Designing/Modeling a Stage Setting in 3D

As we are working on staging a play about the work and life of Heinrich von Kleist (I have written before about my Kleist research), it was upon me to create a visual representation of the ideas for the stage setting that the director came up with and basically draw up a plan/model of the stage and audience seating area.

The early days: Modeling in Microsoft Word and Excel

Truss in WordIn the early days (that is some 10+ years ago) I used to do this in Microsoft Word and Excel. While these tools are anything but ideal, money was tight back then and I had to make do with what I had. On the left is the “3D rendering” of the truss used to hang the various stage lighting instruments that I did in Microsoft Word in 2002. The picture is not that bad, if you ask me, as it does show the main points and gives one a basic idea of what the truss looks like. It is, however, far from perfect, let alone drawn to scale.

Thankfully, things have changed in the past ten years and today there are quite a number of software packages available that are supposed to make drawings like this a snap. I had heard others rage about packages such as WYSIWYG that also allow you to create an entire design in 3D on the computer before even going near an actual stage. Unfortunately, one things that hasn’t changed for me, is the fact that money is still tight and these things are quite expensive. While I am sure they are worth their cost to professionals, I cannot afford something like this.

Going 3D: Google Sketchup

Luckily, there are a couple of free solutions that looked like they could be up to the job. The first one I found after a bit of research online was Google Sketchup. It’s actually a general purpose 3D modeling tool, one that could be used to create 3D building models for Google Earth, for instance, but there are some, who seem to have used it successfully for the particular kind of modeling I wanted to do.

Platforms in SketchupHowever, after watching some of the tutorials and playing around with the software for a while I realized this software wasn’t what I needed. Here’s what bothered me. First, it is kind of difficult to create shapes of particular sizes and or positions. I have used several design tools for creating user interfaces in applications before, and a common way to build something is to drop an object onto the design surface and then set properties on it, such as its size, position, appearance etc. This is not how Sketchup works, however. Maybe I am missing something here, but as far as I could tell, once one had drawn a line or created a surface, one could find out their dimensions, but not modify them. Creating items that are of the exact size I needed proved extremely tedious this way.

Navigating the model was also considerably more complicated than I think it should have been. Because manipulating items in a very exact fashion required me to zoom into the model to make precise mouse movements and some things were easier to do in a 2D view, I would frequently switch between views, zoom levels and move around the model. Each of these steps required a couple of mouse clicks as many of the view options are in sub-menus of the application’s main menu. The user interface (see screenshot here) is quite old-fashioned that way and could really use a ribbon-style interface, if you ask me.

So no wonder that after an hour the simple drawing that you see on the right is all I could come up with. It shows the platforms the audience seats are to be placed on as simple blocks.

One excellent feature that is worth mentioning, however, is push/pull (which apparently they have a patent for). In a nutshell, it’s a really easy way to draw the outlines of an object in 2D and then grab the resulting surface and pull it up to create a three-dimensional shape. Another one is the different ways things are docked to one another automatically depending on what corner you pulled on. This is extremely helpful, even if at first I hadn’t noticed that the docking was so smart and I was frustrated when docking worked as I wanted it to in one instance (when I had dragged the correct corner) and didn’t in another (when I had dragged a different corner).

Just what I was looking for: grandMA 3D

A bit frustrated and pretty close to going back to doing my modeling in Microsoft Office I searched a bit more online and finally found grandMA 3D from MA Lighting. This software turned out to be almost everything I was looking for, especially with regards to price: it’s free.

One of the very minor negatives I noticed is the user interface, which is a bit different from what I had expected. For instance, you can’t just drag objects to move at random, but only move them in one dimension at a time. Also, I still haven’t figured out how to dock things automatically. To be fair though, I haven’t even looked at the documentation or tutorials yet, because most of what I needed to do was so intuitive.

But since there is a property editor for every item, I can get the positioning exactly right by entering values manually. The overview of all items in the model is vey helpful for checking that they are all exactly where I want them to be.

Looking at the model in different ways is also super easy. For each model there are different views on different tabs. For instance, I might position some items in a 2D top view, because it is easier to manipulate with a 2D input device such as mouse and also renders faster on my rather slow machine. Having done this, I might switch to the 3D view and make sure that everything is where it should be in the third dimension as well. It took me a while to figure this out, but once you know that  holding down the right mouse-button while moving the mouse pans the virtual camera through which you view the model, navigation within a view is also super-easy.

So in about the same time it took me in Google Sketchup to create that “thing” you see above (I don’t dare calling it a model), I did this wonderful 3D model of the same platforms complete with chairs and everything. Of course, the comparison is a bit unfair, as grandMA 3D comes with a lot of items such as platforms, chairs and tables built-in for me to use and I tried to do everything form scratch in Sketchup.

Platforms in grand MA 3D

So the next thing for me to do is probably modeling the rest of the of the stage and the truss sop I can hang some lights and check out my light design. That is, if my computer is fast enough, because upon start-up the software had already warned me that the graphics in my computer might not be up to the task. I might need to reconsider my decision to postpone any investments into newer hardware.

[2011-09-19 Update] Not to brag or anything, but after putting in a couple of more hours, this is what the model came out like

StageFinal

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