin (in their free time, if they get any).  If such an endeavor were to be undertaken, the engineers would hope to fix any mathematical problems that cause incorrect camera behavior (if found), correct problems with the library of cameras (lots of known problems there), ideally expand the camera library to include more lenses and configurations, ensure the plugin is compatible with the latest version of SketchUp, and possibly add some new features such as measured camera movements.  Again, this is not to say that Google will definitely undertake that work, but that a couple of engineers on the team have the hope of at least looking into it, as long as the rabbit hole doesn’t go too deep.