It’s no mystery why we put people in our designs. People are the quickest way to an emotional connection. With the right visual cues, you can evoke deep feelings, turning a simple image into a source of awe or aspiration. In architectural visualization, we try to shape those feelings, working off the perceptions most of us share. While we are all creatures of circumstance, using our experiential knowledge to guide us day-to-day, a lot of our conditioning is the same. Which is why it is so important to consider how you use people when you create visualizations of your designs.
Entourage are your visual guides, alerting the viewer to the story or feelings you want to convey. Sometimes that story is one of usage, an explanation of how someone interacts or moves about a space. Other times, it’s a bit more abstract. Whatever the direction, the art of entourage is really a study of composition, conditioning, and narrative. The more you know about each topic, the better your visualization will turn out—especially when you have a complicated brief.
In this piece, I’d like to show you how we approach entourage at Kilograph. Since our backgrounds are diverse—artists, architects, brand experts, and VR technicians—we are constantly having discussions about how to make people stand out, from a psychological and aesthetic perspective. Here’s what we’ve found.
Pick a Style
Above, I alluded to the two types of visualization: editorial and usage. Usage is fairly self-explanatory, and is often what clients ask for when they want an image or animation from you. Usage allows you to remove the unknowns from a visualization, relying on clear presentations of an environment’s attributes to do the heavy lifting. This can be especially helpful on entitlement projects where the fate of a neighborhood lies in the balance. Showing those bike lanes or a family hanging out on the grass can really be soothing, especially when it’s presented in a positive light.
For editorial, on the other hand, you are trying to be eye-catching, in a way that doesn’t always prioritize the space at first. Most companies look to fashion spreads, centering the image on costumes or props to raise a mood. Those underlying feelings, which connect to a bigger idea of a building’s brand, are what you are going after in an editorial push. So if you have a good idea, an open brief, and a target audience that would respond to some creativity, this route can be a lot of fun.
Build a Narrative
There’s a reason why we are still talking about The Odyssey: good stories stay with you. With entourage, you can tell visual narratives without words, using the right presentation of people to keep someone scanning around the image, or leaving with an intended takeaway.
We recently did a project for The Coloradan, a residential project in Denver. Our goal was to make the amenities of this condo development feel a little more alive. For example, in one illustration the viewer is launched into a four-year-old’s birthday party, filled with parents chatting and kids tearing around the place. Think about all the elements at play here: families, gatherings, togetherness, all contained within an events room. The adults look successful, the children look maybe middle to upper middle class, and everyone looks comfortable. Everything ties back into the brand of the building and the types of people they wanted to attract—the right entourage, inserted in an appealing way, can do that. And because humans come with years of social conditioning, an image like this can get there in nanoseconds.
Another thing to consider is how the different parts of an image, including all the mini-stories, play off each other. A lot of times we put the narrative in the foreground. Since that’s where most people’s eyes go first, that’s where you should put your A story. Each part of the image should either expand or supplement that A story in some way though. For instance, if I were to show you an image of a museum, you might expect to see people staring at a painting. But it’s often smart to think about what else I (or the client) wants you to see. What if they have specific exhibits that are interactive? You could insert a group engaging with them in the background. And maybe to the side, you put someone getting a drink of water, a much-needed break. Together, these characters create a multi-layered narrative; the key is figuring out how to make sure your background stories don’t compete or take away too much from the main one. Humans can only process so much information, so it’s always best to serve your main concept over everything else.
Use Custom Entourage
When clients come to us, they want something unique. The quickest way to look commonplace is to start filling their visualizations with a bunch of stock models that they’ve already seen before. That’s why we create our own entourage libraries, using a green screen and models we hire for the job. It goes back to what I was saying about brand; certain people are going to evoke certain types of feeling in the viewer. Casting allows an agency like us, who often handles branding and visualizations top to bottom, the highest level of control.
One of our new favorite toys for this process is Apple’s ARKit, as it allows us to line up models with our 3D environments. You just hold up an iPad and check angles on set, which saves a lot of time in post.
Compose and Place
So now you have your characters, you have your story. What’s next? It’s time to consider the placement and integration of your entourage—which admittedly is no easy task, since these decisions can directly impact the perception of the architecture. Entourage placement can make a space look big or small, spacious or narrow, or even highlight key elements of the design (or hide an unresolved aspect of the design).
To illustrate this, let’s break down an illustration I did for an imaginary office in Malibu.
There are two stories operating in tandem here: an office in crisis and some surfers on their way to the beach. The juxtaposition is supposed to be amusing, but notice how other key compositional considerations are at play, like a clear view of the ocean, a feeling of spaciousness, and the use of symmetry, which is pleasing to the eye.
Before: Without the people, you are left with an open, warm design that allows the viewer’s eye to scan unimpeded.
