Utilizing 3D modeling in top feature films for Marvel, Disney, and Universal

January 17, 2020 Cara Bell

Getting started in the film industry can be a long, arduous process — just ask well-known art director Luke Whitelock. He knew what he wanted from a young age and took chances to become what he is now. As an art director, Luke takes ideas and brings them to reality. He’s worked on sets for major feature films including “Guardians of the Galaxy”, “Avengers: Infinity War”, and “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil”. He’s had clients of all sizes, but some of the most notable are Marvel, Disney, and Universal. As one of the first people to start using SketchUp for film, he’s known as the resident SketchUp guy in the United Kingdom. Learn how he utilizes 3D modeling to build some of the most iconic sets in the film industry today.

Luke standing in front of the finished set for Jasmine’s bedchamber, Aladdin. Credit: Disney

What’s your background in the film industry?

I knew I wanted to work in film from a very young age. At school, I had some fantastic teachers who encouraged me and built up my confidence. Inspired, I went on to study at Bournemouth Arts Institute. I started with foundation courses in Art and Design and a National Diploma in Audio Visual Production, finally settling on a Film Production Degree specializing in Art Direction.  

After graduating, I moved to London despite having little or no industry contacts. All the major UK studios are located around the outskirts of the city. The handful of contacts I did have were from visiting lecturers I’d met whilst studying. Through one of them, I got my first break working on a small show called “Sugar Rush” where I was hired as an Art Department Assistant. I continued doing a few TV jobs until getting my first feature film break on “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”. This is where I first discovered SketchUp. 

After you discovered SketchUp, how did you get started and where did it take you?

I learned to draft scenery by hand on huge A0 size drawing boards, the proper old school production technique. CAD programs were becoming more prevalent and the industry was slowly embracing it. However, I was not really a fan of CAD drawing as it felt so constricting.

When a colleague recommended SketchUp, I started experimenting with it to figure out how I could use it in my workflow and I quickly caught on. I finally made the decision to move from drafting on boards to doing everything in SketchUp and LayOut after a few years of testing the waters. 

Fast forward to today, I am an Art Director on major feature films and have worked for clients such as Marvel, Disney, and Universal. As an Art Director, it is my job to take the production designers' creations and turn them into a constructible set and location builds. I typically create the sets in SketchUp and collaborators can work off that model. Being able to work in SketchUp has created a niche for me in the UK market, so I often get approached when people have questions on how to use the program in their workflow.

SketchUp model of Arched Bay, version 1, Jasmine’s bedroom, Aladdin. Credit: Disney

SketchUp model of Jasmine’s bedchamber design, Aladdin. Credit: Disney

Any defining moments in your career?

Being part of the team behind six Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films has been a source of great pride. At the start of any film project, the team is never certain how successful it will be or the impact it will have on cultural landscapes, and I think MCU has done that. One big defining moment for me was designing the pods for “Avengers: Infinity War”, and getting to work on “Inception”. For “Inception”, we had no idea what we were making and it has become a classic film and will probably be studied in film schools for many years to come.

A big moment in Luke’s Career, “Avengers: Infinity War”. Credit: Marvel Studios

What excites you the most in this industry?

Each day is different. There are always new challenges and it’s a constantly evolving industry. When I started all those years ago, there was very little in the way of feature films being made in the UK. It was incredibly hard to sustain as a career, and there were many times I thought about giving up and taking a regular job with a steady wage. But slowly, investment increased and confidence in the UK film industry returned. We are at a point now where some of the studios in the UK are expanding rapidly for large media-service providers such as Netflix and Disney. For example, Shepperton Studios is undergoing an expansion which will make it one of the biggest studios in the world, Pinewood Studios is also expanding and adding stages. Old studios that closed years ago are reopening because of the demand for stage space. It’s a very exciting time to be in the film industry.


It seems like you are creating a lot of amazing sets for movies, which of course takes a lot of creativity. What is your “idea” or “brainstorm” process?

There are a few different ways I start this process: being assigned a set by the supervising art director, getting ideas from the production designer, or I may have some concept work to base my designs on. I’ll then start fleshing out a model based on the information I’m given. It becomes a bit like a sculpture where I’ll chip away at the model until something starts working. Then, this goes back and forth between myself, the designer, and the construction manager. We are able to lock down the design based on budget, shooting schedule and practicalities like whether it will fit in the stage, steelwork considerations and all the logistical considerations that most people don't realize goes into set design.

After dealing with all the details in the model, it’s time to bring it to life. Jasmine’s bedchamber, Aladdin. Credit: Disney

How do you go from SketchUp idea to a set being built for a feature film?

I have to consider the practicality of the design. By this, I mean that I will need to scrutinize the design to figure out how we build it. Some of the things I consider are: if the set is on a gimbal (a moving platform) of any kind, whether we will require walls to float for camera access or different camera moves. I need to be able to visualize all of these things.

It makes my life that much easier knowing that we tested something in the SketchUp model and it worked.

Testing out different angles in Jasmine’s Chamber and Balcony, Aladdin. Credit: Disney

Is 3D modeling important in the film industry now? 

With the prevalence of virtual reality, it is now more important than ever. You can build the set in SketchUp and the director can have a virtual walk around with the designer. It is fascinating how this technology has changed the essence of what we do. 3D models are great visual communication tools. If carpenters are looking at my drawing and can't work out how something fits, they can call me and I can orbit around the model and send them a screenshot of the 3D view. This helps them understand how something should be built. I have also worked with carpenters in SketchUp Viewer for Desktop.

