Show and Grow
It’s one thing to say that urban agriculture is on the rise, but quite another to actually show what that could look like. To do that, Seattle’s UrbanHarvest contacted local boutique infographic design agency Killer Infographics, and together, they came up with an interactive experience showcasing a concept for a rooftop greenhouse.
Created using Maxon’s Cinema 4D and After Effects, the interactive package includes an introductory video tour of the expansive greenhouse, which could be situated atop city businesses or on the ground. After the tour, virtual visitors are invited to “explore” the greenhouse more in depth by clicking on a variety of buttons to learn more about everything from crop varieties and beneficial insects to ventilation and water purification.
UrbanHarvest’s founder Chris Bajuk plans to use the video and infographics to help make clear his vision of making healthy, tasty, locally grown food a reality for city dwellers. “Right now we’re working with a non-profit in Seattle that provides jobs for homeless and unemployed people that’s considering financing a hydroponic farm in one of the city parks,” Bajuk explains. Ideally, the farm would create jobs while also producing sustainably grown edibles.
Collaborating on Design
Bajuk had a few ideas in mind when he approached Killer Infographics, but those concepts really came to life as he began collaborating with the agency’s co-founder Amy Balliett. Because both companies are located in Seattle, the two were able to meet frequently to talk over ideas. In between meetings, they worked together using Google Docs. “Our process always starts with identifying all of the content for the interactive experience, especially the clickable items,” Balliett explains.
Interactive infographics are a fairly new offering by design agencies, and have been around for a couple of years. Though people often assume their objective is to show stats and data, Balliett says the real goal is to create a visual display of information that lets people explore things at their own pace. “I wanted people to be able to explore the greenhouse by clicking at various places or following arrows left or right,” recalls Bajuk. “You want people to learn more with being overloaded with a flood of information.”
After creating Google Doc spreadsheets containing all of the desired content for the infographics, Balliett’s team began creating wireframes in Cinema 4D. Wanting to ensure that everything looked as realistic as possible, they continually showed Bajuk 3D renderings as they worked. Freelance visual designer Misha Zaitsevsky, who works with Killer Infographics frequently, was the main artist behind both the video tour and the interactive greenhouse.
It was he who suggested the team use Cinema 4D for the project because the software would allow them to create the photo-realistic look they were after. “We had other options, but Misha said Cinema was our best choice for getting the lighting and angles that we needed,” Balliett says, adding that all of the designers they work with have come from design schools where C4D was a prerequisite.
Starting With a Sketch
To create the interactive infographics, Zaitsevsky first drew the approved ideas out on paper before modeling everything in C4D. He likes to work that way, and in this case he taped a piece of trace paper to his laptop screen and penciled over it according to the measurements he’d been given of the greenhouse. Next, he colored everything in with colored pencils. “I had some pictures from Amy and I drew everything out really fast and then Amy would give me feedback,” he recalls. After about 3 versions, the sketch was approved.
Zaitsevsky knew there were about 15 things that needed to go into the space, and he also knew he needed a camera pass that would mostly be looking at everything from one side. “The challenge was to arrange things and block them out so it would look cool if you took pictures from inside or up top like actual greenhouse,” he explains.
After putting the sketch on a plane, he tried to get a feel for how switching between cameras would work. And he modeled most everything seen in the greenhouse himself, save for the furniture seen in the greenhouse’s kitchen area. “I got that right out of Cinema, so that was a huge time save,” he says. To give the curtains he made a realistic look, he used C4D’s physics simulator.
To streamline the creation of the many plants in the greenhouse, many of which needed to be fairly detailed because they were in the foreground, Zaitsevsky modeled about six different plants and every time he cloned one he rotated and scaled it just a bit. In all, each plant has about 60 cloned variations and the scaling makes them look even more random. “I’m a visual designer, not a 3D specialist, so it was great to do this kind of 3D so quickly and easily without having to be a 3D professional,” he says. “That gave us so much more time to worry about design and not how hard everything was.”
Zaitsevsky used Global Illumination to create the light coming in through the back of the greenhouse, tweaking the look to get the “perfect amount of bounces.” Wanting the light to look real, he was careful to composite out fixtures and light bulbs once he’d achieved the desired effect. Compositing was done in After Effects. “We put a high level of detail into every single aspect of the greenhouse to allow for zooming directly into each room or section,” Balliett explains. “Even the texture on the shade curtains kept things feeling realistic and a part of the full environment.”
Balliett credits Zaitsevsky with helping to ensure that the greenhouse exceeded UrbanHarvest’s expectations. “We’re pretty picky about the freelancers we partner with since the majority of our designers are in-house,” she says. But Misha has always been a great part of our killer team and his ability to come in-house to work on this project ensured some great collaboration.”
Meleah Maynard is a freelance writer and editor in Minneapolis.