After: Introduce the people, different story. You lose your line of sight on specific furniture or architectural elements, so placement matters. But what you gain is narrative, and that’s better than an open room.
Active vs Passive areas: When considering placement, you have to think about how a space is supposed to function. For instance, where is motion permitted? You wouldn’t have someone running between the desks, as it would create tightness and feelings of chaos in an area that is supposed to be for collaborative work and quietness. In this image, the chairs act as an active meeting point for people, which makes sense in an office environment.
Actors: Next, you’ll want to define the number of characters, their role, and a hierarchy, as it will set a path for their position and scale. In this case, the main story (the office drama in blue) is set in the middle-ground, giving it the same level of importance as the architecture. The scale, body positioning and location of the people play a key role. By having the main actors positioned close together in the center of the frame, you leave room to tell a secondary story (the surfers in Green) and space for the architecture. If the main actors were too close to the camera, it would become all about them.
Composition: If you analyze this scene, you’ll see it’s balanced, symmetric and in a landscape orientation with one main point perspective. When you work through composition decisions like this, you create a structure that helps with placement. For instance, if you know you want symmetry, you don’t put your main actors in an off-center position. It would cause the whole image to feel unbalanced.
Finally, when we overlay all the analysis diagrams at once, we can see everything we need to know about the composition from where the main action and movement are happening, to how symmetry is broken by main story, to how the secondary story counterbalances this movement. Each piece serves the other, creating a dynamic, pleasing visual for the space.
A few other points worth considering during composition:
The path: Every image has a visual path that guides the viewer’s eye. But some are better than others. When considering placement, take into account what you want the viewer to see. If you want to call attention to one area, grouping helps. If you want them to discover space and narrative in an orderly manner, then disperse your actors, putting more of the focus on the areas you want to highlight.
The horizon line: Is your entourage above or below it? This line will tremendously affect someone’s perception of the scale and proportion of your people. You can also use it as a guidepost for making sure a person is aligned and blended properly with the surrounding elements.
The camera: Lens distortion is an important factor to be aware of in the photography world. It can make or break our images as artists. Distortion can shift perspective, making objects or people seem out of proportion if not balanced right.
The guidelines: Are you incorporating the classic rules of composition: the rule of thirds, golden ratio, etc?
While all humans are hardwired to scan, not everything can be whittled down to biology ("I see danger," "they look nice," etc). Cultural conditioning plays a huge role as well. What’s important to consider with entourage is how your target audience feels about different aesthetics, looks, colors, clothes, etc. Everything can trigger somebody, so you want to be conscious about what you are putting together, so the viewer is left feeling good or intrigued by what you are showing them. Here are a few things to pay attention to:
Facial expressions/body language: Do the faces match the mood? Do the gestures match the faces? A lot of times we are guarding against overacting in our shoots. Viewers can quickly spot a fake smile or an over-the-top gesture and they don’t like either, so ensuring that the look is synonymous with the feeling is extremely important. Context also matters. When we created designs for Frank Gehry’s Ascend, a creative workspace, we included a mix of gestures that made sense in the situation, from the way someone comfortably leans back with their hands on their hips during an impromptu office chat, to the way another browses a magazine on a break. The gestures you pick should fall in line with a viewer’s expectations. And we all have thoughts about how different situations or environments should function.
Age: In some cultures, it’s respected. In the US, not so much. Age can be associated with everything from maturity to being over the hill, which means it is one of the quickest identifiers for brand intent. If twentysomethings are mixing with seventysomethings, what does that say about a space? If the visualization is child-heavy, what does that say? Age ranges can completely change the feeling of an image, so it all comes down to the narrative. Who belongs there and who gets priority? What are the biases and what are the expectations? Consider the norms and work from there.
Colors: There’s a reason why blue is thought of as comforting. Or why red cars get more tickets (eye-catching). There are whole studies on this subject, and you should read them, but for our purposes consider this: colors carry moods, draw attention and tell your eyes where to go. Remember that as you assign them to your entourage. If your A-character needs to stand out, don’t give the red to another group. It robs the hero.
Consider the Future
Cities think big. So big that plans can often live 50 years in the future, especially when they involve central services like transportation or infrastructure. So how do we, as visualization artists, work with a gap like that? 50 years is a long time.
When we plot out the future, we look to trends, trajectories and what’s not currently being used in the world, especially on the street. What’s on the runway isn’t always out and about, but it might be in 50 years. Or consider Google Glass. It didn’t work, but the idea of some form of technological eyewear is likely in time. At the end of the day, the people you choose should seem natural within the environment. It’s fun to be space-y, but if it doesn’t pass the scan test, it won’t feel right. And feeling right is the goal. If the presentation isn’t believable, the design is moot and the emotional connection is squandered. Or, thought of another way, you’ll get an emotion... just not the one you want.
Fredy Castellanos is an art director and senior associate at Kilograph in Los Angeles.