This allows them to have the master model on a computer in their workshop so they can view specific parts of the model without the danger of accidentally changing the model. This is invaluable.
 
Luke reviewing model details for “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil”, credit: Disney

What does your workflow in SketchUp look like?

I manage my entire workflow in SketchUp, which means that anyone collaborating with me can work off of my original model. For example, I use the master file to farm out details to draftspeople in the department.

I start the process by blocking out the overall structure and setting up my sectional views as Scenes early on. This saves time if I am suddenly asked for a work in progress (WIP) plan or elevation because the model is dynamically linked to my LayOut file. No matter how far along I am in the modeling process, there is always a WIP drawing available to print at the drop of a hat. Due to stage sizes, the width, length, and height are normally established fairly early on for a set. I’ll take those dimensions and draw the walls and floors of the set in the model. At this early stage, everything goes into Layer0, which helps me work quickly. As I said before, I think of my design process like building a sculpture; I start with 3D blocks and gradually chip away by breaking it down into components and groups. The way I work often informs the design as I go. 

I am a stickler for good practice when it comes to 3D modeling in SketchUp. So, the first thing I do is make sure everything ends up as a named component or group and is assigned a layer. The second modeling practice I adhere to is that I model everything as a solid. I regularly run the CleanUp extension to make sure the model is light, clean, and free from unnecessary geometry, textures, and components. The third modeling practice is to hide anything that is not visible within a scene. This helps when I am trying to render a particularly big, complicated model — it eliminates unseen objects. The fourth trick is to keep shadows turned off until the drawing is complete. I’ll turn on shadows for the final pass of the drawing. In terms of styles, I make the line color dark grey, so it looks more pencil-like when printed out. I turn on profiles, make the section fill white, the section line color black, and the section line width set to 1. All of these style changes help the drawing pop in LayOut. 

For sections, I export the section cut to a new SketchUp file, set up a scene and I have two copies side-by-side. One copy is for line work only and the other is for hatching. I use the fill command from JHS PowerBar to fill the section and then I use the HatchFace plugin to hatch. I’ll then open these files in LayOut and overlay the section hatch and line work to get crisp sections. This method allows me to have complete control over line weight in the section cut. I always set the linework to vector and the hatch to hybrid render. 

If I am working with a draftsperson who works in a different program, I’ll generally export the details they need from my model either as a DWG file or an OBJ. 99% of the time they can open the export in AutoCAD or Vectorworks in order to complete the drawing. 

At the end of the day, everything comes from my original model which means we can always refer back to the master file should anything not add up.

Jasmine’s bedroom in SketchUp, version 2, Aladdin. Credit: Disney
 
 

LayOut file: Agrabah Parade Ground, Merchants balcony and arch detail, Aladdin. Credit: Disney

 

LayOut file: Jasmine’s chamber and balcony, Aladdin, Credit: Disney

What are the benefits of SketchUp for you?

SketchUp saves me time and is an amazing visualization tool; it’s key to my design method.
I have since said goodbye to 2D drafting on paper. The main benefit of SketchUp is being able to clearly show my designs to team members or the production designer. It’s easier for them to understand my ideas when they see it in 3D, and I don’t have to worry about revisions or feedback. In the old days, changing a detail could take a day when drawing on a board, but now it's a matter of hours. This means I can spend more time refining designs and less time doing rework.

What are some of your favorite projects?

One of my favorite projects was “Guardians of The Galaxy” because it was a lot of fun. We shot over a glorious summer in 2013 and I remember this was the first film where I used only SketchUp and LayOut. It was a revelation to me just how much time I was saving by not drawing on the board. Another favorite project was “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil”, which was my first job as an art director. I will be eternally proud of that movie. 

I also worked on “Prometheus”, and who doesn't want to work on an alien movie with Ridley Scott, or “Inception” with Christopher Nolan? I am very lucky to find myself in these situations, but it has not been an easy ride getting there. It has required an incredible amount of hard work along the way.
 
 
LayOut file of the Great Hall, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Credit: Disney
 

The Great Hall brought to life, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Credit: Disney

Wow! All of these projects sound incredibly fun and noteworthy. Your hard work has certainly paid off!

What’s your favorite SketchUp command?

Command Z! Ha Ha. No, I think my favorite command is the simple push/pull. It is the very essence of SketchUp and why I felt confident using the program.

The ease of use and intuitiveness with which I was able to pick up the program so quickly is the reason I’m here doing what I do today. 

Do you use any extensions?

Yes, I use a lot in my workflow. Some extensions that I use regularly are Round CornerHatch FaceQuadFace ToolsPower BarFredo ScaleSolid Inspector 2GKWare Stair MakerCleanUpMirrorV-RaySolar NorthSub D1001 Bit Pro. There are so many great plugins and a huge appreciative shout out to all those developers coming up with scripts.

Luke proudly stands in the Great Hall, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Credit: Disney

For more information about Luke Whitelock and his work, check out his Instagram page

About the Author

Cara Bell

When Cara's not writing copy or learning about customer workflows, you can find her on top of a 14,000 ft mountain, hitting up those Colorado ski slopes, or binging Netflix shows on her couch.

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